Picture Postcards from the Great War

Tanks and the Great War

At the outbreak of the Great War ‑ the 'tank' did not exist. It was invented by the British and first used in battle in 1916 and in the final battles of 1918 and played a major part in bringing victory to the Allies. On 2nd October 1918, General Erich Lundendorff reported to the German government "there is no longer any prospect or possibility of compelling the enemy to peace. Above all two facts have been decisive for this issue; first the tanks..." Picture postcards recorded the development and early history of the tank and its battlefield capabilities.
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 that had appeared on the battlefield.
tank no1 ww1 comic card

"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."

Early Days

The idea for a machine like the one envisaged by The Times, had been around for some time. For instance, in 1908 a Major Donoghue suggested to the War Office that a gun protected by armour, could be mounted on a Hornsby caterpillar tractor ‑ which the firm had developed the previous year ‑ the idea was rejected. However, the Army did purchase four of the tractors for haulage work, and although they performed well in trials, were not popular with the general staff, who complained they were "noisy, smelly and frightened the horses." In 1911 John Corry, a Leeds inventor, sent Winston Churchill ‑ the First Sea Lord ‑ details of "a working model of his 'climbing ironclad' designed with caterpillar tracks and 4.7 ins. guns". Churchill sent the drawings to the War Office but again the idea was rejected. In 1912, an Australian, Lancelot de Mole, submitted a design for a machine, which it was later admitted, had "anticipated and in some ways surpassed that actually put into use in the year 1916", but, it too, was "put aside and forgotten."
The army tractor postcard
This printed photographic card by an unnamed publisher, depicts a Hornsby tractor during trials on Salisbury Plain. During 1907‑09, the British Army experimented with caterpillar tractors for hauling large artillery pieces. This card was mailed by a soldier on Salisbury Plain who wrote, "What do you think of this curious object 1 have not seen one here, nor can I 'fix' the spot shown.
When the British Army mobilized in August 1914, it owned just 80 motor‑lorries, 20 cars, 15 motor‑ cycles and 36 traction‑engines. When the war started it immediately commandeered 10,060 motor‑lorries and 193 motor‑cars from civilians.
Machine gun corps postcard
Some of the cars were sent to the continent and Churchill sent a small contingent of marines to Ostend to fight a diversionary action designed to take some of the pressure off the BEF. Supporting them was a squadron of Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) personnel, equipped with Rolls Royce cars armed with machine guns. To offer some protection from enemy fire, C.R. Samson ‑ commander of the RNAS ‑ ordered that boiler plates be hung on the sides of them and so successful was the modification, that Rolls Royce was ordered to fit proper armour‑plate to cars already under construction for the service. Later, armour was extended over the top of the vehicles, revolving gun turrets were added and a postcard by Gale and Polden carried an illustration of one. (seen on the left.) The vehicles supported British infantry at Ypres in October 1914 and were the first British armoured cars to be used in battle.
This card by Gale & Polden depicts a drawing of a Royal Naval Air Service armoured car. On the back of the card are the following words, "The Machine Gun Corps was created in 1915, and quickly established a reputation for skill, daring and devotion to duty surpassed by few other branches of the Army. The mobility of the Corps when acting as motor machine gun batteries, or their skill when serving in the tanks, were important factors in the great British victories on the Western Front."
Impressed with the success of the RNAS cars, the Belgian Army fitted armour and guns to a number of its Minerva touring cars. By September 1914, the war of movement had turned into trench warfare and as no further use was envisaged for the British armoured cars ‑ most were shipped back to England.
This coloured card on the right captioned "A BELGIAN MOTOR GUN." by 'L.V. C.' was from 'The War' set ‑ and was number six from series D. In 1914/15 Belgian forces copied the RNAS and turned some of their Minerva touring cars into powerful and effective armoured fighting vehicles. The card with an orange border on the left and captioned "A Belgian Armoured Motor." was No.2 in the "Active Service" series. This vehicle appears to have being constructed as an armoured car and not converted into one.
 Colonel Ernest Swinton
As the fighting on the Western Front settled down to stalemate it soon became apparent (to some) that a machine was needed to break through the enemy barbed wire and destroy his machine‑gun nests and strong‑points. Several people thought long and hard about ways of breaking the impasse, including Col. Ernest Swinton the official observer at British GHQ who under the pen‑name of 'Eyewitness' wrote progress reports about the war for the press. Swinton had seen the naval armoured cars in action at Ypres and was impressed with their performance. He had also read a pre‑war report on the Hornsby chaintrack system and had the idea of building a fighting vehicle combining tracks and armour.

In October 1914, Swinton discussed the idea with Lieut‑Col Hankey ‑ Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defense. Hankey wrote a paper advocating the development of a 'machine gun destroyer' and put it before Kitchener who showed little interest and said, "such vehicles would easily be shot up by guns". Several days later Hankey put the proposal before Mr Asquith ‑ the Prime Minister ‑ who sent it to Churchill, who wrote back saying, "I entirely agree with Col. Hankey's remarks on the subject of special mechanical devices for taking trenches. It is extraordinary that the Army in the Field and the War Office should have allowed nearly three months of trench warfare to progress without addressing their minds to its special problems."

Asquith asked the War Office to investigate the idea of building a machine‑gun‑destroyer. A committee was formed; a Holt tractor was adapted; and a half‑hearted trial got underway; and when the device became stuck in the mud, "the skeptics ... welcomed the chance to abandon the project", causing the War Office to conclude that,"Any use of the caterpillar for the attack of trenches seems to be out of the question".

