Tank Corps in the First World war

This section of the Long, Long Trail will be helpful for anyone wishing to find out about the history of the units of the Tank Corps.

“Through mud and blood to the green fields beyond”.
Tank Corps motto.

First development and deployment

In the autumn of 1914, Lieutenant-Colonel E.D. Swinton suggested the idea of an armoured vehicle to the military authorities at home. It was not until January 1915 when Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, interested himself in Col. Swinton’s suggestion and the idea of a “land battleship” began to take official form.

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.

The early tanks

The first tanks, known as Mark 1, were built in two types which were essentially the same except for their armament. The ‘Male’ type carried two Hotchkiss 6-pounder (57mm) guns and 4 machine guns; the ‘Female’ 5 machine guns.

Motive power came from a 105hp Daimler engine, driving the caterpillar tracks through three independent gearboxes. Turning was a complex manoeuvre which required the tank to halt, making it an easy target. Early machines has a tail wheel which was designed to aid balance but which in practice proved useless and were soon abandoned.

At best, the early tanks could achieve a top speed of 4 miles per hour. On the battlefield this was rarely realised and in many cases infantry moved far faster. The machines were crewed by a Subaltern, 3 Drivers and 4 Gunners, of which one was an NCO. Interior conditions were truly appalling, being a combination of intense heat, noise and exhaust from the engine, violent movement as the tank crossed the ground and molten metal splash as bullets struck the plating. Men would often be violently sick or badly incapacitated by the conditions and were often in no fit state to continue after quite short journeys. It was difficult to communicate within the tank and with men and other tanks outside. The tank officer often had to get out and walk, to reconnoiter his path or to work with the infantry. The tanks also proved to be mechanically unreliable and vulnerable to shellfire. Some tanks carried a wire frame on the roof, designed to deflect grenades. Nonetheless, the first appearance of the tanks caused considerable alarm to the Germans … until they realised their shortcomings and began to organise tactics and armament to defend against them.

Mark 1 tank.
A male Mark I tank on the Somme in 1916. The trailing wheels, meant to assist steering, were soon found to be more of a hindrance than a help and were eliminated from subsequent models.

Further development

Mark II tanks were training vehicles although some played a part at the Battle of Arras in April and May 1917. They carried even less armour than the Mark I. The Hotchkiss machine guns were exchanged for the Lewis Gun, which was a highly effective weapon in infantry hands but proved less so in the tanks. The next step saw an upgrade in the production of the Mark IV. It carried more armour and had an external fuel tank. Mechanically, it was similar to the Mark II. These tanks weighed 28 tons. The Mark IV first saw service at The Battle of Messines in June 1917. Battlefield lessons were being applied: many tanks now carried fascines, which were huge bundles of wood that could be dropped to bridge wide trenches and ditches.

A lighter (14 ton), faster tank – all of 8 miles per hour – called the Whippet came into service by the time of the German attack in early 1918. It was lightly armed but highly effective, bringing a degree of mobility back to the battlefield. The most effective variant, Mark V, was in service for the Allied attacks that began in July 1918. It was more powerful and had an improved steering and control mechanism that allowed a reduction in the crew. Mark V types were also produced as supply carriers and – less successfully – as gun carriers. A stretched version called the Mark V* was also produced, better able to cross wide trenches without needing a fascine. The Tank Corps also operated a variety of armoured cars.

Tank in Ukraine
Far from the Western Front, a British Mark V tank – now a memorial on a housing estate at Lugansk in the Ukraine. This photograph by Alexandr Chupryna, with our thanks.

Tank organisation

Originally formed as Companies of the Heavy Section MGC, designated A, B, C and D, each Company consisted of 4 Sections of 3 tanks of each type (male and female Mk 1’s). Companies also had another machine in reserve.

In November 1916 the Companies were expanded to Battalions, carrying the same letter designations. A Battalion consisted of 3 Companies. Three mobile workshops provided the engineering back-up to service the tanks. An expansion programme was ordered by GHQ, to build a force of 14 additional Battalions.

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.

From the earliest days, men of the HBMGC were often drawn from the Motor Machine Gun units, with drivers from the Army Service Corps. In many cases the men never actually officially transferred and fought in the tanks under their original regiments.

Finally, an E Company was formed for service in Palestine.

The 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. There has been much debate over the use of the small numbers of tanks that were available: would Haig have been better served if he had waited until more were ready?

60 tanks – mostly Mark 1’s – 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 IV’s 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 was 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, Byng’s 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 get through in time to exploit the tanks success, and within days the chance had gone. However, Cambrai proved to be a key learning experience for the British command.

When the German army attacked in March 1918, British tanks were little used as a defensive weapon, but played an important part in the extraordinary counter-attack at Villers-Bretonneux on 24-25 April. During this action they faced for the first time the few German tanks that were ever produced. (The Germans also used captured British tanks, mostly from from Cambrai).

On 4 July 1918 at Le Hamel and in front of Amiens on 8 August 1918, tanks played a central role in the crushing success of the Allied attack. Before Hamel, the Australian Corps carried out intensive training with the tanks in order to overcome lingering doubts after Bullecourt and to tighten up infantry/tank co-operation. 450 of them took part in the Amiens attack, where the Whippets and various armoured cars penetrated deep behind the German defences. In conjunction with the new artillery and infantry tactics, tanks proved to be useful in crushing wire; over-running machine gun posts and strong points; helping infantry through the streets of destroyed villages. However, tank losses were significant and within days of the initial assault the Tank Corps was a temporarily spent force. It was not until the assaults on the Hindenburg Line in late September 1918 that a large enough force had been assembled again. From 21 August 1918 to the Armistice on 11 November 1918, some 2,400 men and officers of the Tank Corps became casualties.

In retrospect, the tanks of 1916-1918 were not war-winners but they were a vital development. The only chance to use them in a mobile role in decisive action (October 1918) came too late – by then so many had been damaged or destroyed or worn out by the great advance that they were in no position to exploit the crumbling German defence. It was not until 1939 and 1940 that the tank became the fulcrum of battlefield tactics. Military thinking on both sides in the intervening period was strongly centred on the use of this new mobile weapon in conjunction with ground support aircraft. This approach was exemplified in the blitzkrieg tactics of the German army in 1940.

Tanks and the public at home

Such was the novelty and science fiction aspect of tanks that they were used extensively for propaganda purposes at home, raising morale and bringing the war home to the people.


The British army used tanks for the first time in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Developed in great secrecy, they came as a surprise to the Germans and British troops alike. This London press advertisement appeared on 12 October 1916, just a few weeks later. The cartoonist, quite forgivably, has clearly never seen a tank but has done his best!

For many people, the newsreel film “the Battle of the Ancre” in early 1917 was their first sight of a real tank.

Tank bank week
The strange new weapon was brought to the people at home in an effort to raise funds for the war. This is a civic deputation at the opening of “Tank Week” in Walsall.

This cartoon is typical of the late 1917-1918 period.

Tank bank week
The “Byng Boys” was a phrase playing on the name of Sir Julian Byng, the popular commander of the Canadian Corps and then Third Army. It was taken from the “The Bing Boys are here”, playing in London’s West End.

The Tank Corps memorial at Pozieres on the Somme, not far from the area where tanks first went into action on 15 September 1916. Note the scale model tanks that form part of the memorial. This photo is from Salfordian’s gallery at flickr.com, with thanks.




The Machine Gun Corps

Bovington Tank Museum