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100 Years of Tanks. Swinton’s Revolutionary Invention

In other languages: pl de fr es tr cs

Engineers of the Landships Committee spent many months trying to assemble the available technical achievements of humankind into something resembling a brand new combat vehicle. The mosaic adamantly refused to piece together and form a neat military pattern. At the beginning of August 1915, there was a sudden breakthrough and seven weeks later the first moving prototype rolled onto the proving grounds with its tracks.

The man who made this breakthrough possible was Ernest Dunlop Swinton.

The Father of Tanks' “Sowing”

Lieutenant Colonel Swinton would have made a perfect sci-fi protagonist. He was a career officer, participant of the Second Boer War, outstanding military engineer, correspondent, and analyst. Swinton saw a lot in his time, but he was shocked by the situation on the Western front in the autumn of 1914. After the war, the officer said that he “understood the essence of what was later called ‘shell shock.’” He saw how machineguns caused havoc for the men who delivered one hopeless attack after another near Ypres, and he desperately searched to find a way of solving the trench war problem.

Swinton’s revolutionary idea was pretty simple. He proposed to “turn plowshares into swords”, or, more specifically, remake agricultural tractors into combat vehicles

On September 19, 1914, a brilliant idea entered Swinton’s mind: a caterpillar tractor! Shortly before the war, the officer received a letter from an old friend, describing the trials of an American-made Holt caterpillar tractor held in Antwerp. The terrain crossing capacity of the vehicle was far beyond that of wheeled vehicles. “If this agricultural tractor can really do everything it is meant to, why don’t we re-equip it and tailor it to our needs?” thought the engineer and started to bombard the highest British ranks with letters. Whether coincidentally or metaphorically, Swinton called the potential transformation process a “sowing.”

One week after his revelation, the officer returned to London on business. He was offered a chance to share his ideas with Lord Horatio Kitchener himself, who was the British Secretary of State for War at that time. However, the first person whom Swinton decided to approach with the idea of creating an “armoured machinegun destroyer” was Maurice Hankey, his old friend and the Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence. Hankey liked the idea and shared it with Captain Tom Tulloch A.K.A.Trinitro Tom, a military engineer and one of the best explosive experts in Britain, who supported the plan as well. It turned out that Tulloch had toyed with the idea of creating a combat vehicle on the basis of the Hornsby tractor. Soon afterwards, Swinton went to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, but did not say anything about his plans. As a military man, the officer could not breach the chain of command and decided that he “had no right to share the idea that Lord Kitchener was not aware of.” Unfortunately, the engineer’s tactfulness turned out to be useless, because Kitchener said he was pressed for time and cancelled their meeting.

On October 22, 1914, Ernest Swinton arrived in Saint-Omer, France, where the British Expeditionary Force headquarters was located. There he met the engineers’ commander and the head of protective and construction work, talked with them, and tried to convince them… The officer did not cherish any illusions, as the command was too busy to investigate technical details, so he simply wanted to bring the conservative hotshots out of their shells. Sadly, this was like repeatedly banging his head against a brick wall.

From Fall to Rise

On January 2, 1915, Swinton's plans took a blow. Maurice Hankey confessed that he had explained the idea of a tracked combat vehicle to Kitchener himself, and the Lord had let him know that he would not support the concept. The engineer was desperate. Nevertheless, the artful Hankey kept his chin up and prepared a memorandum addressed to Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister of the UK, and Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Apparently, Churchill set his sights on the idea of a “land battleship” after this document and initiated the creation of the Landships Committee. In January 1915, two Holt tractors had trials at the Aldershot proving ground, but for some reason Swinton was not invited.

The engineer later complained in his recollections: “For an unknown reason, Churchill was against the combined research with the War Office… It resembled a grotesque comedy of some kind…” We can agree with this statement: a man, who made it possible for the Landships Committee to appear, believed that its researches were illusory and only wasted the precious time and resources of the United Kingdom.

The wall of misunderstanding and indifference fell only after John French, the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in France, received a communication from Swinton, where the engineer not only wrote that “vehicles should resemble gasoline-powered caterpillar tractors”, but also prepared a complete statement of work with all characteristics of a potential vehicle: a gasoline engine, a speed of about 7 km/h, the ability to cross trenches with a maximum width of 1.2 m, two machineguns, and a 40-mm gun.

The Commander’s response was built around one question: if there were any vehicles in Britain that could be tailored to the corresponding requirements, and if not, was there any way to build them? He was ready to send Swinton back to London and put him at the helm of the development. The development itself was a closed issue, as French always delivered on his promises. The “sowing” of Ernest Dunlop Swinton finally produced results.

“Sesame, Open!”

Fortune favours the brave and persistent. The engineer not only received the support of the influential commander, but also discovered his own source of power. Hankey put in a good word for his old friend when the position of Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence became vacant due to Hankey’s departure to the front. “Sesame, open! I received a skeleton key,” Swinton commented on that change in his life. 

He immediately wrote to the Admiralty and requested information about the progress of the War Office on his idea. Within a week, a contractor for creating the vehicle prototype was chosen. William Foster & Co Ltd, based in Lincoln, Lincolnshire, had already dealt with tractors and previously produced the Hornsby caterpillar tractors and heavy wheeled tractors for towing cannons. 

The only thing left was to find a team of professionals, because, as we know, it is always about the people. The leadership over the work on the “machinegun destroyer” prototype was assumed by William Tritton, the company’s chairman. He had already tried to create a vehicle for crossing trenches, but trials of the “moving wheeled bridge” designed by Tritton at the beginning of 1915 ended in a fiasco. The new project was his chance to turn the tables.

Walter Gordon Wilson, Lieutenant of the Royal Navy, offered his help as well. A professional military man, he devoted many years to the motor industry, and worked on vehicles for the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division from the beginning of WWI. 

However, Swinton and his assistants still lacked money, time, and work force. Even women—representatives of the suffrage movement—operated complex machines at production facilities. The construction and assembly of the prototype was strictly confidential. Workers could leave the plant premises only upon special permission. Those suspected of disloyalty were immediately fired.

Right before the trials, anxiety reached its peak. The material for the tracks was a matter of heated discussion, but Tritton insisted on the link chain. The Head of the Landships Committee did not believe in Swinton’s success and considered cancelling the demonstration. Foster’s plant workers came to the trials with their families.

On September 22, 1915, the prototype called “Lincoln Machine No. 1” covered its first few meters. Three months later, its successor would be called a “tank”.

Meanwhile, a proud telegram was sent to the Admiralty, “Yesterday, a power belt tore on the experimental stand. I made a new one from a stamped plate. It is light, but very firm. Everything is fine, thank you. Sincerely, proud parents.



Fedoseev S. L. Tanki Pervoy mirovoy. M., 2012.

Glanfield J. The Devil’s Chariots. Osprey, 2013.

Swinton D. E. Eyewitness. Being Personal Reminiscences of Certain Phases of the Great War, Including the Genesis of the Tank. New York, 1933.