British army catterpillar tractor postcard

"The Caterpillar."  This attractive card printed in colour and published by Gale and Polden carried on the reverse the following printed caption, "The famous 'Caterpillar' Motor Tractor, designed for work on roads, over broken ground, or across country. This remarkable engine will easily cross soft or rough ground, where no other type of vehicle could pass, owing to the peculiar manner in which it lays its own track. This revolving track is of steel, with rails on the inside, on which the driving wheels run. It is petrol driven, and is capable of a speed up to 12 miles an hour."

If the Army was not interested in developing a "machine gun destroyer" - the Navy was! In February 1915, Churchill gathered together a team of technical experts and set up the Admiralty Landship Committee. However, the War Office and the Admiralty were soon working together on the project.

Several ideas for a war winning vehicle were put forward including a navy proposal which envisaged a 300 ton "Land Battle Ship", powered by a 800‑h.p. submarine diesel engine, carried on four huge 40‑foot wheels, and armed with three gun‑turrets, each housing two 4‑inch naval guns.

Someone suggested building a vehicle they called the "Elephants Feet" ‑ a device which waddled forward on feet suspended either side of a Bullock tractor.

Another suggestion was for the "Foster Bridge", a machine which crossed trenches by laying down a portable bridge which was recovered after crossing.

Several of the proposals looked promising, but none lived up to the requirement expected, so the Landship Committee set out a plan of "definite performance requirements for an armoured fighting vehicle." The requirements were: that it should have cross country capabilities; be capable of climbing a vertical step of 4 feet 6 inches; and cross a trench 10 feet wide. In July 1915, the engineering firm of William Fosters of Lincoln, was invited to design and build an experimental machine.

Why were Fosters given the contract for building the first "machine gun destroyer" ? Probably because the firm had already done valuable work for the Army soon after the start of hostilities, when the government had asked it to solve the problem of transporting 15‑inch Howitzers around the Front. A postcard recorded one of the guns in action.

15-inch howitzer postcard
"A PRESENT FOR THE HUNS" This printed-photo card from the 'Canadian Official Series' depicts a 15‑inch Howitzer in action. It was by designing and delivering to the army a means of hauling these great guns, that William Fosters were later asked to develop and produce another machine ‑ which would change the face of modern warfare. 
The Lincoln firm specialized in heavy haulage and William Tritton ‑ its managing director ‑ went to the Admiralty to discuss the howitzer problem with Churchill. On his return to Lincoln, Tritton received "an order for 97 petrol tractors of 105 H.P. each, and 291 special wagons for carrying the 15‑inch guns, their mountings and dismounting gear."

William Tritton

Caterpillar Tractors

tractor and big gun ww1 postcard
A real photographic postcard depicting a big gun about to be hauled by one of William Fosters tractors. The location is unknown. The group of soldiers were probably the gun crew while the figure in the centre - the tractor driver.
In December 1914, the howitzer tractor underwent further trials at Lincoln and was a complete success. Among the spectators was Admiral Roger Bacon, a man who was "fully alive to the needs of the Army." He said to Tritton, "It would be a good thing if a machine could be constructed capable of laying its own bridge, and which, being equipped with means of offense and defense, would be of assistance in trench warfare." Back at the works Tritton modified and adapted one of the firms tractors and in due course it "succeeded in crossing a trench eight feet wide by means of its wheels and an automatic bridge." Unfortunately, although the army approved of 'Foster's Automatic Portable Bridge' ‑ it was considered far too heavy to cross "the quagmire which the ground of Flanders and France was fast becoming".
tractor pulling big gun
ww1 tractor pulling gun
Two cards from the War Bond Campaign series showing caterpillar tractors at work near the Front. "TRACTOR WITH SIEGE HOWITZER." and "MOVING UP A 6 INCH GUN." There are also two cards depicting tanks in this series.

 'Little Willie' & 'Big Willie'

In 1915, after the establishment of the Landship Committee, Churchill, obviously impressed with Fosters previous work with caterpiller tractors, urged Tritton to try again at developing a trench crossing machine and "deal with it as best he could" A Major W.G. Wilson, "a gentleman of high scientific attainment", was seconded from the army to assist Tritton. Their brief was, "to design a machine, strongly armoured, carrying powerful guns, capable of negotiating all reasonable impediments of the battle area and crossing the opposing trenches."

Fosters were instructed to incorporate into the new machine, "a pair of American caterpillar tracks [which would be] placed at their disposal." The orders they were given were "definite as to their aims", said Tritton, "but vague and inadequate as to their means of fulfillment".

Fosters were aware that for the project to go ahead quickly, unit parts ‑ not designed for military machines, but from their own stock ‑ would have to be used for the prototype. A Daimler engine, gear box and general power plant were incorporated into the design, which consisted of a rectangular box shaped hull weighing about 18 tons, with Bullock chain tracks fitted on either side. A two wheeled 'tail' was fitted at the rear of the machine to assist with steering. It was completed in less than 40 days, christened Tritton but later re‑named Little Willie. It was put through its paces at official trials in September 1915, but, unfortunately when crossing trenches the tracks became detached. A Balata belt track was fitted ‑ it too failed. But the next day Tritton cabled the Landship Committee, "Balata died on the test‑bench yesterday morning. New arrival by Tritton out of Pressed Plate. light in weight, but very strong. All doing well, thank you. ‑ Proud Parents."

With its new track Little Willie underwent trials at Burton Park and was acknowledged by most of those present to have been "quite a success." However, the Lincoln designers were not satisfied with the performance of the chain tracks and the type and number of guns and their fields of fire were also causing problems. Back at the drawing board Major Wilson came up with the answer ‑ the machine should be a rhomboid shape and, "the track should be carried all around the machine instead of on two side girders, thereby enabling the use of a forwardly projecting nose for climbing and at the same time accommodating the guns in a sponson on each side."

