The Sappers and the Tanks

Battle of Flers, September 15th 1916

100 years ago on 15 September, a new advancement in engineering was introduced to the battlefield, one that would change the way battles were fought. The tank had arrived on the Somme.

As dawn broke on the morning of 15 September 1916, Captain H. W. Mortimer of the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps made his way to the start line with his crew in tank D1, nicknamed ‘Daredevil I’. At less than one mile an hour D1’s progress was slow as it made its way towards its objective, the eastern edge of Delville wood. The idea was to take the wood ahead of the main advance and clear out any pockets of enemy troops.

Major General Sir Ernest Swinton KBE, CB, DSO RE was one of the key pioneers of the tank, and part of the Landships Committee under the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Swinton’s idea came to him while a staff officer with the BEF, seeing the recent changes on the battlefield from open land engagements to deep trench warfare and efficiency of the German heavy machine guns. Swinton and others saw a chance to overcome them, although other senior officers were very much still in the mind-set that the only way to engage the enemy was a combination of artillery bombardment and Infantry assaults with the cavalry following once the enemy line had broken.

During 1915 ideas and trials took place, with many failing to produce a suitable machine. Swinton turned to an agricultural machinery company owned by one William Tritton, and soon produced a prototype with Lieutenant Walter Gordon Wilson, RN.
On 9 September 1915 the Number 1 Lincoln Machine, the first prototype, nicknamed ‘Little Willie’, made its first test run in the yard of the Wellington Foundry. Problems were soon found with the track profiles which were too flat, but solved by changing the suspension. The tracks were also not up to carrying the weight of the vehicle which was about 16 tons and sagged when crossing trenches. Tritton devised a crude system using pressed steel plates riveted to cast links, and incorporated guides to engage on the inside of the track frame. The track frames were connected to the main body by large spindles, which proved more successful in tests, although it did reduce the speed of the tank.

The Lincoln Machine now looked promising. Wilson however still had doubts, suggesting to Tritton the idea of having the tracks run around the vehicle in a rhomboid shaped frame, taking the tracks up and over the top with a rear steering wheel system attached. This shape was thought to be more suitable to overcome trenches and the shell cratered terrain. The original specification was also to have a rotating turret although this was questioned when trials began as this gave the Germans a larger target to aim for and raised the centre of gravity. The turret was dropped in favour of sponsons on the sides of the hull fitted with either a naval 6-pounder gun or two heavy Vickers Machine guns, thus giving them the designation Male and Female due to the type of armament.

The prototype Mark I, christened ‘Mother’, was ready by December 1915 and was successfully demonstrated to the Landships Committee in January 1916 at Hatfield. The trials included going over a course simulating trenches, parapets, craters and barbed wire obstacles. The demonstration was repeated the following month before the cabinet ministers and senior members of the Army. Field Marshal Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, was sceptical but the rest were impressed with Swinton’s tracked machine.
Production began in February 1916 with an initial order for 100 ‘Mother’ type vehicles, later expanded to 150. Although they were initially termed ‘landships’ by the Committee, production vehicles were soon named ‘tanks’, to preserve secrecy. The term was chosen when it became known that the factory workers referred to the first prototype as ‘the tank’ because of its resemblance to a steel water tank.

Volunteers were called for across the Army, asking for men with a mechanical background. The majority came from the Motor Machine Gun Service (MMGS) and the Machine Gun Corps (MGC) with others coming from the Royal Artillery and Army service corps. At the Experimental Wireless Establishment at Worcester a primitive short wave radio was trialled for communication between the tanks in battle. Due to noise and engine vibrations this wasn’t possible and the men had to rely on flags and semaphore signals.
Training took place first at Bisley, and moved to Elveden in Suffolk once the tanks began coming off the production line. Production of the new machines was slow, but the pressure was on Swinton to bring his tanks and men to France to break the deadlock.

Swinton needed more time to work out a strategy on how the tanks where best deployed and wanted the best training possible for his crews, and was not fully sure how the machines would cope in battle.

Throughout July and early August the crews trained in earnest. Two Companies, C and D, were felt ready to move to France arriving at the end of that month. Demonstrations were given in front of allied commanders, and after final training and with infantry units across old trench lines near Yvrench it was felt they were ready to be tested in battle, in the area of Flers–Courcelette on the Somme battle front.

