Switching sides

In 1915, a prototype machine was produced for the British government, under the codeword of ‘Tank’ to try and maintain its secrecy. What unfolded in the years after that became an object of intense jealousy and intrigue to the Germans.

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The first tank in the world – ‘Little Willie’ It resides at the Bovington Tank Museum, England. 

William Tritton was an engineer, specialising in agricultural machinery based in Lincoln with a firm called William Foster & Co. It would be here, along with Major Walter Wilson, that the first tank would be designed, produced and tested.

Major Wilson joined the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division at the outbreak of the Great War, which was tasked with protecting the Royal Navy’s Air Service while it was stationed in France. Wilson’s squadron was opted to help investigate the use of armoured fighting vehicles in 1915, under what was the Land Ships Committee, being headed up by the Admiralty.

Working alongside William Tritton, Wilson helped to develop the idea of what we now know as tanks, being the one credited with suggesting that the tracks should wrap their way around the whole body of the vehicle.

Together, they came up with the first British tank, which was nicknamed ‘Little Willie’ (which had the tracks beneath the main body of the tank, similar to what we might see today). After ‘Little Willie’ came a more improved tank, which had a whole load of nicknames, before it was finally christened, ‘Mother’.

‘Mother’ had a rhomboid shape with the tanks stretching right the way around the tank, with a steering column attached to the rear. This was the prototype for the Mark I tank.

The Mark I was deployed with varying successes in the Battle of the Somme but also further afield, notably in the Sinai and Palestine campaign where eight Mark Is were used against Turkish forces in 1917.

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The interior of a Mark IV tank

However, the Mark I was far from a finished product and led to several developments, resulting in the more well-known and well produced Mark IV tank. It was this tank that saw extensive service with the British military and was held in high regard by the Germans.

So much so, the Germans were desperate to get their hands on some, with their own tank production hindered by lack of materials and a poor design in the A7V German counterpart.

Fortunately for the Germans, many Mark IVs were abandoned by the British when they broke down or hit by German shell fire. Specialist units were set up by the Germans to recover these tanks, before they were dispatched to specialist warehouses and repair shops to refit them for German use.

So many Mark IVs were used by the Germans in fact, that they far exceeded the number of tanks that the Germans actually produced for themselves.

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An artist’s impression of what a captured Female Mark IV Tank may have looked like under German control.

These tanks, that were painted with a more Germanic colour scheme, including the Iron Cross as its national recognition symbol, became known as Beutepanzern (literally, ‘booty tanks’). By the end of September 1918, it was estimated that over 170 British Mark IV tanks had been captured by the Germans in a usable condition. Of these however, only 35 were classed as operational and as such did not really see extensive use in combat.

Beutepanzern was a concept that would continue into the Second World War too, something which became increasingly influential in the Wehrmacht, especially once they had conquered many European countries where tanks were being produced.

All Men are Casualties features a British Mark IV Tank and her crew. The book is available now for pre-order at a reduced price, for a limited time.

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