With the full approval of the Director of Naval Construction, Fosters produced a new set of drawings and on 29th September 1915 a number of VIPs were shown a wooden mock‑up of the proposed machine, nicknamed Wilson.
ww1 wooden tank postcard
This real photographic postcard depicted a wooden 'machine gun destroyer' ‑ that may have been the Lincolnshire mockup. What is known for certain however, is that the day after the VIP gathering Sir Albert Stem, Secretary of the Landship Committee, wrote to Fosters saying, "I am instructed by the Director of Naval Construction to confirm his verbal order to your Mr Tritton yesterday to carry out with all possible speed the construction of the machine as approved by him".
In October, work began on the prototype. On 14th January 1916 it was ready and was driven from Foster's yard to the nearby Poppleton's Field. There, with tracks which encircled the whole body of the machine it "successfully crossed ditches and broke through hedges", said Tritton, "with an assurance and forcefulness inspiring to witness". Now officially named H.M.L.S. Centipede but nicknamed Big Willie, it was driven in turn by Sir Albert Stem, Major Wilson, Major Heatherington and a Lieutanent, Symes, who agreed that, "Here at last was the invention that would revolutionize modem warfare [and] cause to be abandoned, the stagnation of trench warfare."

The machine was ready for its official trials at Hadfield Park and on 2nd February, in front of a large gathering, including Kitchener, Lloyd George (then Minister of Munitions) and many senior military and naval officers, it performed splendidly. Recalling the day Lloyd George said, "I remember the feeling of delighted amazement with which I saw for the first time the ungainly monster bearing the inscription "H.M.L.S. Centipede" on its breast, plough through thick entanglements, wallow through deep mud, and heave its huge bulk over parapets and across trenches."

Those present at the trials voted the machine "an outstanding success", having achieved "even more than it was asked to accomplish", but were adamant that "large numbers would be required to make a decisive impact during an offensive." They were later alarmed when the War Office ordered only 40, when "an order of hundreds, if not thousands", had been expected. Lloyd George intervened and increased the total to 150.

Produced under the utmost secrecy Fosters machines were originally going to be named 'Landships' or 'Landcruisers', but it was then thought that this would reveal their true purpose. Swinton said that when they were covered with tarpaulin sheets during transportation by rail, their shape resembled a water 'cistern', 'container' or perhaps a 'reservoir'. The name 'Tank' was chosen.

As building the tanks got underway, Swinton was given the task of forming a 'Tank Detachment' ‑ a unit of the Machine Gun Corps. It was to consist of six companies (designated A to F) of four sections of six vehicles each, with one in reserve. A total of nearly 1,800 officers and men were required to make up the strength and a search for volunteers began. Some moved from the RNAS Armoured Car Division, and others from the Motor Machine Gun Corps.
Other volunteers were men who in civilian life had been in the motor and engineering trades. The recruits' first training ground was at Siberia Camp, Bisley and then at Elvenden in Suffolk. Later they moved to Bovington in Dorset - which became a permanent training camp for the unit.
At Bisley, the volunteers found that part of the camp resembled a battlefield ‑ complete with trenches, dugouts, shell holes and mine craters. At first there were no real tanks to train with and crews had to make do with dummy ones. They consisted simply of a wooden frame covered with canvas with appropriate slits to represent the loopholes in a tank and were carried by six men.

On one occasion when a make‑believe tank walked out of the camp gate it was observed by a Major Watson, who recalled, "it was immediately surrounded by a mob of cheering children, who thought it was an imitation dragon or something out of a circus. It was led away from the road to avoid hurting the feelings of the crew and to safeguard the ears and morals of the children. After colliding with the corner of a house, it endeavored to walk down the side of a railway cutting. Nobody was hurt [and the] dummy tank was sent back to the carpenters for repairs."
Members of the MGC postcard
These real photographic cards depict men from the Machine Gun Corps. It was from the ranks of the corps that many of the tank crews came. Note the studio backdrop on the card on the lower right.
The recruits did their best, but hated the canvas tanks, said Watson. "They were heavy, awkward, and produced much childish laughter". By mid‑summer the newly named 'Heavy Branch' of the Machine Gun Corps moved to Elvenden and training began in earnest with real machines. A tank crew consisted of eight men ‑ the commander, driver, four gunners and two gears-man, one for each track. The gears-mans job was to throw his track 'in' and 'out' of gear when ordered by the driver. When a track was disengaged, the machine moved to the left or right, the tank was thus steered by this clumsy method.

Half of the first 150 tanks were 'male' and half were 'female'. The males were armed with four machine guns and two 6‑pound naval guns, each mounted in a sponson fitted on the side of the hull. Female tanks operated with five machine‑guns. The original plan for deployment envisaged that male and female tanks would work in pairs, the latter to repulse any charge by enemy infantry, while the former would attack the wire and machine‑gun and strong points.

By early 1916, it was generally agreed by those involved in the tanks development, that the success of the first tank offensive would be due to surprise and that large numbers of them would take part and "on no account should they be used in driblets as they were manufactured". Haig agreed.

By August 1916, the massive Allied Somme offensive had faltered and Haig was desperately looking for a solution to break the impasse and decided to use the 60 or so tanks already built. Hearing of Haig's decision, most of those involved in the secret landship project were horrified at his sudden change of plan. Lloyd George, (now War Minister) "energetically protested" about their premature use. The new Minister of Munitions, Montague, visited GHQ in what was a vain attempt to persuade the Commander‑ in‑Chief not to use the tanks yet.

Tanks on the Somme

As previously mentioned, many of those who volunteered for the newly formed tank unit were members of the Royal Naval Air Service and although Haig was eager to use the new weapons as soon as possible, it was not until the end of August that companies C and D were available. But not only were the tanks untried in battle, most of their crews were only half trained. Never-the-less, all were sent to France.

