The world’s first tank men are the subject of a new exhibition case now on display at The Tank Museum.
Before the Tank Corps was officially formed in July 1917 the first tank crews were raised from the Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps which was formed in March 1916.
Interpretation Officer Sarah Lambert said; “The title of this new unit was vague, but it helped ensure the secrecy that surrounded the introduction of the tank. The men of the Heavy Section were pioneers, who, with only limited training, took an untried weapon of war onto the battlefield in September 1916”. The pressure this put on the officers and crews was intense.
“One solider remarked on the `appalling demand upon the young tank officers facing the unknown`, and the story of another gives distressing proof of the acute levels of stress placed on those in command.” Sarah said. The case features the apparently tragic story of 20 year old Lieutenant Macpherson.
“According to one source, at the end of the battle,” she explained, “in the belief that he had not lived up to what was expected of him or, that in some way, he had failed – Macpherson took a gun, walked away from his stretcher in a casualty clearing station and ended his own life.”
A number of the artefacts have never been on public display before. These include an example of a tank `mascot`; a handmade mouse peculiarly dressed as a witch.
“Mascots came in all shapes and sizes,” explained Sarah. “Teddy bears, horse shoes and other objects were kept and carried into battle by crews for good luck.”
One animal carried into battle by every tank crew was a homing pigeon.
In the days before radio communication, a pigeon was the only way a tank crew could communicate information back to command posts. The display includes the equipment and instructions for sending messages by pigeon, including a signals handbook and a small metal capsule that would be strapped to the bird’s leg (shown top right).
Other objects include a single shot pistol owned by Lance Corporal Charles Nye (above right) and a ring owned by Lieutenant Basil Henriques (right).
“The pistol, which was concealed in a helmet liner, helped Nye escape from German captivity,” said Sarah. “The ring contains a glass `stone`; the glass was originally part of a vision prism and was extracted from Henriques’ face after it had been shattered by gunfire.”
The ring was worn for many years by Mrs Henriques before she donated it to The Tank Museum in the 1960’s.
The case also contains one of the surviving pieces of a Mark I tank that saw action in September 1916. The twisted slab of steel is understood to have been part of a tank named `Corunna`, which ditched in a shell hole (shown right). Abandoned in no man’s land, the tank was blasted by artillery fire and this piece was recovered in woods near to its final resting spot.
“This small exhibition aims to provide better representation of the courage and bravery of those very first tank men. They were the `few` who in 1916 took part in something truly revolutionary that was destined to have a dramatic impact on the way wars would be fought in the future,” Sarah added.