“The First Tank Crews” – Review by Mark Barnes

By Mark Barnes:

In the United Kingdom, commemorations have been underway for the centenary of tank warfare.  Whether it is wholly proper to be more or less celebrating the invention of a weapon or not is something you can decide for yourself, but while the events may have had the weapon centre stage the people that really matter are the men who served in the tanks one hundred years ago.

This immensely detailed book from Stephen Pope looks at the lives of the pioneer tank men, telling us of their service and their fate. He has built a genuinely impressive compendium of biography and the amount of research this generated is clear from the first page. Mr. Pope has worked very hard to produce a book other historians will be using for many years to come.

The use of archive photography is impressive, as are the range of sources the author has accessed to build the history. While many of the pioneers did not survive the war, a good many others lived long and productive lives and a few stayed with us long enough to tell their stories. Sadly, for many of these men, a long life was not an option. The rigours of war, not least exposure to gas and other horrors, took its toll and far too many tank veterans did not live to see middle age.

Mr. Pope describes the events of 15th September 1916 – the Battle of Flers-Courcelette – in considerable detail, using it as a base to list the crews of the tanks taking part and then building on their individual histories in war and peace.  A good many of these men fought in a number of tank actions from 1916 to 1918 and having been inside a MkIV at the Tank Museum it remains a wonder to me how they endured what they experienced. There cannot be many positive words to describe the joy of being inside a hot, noisy metal box beset by fumes and the splash of metal shards.  Some crewmen stripped to the waist to offset the heat as they slithered about on top of all their food, spare fuel, and ammunition.

To my mind, this is not an ideal cover-to-cover read. I preferred to approach it in instalments, and the format encourages this. As I said, this is an ideal biographical reference for armoured warfare historians, and there is a mass of information to take in. I am a little disappointed by the number of typos I found in the book. I don’t associate this sort of thing with this publisher and feel an additional read through was desirable. But none of this detracts from the astounding amount of research included here. The author fleshes out a group of men who would otherwise be names on lists, and it is only right they should be immortalised a century on from their moments of glory.

Tanks may have come on out of all recognition to the rhomboid leviathans of 1916, but I am sure modern tankers have nothing but respect for the disparate group of mechanics, engineers, adventurers, motorcycle enthusiasts and random candidates selected for the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps a century ago. They were a remarkable group of men as this book makes clear and such it is indispensable to students of armoured warfare.

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online


The Lives of the Tankmen Who Fought at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, 15th September 1916
By Stephen Pope
Helion & Company
ISBN: 978 1 910777 77 0

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.