As well as their official numbers, tanks also carried names. For example, some of those in C Company were known as Champagne, Chartreuse, Chablis, Cognac, Cordon Rouge and Creme de Menthe, the latter becoming famous. Tanks in D Company had names like Die Hard, Dracula, Daphne, Delilah, Dolly and Dinnaken, which also became well known.

On the night of 14/15th September, as Rawlinson's Fourth Army and Gough's Reserve army waited in their trenches to play their part in what had already being dubbed, the 'Battle of Flers‑Courcelette', 49 tanks moved from their assembly areas to the start line, just behind the front on the Flers plateau. On the way some broke down, others were ditched in shell‑holes, and one commander reported, that his "driver refused to go down a narrow sunken road that was strewn with dead bodies."

By the morning of the 15th only 36 machines had reached the start line and instead of being grouped en masse, they were "spread thinly along the front." Their task were to destroy strong points and provide support fire for the infantry. At 0515 hours a solitary tank ‑ DI ‑ commanded by Captain H.W. Mortimore lumbered forward and destroyed a German machine gun post on the east side of the bitterly fought over Delville Wood. Minutes later it was joined by two companies of infantry who captured the objective.
Just after 0620 hours (and after three days of intense artillery bombardment) the main attack with tanks and infantry began. Capt Mortimore"s tank was not with them ‑ it had been destroyed by a shell. 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.' "
For some reason images of the tanks in action on the Somme battlefield were not featured at the time in the extremely popular Daily Mail War Postcards series. However, many of those who volunteered for the newly formed tank unit were members of the Royal Naval Air Service and two versions of the same image in the Daily Mail series contains, surely, just a hint of the Tanks. It shows George V inspecting Royal Naval Air Service officers, who were certainty on the Somme to take part in the initial tank attack in September.
RNAS officers on ww1 postcard
"THE KING INSPECTING R.N.A.S. OFFICERS." Card No.100 from series 13 of the Daily Mail collection of 176 cards.There are two versions of card 100. This is the 'cropped' version. A caption on the reverse reads, "Among the King's meetings with his troops on the Western Front was this quiet inspection of a number of officers of the Royal Naval Air Service." Even the caption suggests an atmosphere of secrecy.

As the tanks crashed into and over the German trenches, their numbers started to dwindle as enemy action and mechanical problems took their toll. However, one crew member thought it was great fun and said, "Hun bullets are rebounding from our tough sides like hail from a glass roof two or three Huns are brave enough to creep on the back of the tank from behind. We open a small trap‑door and shoot them with a revolver. It is almost like playing hide‑and‑seek as we travel backward and forward along the trench."

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 complained that the action of the tanks that day, "was not war but bloody butchery".

The biggest British success on 15th September was an assault by seven tanks on the village of Flers, which was, said Haig, "powerfully organized for prolonged resistance." During the attack four machines suffered direct hits, But the remainder pushed on to the outskirts, smashing through machine‑gun posts and fortified houses. The lead tank was D17 - Dinnaken, commanded by Capt Hastie, who drove it down the village high street followed by a number of infantry. The scene was witnessed from above by a British areoplane pilot who sent a message which was reported in British newspapers the following day ‑ "A tank is walking up the High Street of Flers with the British army cheering behind." Haig was jubilant and later said, "In the course of one days fighting we had broken through two of the enemies main defensive systems and had advanced on a front of over six miles to an average depth of a mile. In the course of this advance, we had taken three large villages...All this had been accomplished with a small number of casualties in comparison with the troops employed."

A scene of the aftermath of the destruction of Flers and the defeat of the Germans there, was deemed worthy of recording on a postcard in the Daily Mail series of 176 cards.
Although this was not a photograph of tanks "...walking up the High Street of Flers." an official war photographer later visited the village and recorded the destruction caused by artillery and tanks. The image was one of those that later appeared in the Daily Mail Battle Pictures series. It was number 163 and captioned "THE RUINS OF FLERS"

Tales of Strange Creatures

By 18th September, the success of the 'new armoured machines' was being widely reported at home and the public wondered what they really looked 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 came."

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 further wrote, "I came across a herd of them in a field...I 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 said the Germans called them "Schutzengrabenvewrnichtungpanzerkraftwagon."

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

The ww1 tank Cupid postcard
"THE TALE OF THE TANKS." This rather fanciful impression of a tank was passed by the censor at the Press Bureau, less than a month after the machines 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 the 'AS Series'.
three artists impressions of what a tank looked like
Three cards by G.E. Shepherd. His not to serious interpretation of what he thought a tank looked like were published by Raphael Tuck and details on the back of the cards tell us they were "Officially Passed for Publication."

In September 1916, the British public had no idea of what a 'tank' looked like, but the infantry who followed them into battle that month obviously did ‑ and welcomed them. One soldier who was there, said, "Old Mother Hubard they called her and other funny names as well ... There she was, gronin' and gruntin' along, pokin' her nose here and there, stopping now and then as if she was not sure of the road, and then going on, very slow but over everything...the way she shook her wicked old head and stopped to cough. It was a circus ‑ my word! The last I saw of her was when she was nosing down a shell crater like a big hippopotamus with a crowd of Tommies cheering behind!"

The British action on 15th September was hailed by the press as "a small but brilliant success",  Haig gave full credit to the tanks but as the days wore on " they were one by one knocked out of the battle.  A few helped groups of infantry as the fighting dragged on until mid‑November - before it petered out at Beaumont Hamel."

The Mystery Revealed

As the Somme offensive came to a close, postcards which carried quite realistic impressions of tanks, started to appear in the shops. For example, at the end of November 1916, the postcard publishers Valentines, sent a sample of a 'tank' card to retailers 'Messrs Dutton & Co...Skegness'.
British tank in action
In November 1916, this postcard was mailed as a sample to a shopkeeper in Skegness. On the reverse of it was this printed message, "TANK POSTCARDS A large Sale lies before the FIRST POSTCARDS of the Famous TANKS. Stocks now ready. Can we send you a supply? Wire or write for sample order." The picture on this sample card had a dull finish, whereas those sold to the public were glossy. The price to the retailer was "3/6 per doz. pkts."

