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100 Years of Tanks: From “Little Willie” to a Mysterious “Water Carrier”

In other languages: pl de fr es tr cs

Trials of the first vehicle prototype, the No1 Lincoln Machine, were rather successful. In September, 1915, Ernest Swinton, its “father,” sent a rather cheerful report to command: “Sailors managed to construct the first prototype of a tracked vehicle that can cross 4.4-feet-wide trenches and 4.6-feet-high rises, and rotate around its axis as a dog with a flea on its tail.” As a matter of fact, things were not that great: The tractor chassis was not ready for the pressure that mass-produced vehicles would experience every day, and the track chains were constantly falling down. There was an urgent need to either upgrade the prototype or propose another solution as quick as possible.

The prototype's configuration and armament

The hull of the vehicle resembled a box. In the front part (the driving compartment), there were two drivers with different responsibilities – the driver on the right used pedals to operate the engine, switched gears with a lever, and controlled the “tail” wheel with a winch; the driver on the left was responsible for the tracks (separately for the left and the right one) and set their pace using a hand brake.

The main problem relating to the work on the first prototype was the necessity to deliver the highest quality within a short period of time

The hull's rear housed the engine transmission compartment with a 105 h.p. Foster-Daimler petrol engine inside. The fighting compartment was in the middle of the vehicle, but the No. 1 Lincoln Machine did not have any armament yet. A rotating hull was also developed for the prototype, but it was not mounted. 

The armament for the new vehicle was a heated issue amongst the engineers and the military. The creators wanted to equip the tank with the 40-mm Vickers automatic cannon, but Stanley von Donop, Master-General of the Ordnance, warned that the delivery of a large batch of those guns would require approximately half a year. Due to the fact that “machinegun destroyers” were only good when mass-produced, it was necessary to make the right choice of weapon the first time around and without any delays. According to a joke of one of the workers, “We shall look stupid if the war ends the following day”. Unfortunately, the war was not going to end for a while longer.

The Price of Delays

While the engineers and the military were scratching their heads over tuning the vehicle, another major operation was about to take place on the frontline. The combined forces of the British Empire and France prepared to attack near Loos, Northern France. In his book on the First World War, British historian Basil Liddell Hart called the chapter about the operation “An Unwanted Battle”. General Douglas Haig had this pessimistic observation to make: “The area is mainly flat and open; it will be exposed to machinegun and rifle fire from both German trenches and fortified villages behind the frontline. A rapid advance will not be possible.” Unfortunately, the French command did not listen. What was the result? "That day was a day of tragedy, and there was not a single spark of success to alleviate its bitterness”, says the official British history of WWI. According to the statistics, about 60,000 people were killed or injured during the period from September 25 to mid-October, 1915.

British gunners in gas masks. Battle of Loos, September — October 1915If the British troops had had tanks, that scary number would have been smaller. It was not the engineers’ faults, as they were doing everything they could, but at that time, the No 1 Lincoln Machine was undergoing tuning. An improved prototype was almost ready when the British government dismissed Winston Churchill, the main protector of Swinton and his team, and sent him to the frontline.

Churchill saw that the soldiers severely lacked support weapons, and he tried to inspire the officers: “About seventy tracked vehicles are currently being finished in England. None of them should be used until they all are ready. They can deal with any obstacle and pass trenches, parapets, or ditches. They carry two to three Maxim guns, and each vehicle can be equipped with a flamethrower. The only thing that can stop them is a direct hit of a field cannon.” As a matter of fact, history went a different way and made a detour of almost one year.

By the end of November 1915, the improved prototype, known as "Little Willie", was ready. The hull was assembled from riveted boiler steel plates – it differed from its predecessor and featured a ledge in the front part. The guide rollers of the suspension were raised over the ground to make it easier for “Little Willie” to cross rugged terrain. The vehicle was ready for new trials, but the tanks developers renounced their creation, because they started to work on a new project that featured a different configuration (without a turret) and armament placement scheme. According to Swinton’s recollections, the idea was inspired by “The Land Ironclads” – a story by H.G. Wells.

The vehicle was still under a veil of mystery when it was given a name.

What’s in a Name?

Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt, the Landships Committee's Chairman, developed an obsession with secrecy over the promising creation of Swinton and his colleagues. Even British airplanes were banned from flying over the Foster plant while its assembly was in progress. However, there was still the risk of an information leak, which led to the necessity of developing a new codename for the vehicle—at least as a distraction—that would not give any hints to a potential spy. The main condition was the absence of any references to ships, albeit land ones.

Assembling the hull of «Little Willie»On 4 November, 1915, the prototype was called a “water carrier”, and that name was used until Christmas. On 24 December, Swinton and Lieutenant Daley Johns from the Committee of Imperial Defence decided to change the designation. “Container”, “cistern”, and even “reservoir” were among the variants. Eventually, the short and sonorous term “tank” was selected. The cover story was that the plant was producing water tanks.

Even the shape of the hull was known only to a select few. Various trials were mainly held at night. One day, the engineers decided to test the vehicle’s armour, and asked the Defence Intelligence to get some German shells.

The firing practice was held in a field not far from the old Lincoln Cathedral on 12 January, 1916. Wilson and Hetherington made a bet, and the latter put 50 pounds on hitting the hull with his first shot. Whether due to an ill-considered positioning of the vehicle or bad aiming, the shot almost resulted in a disaster. After Hetherington’s shot, the gun misfired, but the cap eventually activated, and the so-called “hangfire” sent the shell right towards the cathedral. The best engineers of the UK raced each other to see that the church was intact, and spent the next two hours in search of the shell with shovels and searchlights.

«Little Willie» during tests.Further trials showed that the armour could take a punch. The final test was supposed to prove the vehicle’s power. At first, the demonstration was supposed to take place at Wembley Stadium, but later the decision was changed in favour of the Marquess of Salisbury’s mansion, where the prototype arrived by rail. A barrier line for the vehicle was constructed under Swinton’s guidance, and the trials were scheduled for 2 February, 1916.

The mansion was overcrowded with the cream of the military and the political executives of the United Kingdom: David Lloyd George (Minister of Munitions), Arthur Balfour (Foreign Secretary), William Robertson (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), and others. The event was attended by Lord Horatio Kitchener himself, despite the Secretary of State for War being the main adversary of the use of tanks in warfare. At sunset, a huge diamond-shaped monster greeted all the guests with the thunderous roar of its engine. David Lloyd George was very impressed: “I was overwhelmed with sheer amazement, when I saw that ugly beast called a ‘Royal Centipede.’” That was the initial spectacular appearance of the first mass-produced tank.

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