Commemorating the First World War Centennial in Kansas

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Tanks for the Memories

At 0520 British Summer Time on the morning of 15 September 1916, a new epoch in the history of warfare began, as forty-nine “machine gun destroyers” belonging to a battalion of the British Army’s Machine Gun Corps (Heavy Branch) left their assembly areas opposite Courcelette, Martinpuich, and Flers. Or so the story has gone ever since, and doubtless will during the current centennial. Granting that mechanized warfare had to start somewhere, any useful assessment must include proportions, and if we include those proportions — especially the number of tanks involved and the degree of success achieved, the birth of what my former instructors at the Armor School called “The Combat Arm of Decision” does not look all that auspicious. Indeed, what we commonly see as a precursor of Guderian’s Sichelschnitt, Rybalko’s Kutuzov, Patton’s breakout, Sharon’s Gazelle and Schwarzkopf’s Desert Storm provides us with textbook examples of how not to prepare and execute any military operation let alone how not to employ armor. In the tank’s Great War baptism of fire, 16 of the 49 did not make it from the assembly area to their attack positions, becoming lost, ditched, or having thrown a track before joining the battle that they had been expected to decide. Of the 33 that crossed the line of departure, 17 either ditched or suffered mechanical failure before making contact, 6 were knocked out or damaged by enemy fire without reaching their objectives, 1 ran low on fuel in no man’s land and returned to British lines, and 1 got so lost that it wandered into another division’s sector. Rumbling forward at three and a half miles per hour, the remaining eight suppressed enough Bavarian infantry during the advance to make an impression; one tank caused enough panic among defenders of a strongpointed factory to aid in a significant haul of prisoners and another shot up an enemy battery. While the maximum gain of two miles with a haul of 400 prisoners came as a welcome tactical success to the division commanders involved, it was no more a strategically significant breakthrough than the bloodbath of 1 July had been.

Not that I’m attempting zero defects historiography; only in retrospect can we predict such “qualified successes” so accurately. For Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the pressure to salvage something on the Somme that at least remotely resembled a victory was immense. The last of the Old Contemptibles had been shredded in September 1915 on the “corpse field” of Loos and Kitchener’s hastily trained “Pals Battalions” that first saw combat there had not lived up to their billing despite reams of propaganda to the contrary. The Asquith ministry had fallen in part because of an artillery ammunition shortage and British chemical munitions, first tried at Loos, had failed just as resoundingly as the King of Battle to effect the breakthrough that Haig still sought.

It was during this strategic emergency that Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton of the Royal Engineers inherited tracked fighting vehicle development from First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. The inheritance was as indirect and complicated as most other expressions of interbranch “cooperation,” and few senior officers who knew anything about the new gadgets expected them to be game changers — at best, aids to the plodding infantry and at worst, a waste of production capacity. Machine gun destroyers, like the Admiralty’s landships, were red-haired stepchildren. One gets the impression from Swinton’s own memoirs, however accidentally, that no officer deemed indispensable by the War Office in 1915 would have landed such an appointment. He had spent his most recent tour of duty writing official — and duly distorted — news releases for the War Office under the nom de plume Eyewitness; dispatches that had lost much of their credibility once severely wounded Tommies began coming back across the Channel. Earlier, he had written a classic small unit tactics primer, The Defence of Duffer’s Drift (1904), but Swinton now found himself on the wrong side of the power curve as a project manager. His first battle in the Great War was with the Royal Engineer Corps’ Inventions Committee which, he once quipped, “had six different designs for a sandbag.” Later, when he fielded his prototype, based on the Holt Tractor’s automotive system, War Secretary Lord Kitchener dismissed it at the proving ground as a “pretty mechanical toy.” Not until late 1916 did institutional conservatism give enough ground to desperation for a battalion of 28-ton Mark Is to see action.

We of the F-35 generation are well aware that inventors and their adherents are often the last to realize that their gizmos du jour are not silver bullets. So, too, do most postmodern civilians grasp the basics of bureaucratic dynamics; we’ve all seen procurement agencies accept innovations while dismissing the innovator’s caveats. As the man in charge of the machine gun destroyer’s development and testing, Swinton had two.

First, there would be no war-winning breakthrough and pursuit unless the commander in the field employed massive numbers of tanks simultaneously and in concentrated formations. At least three hundred machines supporting each other by fire as they advanced across carefully selected terrain would be needed against trench systems which, by late 1916, had increased in depth and complexity. While “male” machine gun destroyers armed with six pounder guns neutralized enemy machine gun nests, “females” equipped with .303 caliber machine guns were to keep enemy infantry away from the males. Both were nearly blind by modern standards of armored fighting vehicle design. The driver and vehicle commander used vision slits — holes in the armor — through which they could only see to their direct front and 45 degrees to either side. Gun placement was similarly awkward; all six pounders and most of the machine guns were mounted in sponsons on each side, radically limiting traverse. Without a turret capable of 360 degree rotation, an individual gunner on a Mark I might easily lose sight of his target before completing the engagement, and for this reason alone, nearby accompanying tanks were anything but a luxury. Swinton had also considered the machine’s range limitations, mechanical unreliability, and the proving ground’s unrealistically friendly terrain. Not only did he expect the tank’s chances in battle to worsen as its numbers decreased, but he also warned that a small scale trial run would provide the enemy with a chance to develop countermeasures. It was despite these reservations that tanks debuted when they did. Haig was too desperate to wait any longer.

Second, because the crews had such a limited view of the battlefield, nearby infantrymen would have to help acquire targets and communicate their location to the nearest vehicle. This made coordination with infantry — and therefore training with infantry — essential, as indicated in several of Swinton’s early writings. Unfortunately, the infantry units with which the tanks were to operate were already deployed to France when the tank crews underwent their training in England. Security concerns compounded the problem. That machine gun destroyers were disassembled and put in crates marked “Desert Water Carrier,” “Water Tank,” and ultimately “Tank” for shipment is one of pop history’s set pieces. Less frequently related are the security-oriented constraints on training once the machines and their crews had arrived in theater. Even after the unloading and reassembly, the requisite degree of training never took place for fear that spies would tip off the Germans and spoil the surprise. On its face, this was an understandable concern, but the same authorities that forbade intensive tank-infantry training also invited some very highly placed French officials to a not-so-secret demonstration. As with the question of “how many,” higher echelons strayed from the recommended training schedule.

The consequent waste of potential on 15 September 1916 is undeniable but, as noted earlier, this former tanker is not a member of the “how could they have been so stupid” school. The Flers-Courcelette operation, which kicked off Phase III of Haig’s Somme Offensive, was Haig’s attempt to extricate the BEF from a predicament largely of his own making. Failing to use all available assets would not only have been inexcusable at the time, but difficult for posterity to understand. In contrast, Haig’s refusal to employ the tanks later, as their designers and operators had recommended, is quite understandable, even though Fuller and Liddell Hart never forgave him for his “stone age ideas.” Yes, as Swinton had warned, the Germans put their tactical and technical genius to good use after September 1916, developing countermeasures. More often lamented by armor purists over the years, Fuller’s “Plan 1919” ultimately became more popular with the Germans than the British and would have to wait for another war. But the most general lesson to be drawn from all this is not about Douglas Haig, his detractors, or mechanization’s potential on that day. Rather it is that one should avoid betting the house on cutting edge military technology if its users have not prepared properly.

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