Report from the Fronts #37: the Tank

In a sense the idea of armored vehicles goes all the way back to antiquity, when siege equipment was equipped with wheels to roll it up to the enemy walls and “armor” to protect the machine and its crew, but the serious development of armored vehicles had to wait until the internal combustion engine.  Armored cars were soon developed, but possessing very light armor and wheels, they were unsuitable for the conditions of trench warfare, which demanded a tracked vehicle.  In the early days of the Great War tractors were in fact used to tow artillery pieces and supplies, and it was a short conceptual leap to arming the tractor itself.

Towing 1915

On the way to the Somme 1916

 

 

 

 

 

 

A short conceptual leap, but one that had to confront the innate conservatism of the military establishment, which was already having problems accepting the obsolescence of cavalry.  An official British war correspondent in France in 1914, Major Ernest Swinton, realized that the American Holt caterpillar tractor could serve as the basis of an armored vehicle, and sent a proposal to Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Hankey, who brought the idea to Kitchener, who, however, showed no interest.  Hankey then went to the Committee of Imperial Defense and caught the attention of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who in January 1915 scared Prime Minister Asquith into examining the idea by suggesting that the Germans could be developing their own armored vehicle.

Maurice Hankey

Ernest Swinton

The Holt tractor 1914

 

 

 

 

 

Kitchener was ordered to create an Army committee to study the idea, but after trials with a Holt tractor the committee decided in February the concept was not workable.  Churchill, however, was determined and created a Navy operation, the Landships Committee, which began working with the Royal Naval Air Service, which had an Armored Car Division.  Incidentally, in order to disguise the nature of the project it was spread about that the committee was designing mobile water tanks for desert combat, which led to the name Water Container Committee, which was quickly discarded, because it would soon enough be shortened to the WC Committee.  In December the term “water tank” was adopted, and you know the rest.

It was decided that simply transforming Holt tractors into tanks would not work – the suspensions and power plants were too weak – and the committee would design the new machine from the ground up.  Using giant wheels instead of tracks was rejected, as were designs employing a single large or three separate tracks, and the obvious idea of a rotating turret with a gun was abandoned because of weight and center of gravity concerns.

The Tsar (Lebedenko) tricycle tank

The Killen-Straight triple track

The Pedrail monotrack

 

Before anything else, better track systems had to be developed, which was the purpose of the first prototype, tested on 8 September.  Little Willie (named after the German Crown Prince) was simply a metal box on tracks, 20 feet long, weighing in at 16 tons and powered by a 105 hp engine.  This led in early 1916 to the 28 ton Big Willy (or Mother), which had a 25 foot long rhomboidal body and surrounding tracks, providing better traction and ability to cross an eight foot trench.  The “male” version had two 6-pounders mounted in sponsons on either side of the hull and carried a crew of eight; the “female” had only machine guns.  At best they could make four miles an hour with its 105 hp engine.  These were definitely not Blitzkrieg machines.

The Mark I tank

The Mark I tank

Early Little Willie

Little Willie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Willy became the Mark I, of which 150 were produced, and it saw its first service in September 1916 in the Somme Offensive, where both the potential and the many deficiencies of the machine were demonstrated.  The armor could stop ordinary small arms fire, but was vulnerable to armor piercing rounds developed by the Germans and could be disabled by even the smallest artillery round.  Besides the slow speed, often as a little as one mile an hour on the lunar terrain of no man’s land, the tank was difficult to maneuver, requiring half the crew to attend to the steering and drive.  These early machines were also dramatically underpowered, but by far the biggest problem was mechanical, simple breakdowns that left the tank little more than a target.

Life for a tank crew was hellish.  Ventilation was extremely poor, and with the engine in the crew compartment carbon monoxide could reach deadly levels and was supplemented by fumes from the cordite in the shells fired.  The temperature inside the tank might go as high as 120° F, and the crew was forced to wear helmets and special “splatter” masks to protect them from fragments dislodged in the interior by bullets and nearby shell blasts.

Mark IV interior

Splatter mask

The Mark series interior

Nevertheless, for all the problems with this infant technology the tank demonstrated its usefulness, and even Haig, a cavalry officer, was won over and ordered more machines after the Somme.  Development of the Mark I continued, all the way to the Mark VIII, and though the external appearance changed very little, improvements in armor, steering and power plant gradually came about, albeit very slowly.  The Mark IV, which was used at Cambrai, was not very different from the Mark I: it had thicker armor and the fuel tank was moved outside to the rear of the tank.  The Mark VIII (“Liberty”), a joint American-British-French project, featured a 300 hp engine in an enclosed compartment and much better steering and power transmission, but it only went into production after the war.

