Birth of the Idea—The Armoured Cars—Admiral Bacon’s 15-inch Howitzers—Caterpillar Tractors—The First Attempt to make a Tank—The Second Attempt—My Letter to the Prime Minister of January 5—Fate of the Second Attempt to make a Tank—Failure of the Third Attempt: the Trench-Roller—The Duke of Westminster’s Dinner—The Project Revived—The Landships Committee Formed—Mr. Tennyson-d’Eyncourt’s Design—The Tanks Ordered—Credit and Responsibility—The Tanks in Jeopardy, June, 1915—The Mother Tank Survives—Lord Dundonald and his Grandfather’s Secret—He Reveals it—Noxious Gas—Correspondence—Smoke—An Anticipation: The True Use of Tanks—‘Variants of the Offensive’—The Conception of the Battle of Cambrai—Surprise—Premature Exposure of the Tanks—Their Mishandling by G.H.Q.—The Battle of Cambrai, 1917—The Tanks Established.
I have narrated in Part 1 the sequence of events which led to the first attempt to make an armoured vehicle capable of crossing trenches. The Admiralty were asked to assume responsibility for the defence of Britain against aerial attack. This necessitated the posting on the Belgian and French coasts of Air Squadrons based on Dunkirk to attack any Zeppelin or aeroplane shed which the enemy might establish in the invaded territories. This led to the formation of armoured-car squadrons to protect the advanced bases which our naval aeroplanes might require to use. The enemy, harassed by the armoured cars, cut gaps in the roads, and I called immediately for means of bridging these gaps. Meanwhile the armoured cars began to multiply, but just as they became numerous and efficient, the trench lines on both sides reached the sea, and there was no longer any open ground for manœuvre or any flanks to turn. As we could not go round the trenches, it was evidently necessary to go over them. This was the point which the chain of causation had reached in the second week of October, 1914.
Since Admiral Bacon had retired from the Navy, he had become general manager of the Coventry Ordnance Works. In 1913 I had kept this firm, which comprised one-third of our heavy-gun-producing power, alive by assigning it some of the 15-inch guns and turrets for the fast battleships. A few days after the war had begun I received a letter from Admiral Bacon stating that he had designed a 15-inch howitzer that could be transported by road. Interested in this astonishing assertion, I sent for him. He then spoke with energy and conviction about the general artillery aspects of the war, predicting in particular that existing fortresses would not be able to withstand the shells of great modern cannon or howitzers which were far more formidable than any contemplated at the date of their construction. I listened with interest, and when during the next fortnight the forts first of Liège and then of Namur were swiftly destroyed by the German siege guns, I sent for Admiral Bacon again. I told him his prediction had come true, and I asked whether he could make some big howitzers for the British Army, and how long it would take. He replied he could make a 15-inch howitzer in five months and thereafter deliver one every fortnight. I thereupon proposed to the War Office to order ten.
General von Donop, the Master General, was staggered at the idea of ‘this novel piece of ordnance,’ and expressed doubts whether it could be made or would be useful when made. But Lord Kitchener was much attracted by the idea, and the order went forward forthwith. I promised Admiral Bacon that if he completed his howitzers in the incredibly short time fixed, he should himself command them in France. The utmost expedition was therefore assured, and in fact the first of these monsters, though not ordered till after the fall of Namur, fired in the battle of Neuve Chapelle.
I was kept closely informed about their design and progress, and at the outset learned that each one with its ammunition and platform would be moved in the field in sections, by eight enormous caterpillar tractors. The pictures of these vehicles were extremely suggestive, and when Admiral Bacon showed them to me in October, I at once asked whether they would be able to cross trenches and carry guns and fighting men, or whether he could make any that would. As the result of the discussion that followed. Admiral Bacon produced a design for a caterpillar tractor which would cross a trench by means of a portable bridge which it laid down before itself and hauled up after passing over; and early in November, 1914, I directed him to make an experimental machine, and to lay the project before both Sir John French and Lord Kitchener meanwhile. On February 13, 1915, the model showing promise, I ordered thirty to be constructed. It was not until May, 1915, that the first of these engines with the bridging device was tested by the War Office. It was then rejected because it could not descend a four-foot bank and go through three feet of water (a feat not achieved by any tank up to the end of the war) or fulfil other extremely severe and indeed vexatious conditions. My order for the thirty had, however, been cancelled before their trial took place, as by that time we had achieved a better design through an altogether different agency. Thus ended the first and earliest effort to make a trench-crossing vehicle or so-called ‘Tank’ during the Great War.
