Churchill Convenes Tank Committee

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 170th installment in the series.

February 24, 1915: Churchill Convenes Tank Committee

The backbone of modern conventional armies, tanks may seem like an obvious idea—and indeed the model of a self-contained, mobile fortress to dominate the battlefield has been around for thousands of years. The Roman “testudo” or tortoise formation allowed legionaries to advance through hails of arrows, and during the Renaissance Leonardo da Vinci sketched a design for an armored vehicle (below), “safe and unassailable, which will enter the closed ranks of the enemy with their artillery… And behind these our infantry will be able to follow quite unharmed and without any opposition.”

In 1903 the British futurist H.G. Wells imagined armored vehicles breaking through entrenched defenders in his short story “The Land Ironclads,” inspired by the heavy casualties inflicted by massed rifle fire in the Boer War. Propelled by mechanical “feet” on wheels and followed by columns of regular infantry, Wells’ land ironclad “continued to move regardless of the hail that splashed its skin with bright new specks of lead,” eventually “hoisting itself farther and farther over the trench,” while “methodically shooting down and breaking up any persistent knots of resistance.”

However armored battlefield vehicles would remain in the realm of science fiction until the invention of the internal combustion engine in the second half of the 19th century. A huge improvement over steam engines, in internal combustion engines exploding gasoline or diesel vapor replaced steam in pistons, allowing designers to do away with cumbersome boilers as well as the huge quantities of coal needed to power them. The new, more compact engines enabled a flurry of engineering feats including the first automobile, invented by Karl Benz 1885, the first practical submarine, designed by John Holland in 1898, and the first airplane, invented by the Wright brothers and first flown in 1903.

While submarines held intriguing strategic potential and airplanes captured the popular imagination, automobiles had far and away the largest economic impact in the near term, with Henry Ford’s creation of the Model T in 1908 promising to transform middle class lifestyles and fueling another wave of industrialization in the U.S. Before long it would also change the face of war.

Following the outbreak of the Great War and the emergence of trench warfare in 1914, attention quickly turned to development of armored vehicles using internal combustion engines to break through enemy defenses. As early as December 1914 French military engineers were working on the Frot-Laffly landship, named after its designers, which combined armor plates with cannons and machine guns, but used wheels instead of tractor treads, resulting in limited mobility across open terrain. Around the same time Thomas Hetherington, a commander in the Royal Naval Air Service, saw a heavy vehicle using “Diplock pedrails,” a type of tread, and recommended it to First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. The idea was also advocated by Colonel Ernest Swinton, an influential military officer and writer who apparently suggested the codename “tank” to conceal the true purpose of the device (the term is sometimes also credited to Churchill).

Brushing aside the fact that the armored vehicles clearly fell under the category of land warfare, on February 24, 1915 Churchill convened the first “Landships Committee” (cleverly using a bit of naval imagery to bridge the gap). The committee began by considering two main prototypes for armored vehicles—the first, a bizarre “Bigwheel” model without treads, the second a large truck-like vehicle designed by Colonel Rookes Crompton, incorporating the Diplock Pedrail caterpillar tread then in use in agricultural tractors, intended to carry up to 50 infantry soldiers into battle.

On March 28 Churchill ordered twelve of the Pedrail models and six of the Bigwheels, but both soon proved impractical because of mobility issues. In April Crompton revised the Pedrail design to produce an articulated vehicle to address its mobility shortcomings, which the committee approved in May, but the articulated version turned out to have even more issues.

With Churchill’s encouragement the committee pressed on, and Crompton now turned to a new kind of caterpillar tread used on tractors made by a U.S. manufacturer based in Chicago, the Bullock Tractor Company. In August 1915 he obtained a specially manufactured extra-long version of the “Bullock Creeping Grip,” as the tread was known. However by this time the committee had lost patience with Crompton’s fixation on the articulated vehicle design, which they regarded as a clear failure. Crompton was removed from the project, but his idea of using the Bullock Creeping Grip proved to be a crucial contribution.

Meanwhile beginning in July 1915 William Tritton, managing director at the Foster’s Works factory in Lincoln, collaborated with Lieutenant Walter Wilson of the Royal Navy Reserve, who had worked as an automobile engineer before the war, on a new design: much smaller than either of the first two prototypes, the “Lincoln No. 1 Machine” (below) combined the Bullock Creeping Grip with a squat, compact (and non-articulated) body.

Although the tracks failed at the first test in September 1915, the “Lincoln No. 1 Machine,” nicknamed “Little Willie,” had confirmed the soundness of the basic concept; by now the idea had also received the endorsement of British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French (Churchill was forced to step down following the disaster at Gallipoli in April-May 1915; in June his successor, Arthur Balfour, confirmed that work on the project would continue).

