First Use of Tanks in World War I
First Use of Tanks in World War I
On September 15, 1916, the first tanks were used in the World War I Battle of the Somme.
The Battle of the Somme was fought from July 1 to November 18, 1916, along the banks of the Somme River in northern France. It was the Allies’ planned decisive breakthrough of the German line in France. According to the plan, the British would attack along a 15-mile front north of the Somme River while the French battled along an eight-mile front to the south of it.
Prior to the start of the battle, the Allies fired constant artillery on the German lines for several weeks. The British commanders grew so confident that they told their troops to walk slowly toward the German lines. However, the Allies failed to conceal their preparations and the continued attacks gave the Germans ample warning of the battle to come. While the German forces fortified their trenches, many of the British shells didn’t explode.
Once the shelling ended, the German troops left their bunkers and took their positions as the 11 British divisions walked toward them. But they were soon met with nonstop machine gun fire. Though a few British units managed to reach the German trenches, they were driven back before they could cause any major damage.
By the end of that first day, the British suffered 60,000 casualties, 20,000 of which were killed. This marked their largest single-day loss of the war. The loss was keenly felt in neighborhoods across Britain as many of the troops had enlisted in “pals battalions,” made up of men who joined together with the promise of serving with their school chums, coworkers or close friends as a unit.
Meanwhile, the French advance to the south was more successful as they had more guns and faced weaker defenses. But without British backup, they were forced to fall back as well. The battle sat in a bloody stalemate for the next two months.
A year before the battle, the Allies had already begun developing a new type of weapon for the battlefield. It would be an ironclad vehicle with caterpillar tracks from a tractor that could travel across long battlefields and break through enemy defenses. This new machine was codenamed a tank, as in a water tank, to prevent enemy forces from discovering the Allies were actually working on a new weapon.
The first tanks were completed and tested in the spring of 1916. It was dark and hot inside the tank and the noise, dust, and smell of gas made it even more unpleasant for the four-man crew.
The first tanks appeared on the battlefield on September 15 at Flers Courcelette. The large noisy machines that rolled across the battlefield shocked men on both sides. One observer recalled, “We heard strange throbbing noises, and lumbering slowly towards us came three huge mechanical monsters such as we had never seen before.” (Click here for his full eyewitness account.)
About 35 primitive tanks drove more than a mile into enemy lines. However, they were slow and quickly began to break down as the Germans launched their own counterattack. Though the tanks didn’t fare that well in their first appearance, British commanders were convinced that they would be crucial to future warfare and ordered that hundreds more be produced.
After a month of nonstop rain in October, the battle came to an end in mid-November with the Allies gaining just five miles. Despite the high number of casualties (615,000 Allies), many considered it a win as it eventually forced the Germans to drop their offensive at Verdun.
Click here to see what the first tanks looked like.
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