The sequence of events in the second attempt to make a tank and secure its adoption by the military authorities was as follows:—
Quite independently of what has been narrated above, about the middle or end of October, Colonel E. D. Swinton, who was attached to General Headquarters, France, as Eye-Witness or Official Correspondent, also realized and visualized the need of such a weapon. He accordingly broached the project to Colonel Hankey. At the end of December, Colonel Hankey wrote a paper on the need of this and other mechanical devices, which he circulated to the various Members of the Cabinet directly concerned in the conduct of the war.
Reading this paper brought me back to the subject on which Admiral Bacon had already been given instructions, and on January 5 I wrote the following letter to the Prime Minister:—
Mr. Churchill to Mr. Asquith.
January 5, 1915.
I entirely agree with Colonel Hankey’s remarks on the subject of special mechanical devices for taking trenches. It is extraordinary that the Army in the Field and the War Office should have allowed nearly three months of trench warfare to progress without addressing their minds to its special problems.
The present war has revolutionized all military theories about the field of fire. The power of the rifle is so great that 100 yards is held sufficient to stop any rush, and in order to avoid the severity of the artillery fire, trenches are often dug on the reverse slope of positions, or a short distance in the rear of villages, woods or other obstacles. The consequence is that the war has become a short range instead of a longe range war as was expected, and opposing trenches get ever closer together for mutual safety from each other’s artillery fire. The question to be solved is not therefore the long attack over a carefully prepared glacis of former times, but the actual getting across of 100 or 200 yards of open space and wire entanglements. All this was apparent more than two months ago, but no steps have been taken and no preparation made. It would be quite easy in a short time to fit up a number of steam tractors with small armoured 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. Forty or fifty of these engines prepared secretly and brought into position at nightfall could advance quite certainly into the enemy’s trenches, smashing away all the obstructions and sweeping the trenches with their machine-gun fire and with grenades thrown out of the top. They would then make so many points d’appui for the British supporting infantry to rush forward and rally on them. They can then move forward to attack the second line of trenches. The cost would be small. If the experiment did not answer, what harm would be done? An obvious measure of prudence would have been to have started something like this two months ago. It should certainly be done now.
The shield is another obvious experiment which should have been made on a considerable scale. What does it matter which is the best pattern? A large number should have been made of various patterns; some to carry, some to wear, some to wheel. If the mud now prevents the workings of shields or traction engines, the first frost would render them fully effective. With a view to this I ordered a month ago twenty shields on wheels to be made on the best design the Naval Air Service could devise. These will be ready shortly, and can, if necessary, be used for experimental purposes.
A third device which should be used systematically and on a large scale is smoke artificially produced. It is possible to make small smoke barrels which on being lighted generate a great column of dense black smoke which could be turned off or on at will. There are other matters closely connected with this to which I have already drawn your attention, but which are of so secret a character that I do not put them down on paper.
One of the most serious dangers that we are exposed to is the possibility that the Germans are acting and [are] preparing all these surprises, and that we may at any time find ourselves exposed to some entirely new form of attack. A committee of engineer officers and other experts ought to be sitting continually at the War Office to formulate schemes and examine suggestions, and I would repeat that it is not possible in most cases to have lengthy experiments beforehand. If the devices are to be ready by the time they are required it is indispensable that manufacture should proceed simultaneously with experiment. The worst that can happen is that a comparatively small sum of money is wasted.
Mr. Asquith, two or three days after receiving my letter of January 5, laid it personally before Lord Kitchener, and urged him strongly to prosecute research into all these matters. Lord Kitchener, who was entirely favourable, thereupon remitted the project to the Department of the Master General of the Ordnance. Its fate was there determined by the following minutes in which, after seven weeks’ reflection, the high technical and professional authorities recorded their opinions.
February 26, 1915.
I have discussed this matter with… and am of opinion that the project is not likely to lead to success on account (1) of the time it would take to design and make sufficient of the machines suggested, (2) the great weights involved, (3) the vulnerability to gun fire, and (4) the difficulty of movement over the ground likely to be occupied by the enemy. I may be wrong and perhaps I should be convinced otherwise were I to see the design which any competent person would be prepared to submit. Would you in consultation with Colonel… like to submit the name of a competent designer to whom the conditions could be submitted?
March 1, 1915.
Can you suggest the name of any person competent to design a land cruiser, not too heavy, that will cross any ordinary country and negotiate the usual fences? I do not myself know of any, but perhaps the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers could advise.
March 1, 1915.
I am afraid I cannot. The only firm in this Country who have had any experience in this line are Hornsbys of Grantham.
These minutes were mortal to the second attempt to make a Tank, and the project was decently interred in the archives of the War Office.
I did not know what had happened as a result of my letter to the Prime Minister, or what the War Office were doing; but I formed the impression that no real progress was being made, and that the military authorities were quite unconvinced either of the practicability of making such engines or of their value when made. I, however, continued to think about the subject from time to time whenever the very great pressure of Admiralty and public business afforded an opportunity. Accordingly, on January, 19, 1915, I sent a minute to the Director of the Air Division instructing him to make certain experiments with steam rollers with a view to smashing in the trenches of the enemy by the mere weight of the engine. I had of course no expert knowledge of mechanics, and could only give or foster ideas of a suggestive character and provide funds and give orders for experiments and action. This particular variant (which was mentioned in Colonel Hankey’s paper of December 28) broke down through its mechanical defects, but there is no doubt that it played its part in forming opinions among the armoured-car officers and experts connected with the armoured-car squadrons and in setting imagination to work for other and more helpful solutions.
So here are three quite separate efforts to procure the manufacture and adoption of the kind of vehicles afterwards called ‘Tanks,’ all of which had been brought to failure either by mechanical defects or by official obstruction. This deadlock might well have continued for an indefinite period of time. No demand for such weapons had come, or for many months came, from the military authorities in France: every suggestion from civilian or other quarters had been turned down by the War Office. The Dardanelles operations were beginning, and almost every hour of my day was occupied with grave Admiralty business. However, the Duke of Westminster, who commanded a squadron of armoured cars and who was himself a focus of discussion on these subjects, invited me to dine on February 17 to meet several officers from the armoured-car squadrons. The conversation turned on cross-country armoured vehicles, and Major Hetherington, who also belonged to the armoured-car squadrons and knew of the various experiments which had been made, spoke with force and vision on the whole subject, advocating the creation of land battleships on a scale far larger than has ever been found practicable.
As a result of this conversation, I went home determined that I would give imperative orders without delay to secure the carrying forward in one form or another of the project in which I had so long believed. Accordingly I directed Major Hetherington to submit his plans, which were at that time for a platform mounted on enormous wheels 40 feet in diameter, and I forwarded these plans two days later to the First Sea Lord (Lord Fisher), urging him to devote his great energies and mechanical aptitudes to getting them carried through. In addition to this, the next day, the 20th, I sent for Mr. Tennyson-d’Eyncourt, the Chief Constructor of the Navy, and convened a conference which, as I was ill at the time, was held in my bedroom at the Admiralty on the afternoon of that day. As the result of it the Landships Committee of the Admiralty was formed by my orders, under the Presidency of Mr. Tennyson-d’Eyncourt, reporting direct to me, and they were urged in the most strenuous manner to labour to the very utmost to secure a solution of the problem.
From the formation of this committee on February 20, 1915, till the appearance of tanks in action in August, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, there is an unbroken chain of causation.
On March 20, Mr. Tennyson-d’Eyncourt reported to me that his committee had evolved two possible types, much smaller than Major Hetherington had imagined, one moved by large wheels and the other by caterpillar action. I immediately called by minute for estimates of time and money.
March 20, 1915.
Most urgent. Special Report to me in case of delay. Estimates of time and money.
W. S. C.
These were supplied, and on March 26 I took the responsibility for ordering eighteen of these vehicles, which at that time were called landships, six of which were to be of the wheel type and twelve of the caterpillar type.
March 26, 1915.
Proceed as proposed and with all despatch. On account of secrecy this may be taken as sanction.
W. S. C.
I thus took personal responsibility for the expenditure of the public money involved, about £70,000. I did not invite the Board of Admiralty to share this responsibility with me. I did not inform the War Office, for I knew they would raise objections to my interference in this sphere, and I knew by this time that the Department of the Master General of the Ordnance was not very receptive of such ideas. Neither did I inform the Treasury.
