Tanks helped end the stalemate of WW1 trench warfare.
Waiting for the Word to Advance, British tanks ready to begin their deadly advance
Freedom’s Triumph Photo Courtesy of Indiana War Memorial
The concept for the tank can be traced back to sketches from Leonardo de Vinci. The development of the internal combustion engine combined with caterpillar tracks being used in farm equipment enabled Leonardo’s vision to come to life.
Artillery Tractor illustrating caterpillar tread
America's War for Humanity photo
The first Tanks were used in WW1 by the British in 1916. They were developed from the early farm vehicles that used caterpillar tracks to traverse difficult terrain. The trenches of WW1 made this adaptation ideal but it was a while before they were refined enough to be effective. The first tank was called “Little Willie”. It held 3 men and traveled at 3 mph but could not cross a trench wider than five feet. Later versions of the tank weighed 28 tons, could hold ten men, travel at 4 mph and carried a revolving turret. By 1918 they would carry a crew of 8 with 24 soldiers onboard. Early crews were assigned from the British Navy and they adopted navel terms for their new equipment, “bulkheads”, “hull”, “hatch”, “fore” and “aft”. The Mark 1 model was designated “male” with a Hotchkiss cannon or “female” with machine guns only.
A United States “Baby” Tank
Machine gun cavalry is the name given to these small but mighty tanks - Freedom’s Triumph Courtesy of Indiana War Memorial Archives
They were named Tanks because the British shipped their new secret weapon in crates marked “tanks” or water carriers, to disguise there true content. The early tanks suffered engineering problems with the view slits being too thin to see adequately, a deafening noise from the 105 horse power engine and excessive heat and choking exhaust fumes. They were too hot for a driver to operate safely and the fear was the heat might ignite the fuel. They also had trouble with mud accumulating in their treads. The early tanks were notoriously unreliable, but had a stunning effect on the German Army. The Germans soon discovered that armor piercing bullets could penetrate the shell.
The Mark A Whippet, a medium size tank, was used by the British in 1918. This version of the Mark series of tanks bears a striking resemblance to the French Renault which was used initially by the American troops. It could reach a speed of over 8 mph, weighed in at 14 tons and could cross 7’ trenches with a crew of four. The crew compartment was ventilated. It was vulnerable to heavier tanks but engineered for a longer range and was effective for reconnaissance and doing damage to back lines. A 1918 Mark V British tank used a 360 HP Rolls Royce engine and could travel at a top speed of 30mph.
The first American-built tank was called the “America”. It was steam driven and weighed 45 tons.
To see a collection of photos of surviving WW1 tanks: http://the.shadock.free.fr/Surviving_WW1_Tanks.pdf
Insignia Button of the US Tank Corps
Indiana War Memorial Collections
Leonard Edward Bierhaus, Motor Transport Service, Marion County, Indiana
“This unit, being composed of experienced and handpicked mechanics with the strength of 35 men, functioned as a mobile organization with divisions, corps, and armies. Being a mobile organization, only enough equipment was carried to make repairs and quick adjustments to transportation such as motorcycles, trucks, staff cars, tanks, tractors and their component parts.”
“The care in the field of the commanding officers of organizations of this kind must be taken into consideration at all times, as to hours of moving, places of operation, etc. as there was always danger due to the nature of operations in the field, from being sighted by the enemy.
“We only rank as 1st Lieutenants, still did the work and held the responsibilities of Captain, Col. and Commander. We were alone in the midst of the fight, as the American Army used this kind of transportation more extensively than any other Army in the world. An organization of this kind proved to be an absolute necessity and indispensable acquisition to victory”.
A Watery Grave
A landship out of its element – a “wounded” tank abandoned. - Freedom’s Triumph Courtesy of Indiana War Memorial Archives
Illustrations of the interior and exterior of the Whippet Tank
Freedom’s Triumph Photos courtesy of Indiana War Memorial Archives
George Noble Irwin, Company C, 301st Battery, Heavy Tank Corps, Decatur County Indiana
George Irwin left a diary of his WW1 experiences. His son, Don Lee Irwin, has graciously shared the following story:
My Dad grew up on a farm near Alert, Indiana, and joined the Army when he was 23 years old in 1917. He finished Army basic training at Camp Taylor, Ky. on 26 Feb 1918, and volunteered for the new Heavy Tank Corps. He reported to Camp Meade, Maryland on 23 March for tank training. But things changed rapidly, and the Army decided to move tank training to Camp Colt, PA., to train in the French Renault FT-17 tank, which was commanded by Captain Dwight Eisenhower. However, having volunteered for the British Mark V tank, he and his unit, the 65th Engineers (later the 301st Battalion Tank Corps), sailed to Brest, France from Camp Merritt, Hoboken, N. J., on 28 April 1918, and then to Warham, England for Heavy Tank training with the Brits. The 301st' new commander was Major Ralph I. Sasse, and Company C's commander was Capt Ralph de P. Clarke. Dad seemed to alternate back and forth between Warham and Bovington Field, while in England, I assume learning to employ the new Mark V Tank with his company and crew of eight.