Tritton and Wilson returned to the drawing board to design a new vehicle with an unusual “rhomboidal” shape to make it easier to climb in and out of trenches. Known by a number of nicknames, including “The Wilson,” “The Centipede,” “Big Willie,” and eventually “Mother,” the new vehicle (top) was designed to meet War Office specifications that it be able to cross an eight-foot-wide trench and climb parapets up to four feet six inches tall. It would be ready for testing by November 30.

See the previous installment or all entries.

HBO Is Offering Nearly 500 Hours of Free Content, From The Sopranos to Succession

Matthew Macfadyen and Nicholas Braun talk business and omelettes in Succession.
Matthew Macfadyen and Nicholas Braun talk business and omelettes in Succession.
Peter Kramer/HBO

If shelter-in-place orders have you burning through your streaming service selections, HBO might be able to help. The premium network has just announced nearly 500 hours of content will be made available for free beginning Friday, April 3. In a press release, the channel said that content would be unlocked via HBO NOW and HBO GO without a subscription. Viewers can expect a mix of HBO’s original series as well as documentaries and catalog movie titles. For original series, viewers can select these nine shows:

  1. Ballers
  2. Barry
  3. Silicon Valley
  4. Six Feet Under
  5. The Sopranos
  6. Succession
  7. True Blood
  8. Veep
  9. The Wire

Documentary and Docuseries titles include:

  1. The Apollo
  2. The Case Against Adnan Syed
  3. Elvis Presley: The Searcher
  4. I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter
  5. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
  6. Jane Fonda in Five Acts
  7. McMillion$
  8. True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality
  9. United Skates
  10. We Are the Dream: The Kids of the MLK Oakland Oratorical Fest

Movies are from the Warner Bros. library and, unlike The Sopranos, are mostly family-friendly. They include:

  1. Arthur
  2. Arthur 2: On the Rocks
  3. Blinded By the Light
  4. The Bridges of Madison County
  5. Crazy, Stupid, Love
  6. Empire of the Sun
  7. Forget Paris
  8. Happy Feet Two
  9. Isn't It Romantic?
  10. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
  11. Midnight Special
  12. My Dog Skip
  13. Nancy Drew And The Hidden Staircase
  14. Pan
  15. Pokémon Detective Pikachu
  16. Red Riding Hood
  17. Smallfoot
  18. Storks
  19. Sucker Punch
  20. Unknown Title To Be Announced

The shows can be viewed directly without a sign-in on the HBO GO and HBO NOW websites or via their apps. (The services are nearly identical, but HBO GO is typically included with a cable subscription; HBO NOW is a standalone streaming service.) If you’d like to sample the full range of HBO series like Game of Thrones, The Outsider, or Curb Your Enthusiasm, the channel is offering a seven-day free trial.

According to the press release, the programming will be available to watch without subscribing through the end of April.

Which Fictional Character Are You? This Online Quiz Might Give You an Eerily Accurate Answer

Peter Dinklage's Tyrion Lannister is the unofficial king of witty side comments. Are you, too?
Peter Dinklage's Tyrion Lannister is the unofficial king of witty side comments. Are you, too?
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

While watching a TV show or movie, you might find yourself trying to draw parallels between you and a certain character you’d want to be. If you’re like many viewers, it’s probably one of the heroic ones—the handsome private investigator with a tortured past and an unerring moral compass or the fearless queen who builds her kingdom from nothing and defends it to the death, etc.

But which character would you actually be? Openpsychometrics.org, a site that develops personality tests, has a new online quiz that might give you an uncannily accurate answer. You’ll be confronted with a series of 28 questions that ask you to pinpoint where you fall between two traits on a percentage-based spectrum. For example, if you’re more playful than serious, slide the bar toward the word playful until you’ve reached your desired ratio. The ratio could be anything from 51 percent playful and 49 percent serious, to a full 100 percent playful and not a single iota of seriousness at all. Other spectrums include artistic versus scientific, dominant versus submissive, spiritual versus skeptical, and more.

Once you’ve completed the quiz, you’ll find out which fictional character your personality most closely matches from a database of around 500 television and film characters. To pinpoint the personalities of the characters themselves, the quiz creators asked survey participants to rate them on a series of traits, and those collective results are then compared to your own self-ratings.

If you scroll down below your top result, you’ll see an option to show your full match list, which will give you a much more comprehensive picture of what kind of character you’d be. My top two results—which, ironically, were the same as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy’s—were The West Wing’s C.J. Cregg and Joey Lucas, suggesting that we both have a no-nonsense attitude, a perfectionist streak, and an apparent aptitude for national politics that (at least in our cases) will likely go unfulfilled.

The fictional twin of managing editor Jenn Wood, on the other hand, is Game of Thrones’s Tyrion Lannister, unofficial king of witty side comments and all-around fan favorite. This was not surprising. As runner-up, Jenn got her personal hero, Elizabeth Bennet, which, in her words “makes me feel better about myself.” (Jenn has Pride and Prejudice-themed “writing gloves,” which seems important to mention.)

Take the quiz here to find out just how much you have in common with your own personal (fictional) hero.

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