It was a serious decision to spend this large sum of money on a project so speculative, about the merits of which no high expert military or naval authority had been convinced. The matter, moreover, was entirely outside the scope of my own Department or of any normal powers which I possessed. Had the tanks proved wholly abortive or never been accepted or never used in war by the military authorities, and had I been subsequently summoned before a Parliamentary Committee, I could have offered no effective defence to the charge that I had wasted public money on a matter which was not in any way my business and in regard to which I had not received expert advice in any responsible military quarter. The extremely grave situation of the war, and my conviction of the need of breaking down the deadlock which blocked the production of these engines, are my defence; but that defence is only valid in view of their enormous subsequent success.
A general observation may here be made. There was no novelty about the idea of an armoured vehicle to travel across country and pass over trenches and other natural obstacles while carrying guns and fighting men. Mr. H. G. Wells, in an article written in 1903, had practically exhausted the possibilities of imagination in this sphere. Moreover, from very early times the history of war is filled with devices of this character for use in the attack of fortresses and fortified positions. The general principles of applying the idea were also fairly obvious. Bullet-proof armour had been carried to a high point of perfection by various hardening processes. The internal-combustion engine supplied the motive power. The Pedrail and Caterpillar systems were both well known, and had been widely applied in many parts of the world. Thus the three elements out of which tanks have been principally constituted were at hand to give effect to the idea.
There are, however, two things to be kept distinct:—
(a) The responsibility for initiating and sustaining the action which led to the tanks being produced,
(b) the credit for solving the extremely difficult problems connected with design apart from main principles.
These services were entirely separate. There never was a moment when it was possible to say that a tank had been ‘invented.’ There never was a person about whom it could be said ‘this man invented the tank.’ But there was a moment when the actual manufacture of the first tanks was definitely ordered, and there was a moment when an effective machine was designed as the direct outcome of this authorization.
I consider that the responsibility for the mechanical execution of the project was borne by Mr. Tennyson-d’Eyncourt. Without his high authority and immense expert knowledge the project could not have been carried to success. Under his guidance, invaluable services in the sphere of adaptation and manufacture were rendered by Sir William Tritton and Major Wilson. But I sanctioned the expenditure of public money in reliance upon Mr. Tennyson-d’Eyncourt’s gifts and knowledge, and his assurances that the mechanical difficulties could be solved. I trusted him, as I would have trusted Admiral Bacon in the earlier project, to say whether the thing could be done or not and to find a way round and through the technical difficulties. And once he said it could be done, I was prepared to incur both risk and responsibility in providing the necessary funds and in issuing the necessary authority. It was with him alone that I dealt, and it was from me alone that he received his orders.
Others, such as Colonel Swinton and Captain T. G. Tulloch, had seized the idea and had even laid specific proposals before the War Office in January, 1915. These officers had not however the executive authority which alone could ensure progress and their efforts were brought to nothing by the obstruction of some of their superiors. They were unfortunate in not being able to command the resources necessary for action, or to convince those who had the power to act.
After I left the Admiralty at the end of May, 1915, another moment of extreme peril threatened the enterprise. The new Board of Admiralty included three out of the four naval members of the old Board. Reinforced by Sir Henry Jackson, the new First Sea Lord, they appear to have viewed the financial commitments which had already been incurred to an extent of about £45,000 as either undesirable or wholly beyond the sphere of Admiralty interests. They therefore, in the general disfavour in which my affairs were at this time involved, proposed to terminate the contracts and scrap the whole project. However, Mr. Tennyson-d’Eyncourt remained faithful to the charge I had laid upon him. He warned me of the decisions which were impending, or which had perhaps been taken, and I thereupon as a Member of the War Committee of the Cabinet appealed personally to Mr. Balfour, the new First Lord. After consideration, Mr. Balfour decided that the construction of one experimental machine should be proceeded with. One alone survived. But this proved to be the ‘Mother Tank’ which, displayed in Hatfield Park in January, 1916, became the exact model of the tanks which fought on the Somme in August, 1916, and was the parent and in principle the prototype of all the heavy tanks that fought in the Great War.
The paragraph in my letter of January 5 to the Prime Minister upon the use of smoke and the reference to secrets which lay behind it, also requires a digression.
