Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: July 17, 1915
By July 1915 World War I had been raging for almost a year. Nearly two million soldiers had died and another four million had been wounded. The vast scale of the casualties was shocking but continued with no end in sight. Many of the deaths in trench warfare came from massive attacks by waves of soldiers trying to advance on foot across a no-man’s-land, against machine-gun, rifle and artillery fire. Any ground lost by a defender was regained through equally costly attacks.
I can’t fault the inventor of a bullet-proof tortoise (see illustration) for trying to devise some device for reducing the sheer scale of the carnage. But the average infantryman would have been most displeased if he were ordered to crawl into a wide open battle shoving this heavy, cumbersome shield over the muddy, broken moonscape of the battlefield (in addition to lugging the usual infantryman’s burden). One strand of barbed wire would have ended the advance; in addition, any odd shape lumbering slowly across a battlefield would have attracted much unpleaseant attention from artillery, mortars, grenades and other weaponry.
Armored cars, body armor, shields and other protective gear was tried in various forms sporadically, but except for the steel helmet, little of it was of much use on the muddy fields of the Western Front where most of the casualties were happening. But the development of armored vehicles with caterpillar tracks—engine powered, heavily armed, and capable of crossing a battlefield—was proceeding, behind the scenes and in great secrecy. In July 1915 the British Landships Committee started building the first experimental tanks. French development would produce the first prototype in January 1916. When these tanks lumbered into the fray on a massive scale in November 1917 at the Battle of Cambrai, warfare was changed forever.
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on the economic aspects of the war. It is available for purchase at www.scientificamerican.com/products/world-war-i/