This WW1 British Mark I tank can be found at the Tank Museum, Bovington, Dorest, BH20 6JG, England. Their website is tankmuseum.org. This was the first tank to go to war.
WW1 British Mark 1 Male Tank C19 at Bovington Tank Museum
The Tank Museum's Mark I
The only surviving Mark I Male tank can be found at the Tank Museum, Bovington, England. When it arrived it was fitted with guns and parts that belonged to made later in the war. It was fitted with the Mark IV Male tank short barreled 6pdr gun rather than the early long barreled Naval gun. The gun shield had been changed to fit the later gun. It was also missing the Mark I rear steering tail and hydraulic lifting and lowering apparatus. The tail hydraulics that was attached to the back of the tank came from a Mark II tank. These were all removed and replaced when the tank was restored.
It was repainted to match the appearance of the Mark I male tank C19 No.705, 4th Section, C Company, Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps commanded by Major Holford Walker that took part in the fighting on 15th September 1916 on the attack on the Quadrilateral fortification but unfortunately it suffered a mechanical breakdown. A replica hand grenade-proof wood and mesh roof was added.
It was originally placed in Lord Salisbury's Hatfield Park just North of London on 8th May 1919 as a 'Presentation Tank' by the Army Council to commemorate the secret tank trials and inspection there by H.M. King George V in February 1916 of the first type of Tank approved for use by the British Army in the Great War. After 50 years at Hatfield Park it was moved to the Royal Armoured Corps Tank Museum, Bovington on 7th May 1969.
The first tank to fire its gun in anger
Even at the beginning of World War One the military were looking at a way of overcoming barbed wire, trenches and machineguns. Some military officers believed that the answer could be in tracked armoured vehicles; land-ships. Britain set up the Landships committee. The weapon was called the ‘tank’ to trick the German spies into thinking into thinking that they were building water carriers when in fact they were designing mobile killing machines.
What makes the tank important in the First World War is that for the very first time you get the combination of protective armour plate, a power source and the technology of the track. On 29th January 1916 Britain’s new weapon Mark I was unveiled. It was fitted with two 20 meter long tracks that were designed to span even the widest trenches.
Side view of the trench crossing WW1 British Mark 1 Male Tank
The Male version was armed with two 6pdr Navy guns and the supporting infantry repressing Female Mark I was fitted with four deadly Vickers machine guns. The towed large cart like wheels at the back were to keep the Mark One tank stable but it was very slow, cumbersome and required a large crew to take it into battle. There would normally be eight men in these tanks, four would be dealing with the guns. The other four men are all involved in driving.
The Battle of the Somme, fought over five months in 1916 was an attempt to bring to the end the two years of stalemate. By September it had already cost the Allies 300,000 casualties, including my own great Grandfather Hugh Montgomery of the Durham Light Infantry Pioneer Corps. Desperate to stop the carnage the British senior officer Haig gave orders for the tanks to be used as soon as they were ready.
The new WW1 diorama using the surviving Mark 1 Male Tank at Bovington Tank Museum
They would go into battle north of the Somme River. The British had 200,000 infantry, more than 700 artillery pieces and 49 or the brand new Mark I tanks available for this new attack. They faced more than 100,000 German soldiers dug in over a seven mile front. Before he could launch this main attack the British had to clear a threat to their flank from Germans in Delville Wood, know to the British as Devils Wood. For the first time in the history of warfare tanks would lead the attack.
Three tanks from D company, Heavy Section MGC, under the cover of darkness made off in the early morning of 15th September 1916. There was no green woodland left. It had all been shelled into a muddy slope with craters, fractured tree stumps, trenches and barbed wire. It looked like hell on earth. Within moments of driving off from the start line one of the three Mark I tanks had broken down and could not continue. The second became stuck on uneven ground and had to be abandoned.
The WW1 British Mark 1 Male Tank was armed with two 6pdr Navy guns, one on each side
The last of the three tanks still able to move, nicked named ‘Dare Devil’ by its crew. The tank’s commander Captain Howard W. Mortimore continued the attack. He recalled, "On that morning the whole thing seemed so unreal. I did not think my tank would be the first in the world to fire a shot in anger. I saw lots of flashes coming from the edge of the woods. I gave the order to open fire with one of the 6pdrs. I managed to get astride one of the trenches, but we got a direct hit that broke my track." The flashes Capt H.W. Mortimore was referring to was the gunfire muzzle flashes from German machine guns and rifles. The bullets bounced off the side of the tank. His tank was hit by an artillery shell. All three tanks were lost, but the infantry managed to take Delville Wood, clearing the way for the main attack.
This is the view German troops would have had as a mud covered British Mark 1 Male Tank crossed their trench.
