Tanks for the Memory

By Michelle Grimes, U.S. Army Heritage and Education CenterSeptember 1, 2009

Peek -a- Boom!
1 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Peek -a- Boom! This image from the World War I Signal Corps Collection shows two U. S. Army soldiers in the "position[s] of tank driver and gunner. All doors of the tank are open ; turret door turned towards the front. Tank Corps School near Langres;... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Over the Hump!
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Yankee Armor!
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Going to a New Home!
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From World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom and on into the foreseeable future, the tank has proved a critical component of U.S. Army force structure. Even in World War I, George S. Patton began earning his reputation as a master of armored warfare in leading a tank brigade. Tanks, however, were not an American invention. The need for them arose before the United States entered that war, and their antecedents stretched back to antiquity.

During the First World War, 1914-1918, trenches covered the Western Front in Europe and forced stalemate. Tank research, engineering, and experiments progressed, with hope to end that stalemate. The notion of an armored force, such as a cart or land ship, dates back to the ancient EgyptiansAca,!a,,c chariots. Plans for covered Aca,!A"war cartsAca,!A? are traced to HomerAca,!a,,cs Odyssey, a tale about the Trojan Horse, which allowed the Greeks to secretively enter the city of Troy inside a large horse-shaped cart.

Throughout the 15th Century there were a series of inventions that resemble the modern tank. In 1420, Johannes de Fontana proposed a Aca,!A"battle carAca,!A? that housed fewer than one hundred men, powered by either man or horse. In the 1480s Leonardo de Vinci documented that he wanted to build Aca,!A"secure and covered chariots which are invulnerable, and they advance with their guns into the midst of the foeAca,!A|.Aca,!A? Into the 16th Century, the concept of land ships was introduced to military technology. In 1599, Simon Stevin created a land ship, described as a battleship mounted upon wheels. The English patented a self-moving wagon in 1674, which was even more practical after the steam engine was invented by James Watts in 1765.

In 1801, Thomas German patented his device of Aca,!A"endless chains on a series of rollers for the ordinary wheelsAca,!A?. Later inventors modified the concept. In 1915, in the midst of the First World War, British Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest D. Swinton of the Royal Engineers proposed the construction of a new armored car, based off the American Holt tractor. He used the past invention of the caterpillar chain system but needed to make a tank that could withstand driving over trenches and through the crossfire of No ManAca,!a,,cs Land. The idea was eventually proposed to Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, who supported SwintonAca,!a,,cs proposal for the Armored Fighting Vehicle. Churchill wrote Prime Minister Herbert H. Asquith, Aca,!A"It would be quite easy in a short time to fit up a number of steam tractors with small armored shelters, in which men and machine guns could be placed, which would be bullet-proof. Used at night, they would not be affected by artillery fire to any extent. The caterpillar system would enable trenches to be crossed quite easily, and the weight of the machine would destroy all wire entanglements.Aca,!A? The proposal climbed the approval ladder and was now at the top. The English feared that the Germans would discover these plans for a tank or develop one themselves; therefore, Churchill urged the creation of the Landships Committee for experiments supposedly relating to the Navy.

Churchill worked with William Tritton, the Managing Director of William Foster and Co.,Ltd., of Lincoln, the firm that would produce the first tank. Together, they envisioned a tank that would deliver the firepower, defense, protection, and mobility needed to cross the trenches in Europe. The Aca,!A"Tritton MachineAca,!A? was first tested in FosterAca,!a,,cs yard on September 6, 1915: an important date and event in military history. The Aca,!A"Tritton Machine,Aca,!A? which later became known as Aca,!A"Little Willie,Aca,!A? was 31 feet-3 inches long, 13 feet-8 inches wide, 8 feet tall, and weighed 21 tons. The Aca,!A"Little WillieAca,!A? tank included three different fire powers: the 6-pounder that fired 15 to 20 rounds per minute, the Madsen gun that fired 300 rounds per minute, and the Hotchkiss gun that fired 250 rounds per minute. After the trials of Aca,!A"Little WillieAca,!A? and a few track adjustments, the process advanced at an even faster rate, since the groundwork was already in place. The Aca,!A"Little WillieAca,!A? version that was sent to France and used in the Battle of Cambrai in November, 1917, proved successful for the Allied forces against the Germans.

Tank warfare introduced a new wave of technology for offensive and defensive distance fighting. Admittedly, Aca,!A"Little WillieAca,!A? had to be modified because of its grand size and its need for more mobility. However, the mere introduction of the Aca,!A"Little WillieAca,!A? tank in England on September 6, 1915, opened up a world of opportunity for warfare that is still prominent today among the Armed Forces of many nations, particularly including the United States Army.

ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021.

Related Links:

A Working Bibliography of MHI Sources: Armor WWI

AUDIO: Tanks for the Memory