The 301st Tank Corps shipped out to Le Havre, France on 24 Aug 1918. They sailed with their 46 or 47 (depending on which account you read) British Mark Vs and Mark V*s (the latter pronounced Mark V Star). The Mark V had a crew of eight, and could have had, either two six pound cannons (male), or 6 Hotchkiss machine guns (female). The Mark V* was a Mark V cut in half, with a six foot mid-section added to give it a better chance of crossing the 3.5 meter trenches in the Hindenburg line. It also was thought that it could carry 24 troops, but later it was discovered that due to the poisonous air inside the tank, the troops were in no condition to fight when they arrived at the front, so it carried supplies, if anything, after that. Their unit was then attached to the British 4th Tank Brigade for what was to be a short stint on the Western front.
During the next two months, the 301st had four engagements against the Germans, with varying degrees of success. The first, against the vaunted Hindenburg Line near Le Catalet and St Quentin, on 29 Sept. Each Company of the 301st (A, B, & C) was assigned to lead one of the 27th Division's regiments (107th, 105th, & 108th). The simple scheme was to precede the infantry by about a hundred yards to clear wire obstacles, and destroy the German machine gun nests, and artillery emplacements. Dad's Company (C), with 15 tanks, was attached to the 107th infantry on the left, but due to the regimental commander's refusal to leave on the new H hour (an hour earlier than the old H hour), and lack of prior training between the Doughboys and tanks, the tanks were 1,000 yards in front of the regiment. They encountered withering fire from German guns, and heavy smoke and fog. The visibility was so bad that the tank commanders had to dismount, and walk in front of the tanks in the dark through the mud, wire entanglements, abandoned trenches, and shell holes, to guide their tanks. Both the 301st and 27th received frightful casualties. Sixteen tanks received direct hits, and only five of the original 40 tanks reached the Hindenburg Line, and none of them could get through those wide trenches. It's estimated that the 107th lost 1,000 men. The 301st lost 3 officers, and 17 enlisted men. Fifteen officers, and 70 enlisted men were wounded, and seven enlisted men were missing. An ominous beginning.
The second engagement was on 8 Oct 1918, supporting II American Corps, near Brancourt. Due to heavy losses on 29 Sep, the 301st had only 23 tanks with no reserve. Visibility was perfect, with the light breeze taking the battle smoke over the Germans. They were bombed from the air, and received heavy shelling from the Germans, but eleven tanks reached their objective, four received direct hits and were destroyed; five had mechanical trouble; and three didn't make it past the jump off point. Relatively speaking, this battle was a success, with the objective being met by 1415 that afternoon.
The third was fought on 17 Oct 1918 from Le Haie Meneresse to Mazingbien. The tank commanders were able to view the battle field prior to engagement, and made note of the best routes and river crossings. Twenty five tanks were available. In spite of the excellent planning, on the day of the battle the visibility was very poor, a light breeze now blowing the smoke over the Doughboys, and communication was even poorer. By the time the visibility cleared, most tanks were lost and out of gas. Of the 25 tanks that started, eight had mechanical trouble, two tanks ditched in the Selle River, a couple had direct hits, and one caught fire. Only one tank reached the objective. Now there were only twelve tanks serviceable.
The last battle was on 23 Oct 1918. The 301st was allotted to the IX British Corps. H hour was 0120, taking advantage of the full moon. They divided their tanks into three companies of four tanks each. Early on the tanks could easily see the routes, and gunners could identify their targets. Later, however, the Germans gassed them, and the use of the gas masks greatly limited visibility. There were no losses this time, and all objectives were met.
The Armistice was signed 11 November 1918. Dad sailed home on 28 February 1919 aboard the P. W. Wilson from Marseilles, was discharged on 9 April 1919, and went back to work his farm near Alert, Indiana.
Life in the Mark V was very unpleasant, the air contaminated from poorly ventilated gases of carbon monoxide and cordite fumes. Loud beyond belief, with temperatures reaching 120 degrees. The crews wore helmets, and masks of chain mail to protect them from pieces of metal and rivets knocked loose from shells hitting the external armor. The tank, to be sure, had a fitful start as a weapon system, and like the rest of the U.S. Army was rapidly dismantled after the war. The Tank Corps future was doubtful.
Dad never spoke a word to me about any of this. The only thing I got was a diary, such as it was, with dates and places. The only emotion shown in his diary, was written onboard the PW Wilson on the way home on the 28th of February 1919. He wrote, "Just eleven months ago at 10:00am, sailed from NY bound for the fight. Happy?"
US Army Corps of Engineers, Steam Tank
World War for Humanity photo
For more information: