From the St. Chamond to the AMX-10, the AV7 to Krauss-Maffei Leopard 2; today we officially kick off Tank Week — World War I tanks are a good place to start.
This article first ran Monday, September 12, 2016.
I had been a tanker for nine years when I deployed to Iraq. When I was mobilized, I was all giddy about the chance to get into the commander’s station of an Abrams and smoke some insurgents. But god hates me, so I wound up in a Humvee on a convoy escort team; until then, I never thought I’d envy anyone in a Bradley. When I deployed to Iraq my beloved Texas 49th Armored Division had had been stripped of all its tanks and become my beloved 36th Infantry Division, and by Afghanistan I had reclassed into a HUMINT job working with infantry units. I was close enough to lovingly admire French tanks in combat, but never managed to talk my way into one for a mission (it was kinda hard to justify putting an American intel weenie who spoke crappy French into a French tank). But I was still privileged to have seen tanks in combat. Watching AMX-10s blast Taliban positions made me feel the same love and joy I’m sure British troops felt when they watched huge Mark I tanks punch through German lines in 1916.
A hundred years after the tank’s baptism of fire, many aspects of tanking are little changed from when the first steel British beasts crossed the line of departure at Flers during the Battle of the Somme. Tank crews still work as if their lives depend on each other, because they do. Tanks are still cramped, uncomfortable and hot as Hades during summer. A tank will still kill a careless crewman, and in a fight between a tanker’s limb and a rotating turret the turret still always wins. A tanker still spends about 2% of his time shooting stuff/blowing stuff up/running over stuff/generally doing cool things, 23% of his time zeroing/boresighting, and 4,622% of his time pulling maintenance.
The infantry’s perception of tankers probably hasn’t changed much either. The tank’s battlefield debut wasn’t the most impressive as far as British grunts were concerned, and probably sparked the image of the trigger-happy tanker with lots of ammo but little sense. We tankers like to imagine ourselves as Brad Pitt with the genitals of Ron Jeremy, and we can do a hell of a lot of damage to the enemy in a very short amount of time, but from day one we’ve had to fight against anti-tanker stereotypes and nicknames like “DAT” (Dumb Ass Tankers,) or the more modern CDAT (for Computerized Dumb Ass Tankers).
Where did those tanker stereotypes come from? Probably the very first tank action in the history of warfare.
Fifty British Mark I tanks rolled toward German lines on September 15th, 1916 (exactly 73 years before I graduated from Marine boot camp, which can’t be a coincidence), and fifteen of those tanks broke down before getting anywhere near the enemy. Three tanks which did reach the battlefield immediately sprayed machine gun rounds into the first trench they encountered – which happened to be British. A witness described history’s first tank/infantry blue-on-blue:
“Instead of going on to the German lines the three tanks assigned to us straddled our front line, stopped and then opened up a murderous machine gun fire, enfilading us left and right. There they sat, squat monstrous things, noses stuck up in the air, crushing the sides of our trench out of shape with their machine guns swiveling around and firing like mad.
Everyone dived for cover, except the colonel. He jumped on top of the parapet, shouting at the top of his voice, ‘Runner, runner, go tell those tanks to stop firing at once. At once, I say.’ By now the enemy fire had risen to a crescendo but, giving no thought to his personal safety as he saw the tanks firing on his own men, he ran forward and furiously rained blows with his cane on the side of one of the tanks in an endeavour to attract their attention.”
The noob tankers eventually figured out they had a slight PID issue and moved on toward the nearby Huns, except for one tank which got hung up on a tree stump. The stricken tank’s crew helped create Tanker Stereotype #2, the belief that we’re all about rolling around and shooting stuff but not too keen to fight on foot.
“The four men in the tank that had got itself hung up dismounted, all in the heat of the battle, stretching themselves, scratching their heads, then slowly and deliberately walked round their vehicle inspecting it from every angle and appeared to hold a conference among themselves. After standing around for a few minutes, looking somewhat lost, they calmly took out from the inside of the tank a primus stove and, using the side of the tank as a cover from enemy fire, sat down on the ground and made themselves some tea. The battle was over as far as they were concerned.”