Early in September, 1914, Lieutenant-General Lord Dundonald, the grandson of the famous Admiral Cochrane, spoke to Lord Kitchener of various plans left by his ancestor for making smoke screens, and also for driving an enemy from his position by means of noxious though not necessarily deadly fumes. ‘Lord Kitchener,’ writes Lord Dundonald. ‘at once told me that he did not consider that the plans were of any use for land operations and as they were invented by an Admiral. I had better see the Admiralty about them.’ Lord Dundonald therefore obtained an introduction to the Second Sea Lord, Sir Frederick Hamilton, with whom he had an interview on September 28. The Second Sea Lord was generally favourable, and wrote (September 29), ‘I have talked the matter over with Prince Louis and he thinks you had better see Churchill and not mention us.’ I had served in Lord Dundonald’s Brigade in South Africa during the Relief of Ladysmith, and I at once made an appointment to receive him. I was immediately interested in his ideas, and asked to see the plans of the illustrious Cochrane. Lord Dundonald replied after a few days’ consideration that he felt that the national emergency at last justified him in revealing the secret which he had guarded all his life, and in the middle of October he brought me the historic papers which once before, in the Crimean War, had been placed at the disposal of the British Government. On the inner covering of the packet in the delicate writing of the old Admiral, were the words, ‘To the Imperial mind one sentence will suffice: All fortifications, especially marine fortifications, can under cover of dense smoke be irresistibly subdued by fumes of sulphur kindled in masses to windward of their ramparts.’ The reader, captivated by the compliment, will no doubt rise to the occasion and grasp at once the full significance of the idea. I sent for the First Sea Lord (Prince Louis of Battenberg) without delay and we had a prolonged discussion.
I now cast about for means of exploring the subject without endangering its secrecy. In the first instance I had recourse to Sir Arthur Wilson, whose practical and inventive turn of mind seemed specially adapted to the task. The results were, however, negative.
Mr. Churchill to Lord Dundonald.
October 18, 1914.
Sir Arthur Wilson thought the scheme obsolete on account of modern conditions, and it was useless to pursue it with him. I do not share these views and am considering how and when progress may be made. Meanwhile, with many thanks, I return you your most interesting documents.
Lord Dundonald to Mr. Churchill.
October 24, 1914.
The term ‘obsolete’ does not describe a novel departure. You, I know, place an accurate value on the criticism. I must trust that the Secret will be maintained by the Officers to whom you entrust it…. I feel sure that you will help my wish to conduct land operations under the plan if agreed that the Navy is out of it.
During the weeks that followed, Lord Dundonald continued to send me admirable suggestions, based on his grandfather’s ideas, and, after giving decisive instructions to make experiments, I continued to endeavour to secure in secrecy powerful professional endorsement. For instance:—
Lord Dundonald to Mr. Churchill.
This method of warfare once divulged can of course be employed by any nation, but as far as it is possible to foresee, an Island Nation with the command of the Sea need fear little, but on the contrary may gain much.
Since these plans were invented by Admiral Lord Dundonald in 1811 (two years after he had conducted the explosion and fire ships in Basque Roads) certain factors which must facilitate their employment have been evolved, such as mechanically driven vessels, horseless vehicles, rapidity of communication, and noxious fume-proof helmets.
The successful use of the plan above all depends on a favourable wind…. The wind statistics from the coast of Holland to Berlin show that the wind from [westerly directions] is far more prevalent than from the opposite or eastern section of the compass, especially is this so during November, December, January and February….
…The vehicles with sulphur would be conducted and operated by men in Gas-proof helmets….
An attack against miles of entrenchment would be made on sectional fronts by sulphur and smoke, the intervening blocks where sulphur would not be employed being smoked only, in order to blind the hostile artillery.
There can be no question but that Lord Dundonald had grasped at this time the whole idea of gas and smoke warfare, and that he had derived it directly from the papers of his grandfather. To these conceptions modern chemistry offered terrible possibilities. The use of noxious or poisonous fumes were explicitly prohibited by International Law. We could not therefore employ it ourselves unless and until the enemy himself began. But when from time to time, amid the rush of the War, I turned my mind to this subject, and thought of German chemical science and German mentality, I became increasingly disquieted. As it was very difficult to obtain any high Military or Naval assistance, and I had not the life and strength to carry this additional load of thought myself, I turned to another quarter.
Mr. Churchill to Lord Dundonald.
January 1, 1915.
After very careful consideration I think you should lay your Grandfather’s scheme before Colonel Hankey, the Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence. He has himself been pursuing considerable investigations in a similar though not identical direction.
