June 29, 2013

Finest Hour 135, Summer 2007

Page 45

Churchill and the Tank (2): In for the Duration

By Marcus Frost

2024 International Churchill Conference

Join us for the 41st International Churchill Conference. London | October 2024

Mr. Frost, of Mexia, Texas, is a Churchill Centre Governor, Trustee and Associate (the only individual who is all three). He is active in both our Dallas and San Antonio affiliates, and sponsored the recent teacher seminar in March at Baylor University.

By 1915, the bloodbath of World War I seemed endless. The Central Powers, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, were pitted against Britain, France, Italy and Russia, and the slaughter among their soldiers was intense. The battle lines were frozen on every front and no advances were being made by pressing chests against bullets. But Winston Churchill had an idea.

In these solemn days we mourn every life lost in battle, but perhaps we have lost sight of what it was like for our forbears. Ninety years ago in the age of static trench warfare, men were mowed down by machine guns if they rose from their parapets and tried to advance. Each side pummeled the other with deadly artillery fire; shrapnel shredded bodies on both sides. In the battles of Verdun and the Somme between July and November 1916, almost a million were killed, an average of 6600 per day, 277 per hour, five per minute. By war’s end Germany and Russia would lose 1.75 million men each, France and Austria-Hungary about 1.4 million each, Britain 750,000, Italy 615,000.1 A 42-year-old doctor, John M. McCrae of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, wrote the most frequently quoted English-language poems of the war after days of being surrounded by the human wreckage:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.2

Could anything be done to stop the death and carnage? In London, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith received a suggestion from a colleague: “It would be quite easy in a short time to fit up a number of steam tractors with small armoured shelters, in which men and machine guns could be placed, which would be bullet-proof. Used at night, they would not be affected by artillery fire to any extent. The caterpillar system would enable trenches to be crossed quite easily, and the weight of the machine would destroy all barbed-wire entanglements.”3

The writer was Winston Churchill. His letter marked the first step toward the practical evolution of the tank in World War I.

The caterpillar track was invented in 1770 by Richard Edgeworth, an Englishman. During the Crimean War (1853-56) his countryman, James Boydell, constructed a few steam-powered tractors based on this design, which unfortunately were not ready in time for the Crimea, though there were plans to use them. The development of the tank remained dormant until the arrival of the internal combustion engine, first developed in Germany by Gottlieb Daimler in 1885.4

In 1904, Benjamin Holt of Stockton, California, became convinced that a steam traction engine with extended wheels was not practical in farming. Holt had begun to develop and produce steam-powered wheel-type tractors in the mid 1880s. He had turned to the possibility of using a track to replace the wheels because of its superior weight-bearing surface. Holt had gone to England in 1903 to investigate developments in crawler tractors. He had also sent some of his own company officials to view a track-laying design by Alvin O. Lombard of Waterville, Maine, who had developed a tracked log hauler on skids for use in the winter. After gathering as much information as possible, Holt began to perfect his own design on track-laying tractors.5

On Thanksgiving Day, 24 November 1904, Holt successfully tested his first track-type tractor close to the Stockton site of Holt Manufacturing Company. The test tractor had a refitted steam traction engine. The wheels had been replaced with two track frames 30 inches high, 42 inches wide and nine feet long. The tracks fitted to each frame were constructed of 3×4-inch wooden slats. This first crawler was able to operate on ground too soft for men and horses, because of its greater weight bearing surface area. After numerous tests, regular production models of the Holt track-layer were introduced in 1906, priced at $5500 each.6

Although successful in bearing weight in soft ground, these early track layers were cumbersome and expensive to operate, and depended on horses to bring water and fuel to feed the boilers and fire boxes. In 1908 Holt brought out a gasoline-powered crawler which in motion had the appearance of a caterpillar. The famous Caterpillar trademark was born through Holt’s efforts.7

Across the Atlantic in 1901, British inventor Frederick Simms had produced a design of what he called a motor-war car, with a Daimler engine, a bulletproof shell and two maxim guns on revolving turrets. The British War Office rejected Simm’s design and showed no interest in similar schemes.