By December 1916, photographs of tanks had began to appear in the illustrated papers. For example, on 9th December The War Illustrated carried four photographs of the "Mysterious Monsters on the Muddy Somme." The same pictures appeared on cards in The Daily Mail Canadian Official Series. They were produced in two finishes. A 'Photogravure Series', with words on the back printed in brown, and a glossy 'Real Photographic series, with words in green. Both series were 'passed by [the] censor', and published by the Pictorial Newspaper Co. London.

Broken down tank ww1

"THE TANK THAT BROKE THE RANKS". The picture on this card in the 'Canadian Official Series', also appeared in The War Illustrated on 9th December 1916, above this caption, "A mail‑coated leviathan spitting fire as it goes. A 'tank' crawling over the desert of war steered by its invisible crew, whose bravery is akin to that of submarine men bringing their craft into position during a naval action." This famous picture has appeared in many publications where it has also been described as, a "Rear view of heavy MK1 tank, C5 Creme de Menthe, which had its tail-wheels damaged by artillery fire during the battle on Poziers Ridge. It was Capt Inglis's tank." Tail-wheels assisted in steering the machine. They were operated by a wheel in front of the driver and acting like a rudder were supposed to turn the tank in a circle of about a 60 yard radius. However, when the tanks went into action in the mud of the Somme, "the wheels were a complete failure" and by November 1916, they had been removed from most of the machines.

Fake tank photo ww1
"A TANK IN ACTION".  Another card in the Canadian Official series published by the Pictorial Newspaper Co., Ltd. One of the small band of Official Photographers - Ivor Castle, took the photograph described as a tank in action. Later, the picture caused much anger and resentment against the photographer particularly from Ernest Brooks, who accused Castle of faking the picture by later adding smoke to it to make it appear as if it was in action, when in fact it had been hit by shell fire and abandoned.  (Many of Brooks photos were featured in the Daily Mail War Postcards collection and became famous.)
The Illustrated London News also published pictures of tanks in action on the Somme and one was particularly impressive. It appeared on 6th January 1917 and was drawn by R. Canton Woodville, "from information received from an eye-witness." Captioned "BRITISH TROOPS AND A TANK, ASSAULTING GERMAN TRENCHES AT BEAUMONT HAMEL." readers were told that "In the foreground one German throwing a grenade, may be wearing the special sniper's helmet, with a front-piece to protect the forehead." A number of The Illustrated London News pictures were published as postcards by the "Delta Fine Art Co., 64 Fore St., E.C.", and the one described above is shown below. Several pictures by Edgar Holloway depicting tanks in action on the Somme, also appeared in the aforementioned Delta Fine Art series and an example of his work is also shown below.
"BRITISH TROOPS AND A TANK." This dramatic scene by R. Caton Woodville appeared on a card in a series produced by the Delta Fine Art Company depicting tanks in action during the Somme offensive of 1916.

"RESCUED BY A BRITISH TANK." Edgar Holloway did the original coloured painting of this postcard picture. Both crewmen are seen wearing brown leather 'helmets' ‑ designed to protect them against the effects of metal 'splash' which often occurred inside a tank when it was hit by small‑arms fire. Some men did not like wearing the leather helmets as the shape was similar to that of a German steel helmet and it was not unknown for crews who were forced to abandon their tank - to be fired on by their own comrades.

In December 1916, three pictures by Frederic de Haenan appeared in The Illustrated London News under the general title 'TANKS IN ACTION', The same pictures, drawn by Hanean from "details received" were also released as sepia coloured postcards and two are shown below.
"A TANK GOING THROUGH A GERMAN BARRAGE". In December 1916, the above postcard image by Frederic de Haenan, appeared in The Illustrated London News. It depicted a tank "going through the German barrage on its way to the 'Sugar Factory'. Those who were watching it were alternately catching breathes as salvo after salvo of crumps seemed to burst clean on the top of it. But nothing seemed to hurt it, and it was still going strong when it vanished from our sight in the haze and the smoke of bursting shells." said the paper.

"A CROWD OF GERMANS HOLDING UP THEIR HANDS TO SURRENDER". This card carries a picture by Frederic de Haenan. It depicts a scene from 25th September 1916, when a tank about to cross a seemingly deserted German trench, stopped, and "suddenly a little crowd of men seemed to spring from nowhere, all with their hands up. The demoralized Boches remained where they were as though petrified, and did not move until our infantry took charge of them."

By the end of 1916, the public knew what a tank looked like. They had seen photographs of them in illustrated magazines, newspapers and of course on picture postcards and in less than a year many people would have an opportunity to see a real tank and marvel at it.
fundraising tank postcard
A real photographic postcard depicting a fund-raising tank at an unknown location. During the Great War tanks were employed not only on the battlefield but also on the Home Front to raise money. On 23rd November 1917, The Times announced the start of a new publicity campaign. "In London next week people will be able to buy their bonds at the most novel bank ever established in this country. A real tank of the latest type has been sent to the National War Savings Committee and is to be stationed in Trafalgar‑square for the inspection of the public. People who wish to buy bonds may go inside the Tank..."

The Third Battle of Ypres

The British Army had defended the Ypres salient since October 1914 and was frequently under attack on two sides. It was an area of heavy clay, shell holes and waterlogged ground - caused partly by the Belgians, who early in the war had opened the dykes in the north and let in the sea to try and halt the German invaders.

