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The First Tanks in History

Have you ever heard of Gunther Adolf Burstyn? Probably not. He isn’t that well known, but this Austrian inventor, technician and officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, was quite the pioneer when it came to tanks. Basically, in 1911 he finished the design of his first battle-ready tank. He named it a motorgeschütz, which translates to as much as motor-gun. Alright, so the following photograph shows a model of the motorgeschütz. 

Gunther Adolf Burstyn (1879-1945)

As you can see it has a rotating turret and, well, frankly, it looks pretty advanced. Ironically, Burstyn’s design was more advanced than many prototype tanks that would be developed during the First World War, which broke out three years later. And that’s what makes this story so curious: both Austria-Hungary and the German empire rejected his designs, refusing to produce a prototype. There was another man, an Australian engineer and inventor, Lancelot de Mole. He wrote to the British authorities several times before and during the First World War, believing his invention, a caterpillar-track driven vehicle, could be useful in combat. Yet due to bureaucratic errors, his idea too was forgotten, and never came to fruition. 

The Motorgeschütz

But, well, the idea of ‘land ships’, advanced by Winston Churchill, ended up making quite a difference in several battles of the first world war. At the end of 1914, the Western front had come to a standstill, and trench warfare became the norm. All powers were hastily searching for technological advantages over their enemy. Step by step, the idea of assembling rotating turrets onto armoured vehicles, supported by undercarriages with a caterpillar-like construction was conceived: the tank, slowly but surely, was born. The history of the tank, and the first usage of tanks, or, well, ‘landships’, signalled the beginning of a new era of warfare.


So, the idea of a “tank” as we know it today probably goes back a bit further than most people expect. The development of the ‘invulnerable, sealed Warmachine’ was originally the idea of Leonardo Da Vinci, living in the 15th century. But it only became a potential reality once the internal combustion engine was developed. The British were a bit short-sighted in the development and usage of tanks during the First World War. The fact that the development of the tank was realised in the first place, even though there was much opposition within Britain, was thanks to colonel Ernest Swinton. Swinton attempted to unite the advantages of tractors with armoured vehicles. He shared his ideas with Winston Churchill, who at that time was First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill was fond of this idea and encouraged the development of tanks, then referred to as His Majesty’s Landships, funding it with admiralty funds. After all, the ministry of war made it known they weren’t interested in the development of these ‘landships’. 

Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketch

Designing what would become known as the tank wasn’t wholly a revolutionary idea. Before the First World War, the military of various countries had advocated the development of armoured vehicles as man-power was being replaced by innovations in the technical and chemical sector. Think of poison gas and the maxim gun. We’ve already touched upon Gunther Burstyn and his sketches for a tank. In the eighteenth century, the forerunners of caterpillar tracks had been anticipated by Richard Edgeworth, but while he played around with the idea for decades, he never developed it. Sixty years before the First World War, during the Crimean war, tractors supported by dreadnaught wheels and steam-engines were used by warring parties, but that was about it. The American Frederick Simms created a ‘motor-war car’ model in 1899, using a tractor on caterpillar tracks that the American Holt Company built 15 years earlier. Still, no country saw any use in it as a serious weapon for war.

There were massive costs attached to the development of actually usable tanks and the need for them wasn’t that obvious until the bloodshed and carnage of the First World War. 

A Holt-tractor

Yet because there was no precedent on what type of armoured vehicle was the most efficient to develop, the initial stages of tank development were very experimental. With the support of Churchill, an opted idea was to saw open a submarine and to construct caterpillar-tracks under it. An entire platoon of officers could, in one go, breakthrough enemy lines. Another idea could be compared to a motorised medieval siege-tower. Fifteen metres in height, thirty metres in length and three massive wheels, with over 300 tonnes of weight. These ideas do show something different, besides their absurdity in hindsight: the first tank relied on transporting manpower, and not so much being the dominant firepower force we have come to know it as. There were multiple ideas and as absurd as these ideas seem, all of them contributed to the creation of something that eventually did work. That’s the way it often goes in life; one has to fail a couple of times in order to discover what does work.

Okay, so basically two dominant trains of thought existed about the development of tanks. One was concerned with the movement of soldiers, devising a machine that could safely transport entire platoons. And the other was concerned with designing something that had firepower and was mobile, in order to support and cover soldiers. Eventually, the French tested the idea of placing turrets onto armoured vehicles backed by undercarriages with caterpillar tracks. Meanwhile, the Russians developed the so-called Tsar Tank… a… well a tricycle monstrosity that never saw combat simply because of the abundance of design flaws. 

The Tsar Tank

On the western front, an actual working landship was coming closer, though the British designs didn’t have a rotatable turret yet. The first tank to have one was the French Renault FT tank. The French were designing their own type of tanks at the same time as the British, though the countries didn’t share their intelligence. Under the supervision of general Jean Baptiste Eugène Estienne, Renault developed one of the first prototype tanks as they would become known to man. This tank was finished in 1917, and was preceded by two other tanks: the Schneider CA1 and Saint-Chamond. The Schneider was France’s first developed tank, designed to traverse barbed wire obstacles. The Saint-Chamond was initially created thanks to commercial competition with the makers of the Schneider. Both designs struggled with their own malfunctions, inadequacies, and honestly, their use was more-or-less a disappointment. They couldn’t cross trenches, among other things. The development of the British “landship” predated the development of the Renault tank, and funnily enough, under supervision of the British navy instead of the army.