I notice also with some misgiving attempts by the German Government to purchase sulphur on an exceptionally large scale.
The enormous pressure of the War upon those engaged in conducting it made progress very slow, but on March 15 Colonel Hankey, who had been making himself some experiments, wrote to Lord Dundonald that: ‘In connection with the Dardanelles operations it may be desirable in certain circumstances to produce a large smoke screen.’ I now found Admiralty affairs directly affected, and on March 21 I ordered a strong technical Committee on the subject to be formed under the presidency of Lord Dundonald. I made it clear, however, that we could not depart from the accepted Laws of War.
Mr. Masterton-Smith to Lord Dundonald.
March 31, 1915.
Mr. Churchill asked me to write and confirm a decision already communicated to you by Colonel Hankey, that while the smoke experiments are to be continued it is not intended for the present to proceed with the more important proposal [i.e. experiments in noxious fumes]. Mr. Churchill agrees that it would not be expedient to introduce into the War, elements which might justify the enemy in having recourse to inhuman reprisals. At the same time Mr. Churchill wishes me to convey to you his sense of deep obligation for the ungrudging manner in which you have placed at his disposal your exceptional knowledge.
I now kept in close touch with the work of the Committee, but progress, even in the limited sphere to which we were confined by International Law and State Policy, was slow and fitful.
April 5, 1915.
We are simply pottering with this subject, which my reflections increasingly lead me to suppose is fraught with most hopeful possibilities, both as regards operations on land and especially at sea.
Action must now proceed at once. Let the ten best recipes for smoke mixture be made up into large barrels or other receptacles, and let these be taken during this week to Eastchurch or the Isle of Grain, or some other convenient place, and have them lighted up one after the other. I will endeavour myself to attend to witness the experiments.
Let fifteen or twenty suitable small craft be selected and the names submitted to form the home service smoke-burning flotilla. Let also twenty of those big Belgian canal barges be selected and prepared as destructible smoke-ships. Let all these vessels be filled with what is ascertained to be the best smoke mixture. Probably 5,000 or 6,000 tons of material will be required. Let tugs be earmarked for service with these vessels when required. Let all preparations of vessels proceed in anticipation of the choice of smoke mixture and of the purchase of smoke material. Let small steamboats be earmarked for attendance on the flotilla when required.
For land service, let a lorry capable of being towed or pushed by an armoured car be designed, on which lorry a large smoke-burning furnace or kiln of iron can be erected. It is essential that this furnace should be capable of being immediately closed so as to stop combustion and turn off the smoke at any moment. Let proposals be put forward for obtaining 100 of these, by whatever means will least interfere with production for existing services. Make sure, however, that the naval part of this work is not delayed or impeded on account of the land part.
W. S. C.
Mr. Churchill to Sir John French.
April 10, 1915.
I have seen some wonderful smoke-making experiments carried out by my directions. A light portable metal cone of the simplest construction 3 feet high and 6 feet wide at the base is fed by gravity at the base with benzol. The oil spreads over the surface of the cone, causing a dense smoke which you can turn off instantaneously by a tap on the fuel supply.
I am developing this system for naval purposes, but my reflections lead me increasingly to believe in its importance in the kind of warfare you are now waging. If the wind were favourable, you could blanket off absolutely in a few minutes a whole sector of the enemy’s artillery and rifle fire. You could use it to cut out a particular village or line of trenches till your men were actually upon them with the bayonet. Or again you could cover the bringing up to the decisive point of a large mass of cavalry at the critical moment.
I imagine the whole apparatus with smoke for 2 hours, capable of blanketing off half a mile of ground and putting a much wider area in haze, could be carried on a motor lorry; and if this were protected by a light plating it could run right up in advance of the troops to the required point.
They showed me at Woolwich barrels of another mixture, solid, which they had prepared for the army in the field but which had never been asked for. It made a fine smoke; but the new method is preferable because of its greater mobility and the power of turning it off and on at any moment. If you like, I can make an experimental outfit of one car and send it across for you to see.
On April 22, 1915, the Germans, violating the Laws of War, made their first poison-gas attack, and the second battle of Ypres began. This crime and folly was destined in the end to expose them to severe retaliation from those who had the advantage of the prevailing winds, and in the end of the superior science; but who had hitherto been restrained by respect for international usage from turning their favourable position to account.
