The history of the Tank Corps in World War One

The role of the tank has become synonymous with the Great War and military technology since. Certainly the lessons learned at Flers-Courcelette in 1916, where the tank was introduced, were to improve equipment and tactics by 1918 and contribute to the breakthrough at Amiens which ultimately led to the Allied victory.

It’s always been my intention to include tank crew into the Tommy’s War range, indeed it would be an omission not to discuss the contribution of the Tank Corps. I’m delighted to release figures representing these brave men.

The formation of the Tank Corps

The idea of armoured vehicles had been discussed as early as 1914, at this point they were seen as more mobile assets, but the reality of trench warfare meant a rethink. It was not until January 1915 when Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, interested himself in the idea of a “land battleship”.

The first experimental machine was completed in December 1915 and in March 1916 the headquarters of what was to be known as the Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps was established at Bisley under the command of Col. Swinton. Later this section was moved to Elveden Camp, where six companies of tanks were raised.

On 13 August 1916 four of these companies began to embark for France, but the Headquarters of the Heavy Section and its commander remained in England. The supply of machines was the responsibility of the “Mechanical Warfare Supply Department” of the Ministry of Munitions, which was controlled by Lieutenant-Colonel Albert Stern.

Tanks were used for the first time in action on the battlefield of the Somme on 15 September 1916. 36 Mark 1 tanks of C and D Companies arrived on the start line for the renewal of the Somme offensive: this action was later designated as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Arguments continue as to whether it would have been better to wait until much larger numbers of tanks were available before they were used in battle. The Heavy Section MGC was redesignated as the Heavy Branch MGC in November 1916.

Tank Corps crew view a German anti-tank gun captured by Canadian Infantry. Note the different styles of dress worn by crew. Image source; Imperial War Museum

Tank organisation

The Tank Corps was formed from the Heavy Branch MGC on 27 July 1917 and the Battalions adopted numbering rather than letter designations (although tank names followed the same lettering: for example, 7th Battalion tanks were all named with a letter G, like Grouse, Grumble, etc.) Each Tank Battalion had a complement of 32 officers and 374 men.

Tanks in action

At the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15 September 1916, the tanks were organised into subsections of two or three tanks, and were sent in action ahead of the infantry. Open lanes were left in the British artillery barrage, through which the tanks could pass. It was realised that the tanks would draw enemy fire and the infantry followed at a cautious distance. Overall, this battle, while notable for the entry of the tanks, with heroic stories of a tank moving through Flers with the infantry “cheering behind”, was hardly a great success.
Only 36 of the 49 tanks deployed even made it as far as the start line. 14 of them ditched or broke down. 10 tanks were hit by enemy fire and damaged sufficiently for them to take no further part, and another 7 slightly damaged. The surprise and in some cases effect of the tanks helped the attack, but in overall terms the effect was the same: one could break into an enemy position but not through it. GHQ however saw the potential and planned on acquiring masses of tanks. 
60 tanks – mostly Mark 1s – saw action at the Battle of Arras in April 1917. Very wet and cold weather, creating poor ground conditions, proved the undoing of the tanks on this occasion. Many broke down and many more simply could not tackle the ground and became bogged down. The non-appearance of tanks as planned caused a serious disruption to the costly Australian attack at Bullecourt, which created an unfortunate mistrust. The fact that tanks were an obvious target for enemy artillery and bombing did little for infantry confidence.
By summer 1917 tank numbers had increased and the better Mark IVs were available. Sadly, the tanks deployment in the Third Battle of Ypres (July-November 1917) proved to be another slog through deep mud. The area became a tank graveyard as machine after machine ditched in deep trenches and shell holes, sank, stuck and shelled. Morale in the Tank Corps was low and confidence of the rest of the army destroyed. Although there was a bright incident when tanks did well at St Julien, the tanks needed to be given a fighting chance.
On 20 November 1917, Byngs Third Army launched a limited and tactically radical attack at Cambrai, where ground conditions were far more favourable than any seen to date. Following a surprise, hurricane artillery bombardment 378 Mark IV tanks smashed through the Hindenburg Line positions, temporarily creating a rupture to the German lines and the chance for a breakthrough. Insufficient mobile reserves could not get through in time to exploit the success, and within days the chance had gone. However, Cambrai proved to be a key learning experience for the British command.

Men of the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps, later to form the Tank Corps, in 1917. Image source; Imperial War Museum

By 1918 the use of combined arms had become standard doctrine for the Allies and at Amiens over 500 tanks were available for the offensive, alongside 2,000 artillery pieces and 1,900 aircraft. Supported by British, Australian, Canadian and American infantry the Allies broke through the German lines but were able to exploit their gains and continually push the enemy back.

The tank had come a long way in four short years and would go on to prove to be the queen  of the battlefield.