Wales

WW1: Tanks inspired war effort as British 'iron landships'

Julian the Tank visits Monmouth in 1918 Image copyright Monmouth Nelson Museum
Image caption Julian the Tank toured Britain to raise funds for the war

The concept of a military tank had been mooted for centuries by visionaries such as Leonardo da Vinci and HG Wells, yet it would take the horrific stalemate of the Western Front in World War One to make it a reality.

From their first deployment at the Somme on 15 September 1916 they had mixed success.

Yet what hadn't been anticipated was the huge morale boost these iron "landships" would deliver, both in the trenches and back home.

Nowhere was the campaign to raise funds for the tank's development better supported than in south Wales, where much of the armour plating was made, and whose families had borne a disproportionate burden of lost men.

So hardly surprising then, that when a tank called Julian rolled into Monmouth in July 1918, all records were smashed.

Local historian Peter Garwood said the visit was front page news.

"The tank was parked up on the Monnow Bridge, and the picture in the local newspaper shows thousands of people trying to get a glimpse at what a tank actually looked like.

"On that day they'd hoped to raise £20,000, but by a quarter to four there was £54,000 inside the tank.

"That's incredible when you think that the average wage in Wales then would have been about 10 or 12 shillings (50 or 60p) a week. I think by July 1918 there was a sense that the war was beginning to turn, so they thought 'let's dig deep and have one last push to get our boys home'."

It was a scene repeated up and down the country, with £300m eventually collected for the tank - around £15bn in 2014 prices.

Thousands of towns and villages sponsored and named their own tanks, but did they get value-for-money from their investments?

Image copyright out of copyright
Image caption Thousands clamoured to see the tank arrive in Monmouth

It was only in the final stages of the war that they would have a decisive impact on a battle, leading to the impression that WW1 tanks were slow, hard to manoeuvre, and hopelessly unreliable.

Indeed, government censors went to great lengths to prevent the news reaching the cinemas of a sponsor town that their tank had become a rusting hulk in no-man's-land.

'Terrifying effect'

Yet Swansea University World War One expert Gerry Oram believes history has been unfair on the tank and its biggest proponent .

"Field Marshal Haig is often criticised as having been a 19th Century general in a 20th Century war, but his enthusiasm for the potential of the tank does indicate that this may not be entirely true.

"In fact the problem at Flers [in the Somme] in 1916 was that Haig rushed them out too quickly. They weren't ready, there weren't enough of them, and no-one knew yet how to incorporate them into the rest of the army.

"Heinz Guderian - the leading authority on Germany's WW2 tank strategy - criticised him for squandering the one weapon which could have made the breakthrough, but by Amiens in April 1918 Haig is vindicated, as by using the tank in conjunction with close artillery and air support it has a devastating effect."

However, Dr Oram suggests that the main effect was psychological as much as physical.

"For a nation struggling with food shortages and haemorrhaging its sons every day, the thing that the tank offered was hope.

"Perhaps its precise impact on the battlefield isn't as important as the fact that it looked terrifying, and it was a weapon the Germans didn't have."

More on this story

Around the BBC