For two solid years, the trench systems of the First World War claimed the lives of millions. Russia (briefly) broke the stalemate through imaginative planning, rehearsals, and targeting, while Great Britain and France took a more technological approach. Under the auspices of the Royal Navy, “landships” were created which were heavy enough to crush the wire of no man’s land, long enough to cross trenches, impervious to shrapnel and machinegun fire, capable of traversing the tortured countryside, and with enough firepower to break the German lines. The caterpillar vehicles, code-named “tanks” (to hide their development), were tested and manufactured in the south of England in response to the butchery on the battlefields of Flanders in 1915. On the Somme in 1916, a new level of slaughter was achieved, and British leaders decided to unveil their secret weapon.
On 15 September 1916, Mark I tanks of the eager and frustrated Heavy Section advanced at a walking pace toward the Germans between the French villages of Flers and Courcelette, followed closely behind by British infantry. 19 of them would break down or become stuck before reaching their objectives. But 13 of the Iron Behemoths rumbled forward like the Juggernaut crushing all before them. German soldiers who just the day before were well entrenched and confident of victory, fled at the sight of the earth shaking, fire breathing impenetrable steel beasts. The British advanced over three kilometers in a battle whose gains for the last 76 days had been measured in yards. One French pilot observed from above, “Tank walking up High Street of Flers with British Army cheering behind”.
Regrettably, the British had no plan to exploit this breakthrough, and the Germans recovered all of the ground in subsequent counter attacks. Many derided the effort as at best a premature disclosure of an asymmetric advantage, and at worst a failure and waste of resources. It would be months before another tank saw action. Nonetheless like the bow, stirrup, gunpowder, bayonet, and the Dreadnought before it, the tank changed warfare forever.