Thursday, June 7, 2018

Tanks During World War I

Technological change during World War I altered the way wars were fought. Developments in chemistry and metallurgy resulted in the increase in size and range of artillery noted in the last post.  Also, use of motorized vehicles and railroads instead of horses, allowed transport of heavier guns. The Germans introduced poison gas and soon each side was developing new and different gasses to rend the opponents unable to fight. Improvements in airplane design increased their range and allowed them to drop bombs as well as note enemy positions. But none of these solved the problem of how to get troops from their trenches across open fields covered in barbed wire in the face of machine gun fire from scattered “nests” and to transport sufficient supplies to the advancing army.

To solve these problems, the Brits William Tritton and Lieutenant Walter Wilson developed the tank.  A heavily armed vehicle equipped with guns and running on caterpillar tracks could travel across trenches, over barbed wire and be imperious to machine gun fire, shielding infantry troops.   
To keep the development secret, workers were told that these were water tanks, designed to carry water to troops in the field. The name “tank” stuck. 

The first tanks required 8 men to operate and often became unbearably hot.  They were equipped with 324 rounds for each of its 6 inch naval guns. Malfunctions were common. Improvements in design made them faster, quieter, more reliable and more efficient, with only 1 driver (not 4) needed.
Tanks were first used in battle on September 15, 1916.  According to British Corporal Edward Gale   “Just before Zero Hour we heard this dammed racket…. Then these tanks appeared…We were all absolutely flabbergasted….We didn’t know what they were because we hadn’t been told anything about them.  It was an amazing sight….They came up right in front of us and swung round and went straight for the German line.  The barbed-wire entanglements had been pretty well smashed by our artillery but the tanks just rolled over what remained of them and smashed them all to pieces.  They scared the guts out of the Germans.  They bolted like rabbits.” (as quoted in H. P. Willmott, World War I, p. 167)

The government used the German reaction to these “monsters” in one Liberty bond campaign.
The French developed a lighter tank with a rotating gun turret.   The U. S. began production of tanks after entering the war, but delays meant none entered battle.
The Germans were slow to respond and only introduced their own, more cumbersome, tanks in October 1917.  The 6 tanks produced were used in only 3 battles in 1918.

Oregon National Guard cavalry tank training
at Oregon Agricultural College, Corvallis, OR
Some U.S. military leaders saw the potential of tanks and began incorporating them in their plans and training. The photograph shows the Oregon National Guard practicing maneuvers with tanks in 1926.
Enlarged detail from photo of ONG tank training at OAC
By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

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