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The Centenary of Tanks

The year was 1916. For many months, several European nations were bogged down in bloody and costly trench warfare. Both sides charged across no man's land every day, exposing themselves to deadly and effective gunfire and artillery. Thousands of soldiers died day after day, and each attack only drove their enemies a few hundred metres back to the next line of trenches. This settled into a costly stalemate between the two sides.

However, the Allies were busy working on a way to break the stalemate. Out of necessity, a revolutionary weapon - a demon of technological warfare - was developed by the British. To hide its true purpose from enemy spies, the new weapon was given a special name that would have misled any prying eyes into believing it was a container for water: the "tank".

Four technological inventions with one common link permitted the development of this armoured vehicle. They are as follows:

Tracks

Historians have not been able to definitively identify the first person to invent tracks. Some believe that the French engineer D'Herman introduced the “new type track” in 1713. This track featured a chain of log rollers. Others believe that Anglo-Irish Richard Lovell Edgeworth was the first to conceptualise a continuous track with wheels and chains half a century later. This invention was never patented, but the design principle behind this new kind of suspension was never forgotten.

From the early 19th century, dozens of engineers working independently of each other began designing and improving all sorts of track designs. Long before the creation of the first tanks, track suspensions had spread worldwide as a way of propelling heavy vehicles over unpaved terrain. The scientist Robert Scott used motorised sledges with tracks during the British Antarctic Expedition.

Many tracked vehicles were used for commercial purposes during World War I. Aside from vehicles for commercial purposes (such as haulers and tractors), some experimental blueprints were also created, which turned out to be rather strange. For example, one blueprint existed for the installation of tracks on the Ilya Muromets heavy bomber to enable it to take off from any surface.

Tracks built on the existing potential of wheels by allowing them to cross all kinds of terrain. However, they would have never become so popular had it not been for the steam engine.

Engines

There was no single event where the invention of the engine occurred. The first steam turbines showed up during the Middle Ages as a toy. The Scotsman James Watt patented the first steam machine in the 18th century. Although it featured low horsepower (10 h.p.), that was enough to change the way the world moved.

Engineers began equipping railless vehicles (including military ones) with steam engines. In the middle 19th century, steam trucks were used to facilitate military logistics operations. Over time, their drawbacks became obvious: to move more goods, they needed more power. To get more power, they needed large boilers. Large boilers made vehicles extremely bulky and heavy, so they needed a new form of propulsion that was more compact.

At this time, having been improved by talented engineers for more than a century, the combustion engine came to the rescue.

At the same time, chemists were working on a proper fuel for this new engine. The first idea was to use some sort of spirit or turpentine. However, refined oil replaced them as fuel sources. The Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev was rather doubtful about using petroleum. He is often quoted as saying that burning petroleum as fuel was "akin to firing up a kitchen stove with bank notes."

Regardless, the fuel was adopted. The German engineers Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach developed the gasoline carburetor engine. Rudolf Diesel became famous seven years later for developing an engine of his own design, known as the Diesel engine. The age of oil-fuelled engines was dawning. Because the engine is the heart of any vehicle, it became necessary to protect it as well. Armour was needed to protect the engine from incoming fire.

Armour

Engineering successes in the 19th century facilitated advancements in metallurgical engineering. Armoured plating was invented, which was initially intended for use on naval vessels fleet and fortifications. In 1856, the Russian mechanic Vasily Pyatov invented the first rolling mills designed specifically for armour plates. One year later, a Belgian army officer and military engineer named Henri Alexis Brialmont suggested equipping the fortress at Antwerp with armoured turret emplacements. Later on, fortresses in many countries also equipped such turrets.

Local wars of the late 19th century showed militaries around the world that defences had to constantly be improved. Otherwise, a well-armed attacker would easily breach it. Armour plates of concrete became very popular. From 1885 through 1887, the German engineers Hermann Gruson and Maximillian Schumann developed the 5.3 cm L/24 Fahrpanzer mobile artillery piece. Soldiers felt rather critical about the vehicle, since their opinion was that “a mobile artillery piece is not an emplacement." This artillery piece may seem to be a predecessor to the tank, but this is not entirely correct because it was not a self-propelled vehicle.

The three abovementioned inventions would never have become a complete tank if not for the achievements of military engineers.

Armament

High quality steel became a very popular material two centuries ago, which opened up new horizons for engineers. Rifled barrels, recoil systems, and breech loading were invented. Each of these inventions brought significant improvements to guns of all calibres. The first Maxim machineguns became known all over the Old World in 1893, having been used in the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition and the First Matabele War.

Initially, the more conservative European military leaders did not like the new gun. Its main flaws, they said, were high ammunition consumption and vulnerability to artillery fire. However, its high and sustainable rate of fire (600 rounds per minute) was a significant reason for adopting the gun. All leading countries embarked on purchasing and manufacturing the Maxim machineguns to bolster their nations' fighting capabilities.

The first armoured vehicles were equipped with machineguns and even high-calibre guns. These vehicles were not well-received initially. Even if someone had invented a tank at the turn of the 20th century, the project would not have been successful. They simply did not see the purpose of a self-propelled armoured vehicle with weapons.

The four abovementioned inventions required a particular reason for employing a vehicle that incorporated all of the above inventions. Unfortunately, it did not take very long for this reason to show itself.

The Fifth Element

Before tanks were put into service, trench warfare was a common form of warfare. In this form of warfare, a single machinegun was able to prevent an entire regiment from advancing. “Battalion after battalion attacked, only to prove a little more thorouhlgy that a frontal assault against wire and machineguns produces nothing but casualties- and a few medals for bravery among the survivors," said The Infantry Journal, Incorporated (1939). In 1916, ten British Vickers machineguns fired about one million rounds during a single battle, demonstrating the power of the machinegun.

The narrow neutral zone between the opposing parties - no man's land - was a terrible mess! Overturned earth and overlapping shell craters (flooded and non-flooded) were everywhere. It resembled the surface of the moon. An infantryman could hardly cross it! 

They needed a weapon that could cross no man's land on their own, spearheading the attack and protecting infantry all the way to the enemy trench. Thereafter, the infantry could fight their way through enemy defences and seize territory from the enemy. The weapon that broke the quagmire of trench warfare was the tank.

Remember, Tank Commanders: history is always relevant!

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