The Mark VIII interior

The Mark VIII tank

The Mark IV tank

The Mark V tank

The Mark V tank

The French approach differed from the British in that there was no central development authority, resulting in three different designs produced by rival industrial firms.  In early 1915 arms manufacturer Schneider began work on the Schneider CA, an armored box on tracks, mounting a 75 mm short howitzer in a barbette on the right front corner of the box.  It first saw service in April 1917 in the Nivelle Offensive, where its poor mobility and great mechanical unreliability was vividly demonstrated.

A damaged Schneider

The Schneider CA tank

The Schneider CA tank

 

 

Another arms company, Saint-Chamond, used its political influence in 1915 to acquire support for its Saint-Chamond tank, which first saw action in 1917.  The Saint-Chamond carried a full size 75 mm gun (the most powerful for an operational tank until 1941) protruding from the front of the vehicle and an advanced petrol-electric transmission.  But the tank had all the faults of the Schneider, and the new transmission system led to many breakdowns.  Nevertheless, by the middle of 1918 the Saint-Chamond had found a role as an assault gun.

Saint-Chamond tanks

The Saint-Chamond tank

The Saint-Chamond tank

France’s third tank was by far the most successful.  Renault, accustomed to mass production of cars, came up with a design for a light tank, the 7 ton Renault FT, which entered service in late 1917.  This was in effect the first modern tank: the power plant was at the rear, and a fully rotating turret on top housed the armament, either a 37 mm gun or several machine guns.  The design was very successful, and 3700 were produced – more than any other tank in the war – many finding employment in various countries until well after the Second World War.

The Renault FT crew

Interior of the Renault FT

The Renault FT tank

The Renault FT tank

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The French army, however, still wanted a heavy tank, and the 76 ton, 33 foot long 2C was created, the heaviest and most advanced tank yet.  It was, in fact, so technologically complex that only ten were produced and missed the war altogether.  But the 2C remains the heaviest operational tank ever made.

The French Tiny Tank

The 2C tank

The 2C tank

 

Oddly, the Germans showed little interest in tanks and responded to the Allied vehicles by concentrating on anti-tank weapons.  They produced only one tank, the 36 ton A7V, which sported a 57 mm gun at the nose and had a crew of at least 18.  The A7V came into service in March 1918, but only 20 were built and most of the tanks used by the Germans were captured British Mark IVs. They would do better in the next war.

The A7V tank

The A7V tank in action

The A7V tank

The A7V tank

 

 

 

 

 

 

The development of armored vehicles was in response to the demands of static trench warfare, but the tank would become the prime weapon of modern wars of movement.  Tanks would not only exploit a breakthrough, as cavalry was expected to do in the Great War, but also create the breakthrough itself with powerful concentrations of  mobile firepower.  Ironically, it was the Germans, uninterested in the tank in the First World War, who would perfect the tactics and strategy of armored warfare in the Second.

A German tank 25 years later

 

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Report from the Fronts #36: November 1917

The new socialist Russia might be opting out, but on the Western Front the war went on.  On 6 November the Canadians finally captured Passchendaele, now more like the surface of the moon than a town, and four days later the Third Battle of Ypres came to an end.  The figures are disputed, but the Allies and Germans together had suffered at least a half million casualties in the campaign to capture Passchendaele Ridge.  But it was not over yet.

Haig decided that it was time for a big push some fifty miles south of Ypres, opposite Cambrai, the capture of which would threaten the German rear lines.  On 20 November two British corps with 476 tanks (378 with guns) pushed off against a German corps.  Tanks had been used before but not in such numbers, and together with close coordination between infantry and artillery they allowed the British to advance as much as five miles on the first day against deep and well developed German defenses.  In six hours the British had gained as much as they had in three months at Ypres and at half the casualty rate.

Inside the Mark IV

 

The Mark IV tank

Battle of Cambrai

That, however, changed the next day.  The Mark IV tanks had played a major role in penetrating the deep fields of wire, but the defenses stiffened and the Germans had actually developed anti-tank measures.  On the first day 65 tanks were knocked out by artillery, and 71 broke down and 43 were immobilized in shell holes and ditches, hardly surprising for a new technology.  (A Report on tank development will appear.)  The remainder of the offensive was more typical of the Western Front, as progress slowed and the casualties began mount.  On 30 November the Germans launched a serious counterattack and began recovering lost ground, and when the battle ended on 7 December it was a draw: the British retained territory gained in the north and lost pre-offensive turf in the south.  And all this for a combined 90-100,000 casualties.

Another dead tank

Damaged tank

German counterattack        

And the news we have all been waiting for: the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo (Caporetto).  By 2 November the Germans and Austrians had crossed the Tagliamento River, only 40 miles from Venice, but the inevitable supply problems associated with a successful advance began to slow things down, giving the Italians time to establish a line on the Piave River.  Enemy forces reached the Piave on 11 November, but short of supplies and reinforcements they could not cross the river, nor could they in the next two weeks dislodge the Italians from Monte Grappa, which guarded the left flank of the Piave Line.

