Military Monday No.2
We talk to Stuart Wheeler from the Bovington Tank Museum in Dorset about the role of tanks during the war.
What was the role of tanks in World War One?
A tank’s initial role, as viewed by the War Office, was to crush barbwire, cross trenches and provide fire support so that the infantry could attain their objectives and defend them against counter-attack. As more tanks became available and their capabilities evolved, there was the potential for their role to become more exploitative as attack plans became more ambitious.
How did these roles differ between the Entente and the Central Powers?
For the British and French, tanks became an integral part of their tactics coinciding with the move away from the method of long bombardment followed by massed infantry attacks. By the end of the War the French had built in the region of 3,000 Renault FT-17s and the British using their Mark V, Mark V* and Medium A `Whippet’, were capable of advanced combined arms warfare supporting the infantry with their mobility and firepower.
For the Central Powers (in reality Germany) the use of tanks on the battlefield was not embraced to any significant degree. Once the Germans initial advances were over they largely remained on the defensive on the Western Front and favoured the development and use of Stormtrooper tactics – that is heavily armed units equipped with plenty of grenades and automatic weapons. They saw the tanks as crude, lumbering, unreliable and vulnerable to artillery. However, they did develop the A7V tank, which was a lumbering behemoth with a crew of 18 but they only used twenty of these in action in 1918 and apart from using captured British models the Germans largely ignored the tank as a tactical war weapon.
What was the biggest tank battle of the war?
The biggest tank battle of World War 1 for the British would have been the Battle of Amiens, 8th August 1918. Around 600 tanks (including supply tanks and gun carriers) would have taken part. These figures fall so drastically that by the third day only 67 tanks were sent into action. The French would employ 474 tanks at the Battle of Soissons in July 1918. Interestingly, the lack of German tanks meant that first tank-versus-tank battle did not take place until April 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux a full 20 months after the tanks had first arrived on the Somme battlefield at Flers-Courcelette on 15th September 1916.
What was the best type of tank available in the war?
From a British perspective the best type of tank available was the Mark V Heavy Tank which was a new design but part of an evolutionary process. The Mark V allowed one man to drive it rather than the four crewmen who were required to drive the Mark I – IV. It also benefited from a having a larger engine, so better performance, and the addition of a command cab allowing the commander situational awareness. The female tanks, those fitted with machine guns only, were seen as more capable. If viewed from a French perspective the two-man Renault FT-17 was the best tank as its small size, it only weighed six-tons, and sheer weight of numbers allowed it to manoeuvre in wooded areas and swarm over German forces.
What tactics were employed when using tanks on the battlefield?
The use and employment of tanks evolved during the war in the same way as the tactics of the other arms did. At first the tanks were used in smaller `penny packet’ attacks where there was little co-operation between the infantry, artillery and tanks which meant the tanks would become isolated and knocked out. However, as more tanks became available it became possible to identify terrain, which was more suitable for their successful use. For instance, the employment of tanks had proved a disappointment in the mud of Ypres in the summer of 1917 so the choice of unspoilt ground for a massed attack of tanks at Cambrai in November 1917 was viewed as the opportunity for the Tank Corps to show what tanks could do. Consequently, the Cambrai battle saw the use of pre-registered artillery for the first time and the chance for tank and infantry units to practice together before the battle. In addition, the employment of aircraft in the reconnaissance role allowed information about how the tanks were progressing in their attacks to be relayed back to HQs which had not been possible before. It was found that the female tanks, that is tanks equipped with only machine guns, were more mobile on the battlefield as they did not have to halt to fire their guns and could spray bullets as they moved unlike the male tanks with their six-pounders who had to fire at the halt if they were to hit anything.
Were they used more on the Western or Eastern fronts?
The design and development of the tank was a reaction to the static trench warfare on the Western Front. The Eastern front was a far larger battlefield and one which retained its mobility so large conventional infantry and cavalry tactics tended to dominate and there was never any real requirement for tanks.
Did they help end the Trench stalemate?
Tanks did assist to end the trench stalemate. They were capable of crushing and clearing paths through the massive wire defensive belts of the Germans, allowing men to follow on behind in the cleared paths and were also capable of crossing trenches and in particular suppressing German machine gun positions. They were also invaluable in defending newly captured positions from the inevitable German counter-attack especially when these positions were out of the range or contact with artillery assets. They often provided the only mobile fire support to the infantry and were almost always increase the morale of units serving with them.
How much did they contribute to the allied victory?
As part of a combined arms force tanks played an important role, along with artillery, aircraft and the implementation of new infantry tactics. Like any weapon system if used on their own the tank had less of an impact but when the attack was well planned and co-ordinated with other arms the tanks were able to support the taking and defending of objectives. As designs and tactics evolved the tanks started to become more capable which was reflected in the numbers of them being built and employed. By the War’s end the British Army had twenty-six tank battalions either deployed or in training and it was certainly seen as one of the key contributors to victory on the Western Front.