Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

The Tank Corps in The Great War. Volume 1

By Stephen Pope
Helion & Company Limited, 2022
Bruce G. Sloan, Reviewer

"Little Willie"—First Working Tank Prototype

This is the first of a new multi-volume history of the British Tank Corps. It “chronicles the tank’s conception, birth, and baptism of fire on the Somme and Ancre battlefields” and also “describes the selection and training of crews, tactical development, and the logistical challenges associated with bringing a new weapon system into combat within nine months of the acceptance of the prototype, Mother.

The chronology begins with the first armored car unit, starting with a Rolls Royce and a Mercedes locally fitted out with armor and machine gun, the first British manned armored vehicles to see action in the Great War. These were part of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in Belgium.

Then along came Ernest Swinton, an experience staff officer, recommended by Churchill to Kitchener, as an official war correspondent. While in the field, he concluded that “a power-driven, bullet-proof, armed engine, capable of destroying machine-guns, of crossing country and trenches” was required. At the same time, he had a flash that the answer might be the American Caterpillar Tractor. This idea spawned the investigation, spearheaded by Swinton, of various tractors, including the Hornsby steam chain track tractor, the Tritton Trench Crosser, and the Killen Strait armored tractor, leading to “Little Willie” fitted with a turret. . .

"Big Willie" AKA "Mother"—Mark I Prototype

After lots of secret testing, along came “Mother,” the Mark I prototype. After that, the Mark I was produced in male (6 pounder – 57mm guns) and female (machine guns). Simultaneous with this production was the tank company organization and crew training, of which the book has much detail. The tanks and crews were transported to the Yvrench training area in France for final training.

Plans for each area of the Somme battlefield, where the new weapons were to be deployed, are described and the specific crew members and tank numbers are clearly given. This is where the Map Book comes into play. Each battle is detailed, with the units and strategy very clear, showing the order of battle and how it played out, including infantry and artillery. After each area battle there is an analysis of the casualties and awards, the tank’s effectiveness, and the aftermath. There are also detailed tips on visiting the battlefields.

The last chapter details the lessons learned during tank actions. The volume ends with 79 pages of 21 appendices, detailing more analysis, operational orders, HQ and Corps instructions, and after-action reports. I found the book and the accompanying map book to be incredibly complete and informative. It is hard to believe that there is anything missing here about the inception, development, and deployment of the British Tank Corps in the first two years of the Great War.

Bruce G. Sloan

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