Machine guns, heavy artillery, barbed wire, and poison gas all existed before World War I (1914-1918). Airplanes, too, already existed, as did observation balloons, submarines, hand grenades, and flame throwers. One weapon, however, developed as a direct result of the fighting in the war: the armored combat vehicle known as the tank.
Battles in World War I tended to be fought by men charging through barbed wire into machine gun and artillery fire. This form of combat produced carnage on an unprecedented scale. Battlefronts settled into static trench systems. Repeated assaults on heavily defended trenches caused still more carnage. In early 1915, British Lord of the Admiralty (the Royal Navy) Winston Churchill was looking for a new idea, and he found one.
British Army Lieutenant-Colonel E. D. Swinton, assigned as a war correspondent, had seen the bloody battlefields of France. He also knew of the American-made Holt caterpillar tractor. The tractor ran on a continuous band of treads driven by inner wheels. The machine could navigate almost any terrain—including trenches. Swinton thought that an armed, armored vehicle running on caterpillar treads might have a chance on the modern battlefield. Winston Churchill agreed. The new machine was dubbed a land battleship, or, simply, a landship.
Under the utmost secrecy, design and construction of experimental landships began. In 1916, models were tested and quickly prepared for combat. They featured a large, oblong armored compartment for the engine, equipment, crew, ammunition, and either heavy cannon or machine guns. A long tread ran around the entire length of each side of the compartment. The machines were large, incredibly slow and heavy, and hard to maneuver. But they could crawl on muddy terrain, cross trenches, blast holes in enemy defenses, and withstand a great deal of punishment. Before the vehicles were sent to France, however, the name landship was deemed too descriptive—a concern if the term leaked to the enemy. The machines were thought to resemble large water cisterns, or water tanks. The new name stuck.
On Sept. 15, 1916, a few dozen tanks rumbled into combat for the first time during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in northern France. Most of these first tanks broke down mechanically, became bogged down in massive shell holes, or were disabled by enemy fire. Those that reached the German lines, however, had the desired effect. They penetrated the German defenses, knocked out enemy machine guns, and profoundly frightened enemy soldiers.
After the experience of Flers-Courcelette, improved versions of the tank were developed, and military leaders prepared to use them in much greater numbers. In 1917, the newly formed Tank Corps saw action in several battles, but it was at Cambrai in November where tanks enjoyed their first great success. More than 370 tanks broke a wide—albeit, temporary—gap in the enemy lines. Seeing the tank’s usefulness, the Germans built a few of their own, and, in April 1918, opposing tanks clashed for the first time during the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. That same month, Lieutenant-Colonel Swinton traveled to California to personally thank Benjamin Holt, inventor of the caterpillar tread tractor.
Tanks went on to greater fame and usefulness after World War I, and they continue to be integral parts of modern militaries around the world. Holt’s tractor company survives today as Caterpillar, one of the world’s largest machinery manufacturers.