There is one further stage in the tale of the Tanks to be described, and for this I must considerably anticipate chronology. When I resigned from the Cabinet in November, 1915, in circumstances which will be presently related, and joined the Army in France, I conceived myself to be the bearer to them of a good gift. This gift was the conception of a battle and of a victory; and I knew that the Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French, would study the proposals I submitted with deep and friendly attention. Accordingly on arrival at General Headquarters I drew up a paper called ‘Variants of the Offensive,’ which was printed for the Committee of Imperial Defence. I laid this before Sir John French, and later before his successor, Sir Douglas Haig. The first of these Variants may be quoted here.
MEMORANDUM BY MAJOR THE RT. HON. WINSTON S. CHURCHILL.
December 3, 1915.
VARIANTS OF THE OFFENSIVE.
1.—The Attack by Armour.
1. During the winter both sides will tend to reduce their forces in the front line to a minimum and rely chiefly on wire and machine guns. The problem of crossing two or three hundred yards of ground without undue loss and in superior force along a considerable front ought not to present insuperable difficulties. It has been found necessary in naval war to protect above all things the motive power of ships; and the vital organs of men ought similarly to be protected whenever possible. Where conditions of manœuvre prevail and armies move fast and far across the country, armour is rightly banned as hampering mobility. But for the specific object of protecting men from machine-gun bullets during the short walk across from trench to trench shields are indispensable.
2. Shields may be either carried individually or pushed by several men. In the former case they should be lined along the parapet and picked up by the men on the signal to advance. They should be curved, oblong, steel plates, and should hang on the left shoulder, giving protection from just below the rim of the steel helmet to the hips. They should be discarded on reaching the enemy’s trench.
Composite shields covering from five to fifteen men, and pushed along either on a wheel or, still better, on a Caterpillar, should also be used. Models can be inspected at Wormwood Scrubbs of various types….
The cutting of the enemy’s wire and the general domination of his firing-line can be effected by engines of this character. About seventy are now nearing completion in England, and should be inspected. None should be used until all can be used at once. They should be disposed secretly along the whole attacking front two or three hundred yards apart. Ten or fifteen minutes before the assault these engines should move forward over the best line of advance open, passing through or across our trenches at prepared points. They are capable of traversing any ordinary obstacle, ditch, breastwork, or trench. They carry two or three Maxims each, and can be fitted with flame apparatus. Nothing but a direct hit from a field gun will stop them. On reaching the enemy’s wire they turn to the left or right and run down parallel to the enemy’s trench, sweeping his parapet with their fire, and crushing and cutting the barbed wire in lanes and in a slightly serpentine course. While doing this the Caterpillars will be so close to the enemy’s line that they will be immune from his artillery. Through the gaps thus made the shield-bearing infantry will advance.
If artillery is used to cut wire, the direction and imminence of the attack is proclaimed days beforehand. But by this method the assault follows the wire-cutting almost immediately, i.e. before any reinforcements can be brought up by the enemy, or any special defensive measures taken.
4. The Caterpillars are capable of actually crossing the enemy’s trench and advancing to cut his communication trenches; but into this aspect it is not necessary to go now. One step at a time. It will be easy, when the enemy’s front line is in our hands, to find the best places for the Caterpillars to cross by for any further advance which may be required. They can climb any slope. They are, in short, movable machine-gun cupolas as well as wire-smashers. The naval torpedo-net-cutter, fixed in front of them with guides to lead the gathered wires into it, has proved absolutely successful. The spectacle of such a machine cutting wire entanglements has only to be witnessed to carry conviction. It resembles the reaping operations of a self-binder. Three or four days’ notice to the Trench Warfare Department should enable this demonstration to be made.
5. It is obvious that the above form of attack requires, at the present season, frost, darkness, and surprise. The parry to the Caterpillar is either protective mining galleries, fougasses, buried shells, etc., or field guns concealed in the parapet. But if this trick works once, a new one can be devised for next time. Until these machines are actually in France, it is not possible to measure the full limit of their powers. But it is believed that during the dark hours of a winter’s night not one but several successive lines of trenches could be taken by their agency. As they moved forward into the enemy’s positions, his artillery would be increasingly hampered in firing at them, and, with deepening confusion, the location of and laying the guns upon these moving structures will become almost impossible. Daylight would leave them an easy prey; but if daylight witnessed an entirely new situation they would have done their part, even if they could not be withdrawn. They would, as they advanced, carry the infantry attack along with them and serve as movable points d’appui, guiding and defining the attack.