By the outbreak of the First World War, a Wisconsin company produced the Killen-Strait Armoured Tractor. Its tracks consisted of a continuous series of steel links, joined together with steel pins. In June 1915 a Killen-Strait with a British armored car body plonked on top was tested at Wormwood Scrubs before Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George, who watched it cut through barbed wire entanglements. (See photo, previous article.) Churchill had just fallen from power, having been relieved as First Lord of the Admiralty on 28 May over the Dardanelles operation. It is possible that the Dardanelles, itself conceived as an alternative to trench warfare, weighed on Churchill’s mind as he observed another possible solution to the slaughter in Europe.8

Holt’s Caterpillar tractor had by then become famous among both warring sides for its design and workability, and a Holt Agency had been established in Austria by a Hungarian, Leo Steiner. In 1912 the Austrian military was attracted to Holt’s design when it proved superior in hauling heavy artillery. In 1913 Steiner was ordered to procure as many Holt tractors as possible but when war broke out with England in 1914, the pro-British Holt refused to fill the orders.9

When the British military became interested in the possibilities of crawler traction on the battlefield, they too turned to Holt. As early as September 1914, Holt engineers were sent to England, while the British War Department sent an officer to Holt’s newly opened East Peoria, Illinois factory. One Briton greatly influenced by Holt’s Caterpillar was Col. Ernest Swinton, who had the idea to build an armed and armored machine gun destroyer.10 With the help of Col. Maurice Hankey, then Secretary of the War Cabinet, Churchill at the Admiralty was persuaded to set up a “Landships Committee” to look at the possibilities of building a new war machine.11 (Refer to David Fletcher’s preceding article.) The Admiralty Landships Committee ultimately commissioned Lt. W.G. Wilson of the Naval Air Service and William Tritton of William Foster & Co. Ltd. of Lincoln to produce a small “landship.” Built in secrecy, the machine was given the code-name and referred to as a “water tank for Mesopotamia”—partly because of its appearance, partly to keep its true nature secret. Thus the name “tank.”12

Holt did not build tanks for Britain; those eventually produced were of British production. But it was the Holt design and track laying caterpillar system, according to Swinton, that sparked the development of British tanks.13

On 20 January 1916 the first British tank began its trials. More than a year earlier, Churchill had encouraged the inventors and technical experts to work out an effective design; when the War Office showed no interest, Churchill had found Admiralty money to fund the experiments. He had also encouraged those who believed, as he did, that the tank could effectively end trench warfare, substantially lessening the casualties in France and Flanders.14

Tanks were used for the first time in battle on the Somme, where a dramatic turn in the Entente (Allied) fortunes took place on 15 September 1916. Forty-nine tanks took part in the attack, moving forward on a wide front. Ten were hit by German artillery fire, nine broke down with mechanical difficulties, and five failed to advance. The rest advanced more than 2000 yards, capturing the long-sought High-Wood, and three villages, Flers, Martinpuich, and Courcelette. But a disappointed Churchill wrote to Admiral Fisher, both of them now out of power: “My poor ‘land battleships’ have been let off prematurely and on a petty scale. In that idea resided one real victory.”15

Churchill had wanted to produce tanks in large numbers, and only deploy them when as many as 1000 were available. Recognizing the potential of the new weapon, British Commander General Haig asked the War Office for a thousand. The Germans, fortunately, were far behind in their own tank experiments.

As the tanks helped the British advance, Raymond Asquith, the Prime Minister’s son, was shot through the chest and died. Also wounded that day was the future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who lived out his life with bullet fragments embedded in his pelvis, which gave him a “shuffling walk.” During the day he was wounded, Macmillan recalled seeing a tank, one of “these strange objects,” bogged down in a shell-hole.16

The tank quickly proved its worth, even in small numbers. Eleven days after its first use, an attack by thirteen tanks captured the village of Thiepval, which had held out since the first day of the Somme offensive. That same day, Combles fell to an infantry attack supported by two tanks, while at Gueudecourt, where tanks were assisted by air reconnaissance, 500 Germans were taken prisoner with only five British casualties.

