Churchill’s Leadership in World War I – Part III: The Employment of the First Tanks
Driven by the ever-increasing casualty rate, no one in Britain in World War I offered more ideas for winning the war than Winston Churchill. Where others were merely content to wage the same battles of attrition over and over again, with the same dreadful results, he was constantly thinking “outside the box” – the modern term for innovative thinking. Above all, he was appalled at the needless sacrifice of men for questionable military results. “The use of force for the waging of war is not to be regulated simply by firm character and text-book maxims,” he said. “Mechanical science offers on the ground, in the air, on every coast from the forge or from the laboratory, boundless possibilities of novelty and surprise.”
There was no end to his ideas, which continued to flow unabated. In an essay titled “Variants of the Offensive,” he once again proposed the creation of enormous steel shields some fifteen feet long by four feet high that could be pushed by men or by a tracked Caterpillar vehicle that would protect them from machine-gun bullets as they advanced toward German lines. He also advocated the use of shields carried by individual soldiers, a modern day equivalent of those carried into battle by ancient warriors.
However, Churchill never envisioned that the tank would transform the war, but rather serve as a supporting weapon aiding advances across no-man’s land. “Variants of the Offensive” contained various references to the employment of tanks on the Western Front in what was apparently the first time the commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, had been made aware of their battlefield potential.
The impact of the memorandum seems directly related to Haig’s request for 1,000 tanks made to the Ministry of Munitions in February 1916. At that stage of its evolution, neither Churchill nor Haig quite understood the potential battlefield benefits they had in the tank. Churchill’s concept that the employment of tanks would be a one-time business and that once used on the battlefield, they would have little future value, was not a view shared by Haig’s GHQ. To the contrary, it was thought, “that the tank was simply another instrument of war, the best tactics for which would have to be worked out by trial and error.”
By 1916 a design breakthrough occurred and a tank called “Mother” (later “Big Willie”, derisively named for German Crown Prince William) became the first operational armored vehicle produced by the British. The machine was equipped with a 6-pounder gun mounted inside a small turret and four machine-guns. (The 6-pounder tank gun equated to 57-mm.)
Although flawed, the employment of the first armored vehicles on a battlefield vindicated in dramatic fashion Churchill’s initiatives and forever changed the course of modern warfare. Forty-nine “Big Willies” participated in the Battle of the Somme, with varied results. There was, as yet, no doctrine for their employment and instead of attacking en masse, as they would in the future, they were employed individually across the front.
In the black of night most broke down or became hopelessly stuck in the mud. Nevertheless, the few ungainly iron monsters that survived breaking down enjoyed dazzling success and terrorized the Germans. One tank led an assault on the town of Flers, which was taken without a single loss, to the cheers of the New Zealand infantry that followed them; another straddled a trench work and captured three hundred German prisoners, while a third attacked a German artillery battery before being knocked out. Painted in a variety of rainbow colors, the sight of these astonishing machines stunned the German High Command. German troops were ordered to “hold their ground at all costs and fight to the last man against these new and monstrous engines of war.” The panic created in the front lines by the first tanks ever seen on a battlefield was reported in the German press as “The devil is coming!”
Based on their spectacular results at the Somme, Churchill quickly realized their potential. He believed that the British had wasted a golden opportunity. “The immense advantage of novelty and surprise was thus squandered … the certainty of a great and brilliant victory was revealed to the Germans for the mere petty purpose of taking a few ruined villages … Instead of employing them all at once in dry weather on ground not torn by bombardment, in some new sector where they could operate very easily and by surprise, they were plunged in fours and fives as a mere minor adjunct of the infantry into the quagmires and crater-fields of Passchendaele.”
In Parliament in October 1916, Lloyd George publicly credited Churchill with fostering the ideas of D’Eyncourt and Hankey into reality, but even such public statements of support did little to abate hostile criticism from the Conservatives and their newspapers continued to rain down upon him, unforgiving of his responsibility for the ill-fated attempt to capture the Dardanelles in 1915 that had cost him his post as First Lord of the Admiralty.
The British had better luck at Cambrai in November 1917 when, supported by five infantry divisions, they launched the largest tank attack yet mounted on the vast scale that Churchill had had in mind: massed across a front of ten thousand yards 378 tanks of the British Tank Corps attacked the Hindenburg Line (the principal front line, so named for German Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, chief of the German General Staff) across a seven-mile-wide front and caught the Germans flat-footed.
In six hours they penetrated to the fourth level of the German defenses and overran two divisions, capturing eight thousand prisoners. In those mere six hours British tanks had taken more ground that had the one hundred thousand troops of Gen. Sir Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army during the massive and costly Third Battle of Ypres in July 1917.
The problem with Cambrai was that there was no plan for exploiting a breakthrough of such proportions. Nearly 180 tanks broke down during the attack, most due to mechanical failure, and without them the infantry failed to seize the initiative, thus enabling the Germans to rush reinforcements to plug the gaping hole in their line. Cambrai begged the question of who was more astounded – the British, who never envisioned or prepared for a decisive penetration, or the Germans, who were stunned by the British offensive.
When these spectacular results became known in England, church bells were rung for the first time since the summer of 1914, precipitately as it turned out when German counterattacks later that month negated most of the British gains after they had failed to take steps to capitalize on their success.
Unfortunately, tactics for tank use had yet to be devised, and at the time only a few men grasped the significance of Cambrai, which conclusively proved that tanks were a deadly weapon that could play a vital role on the modern battlefield, and were fully capable of penetrating and crushing an entrenched enemy position.
One of those who not only understood the potential of the tank but who would refine its tactics and successfully employ them on both the battlefields of World War I and World War II was a young cavalry officer who had recently been named to create, train and command a new tank corps for the U.S. Army: George S. Patton.
As the war dragged on, Churchill expanded his search for some means to defeat the mines. One of those ideas was his advocacy for the invention of the anti-tank devices eventually produced and employed in World War II. They included the mounting of probes on tanks to feel out mines ahead and destroy them: a precursor to the flail tank. Mines could be blown up by tank rounds fired at them, then defeated by heavily armored tanks that could roll over and destroy them, or even by a special vehicle towed by a tank, “which, activated by wires from the tank, could move ahead and by this way explode minefields.”
Unfortunately, Churchill’s ideas were not readily embraced, nor did Haig ever change his unsuccessful strategy of employing artillery and infantry in massive and costly attacks.
Although the advent of the tank on the battlefields of France did not change the course of the war, the true effectiveness of what had once been derisively termed “Winston’s Folly” would be seen when another world war coined the term blitzkrieg and saw their brilliant employment by innovative commanders such as Guderian, Rommel and Patton.
Next month, in Part IV, the story of the first employment of American tanks in France in 1918.