The centenary of the first use of tanks in combat was commemorated in London on 15th September. Needless to say, our man Mark Barnes made sure he had a good view of proceedings.
A century ago a group of men tagged the Band of Brigands turned the military world upside down when they lumbered across the lunar landscape of the Somme at what became known as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. It was 15th September 1916 when a number of the new wonder weapons –“the tanks” – headed out to support British and Commonwealth infantry attacking German positions.
The day did not go perfectly, but the few tanks that could get into action had a profound impact on friend and foe alike. Tank warfare had arrived and a stunned world looked on in shock and awe. The musings of HG Wells and other visionaries had become fact.
The tanks were crewed by men of the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps and the Army Service Corps. These pioneers had been trained to use their ‘cars’ in secret and had learned to fire the six pounder guns of Male tanks at sea with the Royal Navy. It is recorded that the first crews spent far too much time exhibiting the weapon for VIPs, including King George V, who made a brief journey in one; quickly assessing he didn’t need to repeat the exercise.
Despite possessing impressive manoeuvrability for the time, many tanks were defeated by mechanical frailties and the horrific state of the battlefield in those early actions and many more fell prey to German artillery, notably the 77mm gun which would grow a fraction into the world’s best-known artillery piece in just a couple of decades.
A hundred years on and tanks and armoured warfare are as everyday as toothpaste and cell phones. They are just there, taken for granted and relatively unremarkable. But the events of 1916 needed to be commemorated and the good people at the Tank Museum, Bovington, were out in force to shepherd their MkIV replica on its slow and clanky journey from London’s Trafalgar Square to a spot on Horse Guards Parade where it was displayed with a modern Challenger 2.
The anniversary day proved to be a scorcher and what it was like crewing the tank in sweltering sunshine is something to consider. Trafalgar Square may have been cool at first light but by the time the formalities started it was already baking. The first tanks were known as landships so it was appropriate to have one sitting in the shadow of Nelson but this was no ordinary beast. The Tank Museum’s original examples are, sadly, too frail to run these days and so the replica is used as an authentic substitute.
I can’t say I am a massive fan of Spielberg’s adaptation of War Horse but the working replica Mark IV is an impressive bit of kit. It looks and moves like the real thing and at two inches shorter than the original; it has all the presence of a genuine tank. The vehicle is built around the engine and running gear of a Hyundai digger and I have to assume it is a lot quieter than the landships of Lincoln it mimics.
Tank100 was organised by the Tank Museum with the support of political figures and in conjunction with the guys at Wargaming.net. While I was chatting with friends I saw a number of politicos present but the stand out chap of the day was Winston Churchill’s grandson Lord Soames, himself a former tanker; who made a stirring speech honouring the pioneers of a century ago.
By 1100 it was time for the tank to make its way to Horse Guards and there followed the extraordinary experience of seeing it slowly lumber round past the statue of King Charles I and through Admiralty Arch at the foot of The Mall where it stopped for a press photo opportunity. There was a bit of a media scrum managed with stoicism by mounted Met Police officers but it all passed off peacefully and I’m sure everyone got their shots.
After this, the tank was put on a low loader for a short hop to Horse Guards. The tank was not permitted to run on the newly laid pink road surface on The Mall and matting was used to cover the short distance it travelled before getting on the trailer.
Once on the parade ground, the next surprise was the appearance of the Band of the Coldstream Guards who marched up in fine style and played “My Boy Willie”, the Royal Tank Regiment march. I hope they all got a few cold beers later because they deserved plenty after marching and playing in that heat while wearing bearskins and scarlet tunics. Top marks!
It was time for lunch and so I headed down Whitehall to the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre on Parliament Square where the chaps from Wargaming put on a fine buffet lunch and a series of talks on the history of the early tanks by Tank Museum director Richard Smith and the well-known historian and WHO blogger Dan Snow. This was followed by an update on the latest developments in the Wargaming virtual arsenal.
Then it was time to breeze back along Whitehall to Horse Guards to see if anything was happening. There were very few tourists around and even fewer press. I only noted the Tank Museum’s snapper, Matt, and a couple of army chaps. So, it was really nice when a party from the Household Cavalry appeared, including two on horseback, to pose up with the tanks along with members of the Royal Tank Regiment wearing their distinctive black uniforms.
The chaps from the Blues & Royals looked magnificent and I doubt I’ll ever photograph such a scene again. For me this was the icing on a very delicious cake.
How the many tourists viewed all this I do not know, but for me it was one of the most memorable experiences I have enjoyed in around twenty years of covering this sort of nonsense. To my mind it was a privilege to be part of such a historic day and this was confirmed by the array of smiles on the faces of Tank Museum staff who could breathe at last and set aside any anxiety about how things would go. They all did a fantastic job in producing a one off and I congratulate them for giving us a classic day I will never forget.
I like to think those pioneers of a century ago would be pleased that they have never been forgotten. The Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps became the Tank Corps and then the Royal Tank Regiment. Their motto is “Fear Naught” and it is as true today as it was a hundred years ago when the pioneers first fought their way through mud and blood to the green fields beyond. Here’s to them.
With thanks to Suzanne Make, Roz Skellorn, Nik Wyness and Frazer Nash.