The new invention was not without its problems. In muddy conditions tanks became stuck and almost completely useless. Deployment methods and tank use in the military arts had not evolved very far, and to use them in the wrong way would actually hinder a battle. The French used tanks for the first time on 17 April 1917, when Gen. Nivelle planned to advance six miles using twenty divisions along a 25-mile front along the river Aisne. The attack was a disaster; his men halted after only six hundred yards. Expecting 15,000 casualties, Nivelle wound up with 100,000. Of the 128 tanks used in the battle, thirty-two were knocked out on the first day. Two villages in the battle zone, Nauroy and Moronvillers were totally destroyed.17

Far to the south and east in Palestine, meanwhile, the British launched their second attempt to capture Gaza. Despite eight tanks, the use of gas shells, and a two-to-one troop preponderance, this attack was a failure, but Gaza fell to Allenby’s troops on 1 November 1917, the tanks doing everything that was expected of them despite harsh desert conditions.

By mid-May 1917, Haig’s troops had made greater advances than at any time since the start of trench warfare two and a half years earlier: 61 square miles of German-held territory, over 20,000 prisoners of war, and 252 heavy guns were taken in just over a month. The tank had become an integral part of British infantry, and the results were telling. The first German tank trial was held only that month, on 14 May at Mainz, two days before the renewed Battle of Arras ended. The Germans had finally learned to appreciate this new weapon.

On 10 August 1917, the British renewed the Ypres offensive, but the advance was impeded four days later by heavy rain. On the 16th the village of Langemarck was taken, but a German counter-attack recovered much of the gains. The initiative lay, however, with the British, who were helped in capturing the fortified German pill-boxes by the use of tanks, and also by a ferocious French diversionary attack on the German lines at Verdun, when more than 5,000 Germans were taken prisoner.

On 23 October along the Aisne, the French launched a limited but sustained attack on German positions defending the Chemin des Dames, assisted by eighty French tanks. They advanced two miles across the pulverized terrain, taking 10,000 prisoners and depriving the enemy of an important observation point at Laffaux. Among the places captured by the French was the Fort de la Malmaison, a former fortress which had been sold before the war to a private builder, for use as a stone quarry. Known as the Battle of the Quarries, the victory was what one historian has called “neat and compact and satisfying as a gift package; indeed a gift to cheer a tired and discouraged country.” The Germans, unwilling to face a protracted battle (and also because of the presence of the tanks), withdrew from the Chemin des Dames to a lower position two miles farther north.18

The British launched their third 1917 offensive on 20 November, aimed at Cambrai and beyond. A quarter of a million British troops faced similar numbers of Germans along a six-mile front. Here for the first time in the history of warfare, the main thrust of the attack was carried out by tanks: 324 took part in the opening attack. Their appearance in such numbers was effective. They crashed through barbed wire defenses and within hours had made a break in the German line. “The triple belts of wire were crossed—as if they had been beds of nettles,” Captain D.G. Browne recalled, “and 350 pathways were sheared through them for the infantry. The defenders of the front trench, scrambling out of dugouts and shelters to meet the crash and flame of the barrage, saw the leading tanks almost upon them.” The appearance of these metallic creatures, wrote Browne, was “grotesque and terrifying.” The initial success was somewhat dampened because of a design flaw whereby the tank tracks broke down after a short time in action. But the first day at Cambrai marked a decisive success for the new device to breach the enemy front line. The German defences had been broken, five miles gained, and more than 4000 soldiers taken prisoner. The British newspapers trumpeted: “Greatest British Victory of the War….A Surprise for the Germans.”19

