06 September 1915 – Secret Weapon

Yesterday, workmen from the William Foster & Company agricultural machinery factory in Lincoln completed their month-long project to mount a steel hull to a Creeping Grip Tractor built by the Bullock company from Chicago, Illinois. The resulting fourteen-ton creation comes out of its bay at the Wellington foundry yard today for her maiden trial, crawling over the ground at a mere two miles an hour, whereupon it immediately becomes apparent that further engineering and refinements are necessary. The results of this tinkering will have important consequences.

Lacking armor, unfit for crossing trenches, ‘Little Willie’ has no suspension either, and the tracks keep slipping off. By adding protective side guards to the tracks, which are further designed to stay linked together, within a year the prototype looks rather different from the original scheme, which also included a turret. Fitted with a wheeled tail intended to improve her rudimentary steering, the ‘Number One Lincoln Machine’ is nevertheless the proof-of-concept design from which all tracked, armored vehicles have been derived.

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‘Little Willie’ in the Tank Museum at Bovington. The circular plate on top is where a turret was going to be; if you painted it the right color and put it in a modern military motor pool, untrained observers might think it was brand-new

It has been less than a year since Major Ernest Swinton, one of the British Army’s greatest visionaries, conceived the idea of a ‘tank,’ and just six months since Winston Churchill ordered the creation of a Landships Committee to develop competing visions for a technology capable of breaking the deadlock on the Western Front. Swinton’s design has proven more practical than others, and it certainly helps that he has the endorsement of Sir Maurice Hankey, secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defence. The resulting mass-production model will be delivered to the front in just another year, dispelling any notion that the British nation has been slow to adapt in this conflict; even a century later, very few military weapon system procurement programs go from concept to battlefield that quickly.

All the powers at war are applying their scientists and engineers to invent a way through the bloody trench stalemate, and in a classic case of parallel technological development, France has already tested an example of wheeled armor. Built onto the frame and chassis of a motorized construction compactor, the Frot-Laffly landship was first put through trials on March 28th, but had trouble on grades, and proved unable to break through the barbed wire obstacles which make infantry assault so hazardous. Rejecting the prototype, French machinists will instead construct smaller tracked design with an emphasis on speed and mobility. The British tank is slower, and much larger, for it is meant to straddle a trench and fire down on the defenders. Neither design can be called ‘better,’ for they are both attacking the same problem, but in two different ways.

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Based on the ‘Big Willie’ design resulting from this month’s experiments, the Mark I tank has enlarged ‘Little Willie’ tracks

British designs are also further subdivided into ‘male’ and ‘female’ variants, with the difference being whether the armaments are cannons or machine guns. Like aircraft, which are only beginning to separate into ‘bomber’ and ‘fighter’ roles, in time tanks will evolve away from infantry fighting vehicles, producing complementary variants. The ratio of infantry vehicles to battle tanks in the armies of 2015 is reflected in their titles as ‘mechanized’ or ‘armored’ units.

Both French and British tank designs reflect a nagging problem, for despite the rapid evolution of motor technology, armor is heavy and hard to move. Once again, airplanes are a good point of comparison, for power plants are growing stronger all the time in seeming obedience to Moore’s law; just twelve years after a ten-horsepower engine lofted the Wright brothers into the air, most combat aircraft have at least 100-hp motors, with a similarly steep rise during the course of the war, so that by 1918 it is not uncommon for airplanes to boast 300-hp. Yet no British tank will exceed four horsepower per ton during the war, while the French Renault FT design will never get more than five per ton.

In its trials a century ago today, the track slippage and repair offer a stark preview of the material limits which still bedevil the armored branch even now. As all tankers know, every mile traveled overland incurs one hour of maintenance time, and from reading the contemporary accounts of allied tankers it is my impression that the ratio has never changed. ‘Little Willie’ thus represents both an achievement by the British nation and a further strain on British industrial and logistical resources. Underlining this point, oil-poor Germany never mass produces a tank of their own, nor does oil-rich but industry-poor Russia.