The Devil’s Chariots: The origins and secret battles of tanks in the First World War

By renowned and highly-praised author, John Glanfield

John Glanfield’s second blog looks at some of the main themes, personalities and events included in this forthcoming digital edition of a military classic:

The Army spurns armoured fighting vehicles

Following deeply flawed War Office trials of a US-built crawler tractor in February 1915, FM Lord Kitchener rejected Winston Churchill’s impassioned calls for the Army to build ‘caterpillar’ armoured trench destroyers to cross fire-swept and wired ground. The High Command preferred high explosive to cut wire and destroy machine guns. It did neither.

The Royal Navy designed and built the world’s first tank

Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, was embittered by Kitchener’s rejection and appalled by the 90,000 British casualties at First Ypres. He secretly ordered his ship construction chief to design and build ‘Landships’ for an exclusively naval force crewed by Royal Marines. Churchill envisaged mounting heavy naval guns aboard a 300-ton colossus on three 40ft wheels. Fearful of Kitchener’s wrath and an instant War Council veto, the project was kept as secret at home as from the enemy. Even the Board of Admiralty was not informed, and its funding was concealed in an obscure Navy vote for auxiliary machinery. The experimental machines that followed were grotesque by today’s standards, but the first tank drove itself out of a Lincoln factory on 7 January 1916.

‘Winston’s Circus’

To Kitchener’s deepening anger, Churchill had been discreetly establishing a naval foothold on the Western Front. It included a ‘bomber’ squadron, armoured cars, a fleet of London buses and three armoured Admiralty trains mounting 4.5in guns. ‘K’ had unwittingly opened the door when he accepted Churchill’s offer to stage a decoy landing of Marines at Ostend on 27 August 1914 to relieve pressure on Antwerp.

The Naval air cover the force received was to forge the first link in the chain of events leading to the tank. Defying orders to return to England, the buccaneering Wg Cdr Samson’s squadron remained at Dunkirk following the landing of the Marines. Soon it was bombing German airships in their sheds. His officers brought over their motor cars and when not required for aircrew recovery, they toured the roads with a machine gun mounted in the back, shooting-up enemy motor patrols and Uhlan cavalry probes in the fluid situation behind the German advance. Later successes with naval armoured cars included the withdrawal of 2,000 enemy troops from Lille, and a price on Samson’s head. This new digital edition of The Devil’s Chariots recounts their exploits and Kitchener’s fury. Importantly, Samson had demonstrated the novel concept of self-propelled firepower, albeit confined to roads. Churchill took careful note. From this naval force a specialist squadron was later formed to test and transport Britain’s tank output from factories to France.

Landships designer denied sight of battlefield

Churchill’s secrecy surrounding his landships project blocked all contact with the British Army. Col Crompton, its designer, desperately needed information on battlefield ground conditions. Churchill finally approved a visit to the Front in April 1915 but avoided alerting GHQ. As such, when Crompton arrived at the front to see captured German trenches at Neuve-Chapelle he was told that no information could be given without clearance from the War Office, nor could they enter the battle zone. Landships were dismissed as a joke and a waste of public money, and Crompton was ordered home.

Lt (later Lt Col Sir Albert) Stern

Tank production chief ‘Bertie’ Stern was driven by one imperative – to keep tanks leaving the factories nose to tail. He ignored obstructive official procedures and conflicting military considerations. He’d been a successful young banker, used to making his own decisions before joining RN Armoured Car Division in January 1915. His later roles included: Secretary to the RN Landships Committee, June 1915; Director, Tank Supply Dept. Ministry of Munitions, February 1916–October 1917; thereafter, Commissioner, Mechanical Warfare Dept. (Overseas and Allies), Ministry of Munitions.

The mystery of the 1,000-tank order. The facts

Sir Basil Liddell Hart in his masterly work The Tanks makes no mention of a highly damaging confrontation following the tanks’ critical first appearance on any battlefield on 15 September 1916. I was fortunate to see the original papers. They reveal that three weeks before the new weapon’s make-or-break battle, Stern jumped the gun without first consulting the War Office. He gambled on success by negotiating a contract for 1,000 tanks, needing only to lift the phone to commit 30,000 tons of high grade steel for their production plus 1,000 6-pdr guns and over 6,000 machine guns to arm them. To Stern’s undoubted relief, Douglas Haig told him after the battle ‘Go back and make as many more tanks as you can.’

There followed an extraordinary sequence of events. At Haig’s request the War Office duly ordered 1,000 tanks. It was then cancelled at GHQ’s insistence pending an improved type, only to be followed by cancellation of the cancellation by Lloyd George the new War Minister, at Stern’s urging. In the process General Robertson, CIGS was challenged and humiliated by the Minister in Stern’s presence. From that moment Stern became a liability in the eyes of the High Command. Icy relations between the tank production chief and the Army foretold the running battles between them that lay ahead.

‘Get rid of Stern’ – Brig Gen Hugh Elles, commander, Tank Corps

Stern continued to maximise volume despite the Army’s attempts to halt production and build the much superior Mk V. The military failed to understand the disciplines governing mass production. It could not be halted even to make modifications without serious delay. Stern’s explanations were not helped, however, by inaccurate delivery forecasts from his assembly factories when hit there or further down the supply chain by materials shortages, lack of casting or machining capacity and periodic strikes. But he was by no means alone in looking beyond the Army’s narrow tactical support role for tanks. Stern foresaw their strategic value in massed armoured penetration if only he could produce the numbers.

Stern’s vision and drive at last secured the critical mass which brought the Tank Corps victory with total vindication of the tank weapon at Cambrai in November 1917. His reward was dismissal at the Army’s insistence by a deeply reluctant Churchill, Minister of Munitions. Stern stoutly challenged Winston to fight for more tanks as his ministerial predecessors had done. Churchill dryly replied, ‘That is all right from Bertie to Winston but not from Stern to your Minister.’ Bertie Stern was replaced by an admiral who had never seen a tank.

Strategic planning – what strategic planning?

Astonishingly, Haig ordered not expansion but reduction of the Tank Corps from six to four brigades in March 1918. As late as that June, one year and nine months after he first deployed tanks, his GHQ still lacked a strategic plan for their use. Haig still had not one officer on his Staff with experience of them. At the War Office Lloyd George sacked Lord Derby in April for failing to promote the aims of the War Cabinet. Gen Whigham followed, to be replaced as Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff by Gen Charles Harington. These changes galvanised the War Office to action on tank warfare. Not so at GHQ.

‘Tim’ Harington quickly became a firm believer in massed tank assault, telling Churchill ‘We want a definite General Staff policy as to what nature of tanks we require and how we want to employ them and I intend to get this laid down at once.’ In Gen Capper’s view ‘GHQ Staff will need a lot of conversion still’. He was right. At the end of May at Stern’s urging, Churchill persuaded the War Cabinet to override GHQ by increasing Tank Corps strength to 6,940 tanks for completion by 1 June 1919. Haig capitulated, withdrawing his planned cut in tank manpower.

The question was no longer whether the Army would accept a great tank fleet, but whether one could still be built in time.

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