In 1916, the use of tanks at the Battle of the Somme brought about a fundamental shift in how large-scale warfare was to be conducted. Armoured warfare added a new dimension to the battlefield, with the increased mobility of heavy weapons creating new difficulties for planners at the tactical, operational and even strategic levels. There are many books on tanks and armoured warfare, ranging from the highly detailed and technical such as Ogorkiewicz's seminal Technology of Tanks, through to those coffee-table books with large colour illustrations and minimal text. I have a fair share of both varieties. Tanks are exciting and are a popular subject for books and articles alike. However, most books that deal with the First World War tend to give the technology of early tanks little attention, whilst works specifically aimed at the technological development of those ground-breaking machines usually fail to place tank development in the context of their actual use. Does Genesis, Employment, Aftermath offer anything new in this crowded market?
- Alaric Searle (editor)
The book is 244 pages divided into nine chapters plus the introduction. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of the early development and use of tanks, and each is authored by a respected academic in the field. Standing alone, each chapter is an interesting and authoritative study of its particular area. Subjects range from the intelligence and reconnaissance required for early tank use through to the experiences of the crews, and the various methods of communication used. Both German and French early tank development are covered by their respective chapters. Illustrations are scarce (ten in total) but evidently carefully selected and relevant to the text.
The chapters in more detail:
1. Genesis: Images of War, Armament and Mechanization in Imperial Germany, 1880-1914. Markus Pöhlmann. Imperial Germany saw little need to develop tanks, despite having developed motorised carriages for artillery pieces in fortifications in 1889. Pöhlmann describes why the thrusting and mobile nature of German military doctrine had no place for slow, lumbering self-propelled guns that would have been left behind in the type of warfare the German General Staff envisaged.
2. Britain: Practical Considerations in British Tank Operations on the Western Front, 1916-1918. Bryn Hammond. Hammond leaves the wider picture of tank operations to concentrate on the experience of those early tank crews. Amongst other considerations covered are how poor visibility affected the capabilities not only of the driver and commander, but also the gunners who could only see through a small vertical slit, how internal communications were primitive to say the least (often a driver would resort to hitting the engine cover with a spanner to communicate with the gearsmen) and how crews often vomited and lost consciousness in the petrol and cordite-filled atmosphere of the tank's interior.
3. France: The Development of French Tank Warfare on the Western Front, 1916-1918. Olivier Lahaie. The French were very close to being the nation who fielded the first tanks in action but administrative struggles delayed their development and employment. Three major French tank designs saw combat in the latter years of the First World War, the Schneider, the Saint-Chammond and the Renault FT-17. Lahaie concentrates on the political and practical struggles encountered by the development of the first two of these designs (a later chapter describes the FT-17 in more detail), showing how combat effectiveness often played second fiddle to departmental rivalries.
4. Germany: From the Bremerwagen to the A7V: German Tank Production and Armoured Warfare. Ralf Raths. In a similar vein to Lahaie's description of the political in-fighting that hindered early French tank design, Raths details the struggles of German designers to get their vehicles accepted and in production in the resource-scarce atmosphere of Imperial Germany during the late years of the First World War. The first encounter with Allied tanks in 1916 brought home to Germany that they also needed such weapons, but departmental politics and competing designs meant that any significant German tank use had to wait another couple of decades before making its impact.
5. Intelligence: Scouting for Brigands: British Tank Corps Reconnaissance and Intelligence, 1916-1918. Jim Beach. Beach's expertise in First World War intelligence is applied to the tank in a chapter that describes how intelligence and reconnaissance functions were merged in order to use tanks to their full potential. Despite the huge advances in mobility offered by the tank, they were still vulnerable to 'ditching' in particularly rough ground (including deep shell holes) and could not negotiate small bridges or woods. In addition to scouting for areas where the tank could be usefully employed, intelligence officers also had to careful reconnoitre the approaches the tanks would take to the front line.
6. Communications: The Development of Tank Communications in the British Expeditionary Force, 1916-1918. Brian N. Hall. A proper study of the First World War, in particular, cannot help but take into account the difficulties in command and communication at a time when the battlefield was too large for visual signalling, mobility restricted the effectiveness of telephones and radio telegraphy was still in its infancy. Hall concentrates on communication to and from the tank from outside and emphasises how this was essential for proper coordination. The pigeon was often the most effective method of communications available!
7. Other Theatres: Beyond the Western Front: Tanks in Palestine and Russia, 1916-1921. Steven J. Main and Alaric Searle. Often overlooked, and understandably so, was the use of a handful of old Mark I tanks in Palestine. Main covers their brief operation at Gaza and shows how the lessons learned on the Western Front had to be relearned by commanders in the Middle East. Russia fielded no tanks of its own during the First World War, but Searle looks at the employment of tanks in Russia in support of (and sometimes against) the White Russian forces fighting the Communists after the 1917 revolutions, and describes how these early tank actions were so significant in later Russian thinking and doctrine.
8. Mass Production: 'A Charming Toy': The Surprisingly Long Life of the Renault Light Tank, 1917-1940. Tim Gale. The first production tank with a fully rotating turret, Gale looks at the ubiquity of the famous FT-17. From its early successes in the First World War to its adoption by other nations, sometimes as a template for their own first tank designs, the FT-17 had an impact far beyond what its tiny and toy-like design would suggest. No other tank design was employed in any numbers in both the First and Second World Wars, and the FT-17 holds a unique place in tank history.
9. Aftermath: The Battle of Cambrai: Reactions, Commemoration and Symbolism, 1917-1942. Alaric Searle. For the Royal Tank Regiment, the Battle of Cambrai was their Battle of Britain, the battle that established them as an essential and integrated part of the British military machine. Cambrai can truly be said to be the battle where the tank and its operators came of age and Searle examines the impact of that battle of the thinking of future thinkers.
With the book drawing upon the expertise of figures such as Brynn Hammond, Jim Beach and Olivier Lahaie, and being edited by Alaric Searle, himself an expert in the academic study of tanks, the book's academic credentials are impeccable. I have no doubt that it will become a standard text for future study into First World War tank development. Does it add to the current crop of books on tanks? Yes it does, concentrating as it does largely on little-known aspects of early tank development that are nonetheless essential for a proper understanding of how tank warfare came of age.
For a casual reader the book might be a little light on illustration and action reports, but this is compensated for by supplying those interested in tank with a breadth of information lacking in other works. For the more serious scholar of either the First World War or of armoured warfare, the book is a 'must-have' for the bookcase.