6. Surprise consists in novelty and suddenness. Secrecy is vital, and it should be possible, over a period of three or four weeks, to work routine conditions into such a state that very little extraordinary preparation would be required. The weak man-power available in the enemy’s front line can easily be overwhelmed by forces which might appear to be assembled in the ordinary course. If the troops holding our line are gradually strengthened, and our moment of relief made to miss the enemy’s moment of relief, sufficient force for taking the enemy’s first lines should be obtained.
The necessary movement of supports and reserves, and the rôle of our artillery, belong to the regular offensive and are not dealt with in these notes on ‘variants.’ It is worth while considering, however, whether the advance of supports and reserves by night, especially after the enemy’s line is reached, could not be directed by searchlight beams shot from the rear, each brigade pursuing generally the line of the light assigned to it. In this way strong bodies can be guided to definite points and stopped by switching off the light, whatever the confusion or breakdown of signals.
7. The conception of this attack involves the simultaneous employment of all the armour devices above mentioned. On no one in particular must we be solely dependent. The individual shield-bearing soldiers must have their own implements for cutting or crossing the wire. The composite shields must blanket-off the machine guns. The Caterpillars are an addition, good in themselves, but better and sure in combination. Above all surprise.
The scheme of attack by caterpillar vehicles thus unfolded was not put into operation until the first Battle of Cambrai in November, 1917. In the light of years of experience many errors can be detected in this forecast; but it might well have served as a basis for intense military study. Three months later, in February 1916, Colonel Swinton, who was then serving on the Secretariat of the Committee of Imperial Defence, and had witnessed the early trials of ‘Mother Tank,’ set forth and printed in careful and accurate detail the plan of a Tank battle on a great scale. In spite of this it took the High Command nearly two whole years more to learn to use tanks in the manner and conditions for which they were originally conceived. During the interval every conceivable mistake was committed, which lack of comprehension could suggest. The first twenty tanks, in spite of my protests and the far more potent objections of Mr. Asquith and Mr. Lloyd George, were improvidently exposed to the enemy at the Battle of the Somme. The immense advantage of novelty and surprise was thus squandered while the number of the tanks was small, while their condition was experimental and their crews almost untrained. This priceless conception, containing if used in its integrity and on a sufficient scale, the certainty of a great and brilliant victory, was revealed to the Germans for the mere petty purpose of taking a few ruined villages. Mercifully the high military authorities of all countries belonged to the same school of thought. The revelation passed unappreciated by the German Command. Though full of novelty and terror, the tank could no longer be an apparition, but at least we were not ourselves confronted with German tanks in large numbers in 1917.
That year was to witness the further misuse of the British tank. 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. The enemy was familiarized with them by their piecemeal use; and they themselves were brought wallowing to a standstill in the mud. Indeed at the end of 1917 many high authorities in the British Army had become almost convinced that they were useless, and gilded wiseacres were beginning to unearth again their original condemnations of such unprofessional expedients. Fortunately, the mishandling of the tanks and their consequent failure produced a similar impression on the German mind, and once again the enemy lost the opportunity of hoisting us ‘with our own petard.’
In spite of the reasoning of two years before and the steady appeals and arguments of the officers of the Tank Corps, it was not until Passchendaele was over that the tanks were given their chance. They were at last to have their own battle. They were at last to be allowed to show that they could destroy wire without a bombardment which would warn the enemy, and consequently restore the element of surprise to a modern offensive. To General Byng fell the honour of organizing the Battle of Cambrai which began on November 20, 1917. Tardily and doubtingly as they were used, the results were decisive. In a few hours a victory was gained almost without loss. However, as no adequate preparations had been made to exploit it, the after consequences were disappointing, and even a few days later disastrous. It was not until 1918 that the combination of smoke with tanks, and the use of smoke to cover the advance of numbers of tanks, were actually adopted in the field. Had the war continued into 1919, every tank would have possessed the means of making its own smoke, and all tank operations would have been conducted under clouds of artificial fog. But after the Battle of Cambrai the fame of the Tanks was secure, and henceforward throughout 1918 they became to the eyes of friend and foe alike, the great decisive weapon and distinctive feature of the British, French and American offensives.