Rise Of The Tanks

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 249th installment in the series.  

September 15, 1916: Rise Of The Tanks

Like the birth of some terrible demigod, tanks roared into the world to the awe of all who saw them amid the bloodbath of the Somme on September 15, 1916. The armored fighting vehicle has played a central role in modern conventional warfare ever since, with tanks and planes working in tandem to dominate the battlefield. But as their uneven debut at the Somme reflected, tanks had their shortcomings right from the start, due partly to short-term teething issues but also to a number of limitations intrinsic to the concept of a mobile fortress.

First conceived in February 1915 as a way to cancel out the defensive power of entrenched enemy machine guns, after 19 months of top-secret research and development in September 1916 the first Mark I tanks, in “male” and “female” versions, were delivered to the British Army. The male version was armed with two cannons and three machine guns, the female version with five machine guns; their armor and weaponry were intended to enable them to cross no-man’s-land in the face of enemy fire, destroy enemy strong points and cross trenches while also providing shelter to advancing British infantry. 

This experimental weapon received a relatively warm welcome thanks in large part to British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig, who recognized its potential early on (the French were also developing a tank of their own). But they remained unproven and were viewed with understandable skepticism by rank and file alike. Moreover the tanks suffered all the inevitable technical glitches of a new machine: just eight years after the introduction of the first Ford Model T, the internal combustion engines that propelled the tanks were more reliable but hardly immune to breakdowns. And despite their special shape and motorized treads the vehicles could also still “ditch” or roll over to become (temporarily) useless. In fact, out of the first batch of 50 tanks sent to join the next big attack on the Somme on September 15, 1916, remembered as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, only 36 actually arrived on the field of battle, as the rest fell prey to mechanical or navigational woes.


One British soldier, Reginald Grant, described the general reaction to their arrival behind the British lines immediately preceding the next “big push” (following previous Anglo-French efforts including Bazentin Ridge, Pozières, and Ginchy): 

I looked in the direction of the sound and presently there hove in sight a colossal something of behemoth proportions;--something the like of which I had never seen or heard of in all my life, and I was stricken dumb with amazement. A monstrous monstrosity climbed its way without let or hindrance, up, over, along and across every obstacle in its path. Presently it reached the top of Pozieres Ridge; every man who could see had his eyes glued on it…

Another eyewitness present for the tanks’ baptism of fire at the Somme on September 15, the cinematographer Geoffrey Malins, recorded a similar impression: 

For the life of me I could not take my eyes off it. The thing--I really don't know how else to describe it--ambled forward, with slow, jerky, uncertain movements. The sight of it was weird enough in all conscience. At one moment its nose disappeared, then with a slide and an upward glide it climbed to the other side of a deep shell crater which lay in its path. I stood amazed and watched its antics… Big, and ugly, and awkward as it was, clumsy as its movements appeared to be, the thing seemed imbued with life, and possessed of the most uncanny sort of intelligence and understanding. 

Unfortunately the tanks’ experimental nature led British commanders to make some key errors during the attack on Flers-Courcelette on September 15. The biggest mistake was their decision to break up the “creeping barrage” laid down by British artillery in front of the advancing infantry, in order to leave safe corridors for the tanks to travel through. At first glance this appeared to make sense, since nobody knew just how long it would take for the tanks to advance over the pockmarked battlefield – but it also meant that if the tanks failed to reduce the German strongpoints in front of them, the infantry behind them would be left to attack defenders in virtually untouched enemy trenches. 


Click to enlarge

Nonetheless the British scored some notable successes at Flers-Courcelette, thanks to the strength of the artillery bombardment (where it was allowed). In the three days leading up to the attack, British artillery pounded the German lines with an incredible 828,000 shells, including counter-artillery fire directed by planes from the Royal Flying Corps. Lieutenant R. Lewis, a Canadian officer from Newfoundland, witnessed the attack on September 15 from the reserve trenches, recalling the moment when the final bombardment opened up at 6:20 a.m.: “Then all of a sudden the artillery with a mighty roar opened up the most terrific fire. It was a wonderful sight. Nothing could be seen all along the horizon in the rear but one mass of flame, where our guns were sending out shell after shell.”

Another observer, R. Derby Holmes, an American volunteer serving in the 22nd London Battalion, Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, left a frank account of his feelings during the final countdown to the tank and infantry attack: 

My ear drums ached, and I thought I should go insane if the racket didn't stop. I was frightfully nervous and scared, but tried not to show it. An officer or a non-com must conceal his nervousness, though he be dying with fright… I looked over the top once or twice and wondered if I, too, would be lying there unburied with the rats and maggots gnawing me into an unrecognizable mass.

At 6:20 a.m. ten British Divisions from the Fourth Army and Reserve Army (including the Canadian Corps and New Zealand Division) plus elements from the French Sixth Army attacked a defensive force of roughly half their strength in the German First Army.  In some areas the tanks were employed in concentrated columns, while in others they were interspersed among the attacking troops – but at this early stage, with the benefit of surprise still on their side, even a lone tank could make a decisive difference. 

