As part of the Somme offensive, 49 tanks were used on September 15, 1916, for the first time in warfare. The Allies attacked German lines in the vicinity of the villages of Flers and Courcelette in Northern France and Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British forces, had ordered all tanks then available to assist in the attack. The British Mark I heavy tank was so unreliable that only 27 actually made it to the German front lines, but the few tanks that made it to the thick of the fighting showed how useful this technological breakthrough could be.

As for the public back home, there were a lot of rumours about what these machines actually looked like and about how useful they were. Little real information from the front made it past the military censors. Layers of propaganda from British and German sources further confused the issue. But on October 28, 1916, Scientific American published a photograph of a tank that had been involved in the fighting; for most of our readers it was their first image of an actual tank (some images of tanks had appeared in daily newspapers in the previous two weeks). Here’s the text that accompanied the image (this is the full article as published):

“‘Land Cruisers’ in the Battle of the Somme

‘Tanks’ they have been dubbed by the mass of British fighting men at the front; but among the more discerning minority they have more aptly been set down as ‘land cruisers.’

“And such in truth they are, as a brief study of this, the very first photograph of the new war machine to be published, will show. For, like the fighting ship of the seas, it is built solely of steel, and from deck to keel is plated with armor sufficient to protect its vitals against such projectiles as are likely to come its way. Dissect the naval cruiser, and you will find that its vitals (engines, magazines, steering gear, etc.) are contained within a sort of inverted, armored box, consisting of sides, ends and roof. So in the land cruiser the engines, fuel tanks, steering gear, ammunition supplyto say nothing of the crew, are all snugly sheltered from the bullets of the enemy, from whatever direction they may come, even if from above.

“Like the ship, the ‘tank’ is steered by means of a rudder at the stern—represented by the pair of wheels in the forefront of the picture—for the view is taken from the rear, not the front of the machine. Possibly the steering is also done by the separate manipulation of the tractor belts.

“And lastly, to make the parallel complete, the battery of Maxim guns is mounted in two sponsons amidship, one on each broadside. So strict is the parallel here, that we may describe the concentration of fire in true shipshape fashion by saying that the land cruiser has a bow and stern fire of four guns and a fire of three guns on each broadside.

“The machine is driven by two broad caterpillar belts, which extend for its full length. An interesting feature is the upward inclination of the forward one third of the belts, at an angle, apparently, of between 30 and 40 degrees. It is this feature which enables the cruiser to ‘breast a heavy sea’—that is to say climb over a bank, or lift itself out of a shell hole. For when the rear two thirds of its length is resting on one side of the shell hole, or battered down trench, the upwardly sloping forward third is bedded against the other side, and because of the heavy grip of its tractor belt, exerts a powerful lifting effect, which carries the front end of the machine up the slope.

“The photograph shows a land cruiser in distress. The right-hand belt has parted, and the broken end, evidently, has caught in the machine. As it moved forward, and the belt was drawn over the double sprocket wheel (plainly discernible in the photograph) the belt was pushed up into a loop, clear of the rail.

“The upward slope at the front end explains the feats of crushing down trees, walls, and even buildings; for the machine would begin to climb up on an obstacle, using its own great weight to bend over and crush down everything in its path.”

This image is peculiar in at least one respect: looking closely at this British Mark I tank, the two machine-gun ports visible are filled with what looks like 4x4 lumber. We can only speculate about why they were placed there. The right-hand track is clearly disabled. The wheels in the back were originally thought to aid in steering the vehicle. The structure on top was strung with wire and was designed to keep grenades off the roof of the vehicle.

This particular tank is probably tank C16 (named “Corunna”), commanded by 2nd Lt. Eric Purdy of the Machine-Gun Company. With two other tanks it attacked German lines near Combles and Leuze Wood on September 15. The right-hand track was knocked out by an artillery shell, but the crew, in their disabled tank, kept fighting with their machine guns for another five hours until advancing infantry relieved them. Because the tank could not be moved, the crew removed the tank’s weapons and set fire to it.

The derilict tank seems to have sat on the battlefield for while. On the European Unions’ Europeana Collections website there is a watercolor that is probably  the same tank, here. https://www.europeana.eu/portal/en/record/2020601/attachments_132140_13074_132140_original_132140_jpg.html

And from the same source a drawing of what appears to be the same tank, here. https://www.europeana.eu/portal/en/record/2020601/attachments_132140_13074_132140_original_132140_jpg.html

Thanks to Tom Donovan of Thomas Donovan Editions for some interesting information on tanks at the battle of Flers-Courcelette. 

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Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on technological development in the First World War. It is available for purchase at www.scientificamerican.com/products/world-war-i/