In June 1917, Haig ordered a breakout from the salient. It was to include tanks. The offensive began with 13 days of heavy artillery bombardment from 3,000 guns on an eleven mile front. It rained heavily the night before the attack making the ground completely unsuitable for tanks. Brigadier General Hugh Ellis in command of the machines, expressed his concern about the ground conditions, only to be told "guns were the big thing, and tanks must take their chance." General Hubert Gough's Fifth Army of nine divisions were to make the main attack. Their first objective was the German third line two miles away. From there an assault would be made on the Passchendaele ridge two miles further on. Having taken the ridge the Fifth Army would advance 12 miles to Roulers with the cavalry following close behind ready to exploit the breach. That was the plan.

The attack began at 3.50 am on 31st July in mist and drizzle and as the 216 tanks set off from the start line ‑ some were in trouble almost immediately. Stuck in mud and shell holes they were an easy target for the German guns and by midday over half were out of action. The infantry were more successful and took their first objective and 6,000 prisoners. By mid afternoon - as the British pressed on to Passchendaele Ridge - the Germans launched a counterattack and Goughs Fifth Army was pushed back. By the end of the day its fighting strength had been reduced by half. Tank casualties were worse than those of the infantry, with only 19 machines still operational.

Raining heavily for the next four days the battlefield turned into a swamp littered with dead and strewn with derelict wrecks. Some tanks were submerged in the mud, others had their tracks shot away and some were now little more than burnt out shells. It was not surprising therefore, that the region became known as the 'Tank graveyard' and when Haig's Chief of Staff visited it soon after the battle, it was said that he broke down and wept and said, "Good God, did we really send men to fight in that."

After the disaster that day, a number of printed‑photographic postcards were produced depicting British tank casualties there. Most of the cards were French and carried a short caption in French and English. The Germans were pleased to take photos of damaged and burnt out British tanks and crew members - and release them as real photographic postcards.

British tank postcard
ww1 postcard damaged tank
These two cards appear to depict the same scene in the "British Tank's Cemetery." It was here that  "14 tanks sank in the mud as they were disabled or put out of action" at the "cross-roads of  Poelcapelle-Langemark."
A Damaged tank postcard
Another British machine in the Tank Cemetery that appears to have taken a direct hit from a German shell.

The Battle of Cambrai

Almost a year after the appearance of the tanks on the Somme, the now named Tank Corps, was given permission to launch a full scale attack. But where to direct it? One of the targets considered suitable was at Cambrai. It was here, near the river Scheldt that a major German communications centre was located and where four railways and several main roads and waterways converged. The area lay seven miles behind the well‑fortified Hindenburg Line, and defences in that sector were particularly strong, (sometimes up to five and a half mile deep) with concrete dug‑outs and massed batteries of machine guns and "areas of barbed wire, with nowhere less than 50 yards thick." It was an important target but the cost in lives and materials it was reckoned would have been huge. For instance. it had been estimated that it would take five weeks of artillery bombardment of the German positions to cut through the wire at a cost of some £20 million in ammunition alone.

Opposite the above mentioned sector of the Hindenburg Line, General Sir Julian Byng's Third Army was dug‑in. It was an area of open countryside and firm ground which until then had seen little action ‑ in fact an ideal place to launch an attack with tanks. Byng was confident he could smash through the dense lines of barbed wire, but the sheer size of some of the German trenches presented a problem. Many were 16 feet wide and almost as deep, certainly too large a gap for a tank to cross. The Central Workshops of the Tank Corps looked at the problem, and soon came up with an answer about how to force a crossing. It would provide the tanks with fascines, large bundles of brushwood weighing about two tons and bound with thick chains. Each tank would carry a fascine on its nose and by means of a special internal triggering device, drop it into an enemy trench ‑ thus forming a 'bridge'. A number of official photographs were taken of tanks loaded with fascines, but seemingly non appeared on contemporary postcards or maybe they did! 

Julian Byng postcard ww1
This 'Beagles' postcard depicting General Sir Julian Byng, was `guaranteed [a] real photograph'. Before the outbreak of the Great War, Byng had served in a number of colonial wars: He saw service in the Sudan in 1884; served in the Boar War; was Commandant of the Cavalry School at Netheravon in 1904‑5; and of a cavalry brigade from 1905‑9; and in 1912 went as Commander in Chief to Egypt. After holding several important posts in the Great War, in June 1917 he was made commander of the 3rd Army..

On 20th November 1917, six infantry divisions with two more in support and three held in reserve and 376 fighting tanks and nearly 100 more specially equipped for other purposes, waited on a six‑mile front in Byngs' sector of the front. At 6.20 a.m. one thousand guns opened up a creeping barrage on the Hidenburg Line. As the shells landed on the German trenches the tanks rolled forward followed by the infantry.

The Corp commander, Brigadier General Hugh Elles was in the lead tank Hilda, which was flying the Tank Corps colours of brown, red and green symbolizing the tank‑fighters slogan, "Through mud, over blood, to the green fields beyond." A crew member said, "It seemed almost to good to be true [we were] rumbling forward over marvelous going, no craters in the ground, no shelling from the enemy, and our infantry following steadily behind."