Indeed one famous tank, C-5, better known by its nickname “Crème de Menthe,” singlehandedly cleared a ruined sugar refinery of its German defenders, opening the way for the Canadians to advance into the rearward German trenches, eventually approaching the village of Courcellete. The Canadians managed to hold on to their gains here, fending off a number of fierce German counterattacks – but their success (and the tank’s) were hardly typical for the Allies that morning. 

Further to the east the 50th Northumbrian Division succeeded in taking its first objective despite withering flanking fire from High Wood, the strategic heights that had been the object of so much bloodshed since mid-July. However they were battered back from their second objective, a German support trench, by a blistering enemy bombardment (one of many examples indicating British counter-artillery fire was insufficient). During the initial attack many soldiers sheltered behind the advancing tanks, but discovered this could be very slow going. Holmes, the American volunteer, recalled the progress of the tanks near High Wood: 

The tanks were just ahead of us and lumbered along in an imposing row. They lurched down into deep craters and out again, tipped and reeled and listed, and sometimes seemed as though they must upset; but they came up each time and went on and on. And how slow they did seem to move! Lord, I thought we should never cover that five or six hundred yards. 

Holmes and his comrades also realized that the tanks offered no protection against heavier fire: 

There was a tank just ahead of me. I got behind it. And marched there. Slow! God, how slow! Anyhow, it kept off the machine-gun bullets, but not the shrapnel. It was breaking over us in clouds. I felt the stunning patter of the fragments on my tin hat, cringed under it, and wondered vaguely why it didn't do me in. Men in the front wave were going down like tenpins. Off there diagonally to the right and forward I glimpsed a blinding burst, and as much as a whole platoon went down… I don't suppose that trip across No Man’s Land behind the tanks took over five minutes, but it seemed like an hour.

Towards the center of the British line the New Zealand Division, along with the 14th and 41st Divisions, was assigned the task of capturing Flers, assisted by eighteen tanks, of which a good number naturally broke down before or during the battle. Here the tanks showed up late, but then did a respectable job helping the attackers overcome secondary German defenses to capture Flers (another problem encountered across the Somme battlefield, and especially where there had been no creeping barrage, was the German practice of hiding machine gun nests in craters in front of their trenches in no-man’s-land). 

On the right the British attack by the Guards, 6th, and 56th Divisions turned into a complete debacle, including an unimpressive performance by the tanks, which all got lost on the battlefield or suffered mechanical mishaps. As this was one of the corridors spared the creeping bombardment during the early stages of the battle, the failure of the tanks to even make contact with the enemy in most places meant the infantry faced an impenetrable wall of machine gun and rifle fire. Making things even worse, one tank that did actually make it to the frontlines headed into no-man’s-land early, alerting the enemy to the coming attack before withdrawing under heavy fire.

The overall performance of the tanks across the Somme was therefore mixed, at best. One account by a British soldier, Bert Chaney, encapsulates the wildly differing fortunes of various tanks involved in the attack on September 15, along with some comic details: 

One of the tanks got caught up on a tree stump and never reached their front line and a second had its rear steering wheels shot off and could not guide itself… The third tank went on and ran through Flers, flattening everything they thought should be flattened, pushing down walls and thoroughly enjoying themselves… The four men in the tank that had got itself hung up dismounted, all in the heat of the battle, stretching themselves, scratching their heads, then slowly and deliberately walked round their vehicle inspecting it from every angle and appeared to hold a conference among themselves. After standing around for a few minutes, looking somewhat lost, they calmly took out from the inside of the tank a primus stove and, using the side of the tank as a cover from enemy fire, sat down on the ground and made themselves some tea. The battle was over as far as they were concerned.

Despite the tanks’ many failures on September 15, their isolated successes had proved what armored vehicles were capable of, at least to careful observers. One thoughtful chaplain with the Guards Division, T. Guy Rogers, mused: “Of course their virtues are exaggerated, but they are only in their infancy and did well – really well in some places. I would like to see them with double the horsepower; less impotent when they get sideways, and with some contrivance to reduce the noise.” 

Designers would indeed remedy these shortcomings and others revealed at the Somme, with wireless sets for example eventually enabling communication between commanders and tank crews. At the same time, tanks faced some basic constraints which still limit their use today, including their high fuel consumption (incredibly, many went into battle at the Somme covered with highly flammable fuel cans) and their inability to tackle certain kinds of terrain. 

In the short term, tanks remained secondary: as always, the heavy lifting on the battlefields of the First World War was done by infantry and artillery, with newer weapons like tanks and planes playing a subsidiary, sometimes experimental role. 

For the infantrymen who suffered the brunt of the fighting in the trenches, conditions at the Somme were something close to infernal. Paul Hub, a German officer, recounted a typical trauma in a letter to his wife dated September 20, 1916:

My dear Maria, I had just taken up my position when a heavy mortar hit the wall, burying me and two of my company under the rubble. I can’t describe what it felt like to be buried alive under such a mass of earth without being able to move a muscle… When someone called out asking if there was anyone underneath, we shouted ‘Yes!’ and they started digging us out right away. They thought they would have to free the others before they could reach me, but in the end they pulled me out at the same time. I felt as if my legs had been chopped off… The weight of the earth had pushed my head forward and torn my back muscles. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars

Jeff Bridges accepts the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010.
Jeff Bridges accepts the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Winning an Oscar is, for most people, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you're Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you'd think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are (we're looking at you, Colin Firth).

1. Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie with her Oscar in 2000.
HO/AMPAS

At the 2000 Academy Awards ceremony, after Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world collectively squirm, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage when Marcheline died in 2007, but it hasn't yet surfaced. "I didn't actually lose it," Jolie said, "but nobody knows where it is at the moment."

2. Whoopi Goldberg

Whoopi Goldberg with her Oscar.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. "Oscar will never leave my house again," Goldberg said.

3. Olympia Dukakis

Olympia Dukakis with an Oscar statue.
Steven Henry/Getty Images

When Olympia Dukakis's Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. "For $78," they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando in 1957.
Keystone/Getty Images

"I don't know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront," Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. "Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared." He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. "The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don't know where it is now."

5. Jeff Bridges

Actor Jeff Bridges, winner of Best Actor award for
Jeff Bridges, winner of the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart, poses in the press room at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards on March 7, 2010.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

In 2010, Hollywood legend Jeff Bridges won his first-ever Oscar for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the time next year's ceremony rolled around, when he was nominated yet again for his role in the Coen brothers's True Grit

When asked about his year-old statuette, Bridges admitted that "It's been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now." Finding the MIA Oscar seemed even more urgent when Bridges lost the 2011 Best Actor Oscar to Colin Firth for The King's Speech. "I'm hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven't won a spare," Bridges said. "But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better." 

6. Colin Firth

Colin Firth with his Oscar in 2011.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed Colin Firth as he said those aforementioned words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. Matt Damon

Actor Matt Damon in 1999
Brenda Chase/Hulton Archive

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn't sure where his award went. "I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it," Damon said in 2007.

8. Margaret O'Brien

Child actress Margaret O'Brien.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1945, 7-year-old Margaret O'Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O'Briens' maid took the award home to polish it, as she had done before, but never returned. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O'Brien's mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There's a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O'Brien. "I'll never give it to anyone to polish again," she said.

9. Bing Crosby

Barry Fitzgerald (left) holds his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor while American actor Bing Crosby holds his Oscar for Best Actor, both for their roles in Going My Way; 1945.
Barry Fitzgerald (left) holds his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor while American actor Bing Crosby holds his Oscar for Best Actor, both for their roles in Going My Way; 1945.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944's Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school's library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a 3-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. "I wanted to make people laugh," the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. Hattie McDaniel

A publicity still from 1939's Gone with the Wind; at the 1940 Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel (left) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Vivien Leigh (right) won Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland (center) was also nominated for Best Supporting A
A publicity still from 1939's Gone with the Wind; at the 1940 Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel (left) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Vivien Leigh (right) won Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland (center) was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

The Most Successful Entertainment Production in History Might Just Surprise You

Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images
Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images

Last year, Marvel Studios capped off an unprecedented run of success with Avengers: Endgame, a movie promoted as the culmination of over 10 years of storytelling. The film made $2.8 billion, unseating 2009’s Avatar and knocking 1997’s Titanic down to third place. With nearly $3 billion in ticket sales, you would think Endgame would count as the most successful entertainment production of all time—be it a single movie, book, album, or video game.

It isn’t.

While it earned a staggering amount of money, Endgame is hobbled by the fact that theatrical runs last just a few weeks or months. To really roll in the dough, it helps to have a combination of high ticket prices and a show that runs almost in perpetuity. That’s why it’s another Disney production, the Broadway adaption of The Lion King, that can make a credible claim to being the most financially rewarding entertainment effort of all time. Since debuting in 1997, the stage show has grossed $9.1 billion. (The 1994 film, 2019 live action remake, and merchandising aren’t included in that total. If they were, the number rises to $11.6 billion.)

A theater sign for 'The Lion King' is pictured in New York City in March 2003
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The musical, adapted by Julie Taymor, follows the story of the animated original, with lion cub Simba learning to accept his role as king of the Serengeti Plains. It’s estimated the show has been mounted 25 times globally in nine different languages, with more than 100 million people purchasing a ticket to see it.

Does that make Endgame a distant second? Not quite. Another long-running musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, has grossed more than $6 billion since its 1988 debut. The 2013 video game Grand Theft Auto 5 cleared $6 billion in 2018. And if one were to account for inflation, 1939’s Gone with the Wind made $3.44 billion.

The Lion King does have one asterisk, however. If inflation is taken into consideration, then 1978’s arcade classic Space Invaders comes out the winner. The popular coin-op game—which was later ported over to the Atari 2600—was a smash hit. By 1983, it had made $3.8 billion. Accounting for inflation, it earned $13.9 billion. What’s even more impressive is that unlike big-ticket movies and stage shows, Space Invaders did it one quarter at a time.

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