Military leaders during WW 1 have been labelled as mindless butchers, incapable of original thought, who led soldiers to useless deaths. It is true that the tremendous increases in firing rate and accuracy of both artillery and small arms created extreme lethality, which led to casualties and stalemate, not victory.
The truth is actually a little more complex: the crucible of WW 1 was actually a period of great invention and innovation, so much so that it created “A Revolution in Military Affairs”, one that shaped 20th century warfare. No weapons system symbolizes that more than the creation of the tank.
Combat in WW1 began in August 1914. Initially consisting of vast armies maneuvering by railway and on foot, the lethality of modern weapons forced the armies to create 450 miles of parallel trenches stretching from the Swiss border to the English Channel. There were no flanks: all attacks had to be head-on.
As early as October 1914, after a month of trench warfare, military leaders were already seeking solutions to the stalemate. A LCol Swinton envisaged the need for a machine to cross trenches, barbed wire, and mud to attack the enemy. The basic idea was to take machine guns and heavier guns and place them in a steel box to protect them from defenders’ fire. Powering this machine would be the recently invented (1884) gasoline-fuelled internal combustion engine. An effective continuous track, patented in 1901, would propel them across the shell torn muddy landscape and be able to cross trenches. This unique combination of firepower, protection and mobility was christened the “tank”, a vague term that provided security effectively, because that’s what they looked like.
Commencing in May 1915 a variety of prototypes and methods were built and trialled, and a rhomboid shape with encircling tracks was found to be most effective. These Mark 1 tanks were first delivered in January 1916, with orders for more placed in February and April. Contrary to the myth, the British Army quickly recognised their potential. Throughout the spring and summer of 1916 crews had to be designed, personnel assembled, organised and trained, supply and maintenance troops and workshops created and tactical doctrine on the use of tanks developed.
On 15 September 1916 the British Army used tanks in combat for the very first time. In just 23 months since the need was first envisioned, the tank had been invented, trialled, built, shipped, crewed and entered combat: a breath taking pace, and a far cry from “mindless butchers, incapable of original thought”.