To the uninitiated as were
we in those days when we returned to the Somme, too
late to see the tanks make their first dramatic entrance the
name conjures up a picture of an iron monster, breathing
fire and exhaling bullets and shells, hurling itself
against the enemy, unassailable by man and impervious
to the most deadly engines of war; sublime, indeed,
in its expression of indomitable power and resolution.
This picture was one of the two factors
which attracted us toward the Heavy Branch Machine-Gun
Corps as the Tank Corps was known in the
first year of its being. On the Somme we had seen
a derelict tank, wrecked, despoiled of her guns, and
forsaken in No Man’s Land. We had swarmed
around and over her, wild with curiosity, much as the
Lilliputians must have swarmed around the prostrate
Gulliver. Our imagination was fired.
The second factor was, frankly, that
we were tired of going over the top as infantrymen.
The first time that a man goes into an attack, he
as a rule enjoys it. He has no conception of its
horrors, no, not horrors, for war possesses
no horrors, but, rather, he has no knowledge
of the sudden realization of the sweetness of life
that comes to a man when he is “up against it.”
The first time, it is a splendid, ennobling novelty.
And as for the “show” itself, in actual
practice it is more like a dream which only clarifies
several days later, after it is all over. But
to do the same thing a second and third and fourth
time, is to bring a man face to face with Death in
its fullest and most realistic uncertainty. In
soldier jargon he “gets most awful wind up.”
It is five minutes before “Zero Hour.”
All preparations are complete. You are waiting
for the signal to hop over the parapet. Very
probably the Boche knows that you are coming, and
is already skimming the sandbags with his machine guns
and knocking little pieces of earth and stone into
your face. Extraordinary, how maddening is the
sting of these harmless little pebbles and bits of
dirt! The bullets ricochet away with a peculiar
singing hiss, or crack overhead when they go too high.
The shells which burst on the other side of the parapet
shake the ground with a dull thud and crash. There
are two minutes to wait before going over. Then
is the time when a man feels a sinking sensation in
his stomach; when his hands tremble ever so slightly,
and when he offers up a pathetic little prayer to God
that if he’s a bit of a sportsman he may be spared
from death, should his getting through not violate
the divine and fatalistic plans. He has that
unpleasant lack of knowledge of what comes beyond.
For after all, with the most intense belief in the
world, it is hard to reconcile the comforting feeling
of what one knows with that terrible dread of the
A man has no great and glorious ideas
that nothing matters because he is ready to die for
his country. He is, of course, ready to die for
her. But he does not think about it. He lights
a cigarette and tries to be nonchalant, for he knows
that his men are watching him, and it is his duty
to keep up a front for their sake. Probably, at
the same time, they are keeping up a front for him.
Then the Sergeant Major comes along, cool and smiling,
as if he were out for a stroll at home. Suddenly
he is an immense comfort. One forgets that sinking
feeling in the stomach and thinks, “How easy
and jolly he is! What a splendid fellow!”
Immediately, one begins unconsciously to imitate him.
Then another thinks the same thing about one, and
begins to imitate too. So it passes on, down
the line. But there is nothing heroic or exalting
in going over the top.
This, then, was our possible second
reason for preferring to attack inside bullet-proof
steel; not that death is less likely in a tank, but
there seems to be a more sporting chance with a shell
than with a bullet. The enemy infantryman looks
along his sight and he has you for a certainty, but
the gunner cannot be so accurate and twenty yards
may mean a world of difference. Above all, the
new monster had our imaginations in thrall. Here
were novelty and wonderful developments.
In the end of 1916, therefore, a certain
number of officers and men received their orders to
join the H.B.M.G.C., and proceeded sorrowfully and
joyfully away from the trenches. Sorrowfully,
because it is a poor thing to leave your men and your
friends in danger, and get out of it yourself into
something new and fresh; joyfully, because one is,
after all, but human.
About thirty miles behind the line
some villages were set aside for the housing and training
of the new units. Each unit had a nucleus of
men who had already served in tanks, with the new arrivals
spread around to make up to strength.