On 5 March 1918 Churchill, now Minister of Munitions, assured Lloyd George that he would produce 4000 tanks by April 1919. Victory, WSC said, could only be certain when Britain and France had stronger and better armies than Germany: “That is the foundation on which everything rests, and there is no reason why we should not have it in 1919.”20

The first tank-to-tank battle between German and British machines was on 24 April 1918 on the Western Front. German troops, assisted by thirteen tanks, took Villers-Bretonneux; a British heavy tank knocked out its first adversary, but the others turned and fled. Seven British tanks pushed forward into the German infantry positions “and did great execution,” General Rawlinson noted in his diary. “They claim 400 killed at least.”

On the Western Front, the French were seeking to reverse the German victories of early 1918. On 30 June, south of Ambleny, the French attacked with a new type of 5 1/2-ton tank, adopting the earlier German tactic of advancing rapidly to their objective on one flank before turning back to capture the troops in the center. Only then did they search for German soldiers hiding in caves, taking a thousand prisoners.

A million American troops and military personnel were in France by the beginning of July 1918, but the month before the influenza that had begun in India and Britain reached the Western Front. Over 62,000 Americans were to die of influenza in France against 48,909 from enemy action.21

German attacks continued along the Western Front. On 17 July, when the Germans reached Nanteuil-Pourcy, Italian troops drove them off. The atmosphere at German headquarters was very different from the confidence they had held back in March. “Fairly depressed mood,” noted Col. Mertz von Quirnheim of the Operations section, and he added: “Difficult question— what is to happen from now on?” The answer came from the Allied side on the following day, 18 July, when the supreme Allied commander, Marshal Foch, launched a counter-attack along a 27-mile front. More than 200 tanks took part in the offensive. The German line gave way, driven in to a depth of 4 1/2 miles. Twenty thousand German prisoners and 400 heavy guns were captured. Jaulgonne, where the Germans had crossed the Marne six weeks earlier, was retaken by the Americans, who with the French began a northward march to Fereen-Tardenois.

On 10 August, Churchill told Lloyd George that the Tank Corps would need 100,000 men by June 1919. Allied plans for the coming year were gaining momentum. A tank factory had already been built at Chateauroux, France. Churchill, representing Britain on the Inter-Allied Munitions Council, likened the activity surrounding the production of war munitions to that of bees: “At the Ministry of Munitions we were the bees of Hell, and we stored our hives with the pure essence of slaughter. It astonishes me to read in these after years the diabolical schemes for killing men on a vast scale by machinery or chemistry to which we passionately devoted ourselves.”22

By August 1918 the tide of the war was turning in favor of the Allies. German morale was low, the Kaiser in a state of deep depression, as the Allies advanced farther and faster with the help of the tank. Gen. Haig had already pictured in his mind how he wished to fight the remainder of the war. On 10 September 1918 he asked the War Office in London for mounted men, and all forms of munitions designed to increase mobility, for a “war of movement.” The tank would certainly be involved in this type of warfare.23

The Great War came to an end with a sudden German collapse, ending with an armistice, on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, 1918. The tank had firmly established itself as a necessary weapon for use in modern warfare. From the invention of the tracked steam tractor by Benjamin Holt to Colonel Swinton’s idea of placing an armored, bullet-proof cab with machine guns on a track-type tractor, the tank was developed into a formidable fighting machine that saved lives and helped armies to advance into enemy lines.24 Its development had drastically changed methods of battle by eliminating deadly trench warfare.

