The Main British Tanks of the Great War

The production of Tanks started slowly, but gathered pace throughout the latter part of the 1st World War and by December 1918 a total of 2,636 tanks had been built in Britain. These included a variety of types, which went beyond the Mark I and represented attempts to widen the tank’s scope.

MARK I, II, III

These tanks retained the “mother” shape and concept as an armoured trench-crosser. The main features involved were, of course, the rhomboid shape with the tracks going all the way round and the sponsons on the side, housing the guns. These elements were retained in all types of tank up to and including the appearance of the Mark V The immediate successors to the Mark I were the Mark II and mark III but few of these were built and they differed very little from the Mark I in their design. The only differences were that on the Mark II wider metal shoes or “spuds” were fitted to the track to give a better grip, and on the Mark III Lewis machine guns started to replace the Vickers.

MARK IV

Off all the classes of tanks used in the 1st World war the Mark IV was to be the most heavily manufactured 1,015 being made (Male 420 Female 595) Despite its limitations, it was to play a vital role at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 where it crossed the German Trenches without the aid of a preliminary artillery barrage. These had previously always preceded any attack by either side often lasting for days on end, and obviously giving the other side plenty of warning of what was coming, unfortunately the Germans were able to recapture most of the lost ground at Cambrai within a few days, but the tank’s effectiveness was nevertheless upheld.

As for the Mark IV it demonstrated some improvements on previous models. These were effected by abandoning the trailing wheel units, improving the track rollers, fitting a silencer to the engine, and increasing safety by placing the petrol tanks outside. The main innovation concerning the sponsons which were now designed so that they could slide into the main body of the tank whilst being transported, rather than having to be laboriously removed, and then screwed back on again before and after movement by rail.

Despite such changes, however old problems remained? We have to remember that tank production was not given any priority over other wartime demands, shortages of material, obstruction by various people in the military administration and the pressing needs of other parts of the war machine meant that many problems remained, and that ideas for better tanks were not easily put into production.

The main drawback in the Mark IV was still the engine, which did not provide enough power for the tank when it was in difficult terrain. The transmission system required the two gearsman to be ready at the rear to receive the driver’s hand-signals; in battle the tank was often stationary for a long time whilst these difficult manoeuvres took place. In such conditions of course it proved to be an easy target for the enemy’s heavy guns, and because of this, the Mark IV often had to be kept in a low gear to avoid the difficulties involved in changing up. As a consequence the tank’s speed was very low, and it therefore still presented an easy target for the German artillery.