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The latter was skeptical, referring to the device as "a pretty mechanical toy" (Harris 31) but everybody else was favorably impressed and the War Office continued enthusiastically to support tank development. "Mother" became the basis for the Mark I tank, the first mass-produced tracked armored fighting vehicle in history. The Mark I, powered by two diesel engines, was built in two versions, "male" which mounted four machine guns and two 6-pounder naval guns in protruding barbettes, and "female" which carried machine guns only. The male version was intended as an assault weapon; the female tanks were designed to protect their male counterparts and each other by using machine guns to mow down attacking infantry who might otherwise swamp and overcome the tanks (Harris 31-2). This huge, heavy, lozenge-shaped monster became the pattern for the classic First World War tank, through to the Mark VIII of 1918.
The tanks were ready in number by the summer of 1916, and their first use in the war came at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, part of the Somme Campaign, in September 1916 (Harris 65). Their attack was hailed by British propaganda as a great success, but in truth the debut of the new machine was plagued with problems. The vehicles themselves were noisy, dangerous and uncomfortable for their crews, difficult to maneuver, and extremely unreliable. Of over 60 tanks committed to the battle, half broke down before their advance began, more failed or were rendered immobile in the early stages of their advance, and perhaps 20 actually participated in the fighting (Harris 65). Those tanks did, however, have an immediate effect, inspiring terror in sections of the German army and aiding a British advance which only ran out of steam once the British infantry failed to capitalize upon the ground gained (Bourne 64, Harris 65-6). The question of the most appropriate use of these new fighting machines remained open however. Were they most suitable for spearheading direct assaults, supported by artillery and infantry, or should they be used (as British commanders initially envisaged) in a supporting role to infantry attacks (Travers 73)? The lessons of the early attacks, with the potential of the tank for rapid movement and battlefield domination seemingly counterbalanced by its unreliability, vulnerability to artillery and inability to hold ground as well as take it, were equivocal. It was not until the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 that tanks used in a direct assault, with complete surprise on their side, effectively broke the stalemate that had hitherto characterized trench warfare (Reid 36). Even so, British military commanders as late as the spring of 1918 were in a position of "accepting the tank, but not really thinking through the capability of the new weapon" (Travers 76). The relationship between tank, infantry soldier and artillery barrage had still to be settled.
In historical perspective it can be seen that the most successful tank attacks of the First World War were those in 1917 and 1918 that saw it being used with a logic of its own as the primary means of delivering an attack to the enemy, with artillery and infantry in a supporting role, but it would take much debate, discussion and analysis in the post-war years for this lesson to be entirely accepted. It was understood and accepted however; somewhat half-heartedly in Britain and even more reluctantly in the United States and France. In one country, however, Germany, military strategists would take the lessons of armored warfare very much to heart and formed a new aggressive strategy that would have dramatic effects upon the early stages of the Second World War: "blitzkrieg" (Harris 228-9).
Bourne, J.M. Britain and the Great War 1914-1918. London: Edward Arnold, 1989.
Duffy, Michael. "Weapons of War - Tanks." First World War.com: A Multimedia History of World War One. 2002. 20 Nov. 2004. http://www.firstworldwar.com/weaponry/tanks.htm.
Harris, J.P. Men, Ideas and Tanks. British Military Thought and Armoured Forces, 1903-1939. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.
Reid, Brian Holden. "The Tank: Visions of Future War." History Today Dec. 1987: 36-41.
Tank Museum, the. "The Collection: Evolution. Little Willie." The Tank Museum, Bovington. 2004. 20 Nov. 2004. http://www.tankmuseum.co.uk/colevolution.html.
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