As the tanks reached the first of three belts of wire ‑ each 50 feet deep ‑ "it neither stopped our tank nor broke up ... but was squashed flat", he said, allowing the infantry to cross without difficulty. All along the front "the Germans were sending up SOS rockets."

pen and ink drawing of a ww1 tankk
"GOTT STRAFE ENGLAND." This pen and ink drawing by an unknown artist shows the terror and confusion in the German lines when the tanks first appeared. The card was passed by the censor on 5th January 1917.
As the tanks trundled on at a speed of four miles an hour towards the enemy trenches - many of the occupants fled in panic. By noon, the tanks had smashed through the Hindenburg Line and advanced nearly five miles on a front of about the same length. Thousands of German soldiers were killed or wounded and 8,000 men and 100 guns captured. British casualties were about 4,000. The limited preliminary bombardment and the element of surprise and the large number of tanks taking part ‑ had resulted in a successful assault. When the news reached London church bells were rung to celebrate a great victory. Later, Miller and Lang produced a postcard in praise of 'The Byng Boys', and it is shown below
ww1 tank cartoon postcard
The above card was published by 'Miller ad Lang Ltd. in their 'National Series'. It was posted in Leeds on 23rd  December 1917 and sent to 'Master Alwyn Tate' near Wakefield 'from Dad'. The card celebrated the advance of the tanks at Cambrai and the slogan was based on the famous one uttered by Horatio Nelson. The slogan on the tank was a pun on a popular show of the time 'The Bing Boys'. Byng of course was General Julian H.G. Byng.
Unfortunately, the celebrations in London turned out to be premature. The British offensive slowed down at Flesquieres Ridge, when a senior officer ignored orders and allowed his men to fall well behind the tanks. The infantry were caught in the open without the protection of the tanks and suffered heavy casualties from machine gun fire and were forced to fall back.The tanks carried on. But one by one they were hit and put out of action by German gun batteries on top of the ridge and 16 tanks were destroyed. Most caught fire. There were often no survivors. And "crew members who had not being killed outright...were burned to death." After the battle a number of photographic cards were produced which depicted the burnt out British tanks and their crews. The cards were of German origin and carried no details on the reverse of either the photographer or publisher - simply address lines. Three examples are shown below.
Three ww1 cards burnt out tanks
These cards of German origin carried no details on the reverse of either the photographer or publisher - only address lines.

The Battle of Villers-Bretonneux

In 1918, a new type of tank - designed by William Tritton in 1916 - came into service. It was the light medium MK A Whippet. Armed with only light machines guns, it had a top speed of 8 mph and a range of 80 miles. Its purpose was to exploit any breach in the enemy line. Instead of having tracks fitted around its hull ‑ as on previous tank designs ‑ the Whippets tracks were fitted around a chassis, on which was mounted the engine room and fighting turret. The Whippet was soon to prove its worth on the battlefield.

On 21st March 1918, the Germans launched a massive offensive against the British Third and Fourth Armies. The attack was on a front of 54 miles. The British trenches were overrun and within days the Germans had advanced 20 miles. Whippet tanks were sent into action for the first time and were successful in preventing the Germans from penetrating a four mile gap which had been opened up in the line held by the Third Army at Serre. By nightfall the immediate danger had passed and the British line north of the Somme had been stabilized. However, over the next two days the Germans advanced in the south, until they were about ten miles from Amiens, where the British and French lines met and the site of an important railway junction.

On 24th August the Germans launched a surprise attack on Villers-Bretonneux, using for the first time 12 of their own newly built AV7 tanks. At 6 am, after an intense bombardment of high explosive and gas shells, British troops saw fearsome shapes coming towards them through the fog. The German tanks caused the same fear and havoc to the British as their tanks had done to the Germans at Cambrai in 1917. (The A7V was twice as heavy as a British tank and carried a crew of 18) The British Official History recorded that "wherever tanks appeared the British line was broken." The Germans took Villers‑Bretonneux and headed for the village of Cachy. The situation was becoming desperate so three Mark IV tanks ‑ one male and two females ‑ were dispatched there and ordered to hold the village at all costs. The females, armed only with machine guns were hopelessly outgunned and were hit several times and forced to withdraw. The remaining vehicle was left to fight the AV7s on its own. A gunner ranged on one of them and scored three direct hits. His commander said, "it was splendid shooting for a man whose eyes were swollen by gas and who was working his gun single handed owing to the shortage of crew." While the damaged German tank was ditched and abandoned by its crew the others "slowly withdrew and disappeared in the direction of Hangard."

Their success in the first tank against tank action, rallied the British infantry who were even more heartened when seven Whippets roared into view and charged at full speed across the open undulating country that was so ideal for tank movement. What followed was a massacre. "[The] enemy troops were mown down by the relentless firing of 14 blazing machine guns [or] crushed to death as the tanks ran over them...their tracks literally covered in blood and human remains."

The Germans, demoralised, abandoned their attack on Cachy. That night Australian troops recaptured Villers‑Bretonneux and the German drive towards Amiens was halted.

ww1 whippet tanks postcard
This postcard illustration of Whippets tanks advancing under fire - across smooth and flat ground - was by an unnamed artist and was "WAR BOND POST CARD" number nine from a set of twelve published by A.M. Davis and Company.

The Battle of Amiens

In 1918, an important railway link east of Amiens was held by the Germans, which, if retaken would open the way to freeing other strategic railways to the south and east. A great advance could then be made on the Hindenburg defences, where 20 miles behind, lay the great railway centre of Maubeuge and where the German system of lateral communications was located. The Allies drew up a plan of attack to start on 8th August. Tanks were to spearhead the offensive which, if successful, could mark the turning point of the entire war. At 4.20 am, an hour before sunrise, 3,500 British and French guns lit up the sky to signal the start of the battle of Amiens. The British Fourth Army was spread out along a front of ten miles and the whole strength of the Tank Corps was with it. Three hundred and twenty four Mark Vs led the advance, followed by 22 gun‑carriers and 120 supply tanks. Forty two tanks were held in mechanical reserve and also 96 Whippets gathered there to exploit any breakthrough. A total of 604 machines ‑ the largest number ever gathered in any one place. Lieutenant Robinson, commander of Oblivis Caris said, "[We] passed through the infantry and in two minutes found ourselves right among the Boche. One lot tried to beat it for a wood but Gunner McKellars, to his large delight, got them all, We reached a trench crowded with Jerries and all our guns got right busy. The effect of case shot in a crowded trench isn't pretty."

