TANK BATTLES OF WORLD WAR I – Review by Mark Barnes

This book was published over forty years ago by Ian Allan and back then it was presented in a larger format fitting in perfectly with the books the publisher was synonymous for.  I still have a number of books a teenaged me acquired in what was a golden age for the likes of Ian Allan.  The author of this book also wrote The Ironclads of Cambraianother much admired tank history of the era.

A lifetime later and Bryan Cooper’s work is now available from Pen & Sword. The format has changed to suit their standard gauge but this book is more or lessin keeping with how it will have looked when I had long hair and seemed to be permanently attached to the Dark Side of the Moon. The new dust jacket claims the original is much sought after and we can see why reprints of these books take place when copies of originals are selling for a healthy price. The book had been out of print for thirty years.

I didn’t know much about Bryan Cooper and did a bit of surfing to find he is an immensely prolific writer who when he wasn’t writing histories was penning episodes of TV and radio shows. He even wrote some of the classic Captain Scarlet series for Gerry Anderson. I find this all very impressive.

The book itself is a true product of its time. The writing is no nonsense and punchy and the archive photography has been used skilfully, although I found a captioning error in this edition.  What we have is a fast paced and well researched read it is difficult to criticise in the context of the 1970s but we are now a long way down the line in terms of analysis in an era of histories that benefit from a much more scholarly approach coupled with access to a wider range of sources of information.

I have to tread carefully through the minefield of revisionism that has presented a different picture of people and events far away from what was the party line in perception of the British high command and its decisions that prevailed when this book was written. It is a fact that much of the dogma about everything from Douglas Haig to weapons such as tanks and machine guns has been blown wide open thanks to a group of modern historians who have been able to set aside a lot of what had become established fact to present a fuller picture of the Great War.

I was at a talk given by a respected journalist a while ago where he poured scorn on the revisionists (to the dismay of quite a few present) because I guess it really is hard even for men of great experience and integrity to abandon almost a century of history dictated by the vested interests of Basil Liddle Hart, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.  The writers of forty years ago had little choice but to quote some of the myths set in stone by that unholy trinity written bravely after the death of Douglas Haig. I am not suggesting Haig was a great tactical and strategic genius traduced in death, far from it.  But modern day historians have rubbished a lot of the chestnuts attached to Haig and his armies and even though there will always be disciples of mythology, a more considered history is becoming increasingly available.

This does not mean for one minute that I am tearing this particular book apart, not a bit of it. Mr Cooper’s book is otherwise excellent and accessible and it has been a source for many tank warfare histories in the modern era. Books like this have to be read, not just because they are bloody good reads but because they allow students of history to assess how the telling of it develops and this is vital.

Mr Cooper’s account of the birth of tanks and their introduction on the Somme followed by Arras,Cambrai and the events of 1918 is absolutely fine by itself until you care to read recent works like Band of Brigands or Bryn Hammond’s masterful history of the battle of Cambrai.

Even modern writers do not gloss over the mistakes and prejudices of the men who suspected that tanks were nothing more than a fad. It was a time when manliness and sporting prowess were admired much more than brains and guile where modern weapons with all their attendant horrors were like some kind of aberration that would soon be forgotten. But you cannot uninvent things any more than you can reinvent the wheel. There were enough men leading Britain’s war to realise the genie was out of the bottle but they faced a phalanx of enemies at home quite apart from anyone else they may have had to fight.

Tanks were very new and only a few people had anything like the vision of how to use them and the powerful gift of hindsight has allowed critics to immolate the reputations of the men for whom armoured warfare represented an enormous challenge.

Tanks were limited by geography and technology in ways it would take a couple of decades to put right. Mr Cooper doesn’t compare Elles’ rhomboids to Guderianand his panzers but the temptation has defeated others and the casualties of the Great War add ammunition to the impression that Haig and his generals were blind to what the tanks they had could do. The fact is some were and some were not.  But it became so much easier to assume they all had their heads in the sand. Haig actually had the habit of wanting just about any new weapons presented to him and was frustrated by how long it took things to arrive in numbers that would have an impact.  He was no prophet, but he was no doubting Thomas, either. The all arms victories of the Hundred Days underline this.

So why buy this book? It is a great read and the author gathered a good many interesting stories to help it rattle along. The pictures are excellent and the book is in itself a little piece of history. They nearly always don’t write them like this anymore.  There is plenty to learn here and it should springboard you on to the modern writing on the subject.

I was on Salisbury Plain recently watching a huge British Army exercise that saw over seven hundred vehicles, most of it tracked armour, rumble by while I stood drinking tea with my mate Paul.  It’s a shallow point, perhaps, to wonder what the men of 1916-18 would have made of the Challenger II and the Warrior. But we now live in a time when Britain has abandoned tank manufacturing altogether and looking back to those heady days in Lincoln when the old city was at the centre of new technology that would change the face of warfare we should take pride in what was achieved even if it has taken decades to truly appreciate how these advances were understood at the time.

I really like this book and think any students of Great War tanks should read it.

But even the absolute classics I treasure from across military history such as TheLongest Dayare shown to be the foundation of things and not the bottom line and I am sure Mr Cooper himself would agree.

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.

By Bryan Cooper
Pen & Sword
ISBN: 978 1 47382 562 8

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.