The plan was for 49 tanks to support the attack on 15 September 1916, allotted in small numbers to each division along the front between Courcelette and Combles. Zero hour for the tanks was 06:00 hours with the main infantry attack at 06:20 hours once the artillery barrage had lifted. As areas were made clear for the advancing tanks, they would move forward into No Man’s Land with the intention of surprising the enemy. Several of the tanks broke down along the route to their starting points, including two that were to accompany Captain Mortimer in D1, making the first advance on their attack through Delville wood and who would now go into the attack alone.

Other tanks had to be either replaced or left where they stopped due to being unable to cope with the poor ground conditions, leaving only 25 tanks to make the attack. Now that the barrage had lifted they slowly advanced, slowed further by the terrain and German shell fire. Only nine actually reached and penetrated the German lines, the others being by hit by shell fire or stuck in No Man’s Land.

Despite the slow progress, they were having some effect on the Germans, mostly psychological. The Germans had never seen anything like this before coming at them though the smoke, their light calibre weapons had little effect on them and their monster type presence made the defenders run or hide in dugouts, causing havoc in areas along the front. This effect helped in the success of capturing the Village of Flers.

Flying above the battlefield an RFC pilot witnessed a tank entering the village with infantry behind and was soon reported to the British High Command, with one war correspondent reporting ‘A tank is walking up the high street of Flers with the British Army Cheering behind!’ a sentence which though not precise, was prophetic.

By late afternoon reports of the advance made it clear that the offensive had fallen short. Though some ground had been taken, casualties had been high among the tanks and crews, and would continue over the next few days of the battle. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, though disappointed in their first baptism of fire and his earlier doubts, did see them as a potential war winner, with an idea that they should be built in large numbers and improved if they were to have any effect on the Germans. This also meant changes in tactics and methods of deployment, and a new command in the field for the Heavy Branch in France. Major Hugh Elles RE, who had been sent by Haig earlier to observe the trails took command, with Swinton returning to England for a period to oversee production and training.

Ellis was given the temporary rank of Colonel and new responsibilities, which included advanced training and tactical employment, and the large central depot and workshops established near Bermicourt.

The tanks still had their problems with little success again being made during the Third Battle of Ypres because of the exceptionally wet ground conditions of Autumn 1917. Questions again were asked of their tactical use by Allied Commanders who saw the tank as hindrance and still preferred the cavalry horse as a far greater mobile weapon.

Still confident of the newly renamed Tank Corps in mid-1917, he pressed Haig to use them in a large mass attack on drier, open ground. On 20 November 1917 he personally led 350 tanks into battle in an improved Mark IV tank named Hilda, after a favourite aunt, at the Battle of Cambrai. Flying from the tank was the new Corps flag of brown, red and green silk, symbolizing the Corps and its new motto with its colours with the words “Through mud and blood to the green fields beyond”.

This time they had more success and were able to make larger gains on the battlefield, although there was still not a favourable outcome, as the Germans managed to regroup and found ways to counter the tanks later in the battle. It did however show that they could be a vital means to win a battle on ground more suited to them. Ellis would continue to command the Tank Corps until Germany’s surrender in November 1918.

Both Swinton and Ellis are now seen as the early pioneers of armoured warfare. The years after the First World War saw further expansion of the Tank Corps and mechanization of the cavalry in the 1930s. The Royal Engineers also began developing new ways to support them. This was evident during the Second World War with another former Sapper, Major General Sir Percy Hobart, developing a number of specialized armoured vehicles to support the infantry and tanks of the Allied Armies with his 79th Armoured Division nicked named ‘Hobarts Funnies’.

Today the British Army still utilises the tank as a main battlefield asset in the form of the modern Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank crewed by the Royal Armoured Corps, with the Royal Tank Regiment being the current predecessors of the original men of the Heavy Branch. The Sappers still have their links with the Tanks today with 28 Engineer Regiment operating their very own Titan and Trojan combat engineering vehicle variants based on the Challenger 2 chassis to overcome the many obstacles still faced by the fighting tanks and infantry on today’s modern battlefield.

Written by Peter Cosgrove