From Monte Grappa towards the Austrian position

The Piave Line

Battle of Caporetto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Total defeat was avoided, but no thanks to General Cadorna, who was largely responsible for the disaster: poor deployment, no defense in depth and poor morale (his troops hated him), even among his higher officers (he had canned 827 of them).  On 9 November, partly at the urging of Britain and France, he was replaced as Chief of Staff by Armando Diaz, one of his better generals.  Unfortunately, Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando also appointed as Diaz’s second in command Pietro Badoglio, who had played a major role in the defeat and would be accused of war crimes in the next war.  On 27 November Cadorna was named Italy’s representative on the newly formed allied Supreme War Council.

Pietro Badoglio as a Fascist

Goodbye, Luigi

Armando Diaz

Vittorio Orlando

 

Diaz was able to stabilize the Italian front on the Piave and successfully defend Monte Grappa, but Italy had suffered one of the greatest defeats in its history.  About 350,000 German and Austrian troops had taken on some 874,000 Italians and routed them.  The Italians suffered only 40,000 killed and wounded to the enemy’s 70,000, but they lost 265,000 men to capture, a telling sign of how much Cadorna was despised by his men, who surrendered in droves.  On the other hand, the disaster, the loss of so much Italian soil and the new leadership of Diaz led to something of a rebirth of the Italian army.  The collapse and retreat of Caporetto (and Cadorna’s draconian policies), incidentally, is the backdrop of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Ernest Hemingway in 1918

Italian POWs

Italian retreat

 

Meanwhile, in Palestine the Third Battle of Gaza was rolling on.  The capture of Beersheba and the eastern sector of the Turkish line made their position in Gaza ultimately untenable, and during the night of 6/7 November the Turks slipped out of the city.  The Egyptian Expeditionary Force pursued, withstood a Turkish counterattack on 12 November and on the 13th and 14th attacked and defeated the Turkish rearguards, leading the Ottoman commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, to order a withdrawal all along the line.  His Seventh Army took up positions in the Judean Hills, preparing to defend Jerusalem, and his Eighth Army retreated up the coast to just beyond Jaffa, which was entered by EEF units on 16 November.

Surrender of Jaffa

Falkenhayn

Edmund_Allenby

Allenby

The Palestine campaign

 

 

 

In the two weeks following the capture of Beersheba the British had pushed some fifty miles north, to just short of Jerusalem, capturing 10,000 prisoners and 100 guns for the cost of about 1000 casualties.  The EEF commander, Edmund Allenby, was now entitled to thumb his nose at Haig, who had fired him after the Battle of Arras a half year earlier, though of course a British officer would never do such a thing.

On the other hand, Allenby’s supply lines were now very long, all the way back to Gaza and beyond, the Turks having destroyed the infrastructure as they retreated, and transporting supplies from the railhead to the troops was slow business, given the state of the roads in Palestine.  Logistics had always been a problem for organized armies, even before fuel, ammunition and shells were a constant need; a 10,000 man force required an absolute minimum of fifteen tons of food (in terms of grain) alone per day.  Allenby had seven divisions (10-15,000 men each) on the front lines, and they needed a lot more than just food.

British question the locals

London felt that Allenby did not have the resources to capture Jerusalem, but he did not want to give the Turks the time to fortify their new line and on 18 November decided to go for it.  One force began an advance to secure the coastal plain, while a second penetrated into the Judean Hills towards Jerusalem.  Falkenhayn himself was determined to take advantage of the weakened state of the EEF and their precarious supply situation, and on 27 November he launched counterattacks on the coastal army and British communications between the coast and the hills.  The British were hard pressed in some places, but fresh troops from the south and the weariness of the Turks allowed the offensive to continue.  By 1 December the British were poised to capture Jerusalem.

Hong Kong artillery in Judea

Judean Hills near Jerusalem

Judean Hills

Gurkhas in Judea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember the African branch of the war?  On 23 November Lettow-Vorbeck, forced south by the overwhelming superiority of General Jacob van Deventer’s forces, divided his army into three columns and crossed into Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).  On the 25th he handily defeated an inexperienced Portuguese force at the Battle of Ngomano, but on the 28th one of the other columns was forced to surrender.  Nevertheless, Lettow-Vorbeck and his merry band of Askaris now had rich opportunities for resupplying themselves at the expense of the Portuguese.

East Africa

Portuguese troops on the Rovuma

Crossing the Rovuma River into Mozambique

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two final notes: on 16 November Georges Clemenceau became the French Prime Minister, which office he would hold until 1920, and on the 28th Estonia, former subject of the Russian Empire, declared its independence.

Clemenceau