Why the Tank was chosen as the topic for this paper
Essay Question: "Identify a change or development in warfare...which had a profound impact on the conduct of war between 1776 and 1918. Demonstrate why this change or development was important to the evolution of warfare."
The development in warfare...which had a profound impact on the conduct of war between 1776 and 1918... [and that was] important to the evolution of warfare was, in the opinion of this writer, the armoured tank. Granted, the very first tank, "Little Willie," was commissioned by the British in 1915 and wasn't put into use until the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916; and, granted, in WWI the tank did not have a "profound impact" on that war. But the tank's emergence in 1916 did indeed have a profound impact on the evolution of warfare into the 20th and 21st Centuries. The tank excellently fits the description of a pivotal development in the field artillery theater of warfare.
The development of the tank was truly a watershed in military history. Hence, this paper will examine the development of the tank, as well as the apparent short-sightedness of the United States military in terms of producing enough tanks to meet the challenges made by the Germans. True, most Americans today, when they think of tanks, think of the WWII-vintage tanks that were so much a part of "Saving Private Ryan," and other films reflecting that era. And for very young Americans, they are familiar with images on their home television sets from the video taken from inside the newest generations of tanks - by "vested" reporters zooming across the southern Iraq deserts, at the beginning stages of the U.S. attack on Iraq. Tanks are very much a part of the American public's perception of warfare - just as they are a part of the soldiers in the field actually engaging the "enemy" in battle.
A brief look at the forerunners to the present day tank.
Looking back at the bloody Civil War, in which the young American nation shed the shackles of slavery, at the cost to both sides of 620,000, the only weapon which came close to what we now know as the tank during that conflict was the sea-going U.S.S. Merrimack.
Later rechristened the U.S.S. Virginia, the U.S.S. Merrimack was known as the first "ironclad," which seemed revolutionary at that time, and certainly was revolutionary, albeit the Civil War was won on battlefields, not at sea, and not with iron plates protecting attack vehicles.
Meantime, nearly forty years after the Civil War, the very first "drawing board" version of what we now call a tank was the brainchild of E.J. Pennington, who, in 1896 (Paesani, 1998), conceived of and designed an "oval shaped vehicle with four wheels hidden by metal plates and two hull mounted machine guns." Though the project never came to fruition, it showed that military innovations were on the minds of men whose country needed defending.
Next in line in the development of the tank (Paesani, 1998) was F.R. Simms' 1898 armored vehicle with a mounted "Maxim machine gun" on a motorized "De Dion-Bouton quadricycle." This was reportedly the first gasoline-powered / armed vehicle in history. Also in 1898, Major R.P. Davidson designed an armor-protected tricycle with a Colt machine gun mounted, and in 1902, F.R. Simms put together a steel-plated, boat-shaped vehicle with two Maxim machine guns which - for the first time in military history - rotated 360 degrees on turrets.
In 1902, a semi-armored car called the Automitrailleuse made an appearance at the Paris Car Exhibition, but never got past the prototype stage. In 1904, R.P. Davidson created a steam engine vehicle with an armor-plated machine gun mounted on the front, and in 1909, the Hotchkiss firm build four "protected" cars for the Turkish Sultan, with a machine gun facing backwards.
The Literature on Tanks
Six years after that crude Hotchkiss-build steam engine "tank," the British, not the Americans, recognized the need for, design, and built the first motorized armoured fighting vehicle, according to TheFreedictionary.com (TFD). In February 1915 the British set up the Landship Committee to look into designing a "massive troop transporter," and they established as requirements an armoured vehicle that would travel 4 MPH, climb a 5-foot high parapet, cross an 8-foot wide trench, and be armed with machine guns and cannons.
Early in 1916, "Little Willie" was ready for trial runs; this was a 14-ton armoured vehicle with a ten-foot high armoured box, powered by a 105 HP Daimier engine. The rotating turret idea, first put forward, was scrapped because of weight considerations. Instead of the turret, 57 mm guns were installed, the vehicle was beefed up to 30 tons, and on February 12, 1916, the British government ordered 100 "Big Willie" vehicles.
On August 30, fifty "Big Willie" tanks were delivered to France, each with a crew of eight soldiers, "four of whom were needed to handle the steering, by differential braking." These Big Willies could run at 4 MPH, which matched the speed of infantry on the march.
The first use of tanks in actual battlefield conditions was on September 15, 1916, during WWI, when 49 British Mk.1 ("Big Willie") tanks were deployed for use at the Battle of the Somme. "But most of the machines broke down," according to the TFD article, and "of the forty-nine tanks shipped to the Somme, only thirty-two" actually began the first attack. In short, they did not accomplish much, albeit, they were field artillery pathfinders for later, more effective models of tanks."
Why the failure of these new field artillery devices? "Many feel that because the British Commander Field Marshal Douglas Haig was himself a horse cavalryman..." he did not respect the potential value of tanks. Meanwhile, the first French tank offensive - at Nivelle on April 16, 1917, "was a major failure." The Schneiders and St. Chamond tanks did not have the capability to cross trenches, and were "torn to pieces by concentrated German artillery fire."
However, these new tanks achieved success in the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, with the British Mark IV. In the very first tank-vs.-tank battle took place on April 24, 1918, in a scrimmage between three German A7Vs and three British Mk.IVs, at Villers-Bretonneux, France.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Tank Corps (not a significant part of America's field artillery at that time) was disbanded as a result of the "Defense Act of 1920." And then in 1928, Secretary of War Dwight F. David established the "Experimental Mechanized Brigade" of tanks, including heavy and light tank battalions; but the equipment was obsolete, and the force was abandoned. And then, in 1934-35, three "combat cars" were built as prototypes: the T2, T2E1, and T2E2. They were called "combat cars" in order to run an end run around the Defense Act. Eventually, the T2 was standardized as the M2A1; the T2E1 (a single-turret tank armed with three machine guns), was standardized as the M2A1; and the T2E2, with a pair of turrets and a pair of machine guns, became the M2A2.
Meanwhile, the desperate need for advanced field artillery - including tanks -leading up to WWII is chronicled by Boyd Dastrup (201): During the period of the 1930s, the entire scope of field artillery "had not changed much since 1918." Indeed, Dastrup writes, "On the eve of WWII, antiquated weapons and thinking characterized the field artillery."
There were progressive officers who "tried to move the field artillery forward, but conservatism, limited funds, and pacifism overwhelmed them, limited serious reform and rearmament," and left the American domain of field artillery "...poorly prepared, technologically and tactically, to fight armies that were adopting the latest weapons and innovative tactics."