15th September 1916 tanks go to war for the first time
Tanks were used in action for the first time during the battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15th September 1916. They were participated in the battle, not to great effect, but enough promise was shown to inspire Haig, the British Commander in Chief to order 1000 tanks. The wheels at the rear to help the vehicle steer proved useless and were soon removed. The wooden tent shaped arrangement on top of the tank was covered in chicken wire to stop German grenades landing on the flat roof. This too was soon abandoned.
C15, a Mark 1 British WW1 tank at the battle of Flers-Courcelette on September 15th, 1916
The April 1917 British Mark I tank attack
In April 1917 British General Haig sent tanks in to action for the third time at Arras. He planned to exploit a weak point in the German line. The aim was to attack the small village of Monchy-le-Preux near Remy with a massive strike of artillery, infantry and tanks. The attack was to start a 5am 11th April 1917 but it was snowing and bitterly cold. Orders were sent out delaying the attack two hours in a hope that the snow would stop or ease up. Unfortunately the tank units did not get those orders. At 5 o’clock sharp three tanks moved out alone.
Lieutenant Jack Harris of C Company Heavy Branch MGC was in one of those tanks. "It seemed odd to be advancing without the normal artillery barrage, but our orders were clear. Advance at 5am and capture Monchy-le-Preux." The Germans are caught by surprise as for over the past couple of years all attacks had been preceded by an artillery barrage. The shelling was used to cut barbed wire, breakup the enemy defences and kill a few of the soldiers but it also warned the Germans of an attack.
Wilhelm Speck 1st Company 84th Reserve Infantry was one of the defenders in Monchy that day, "We stared aghast as slowly a tank crept towards us and we opened fire. We hoped the wide ditch by the side of the road would stop it." It didn’t and the British tanks continued on with their attack firing their machine guns and 6pdr main gun in the side sponsons at any target that became available. All the time the British crews heard the ping ping noise of bullets bouncing of the tanks armour.
Lieutenant Jack Harris remembered, "We just drove straight down the main street while the crew fired at everything in sight. Every gun in the tank was firing. We could see lots of Jerrys getting out of the place as fast as they could."
The wheels at the rear of the British Mark I tank were designed to help the vehicle steer but proved useless and were soon removed.
Wilhelm Speck recalled, "The tank crew opened up with a murderous machinegun fire. Those that were not killed instantly screamed there as they lay wounded
Lieutenant Jack Harris said, "We got clear through to the other side of the village. When we looked back we saw that Jerry had tumbled to the fact that we did not have any infantry with us. I could see German soldiers coming out of cellars and reoccupying positions we had just cleared. The officer said, ‘looks like we have to capture it all over again.’ So we did." But this time the Germans were more prepared. The British tanks were not as well armoured on the top. The Germans started to throw hand grenades onto the roof of each tank. One of the three Mark I tanks fuel tank exploded after being ruptured by an exploding grenade.
Heavy machine guns placed in the upper floor windows fired down onto the two remaining tanks. Some of their bullets were able to pierce the upper thin armour. The bullets that got inside the tank could not get out and ricocheted off the thicker side armour. Some found flesh but others found sensitive pieces of machinery and other ammunition.
The second British tanks was destroyed and the third tank driven by Jack Harris was seriously damaged. "I managed to get the old bus out of that hornets’ nest. By that time we were all wounded. I had caught it in the side of the neck. It was a bloody mess." Then tragically the British artillery opened fire on Monchy-le-Preux at 7am and his tank received a direct hit. Only Jack survived out of the eight man crew. The tank attack on the village was a failure but it taught tank commanders of the value of surprise. The Allies would put this lesion to good use in their future offensives.
The British Mark I tank underwent secret trials at Hatfield Park, North London.
The Hatfield Tank
This Mark one tank was originally placed in Lord Salisbury's Hatfield Park just North of London on 8th May 1919 as a 'Presentation Tank' by the Army Council to commemorate the secret tank trials and inspection there by H.M. King George V in February 1916 of the first type of Tank approved for use by the British Army in the Great War. After 50 years at Hatfield Park it was moved to the Royal Armoured Corps Tank Museum 7th May 1969.
On the 29th January 1916 the first official demonstrations of the prototype Mark I tank commenced. The first tank prototype was know as 'little Willie'. The British Mark 1 tank, popularly known as Mother or Big Willie, was officially designated 'His Majesty’s Land Ship Centipede'. It was transported by rail and driven through the night to Hatfield Park. 'Mother' took a ‘preliminary canter’ over the obstacle course at Hatfield House organised by the army to show off its abilities.
It was very similar to a cross country sporting horse trial course, except instead of hedges and farm gates used as obstacles this course had four trenches around the park of different widths ranging from 5ft to 9ft. A stream had to be crossed as well as marsh land. Barbed wire fences were put in its way but successfully penetrated. There was even a small hillock for the tank to climb and descend. Over the next week 'Mother' would be shown to a variety of dignitaries including, Lord Kitchener, David Lloyd George and King George V. Following the successful trials of 'Mother' an order was placed for 150 tanks, which would first see action in September 1916.