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World War One: How tanks made tracks for future Army

Tank Image copyright Hulton Archive
Image caption A British Mark I tank, the first ever military vehicle of this kind, in France in 1916

Tanks were a new sight for the soldiers of World War One and were first used in combat at the Battle of the Somme 1916.

Developed as a response to the stalemate trench warfare, it was hoped the armoured vehicles would be the solution and help push the British advance forward.

"It was going to be like a mobile battering ram crushing down barbed wire, letting the infantry coming on from behind get into the German trenches without being held up," said David Willey, curator at the Tank Museum at Bovington in Dorset.

But even before the first model - nicknamed Little Willie - was completed, it was realised the design was flawed.

"The shape is all wrong, it's a square box on top of tracks," he said. "It was soon realised that the classic rhomboid shape which we now associate with the First World War was far better."

Advancements and improved models quickly followed and Mr Willey says by the end of the war in 1918, the designs produced during the conflict form the basis for most of the vehicles still in service in the Army today.

There have been many design changes since then, with vehicles being adapted to cope with different terrain and environments facing the British Army in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

'Massive target'

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Media captionL/Cpl Thomas Warner from 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards investigates the role of tanks

One of the recent additions to the fleet is the Foxhound Armoured Vehicle. With its modular design all components can be removed easily, allowing it to be modified according to its need as an ambulance, supply vehicle or jeep.

It's a vehicle L/Cpl Thomas Warner of Port Talbot will spend many hours in over the next few months as part of his deployment with his regiment, 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards, in Afghanistan.

"I'm a gunner," he said. "My role is to keep the machine gun prepped and ready to fire at anytime to protect the crew inside the Foxhound and the convoy."

Image caption Little Willie - dating from 1915 and now in a museum was a flawed design
Image copyright Hulton Archive
Image caption The Mark IV with an extended 'tadpole' tail, designed to increase its trench-crossing ability

He outlines some of the new design features which help make the Foxhound 'a better fit' for action in Afghanistan.

"It has a V-shaped armoured 'spine' that deflects any potential blasts away from the pod where the men sit," he said. "That protects the guys and components like the engine and fuel tank which are inside the pod."

For him the design of the Foxhound compared to tanks used in the World War One is startling. "Everything is just square and flat, creating a massive surface area. That means you're also a massive target," he said. "This (the Mark IV) just stands out a mile."

David Willey says around a thousand Mark IV tanks were built during the conflict and it took eight men to drive and man the vehicle. "If you think the engine is here in the middle with just this tiny tin cover, it became very hot inside here very quickly," he said.

"There are accounts of guys climbing out of the rear door at the end of a battle in just their underpants because it's that hot."

Examining the shell damage on the outside of some of the tanks on display, L/Cpl Warner is taken aback by how little protection they offered.

"The armour looks quite thin," he said. "When you think German 76mm shells could rip right through these tanks, it's really offering next to nothing in terms of protection for the men inside."

Image copyright MOD
Image caption Thomas Warner inside a Mark IV from World War One

Although tanks were designed to break the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front, David Willey says they were not particularly effective. "The first tanks were mechanically unreliable, they were crude and there's just not enough of them," he said. While operationally tanks may not have delivered, he says their impact was important in other ways.

"As a propaganda weapon the tank was fantastic," he said. "The public fell in love with the tank and it was used to raise war bonds."

Before radio communications were introduced pigeons were kept inside tanks to send messages back to base. But they also came in handy when the men ran out of rations.

"There's one story where the men have two pigeons inside the tank. They send one back to say they had run out of rations, but when they didn't hear back they thought it was better to cook and eat the second one," he said.

While the technology of the tanks used in the World War One is far removed from the sophisticated kit in vehicles now, Lance Corporal Warner says essentially the 'job' hasn't changed.

"Their job was to drive the vehicle, to make it as efficient as they could and defeat the enemy," he said. "They would have had to have been a tight knit team to work in those conditions and that's exactly how it is today."

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