After the war, museums were opened and relics of Armageddon became part of many monuments. In England, in 1924, a Tank Museum was established at Bovington, Dorset at which the very first tank, known variously to the troops as “Big Willie,” “His Majesty’s Landship Centipede” and “Mother,” was on display. Alas in 1940, when the call went out for scrap metal to feed the munitions factories, “Big Willie” was sent to the scrap heap, to become a part of shells and shrapnel of a new war.25

Unfortunately also, tank tactics and design in the interwar years gradually became the preoccupation of the Germans—with disastrous results for the French in the debacle of May 1940. Churchill saw this coming too. In 1936 he sadly exclaimed in Parliament:

The tank was a British invention. This idea, which has revolutionized the conditions of modern war, was a British idea forced on the War Office by outsiders. Let me say they would have just as hard work today to force a new idea on it. I speak from what I know. During the war we had almost a monopoly, let alone the leadership, in tank warfare, and for several years afterwards we held the foremost place. To England all eyes were turned. All that has gone now. Nothing has been done in “the years that the locust hath eaten” to equip the tank Corps with new machines.26

On 22 April 1918, Ernest Swinton, now a general, journeyed to the United States, to thank Benjamin Holt and the employees of his California plant for their contributions. The people of Stockton held a huge parade in honor of his visit. Though usually referred to as the “father of the tank,” Swinton remarked that “it was the ‘Caterpillar’ track-type tractor” which inspired his idea and helped change the course of the war.27 He would never have achieved his goal had it not been for the vision and drive of Winston Churchill. Defending the tank as a weapon that saved rather than squandered lives, Churchill deplored the disarmament conventions that declared tanks offensive weapons:

The tank was invented to overcome the fire of the machine-guns with which the Germans were maintaining themselves in France, and it saved a lot of lives in the process of eventually clearing the soil of the invader. Now, apparently, the machine-gun, which was the German weapon for holding on to thirteen provinces of France, is to be the virtuous, defensive machine-gun, and the tank, which was the means by which these lives were saved, is to be placed under the censure and obloquy of all just and righteous men.28


1. Gilbert, Martin, The First World War (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1994), 541. References to specific tank engagements are from this outstanding work by Churchill’s official biographer.

2. McRae, John Lt. Col., “In Flanders Fields,” first published in Punch, London, 7 December 1915. Written on 3 May 1915, the day after McRae witnessed the gruesome death of his friend Lt. Alexis Helmer. The full poem is in Finest Hour 121:6.

3. Gilbert, op. cit., 124.

4. Erickson, Erling A., “Origins of the Cat” in Benjamin Holt, The Story of the Caterpillar Tractor (Stockton, Calif.: University of the Pacific, 1982), 33-34.

5. Ibid., 35-36.

6. Ibid., 37.

7. Orlemann, Eric C., The Caterpillar Century (St. Paul, Minn.: MBI Publishing Co., 2003), 14-15. Letourneau, P.A. (ed.), Holt Tractors Photo Archive (Minneapolis, Minn.: Iconografix, 1993), 9.

8. Tank Development, National Archives Learning Curve. www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWtank development.htm

9. Caterpillar, Inc., The Caterpillar Story (Peoria, Ill.: Caterpillar Inc., 1984), 24.

10. Ibid., 25.

11. Tank Development, op. ct.

12. Caterpillar, Inc., op. cit., 25.

13. Humphreys, Leonard A., “Caterpillar Goes to War,” in Benjamin Holt, op. cit., 70-71.

14. Gilbert, op. cit., 229-30.

15. Ibid., 286.

16. Ibid., 286.

17. Ibid., 320-23.

18. Ibid., 331-69.

19. Ibid., 379.

20. Ibid., 402.

21. Ibid., 418-37.

22. Ibid., 442-52.

23. Ibid., 457.

24. Caterpillar, Inc., op. cit., 25.

25. Gilbert, op. cit., 533.

26. Churchill, Winston S., Arms and the Covenant (London: Harrap, 1938), 379. Speech of 12 November 1936.

27. Caterpillar, Inc., op. cit., 24.

28. Churchill, op. cit., 22. Speech of 13 May 1932. The author acknowledges with appreciation the important information in “Benjamin Holt & Caterpillar: Tracks & Combines,” American Society of Agricultural Engineers, 1984, supplied by Howard D. Hicks, Vice President Marketing, Holt Cat Inc., San Antonio, Texas.

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