Picture Postcards from the Great War 1914-1918

The story behind a Great War postcard - Tony Allen

(12) Tales of "Strange Creatures"

On Friday, 15th September 1916, the British Army began the third phase of the Somme offensive. The following day a brief report appeared in The Times, mentioning strange new vehicles.

"THE MYSTERIOUS 'TANKS". OUR LATEST MILITARY WEAPON. In the army it has been whispered for some days past that a development of the armoured car ... had successfully passed the experimental stage, and was likely to be employed during the next phase of the great offensive ... those who had seen them referred to them mysteriously as "tanks", while the soldiers who had helped to handle them named them humorously "Willies".

The Times said the nature of the ground over which the new machines had to operate, would make them no ordinary vehicles, and "of the precise quality of their utility we are told nothing", it said, but "the gratifying fact seems to be, that our inventors have not hesitated boldly to tread unbeaten paths ... unearthly monsters eased in steel, spitting fire, and crawling laboriously but unceaselessly over trenches, barbed wire. and shell craters, which, had they been conceived by imaginative novelists, would have been regarded fantastical".

As newspapers reported the tanks success, their artists drew impressions of what they thought they looked like. At first, most of the illustrations were fanciful and nothing like the truth and postcard artists fared no better in their depiction of tanks, than their newspaper colleagues.

This rather fanciful impression of a tank, was passed by the censor at the Press Bureau, less than a month after they first appeared on the battlefield. (note the pincers on the front of the machine). Printed details on the reverse of the card, reveal it was released by 'C‑C Publisher, 59 Poland Street, London', in its 'AS Series'.


Just after 0620 hours (and after three days of intense artillery bombardment) the main attack with tanks and infantry began. Most of the machines reached the enemy front line where a German newspaper correspondent who witnessed the attack, said, "When the German outposts crept out of their dug‑outs in the mist of the morning and stretched their necks to look for the English, their blood was chilled in their veins. Mysterious monsters were crawling towards them, they all rubbed their eyes ... One stared and stared as if one had lost the power of one's limbs. the monsters approached slowly, hobbling, rolling and rocking, but they approached. Nothing impeded them. Someone in the trenches said "The devil is coming" and the word was passed along the line like wild‑fire. Suddenly tongues of flame leapt out of the armoured sides of the iron caterpillar ... the mysterious creature had yielded its secret as the English infantry rolled up in waves behind the 'devils coaches"'.

A volume of the British Official History of the Great War recorded that "in certain localities the moral effect of the new engine of war was considerable". In one case "some Germans thought that the smoke from a tanks exhaust was the discharge of gas and strove to adjust their gas masks as they ran away."

The History continued, "The Germans fought bravely and well. Some surrenders, it is true, were induced by the great havoc wrought by the British bombardment, and local panics were caused by individual tanks; but there was no sign of widespread demoralization'" A German prisoner said the action of the tanks that day, "was not war but bloody butchery".

By 18th September, the success of the 'new armoured machines' was being widely reported at home. But what did they really look like? Mr Beach Thomas of the Daily Mail said they were "like blind creatures emerging from the primeval slime. To watch one crawling round a battlefield wood in the half‑light", he said, "was to think of 'the Jabberwock with eyes of flame' who came whiffling through the talgey wood and burbled as it cane".

In the Daily Chronicle Phillip Gibbs called them "ICHTHY0SAURUS CARS ... But their real name is Tanks. I have seen them and walked around them, and got inside their bodies, and looked at their mysterious organs, and watched their monstrous movements".

In the Daily Express, Percival Phillips said the tanks "astonished our soldiers no less than they frightened the enemy", and spoke of the "delightful story of the Bavarian Colonel who was carted about for hours in the belly of one of them, like Jonah in the whale, while his captors slew the men of his broken division".

The aforementioned Beach Thomas said "I came across a herd of them in a field ... 1 sat down on the grass and laughed until tears came into my eyes ... For they were monstrously comical, like toads of vast size emerging from the primeval slime in the twilight of the worlds dawn".

What were they called now that they had appeared? Among names given to them were Mysterious Monsters, Diplodocus Galumphants, and Polychromatic Toads. Swinton - one of the inventors of the tank - said the Germans called them,

"Schutzengrabenvewrnichtungpanzerkraftwagon."


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Back