The Navy builds a landship for infantry.

The Schneider CA1

The British navy was building a landship that would be used by the army. The army, however, didn’t ask for it and didn’t do anything to aid the development of this landship. The reason why the navy was building a landship, was because Winston Churchill, as would become characteristic for large parts of his career, was dead set on his goal and wouldn’t listen to anyone telling him he was wasting his time and money. Churchill, however, was dismissed in 1916, and after his dismissal, the army slowly started getting involved in the development of the tank. The navy delivered the designs and eventually, the military took over and financed the production. The War Office regulated the entire project, and it was agreed upon that, instead of putting the focus on moving soldiers, developing mobile firepower would be the primary focus.

The first serious British tank-design was named Little Willie. It was a square, steel box supported by a caterpillar undercarriage. It looked like a tank, but the main downside was that it was too short, causing instability because the length-height ratio wasn’t correct. Little Willie wouldn’t manage to pass the trenches and never saw combat because of that. After all, the main task of these vehicles was to be able to cross over the one-and-a-half metre trenches. Still, engineers made significant improvements towards the first usable tank during its development. 

Little Willie

Lieutenant Walter Gordon Wilson, an officer of the Armoured Car Division, figured that supporting an entire vehicle with tracks around its main body, instead of just having an undercarriage with caterpillar tracks, was the way to go. By having the whole body of the vehicle… “circumferenced” with tracks, it would be able to climb gaps and trenches without falling into it. Mark-1, or the HMLS Centipede, or… Mother was born, albeit in theory, as the brainstorming up until this point had taken eleven months. Four men operated the Mark-1, and once the prototype was developed in January 1916. It was showcased to the military high command and King George V. Minister of War Lord Horatio Kitchener remarked: “It is a pretty mechanical toy, but without serious military value”. 

The First Order of Tanks

The British Mark-I

Regardless of Kitchener’s criticism, in February the first 100 tanks were ordered. Time, or rather, the lack thereof, was crucial in the development of the tank. Time pressure was enormous as the First World War kept waging on, and by the end of February, the Germans launched their Verdun offensive. Extensive testing and improvement of the Mark-1 wasn’t an option due to the pressure of time. But because the entire project was a secret, the British didn’t want to lose their element of surprise by intelligence about the project leaking to the Germans. Eventually, on September 15th 1916, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Douglas Haig, couldn’t resist any longer. He sent several Mark-1s into action at Flers, during the Battle of the Somme. In reality, he sent in too few, and the tanks weren’t improved and tweaked to the extent of forcing a breakthrough. The element of surprise was now gone. The Germans, realising these tanks could become an incredible danger to them, started to develop weaponry to counter tanks rapidly.

Within a few months, the Mauser T-gewehr, an anti-tank rifle appeared on the German side, ready to take on these landships. The introduction of tanks on the Western front was combined with psychological warfare from the side of the British. They rolled out their first series of so-called male tanks. These were tanks with a six-pounder naval gun. Their serial number started at 701, whereas the female tanks, equipped with multiple machine guns instead of naval guns, started numbering at 501. The British army did this to keep up the facade of an entire armada of tanks that could potentially overrun the German lines.

Of course, the story of the development of the Mark-1 and using the first tanks in combat is an incredible tale. A technologically supreme bulwark of a weapon was developed in a short time, and it turned the tide of the war. Yet, after production, the development of the tank was lost in the bureaucratic nightmare that followed suit once the success of the tank became prevalent. Still, tanks gained considerable achievements for the British during the war. On November 20th 1917, at the battle of Cambrai, tanks were utilised and broke through the Hindenburg line. Seven months beforehand, at the Battle of the Somme, a couple of tanks were put into action and, supported by six divisions, demolished the barbed wire fences put up and rolled over the German trenches. The British captured 10.000 German Prisoners of War and 200 cannons that day. It was an uncommon success, and the only time during the entire war the bells rang in London to celebrate the victory.


Mark IV

By 1918 the Mark-4 was developed and came into action. It was a much-improved version of the Mark-1 from two years previous. The tank was resistant to anti-tank ammunition and could be operated by one person, instead of four, as was the case in the Mark-1. The French had developed their own Renault tank with a rotating turret on top and even the Germans managed to construct their own A-7-V. This A7V, basically a square steel box, was the only tank produced by Germany during the war to be used in combat. The German high command focused more on anti-tank weaponry.

And to end on a positive note, though Churchill was removed as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915, Prime Minister David Lloyd George remarked, after the news of the successes of tanks reached England: “It is really to Mr Winston Churchill that the credit is due more than to anyone else. He took up with enthusiasm the idea of making them a long time ago, and he met with many difficulties.”

It would be characteristic of Churchill’s entire career that he would always follow his own path, against odds, but that is a story for another time, a very fascinating one might I add. v

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