The use of tanks during the battle of the Somme in 1916, led to the eventual formation of a dedicated tank corps, but it wasn’t till over a year later that they were formally identified as the ‘Tank Corps’.
To get to the eventual formation of the Tank Corps, we must first go back to the beginning of the Great War in 1914. The notion of having and deploying machine guns on the battlefield was seen as ineffective by most British commanders, and some even expressed how they believed them to be against the rules of a ‘gentlemen’s war’. However, as we now know, after the eruption of the First World War, the old rule book on conflict was thrown out of the window and it soon became apparent that the British Army’s reluctance to use machine guns and other similar weapons would end in nothing but defeat.
The British Army went to war with just two machine guns per battalion (up to around 800 men), but this was quite quickly deemed inadequate and provisions were made for more guns to be used. Commanders soon realised the benefits of a committed and highly trained bunch of soldiers, whose expertise was not only on the weapons that they were operating, but also the tactics that they could employ for maximum effect.
This led to the Machine Gun Corps being formed in October in 1915, with different branches covering the infantry, the cavalry and even a motor branch, with motorbike sidecars being fitted with machineguns.
After the invention of the tank, it became apparent that they would need to be incorporated somehow into the order of battle and so, six tank companies were raised as ‘Heavy Section, Machine Gun Corps’. This is how they went into battle for the first time, during the battle of Flers-Courcelette in September of 1916.
The companies of Heavy Section were then each expanded to become battalions, fifteen of them to be exact, which led to them being re-designated the title of ‘Heavy Branch, Machine Gun Corps’ in November of 1916.
It was almost a year later when the Heavy Branch were finally separated from the Machine Gun Corps and were given their own title. From July 1917, they were to be formally known as the ‘Tank Corps’, which continued to see expansion until there were twenty-five battalions that were tank equipped and one that was specifically used for armoured cars.
Hugh Elles, then a colonel, was appointed as the commander of the newly formed Tank Corps, having been its commander during its time as Heavy Branch. Elles was disappointed with the deployment of his tanks at Passchendaele, where the now infamous wet conditions meant that his tanks were almost completely ineffective, simply getting bogged down in the conditions.
It was because of this that Elles personally petitioned the Commander in Chief of the BEF on the Western Front, Sir Douglas Haig, to deploy his tanks on better terrain, specifically the much drier and expansive ground that was found at Cambrai.
When the offensive went ahead, Elles was in his own tank, Hilda, leading from the front with a newly made flag attached to identify himself. The story goes that Elles went into a fabric store, who only had the red, green and brown silks that became the regimental flag. Sadly, this story is a myth, the flag in fact being produced to coincide with the formation of the Tank Corps in the summer of 1917.
The flag, which is still the regimental colours of today’s Royal Tank Regiment, typified the unofficial motto of the Tank Corps:
‘Through mud and blood, to the green fields beyond.’
‘All Men are Casualties’ features a crew of the Tank Corps and it is available to pre-order now, at a reduced price for a limited time.