The new arrivals came from all branches
of the Service; Infantry, Sappers, Gunners, Cavalry,
and the Army Service Corps. Each man was very
proud of his own Branch; and a wonderfully healthy
rivalry and affection sprang up between them.
The gunner twitted the sapper, the cavalryman made
jokes at the A.S.C., and the infantryman groused at
the whole lot. But all knew at the bottom of their
hearts, how each is essential to the other.
It was to be expected when all these
varied men came together, that the inculcating of
a proper esprit de corps the training
of each individual in an entirely new science for
the benefit of the whole would prove a
very difficult and painstaking task. But the
wonderful development, however, in a few months, of
a large, heterogeneous collection of men into a solid,
keen, self-sacrificing unit, was but another instance
of the way in which war improves the character and
temperament of man.
It was entirely new for men who were
formerly in a regiment, full of traditions, to find
themselves in the Tank Corps. Here was a Corps,
the functions of which resulted from an idea born of
the exigencies of this science-demanding war.
Unlike every other branch of the Service, it has no
regimental history to direct it, no traditions upon
which to build, and still more important from a practical
point of view, no experience from which to draw for
guidance, either in training or in action. In
the Infantry, the attack has resulted from a steady
development in ideas and tactics, with past wars to
give a foundation and this present one to suggest
changes and to bring about remedies for the defects
which crop up daily. With this new weapon, which
was launched on the Somme on September 15, 1916, the
tactics had to be decided upon with no realistic experimentation
as ground work; and, moreover, with the very difficult
task of working in concert with other arms of the
Service that had had two years of fighting, from which
to learn wisdom.
With regard to discipline, too, of
all things the most important, for the success of
a battle has depended, does, and always will depend,
upon the state of discipline of the troops engaged, all
old regiments have their staff of regular instructors
to drill and teach recruits. In them has grown
up that certain feeling and loyalty which time and
past deeds have done so much to foster and cherish.
Here were we, lacking traditions, history, and experience
of any kind.
It is easy to realize the responsibility
that lay not only upon the Chief of this new Corps,
but upon each individual and lowest member thereof.
It was for us all to produce esprit de corps,
and to produce it quickly. It was necessary for
us to develop a love of the work, not because we felt
it was worth while, but because we knew that success
or failure depended on each man’s individual
But, naturally, the real impetus came
from the top, and no admiration or praise can be worthy
of that small number of men in whose hands the real
destinies of this new formation lay; who were continually
devising new schemes and ideas for binding the whole
together, and for turning that whole into a highly
efficient, up-to-date machine.
“How did the tank happen to
be invented?” is a common question. The
answer is that in past wars experience has made it
an axiom that the defenders suffer more casualties
than the attacking forces. From the first days
of 1914, however, this condition was reversed, and
whole waves of attacking troops were mown down by
two or three machine guns, each manned, possibly,
by not more than three men. There may be in a
certain sector, before an attack, an enormous preliminary
bombardment which is destined to knock out guns, observation
posts, dumps, men, and above all, machine-gun emplacements.
Nevertheless, it has been found in actual practice
that despite the most careful observation and equally
careful study of aeroplane photographs, there are,
as a rule, just one or two machine guns which, either
through bad luck or through precautions on the part
of the enemy, have escaped destruction. These
are the guns which inflict the damage when the infantrymen
go over and which may hold up a whole attack.
It was thought, therefore, that a
machine might be devised which would cross shell-craters,
wire and trenches, and be at the same time impervious
to bullets, and which would contain a certain number
of guns to be used for knocking out such machine guns
as were still in use, or to lay low the enemy infantry.
With this idea, a group of men, in the end of 1915,
devised the present type of heavy armoured car.
In order to keep the whole plan as secret as possible,
about twenty-five square miles of ground in Great
Britain were set aside and surrounded with armed guards.
There, through all the spring and early summer of
1916, the work was carried on, without the slightest
hint of its existence reaching the outside world.
Then, one night, the tanks were loaded up and shipped
over to France, to make that first sensational appearance
on the Somme, with the success which warranted their
further production on a larger and more ambitious scale.