Tanks are a modern army's ultimate display of ground superiority. Powerful, well armoured and agile, these combat units dominate open ground warfare and are a force to be reckoned with. However, there was a time when they were not exactly envisioned as such.
The history behind the tank goes a long way back from the doodles of Leonardo da Vinci to the 1903 Strand Magazine’s fictitious “land ironclads” by H.G. Wells and the developed Simms Motor War Car. The tank’s transition from an unrealistic conception to a full-fledged war machine was brought about by World War I in an attempt to loosen the grip of the trench warfare deadlock on the Western Front.
Combat during World War I consisted primarily of trench warfare which was at that point in time, dominated by machine guns and mortar. Each side saw the need to break out of the stalemate of trench warfare and try to gain the upper hand in mobile warfare once again. The idea of mobile protection and firepower for armies was a realisation of an ancient concept, inspired by armoured knights and horses of medieval times.
Both the British and French explored and developed the idea at around the same time although separately from each other. Early tanks were designed and envisioned to go over the barbed wires, trenches and machine guns and crossing into a no-man's-land over to the enemy territories. As such, these 'Land Battleships' were to be mobile fortresses acting as a support for the advancement of infantry units. However, the Western Front’s dismaying terrain conditions often hindered mobility and equipment; therefore it led to the development of track-laying vehicles to be used as gun tractors which eventually evolved to the tank as an offensive weapon.
The first tank prototype to be produced in history was known as Little Willie and was designed by the British. It had no less than six crewmembers, a 2-pounder gun and six machine guns. With improvements, the next design "Mother" became what many of us recognise as the first tank. It went through many changes ranging from Mark I to X and they differed from one another in terms of armament, engine, and armour. The Mark I was first used in the Somme Offensive on September 15, 1915 during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. They had great psychological impact on the soldiers but in truth, provided little tactical advantage.
France's first tanks were the Schneider and the Saint-Chamond. These two designs were largely unsuccessful as almost all the Schneider tanks put in battle during the Nivelle Offensive were taken out by German artillery. The Renault FT that came later in the war pioneered the standard of having the main armament on a rotating turret. It was cheap to manufacture and had such a good design that it was used up until the end of World War II.
The Germans on the other hand, only had a few tanks during World War I, namely 20 Sturmpanzer-Kraftwagen which was also known as A7V. It was a fortress of a tank, albeit oddly box shaped and armed with a 57mm gun and six machine guns. The A7Vs were made too little and too late to make a significant impact on the war.
All these early designs were lessons learned during the Great War and some nations went on to capitalize on the potential of tanks after the war, thus giving rise to the birth of the tank as a mainstay force of armies around the world today.
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