Below are five 'OILETTE' cards by Raphael Tuck & Sons. They were 'Officially Passed for Publication' probably in 1917. There are five cards here which are thought to be from a set of six. Four of these cards depict Whippet tanks.
Two ww1 tank postcards
Two cards from the set of six. The artist was Herbert Bryant. These Raphael Tuck & Sons action cards with their red borders also carry the badge of the Tank Corps.

Over the next few hours the landships made good progress. In the village of Marcelcave, Lieutenant Percy‑Eade's tank knocked out six machine gun positions and then attacked a battery and put the gunners to flight. All along the front the Germans were taken by surprise and overrun. By 11 am, on a front of three divisions, the second objective had been taken ‑ but not without some losses. Twenty five tanks were either ditched or knocked out and nine out of ten tanks of A Company were destroyed and others were lost in the fierce fighting. Some crews were found unconscious in their machines from carbon monoxide poisoning.

South of the Somme a gap of eleven miles was made in the German line, Cavalry Corps and Whippet tanks went through the breach and up to the third objective. A tank commander said, "Steaming up the long southern track they came headed by a regiment of Lancers", and "as far as the eye could reach there were trotting columns of horses. While in the middle track, battalions of horse and field artillery were arriving at a gallop...A cloud of dust on the north track heralded the  Whippets...going hell for leather for the next objective. The whole spectacle was one which none of us ever expected to see in France and one we would never forget."
Three postcards of British tanks
These cards are Bryants' impression of Whippets going into action and supported by areoplanes. On the back of each card is printed "The Tanks, which have proved such a powerful and effective weapon in the Great War, first came into action September 5th, 1916. Led by Lieut.-Colonel Summers, D.S.O., who succeeded in getting 23 out of 28 “over the top,” they took the enemy completely by surprise. The inventor of the Tanks is still shrouded in mystery, but Major Wilson and Sir William Tritton were the original designers of them, the idea of the “Gun Carrier” was suggested by Major Greig , and these extraordinary “land Ships” were produced in large quantities."

As the British advance slowed down a little it allowed the Whippets to push ahead and successfully penetrate almost eight miles into the German lines, causing immense havoc. One named Musical Box, became a legend in the Tank Corps because of its remarkable exploits that day. It was commanded by Lieutenant C. B. Arnold, with Driver Carney and Gunner Ribbans making up the crew.

By the end of the day the British line had advanced over six miles and the German Army had suffered its heaviest defeat since the war started, loosing about 27,000 men and more than 400 guns and large numbers of other weaponry.

Tanks had led the advance in almost every sector and their biggest achievement had been "in sharply reducing the numbers of Allied infantry casualties." An officer commented, "The tank is a saviour of flesh and blood. which lets the enemy spend his fury destroying metal instead of human life."

As the German Army retreated, General Erich Ludendorff, said the Allied advance could not have happened without the contribution made by the tanks on 8th August, and called that day "the black day of the German Army in the history of the war." His confidence in shreds and his troops' morale falling, Ludendorff finally acknowledged that the war could only be ended by negotiation.

The Battle of Amiens was followed by further successes, one of the most important involving tanks was on the Hindenburg Line, when on 28th August the great defences were breached. The last British tank action took place on 5th November 1918, when eight Whippets helped a guards brigade to advance by the Forest of Morval ‑ which the BEF had passed on their retreat from Mons in August 1914.


A British tank in action postcard
"A BRITISH TANK IN ACTION." and a quote from Lieutenant General Baron Von Ardenne in the Berliner Tageblatt appear on this card. The publisher is unnamed.

In October 1919, at the Old Hall, Lincoln's Inn, a Royal Commission held its first meeting to decide who was the inventor of the tank. In due course its recommendations were published and a joint claim by William Tritton and Major Wilson, was the favourite. The finding of the commission was that, "To these two claimants...we attribute the credit of designing and producing in a concrete practical shape the novel and efficient  engine of warfare known as the 'tank'; and it is to them, that in our judgment, by far the largest award should be made. We recommend that there be awarded to these claimants jointly the sum of £15,000."

The Commission also awarded Colonel Swinton £1,000 for his part in the development of the tank. Perhaps it would have been fair for the Commission to have awarded the writer H.G. Wells something too.

In 1903, a year after the Boer War had ended and thirteen years before the birth of the tank, Wells wrote a story titled 'The land Ironclads' which appeared in the Strand Magazine. It was a tale about "two fighting sides...locked in apparent stalemate" on a battlefield of trenches, when there appeared in the dawn light, "a large and clumsy black insect...the size of an iron‑clad cruiser, crawling obliquely to the first line of trenches and firing shots out of its portholes in its side...and displayed along the length of it feet...flat, broad things, reminding one of the...legs of caterpillars...the thing was putting down its feet one after the other and hoisting itself further and further over the trench...until it was all over...The elaborate lacework of the trenches and defenses, across which these iron turtles, fourteen of them, spread out over a line of perhaps three miles, were now advancing as fast as a man could trot and methodically shooting down and breaking up any persistent knots of resistance."

In 1932, Swinton said he had read, 'Mr H.G. Wells marvellous forecast ‑ 'The land Ironclads' when it first came out in 1903 "but looked upon it as pure phantasy and had entirely forgotten about it." 

Lloyd George also had something to say about the tanks after the war. It was this. Bitterly condemning their premature use by Haig in 1916, he said the British had committed as great an error as that made by the Germans in 1915, "when by their initial use of poison gas on a small section [of the British line] they gave away the secret of a new and deadly form of attack, which had it been used for the first time on a grand scale, might have produced results of a decisive character." In the same way, he said, the British had "sold the great secret...for the battered ruin of a little hamlet on the Somme ‑ which was not worth capturing."

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