Tanking in WW1 wasn’t all fun, games, friendly fire and tea though. While British tanks initially “[frightened] the Jerries out of their wits and [made] them scuttle like frightened rabbits”, ze Germans ain’t no punks; they quickly figured out ways to fight back. Going against the Boche in a tank pretty much sucked, partly because the first tanks had internally-exposed engines that raised internal temperature as high as 122 degrees, were ear-piercingly loud inside, and produced enough exhaust to nearly asphyxiate the crew. But mostly it sucked because tank armor could stop bullets and small shell fragments but wasn’t too effective against direct-fired artillery or mines. Once German troops quit panicking, they directed every last weapon they had against tanks. Crews wore specially-developed helmets and masks to protect themselves from the spall that hull impacts inevitably produced, but those don’t appear to have saved many lives.
Not long after that first day of armored warfare, tankers began dying the way we still do: trapped inside a burning steel coffin, or machine-gunned while trying to escape from it.
British planners hoped tanks would punch through German trenches, after which cavalrymen would live out their dream of winning the war by running loose in the enemy’s vulnerable rear areas. Alas, that hoped-for victory couldn’t have been brought about by committing fifty tanks to assault one isolated area of the Western Front. Two years after tanks fired their first shots in anger, British, German, French and American tankers were still chugging across no-man’s land in armored beasts that could barely move faster than a walk but drew fire from every weapon within miles.
After being shocked into retreat the first time they faced tanks, German troops thought, “Hmmm. These things are actually kinda cool. Maybe we could, oh, make our own tanks and bring some blitz into this krieg.” So they made their only tank of the war, the A7V, which was notable for how badly it sucked. British tanks had a rhomboid shape that helped them clear trenches and other obstacles, but the flat tracks of the A7V virtually guaranteed it would get stuck in the artillery-battered moonscape of the Western Front. Early German panzers did have cool paint jobs, though.
The Germans made only twenty A7Vs, and they were such pieces of crap that the British scrapped those they captured. The Germans, on the other hand, used more captured British tanks than they used their own.
The French produced two poorly-suited monstrosities, the Schneider and St. Chamond. Like the A7V, they were also prone to being stuck in the mud, trenches and churned-up terrain of the battlefield. In one attack the French committed 132 Schneiders, most of which apparently got stuck. Over half were then destroyed by German artillery.
However, the French figured something out before anyone else did: on WW1 battlefields, lighter, faster tanks were better. So they produced the Renault FT-17, a tiny two-man vehicle that became the most successful tank of the war. The Brits later produced a similar light tank called a Whippet.
When America decided to rescue the world by joining the fight in 1917 (maybe I’m being a bit too ‘Murica by phrasing it that way), many doughboys wound up going to war in French Renaults. One of those doughboys was then-Lieutenant Colonel, later General, George “slap a psychiatric casualty” Patton.
The FT-17 was so successful it wound up serving many different militaries for decades. Four such tanks from the Polish Army were reportedly captured by the Soviet Union in 1920 and given to the Afghan military in 1923. Two of those were presented to the US military as a gift in 2003, and as far as I can tell are now on display at the Patton Museum at Ft. Knox.
In April 1918, three German A7Vs unexpectedly encountered three British Mark IV tanks, and the world saw its first tank battle. Two of the Brit tanks were armed with only machine guns and had to withdraw, but the third disabled one A7V and forced the other two to retreat. The victorious British tank was then disabled and abandoned, and both disabled tanks were later recovered by their owners. All in all, the first tank fight was pretty much a draw.
One tank fight that wasn’t a draw occurred near Flesquieres, France in 1918. A British tank was hit, five of its crew killed, and the entire tank was buried (for some unknown reason) after the war. In 1998 a local French historian who grew up hearing rumors about the buried tank found it, recovered it, and turned it into a museum exhibit. The damage inflicted on that tank gives us a good idea of the dangers faced by WW1 tankers.
Since those dark days of World War I, tanks have fought all over the world. Tankers have led invasions and amphibious assaults, defended vulnerable perimeters, and secured critical logistical routes. A single Soviet tank held up the entire 6th German Panzer Division for a full day outside Raseiniai, Lithuania, during Operation Barbarossa. American tankers burned through the Iraqi Army like a donut through Rosie O’Donnell during Desert Storm, and as we speak Iraqi tankers are smoking ISIS VBIEDs for sport. But for some reason, our infantry brothers still think of tankers as fat, slow, and stupid. Why is that?
In part, it’s because a hundred years ago a few British tankers shot up the wrong trench, got stuck on a tree stump, quit the fight and had tea instead. Thanks a lot, guys. Thanks a friggin’ lot.
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