The Anniversary of Big Willie: How the Tank Made it to Battle

Big Willie Tank from WW1

British archival photo of the early tank

The Anniversary of Big Willie:
How the Tank Made it to Battle
| published September 30, 2015 |

By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor

Since the dawn of warfare, soldiers and armies have sought to gain a competitive advantage on the field of battle, especially in the area of maneuver. Technology has been applied throughout the ages to weaponry, tactics, logistics and other elements of warfare.

For centuries, up until World War I began in 1914, the primary methods of maneuvering soldiers were marching on foot or riding on horseback, wagon or chariot. The result of this was armies being relegated to those speeds reachable by the feet of either humans or horses. Military leaders from the time of Caesar, Hannibal and Alexander through Napoleon grappled with the issue of mobility on the battlefield. But conquerors, generals and politicians dreamed of ways to increase the tempo of warfare while increasing the effectiveness of their firepower at the same time.

The development of cavalry increased speed and mobility and improved firepower by allowing soldiers to employ spears, bows and arrows, swords, and hacking tools more effectively in combat. However, the soldiers were still vulnerable to attack and the development of body armor was necessary to afford some measure of protection. The end result was knights in suits armor made of metal. Initially effective, this invention became a technological dead end as the weight of the armor increased and made the armor too unwieldy and heavy.

For centuries, soldiers still moved about the battlefield by horse and foot-power. In the nineteenth century, however, the steam engine became practical and powered the new industrial revolution. Many inventors, industrialists, etc., had the dream of putting the steam engine to use as means of propulsion for transportation purposes and it was, of course, applied to trains.

Steam was also applied to military purposes as steam engines were experimented with to propel tractors carrying supplies and to pull artillery. However, the steam engines were inefficient, and were soon replaced by another invention, the gasoline engine. Internal combustion, gas-powered engines were also applied to commercial vehicles, and quickly became the more popular for most vehicular design and development.

As it also turns out, by the turn of the twentieth century the armored car had been invented. They were used in the beginning of World War I, but proved to be largely ineffective, underpowered and under-gunned. With lethal use being made of barbed wire, trenches and machine guns, a more powerful, more robust vehicle was needed, especially something which could carry the weight of not just men, but dense armor and heavy weaponry as well. In the United States, men such as Frederick Simms and Alvin Lombard had experimented with placing caterpillar tracks on tractors for military purposes. Lombard is considered the inventor of the tracked-wheel vehicle. Simms’ model included a bullet-proof casing and a machine gun developed by Hiram Maxim. He offered the design to the British War Office but it was rejected as a “mechanical toy.”

However, the British still considered the concept of a tracked, armored, mechanical vehicle valid and worth exploring. During the Great War, as World War I was then called, it was the British who took the lead in advancing the concept of mechanized vehicles for use on the battlefield. A need was seen for a mechanical vehicle which could break through enemy trench defenses and barbed wire. They began experimenting with American made tractors initially, due to the quality of their tracks. A Killen-Strait tractor was combined with the body of a Belville armored car and became the first true tracked, armored vehicle, albeit a very crude example. British Colonel Ernest Swinton organized an official demonstration for the War Office in June, 1915. The vehicle successfully cut through a barbed-wire entanglement and the politicians on hand, including David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, were impressed—despite the fact that one of the vehicle’s tracks came off. The vehicle contained a 105-horsepower gasoline engine and a two speed gearbox.

William Foster & Co., Lincoln, of Lincolnshire, England, was chosen to manufacture the foray operational “landship,” as the vehicle was officially called within the military. William Foster & Co. had been around since the mid-1800s, and was well-known for its design and construction of steam-powered machinery for use on farms and dairies, such as threshing machines, and for heavy construction tools and construction equipment. The firm was also proficient with metals, and even operated iron foundries.

The project was extremely top secret, and the machine was given a special codename—tank—to disguise its true purpose. Employees, engineers, military men, and even a few locals, were told to explain—in case anyone asked—that what was being manufactured were “water tanks” for use in ferrying water in the desert, especially for the British and Russian military. Others were told to explain, if pressed, that the tanks were “oil tanks” bound for Russia. Thus, the shorthand which quickly took over the vernacular: the tank.

A remote farming area of England was selected for testing and training—its dirt and clay roads sealed off, and the only local farmers asked to temporarily move to other fields. To discourage trespassers, hikers, or just plain nosy folks, signs were posted around the perimeter warning of dangerous explosives and unexploded bombs. Special rail sidings were hurriedly constructed to connect the main rail line to the testing areas, and secrecy was considered so paramount that massive wooden and canvas screens were erected along the main rail line to conceal what was happening in the distance. The testing would leave nothing to chance. A variety of trenches—designed to closely resemble those found along the German lines in France and Belgium—were dug in the former English farm fields, and British explosives teams set-off bombs in order to recreate the huge craters found in the real battlefield conditions of France. Barbed wire fences were installed, earthen berms, and wood and earth fortifications recreated.

Colonel Swinton was a member of the “landship committee” charged with bringing the vehicle into production. He laid down certain key criteria that he argued must be part of the finished design. The tank must boast a minimum speed of four miles per hour, be able to climb a five foot high obstacle, successfully span a five foot-wide trench, and—most critically—be resistant to the effects of small-arms fire. Furthermore, the machine should possess two machine guns, have a battlefield travel range of 20 miles, and be maintained by a crew of ten men. The first finished product appeared in September, 1915 and was dubbed “Little Willie.” Foster & Co. had decided to manufacture tracks designed for the vehicle and eschew the use of tractor tracks, which would not be able to bear the strain of battlefield usage.

When completed, the prototype actually achieved a speed of two miles per hour over rough terrain, carried a crew of three and weighed fourteen tons. The vehicle employed cast steel track plates riveted to hinged links, which engaged rails on the track frames. “Little Willie,” however, could not cross trenches—determined officially to be five feet wide—a factor which greatly limited its utility. This drawback was quickly remedied by Colonel Swinton, who suggested simply lengthening the track frames so that the machine could easily traverse the standard five-foot trench. The War Office was anxious to get a machine onto the battlefield, and it decreed that the new landship be ready for operations by 1916. Little Willie was seen as only a prototype, though, so work was already beginning on its successor, one which could meet all the necessary criteria.

Big Willie in a village during WW1 Archival photo of a Big Willie tank in a small village near the battle lines in WWI

Already dubbed “Big Wille,” the new, longer landship weighed twenty-eight tons and had tracks which went all the way around its curvilinear body. There was no room for a turret on top, so the vehicle was fitted instead with a pair of half-turrets, or sponsons, one on either side of the vehicle. Each sponson housed a six-pounder gun (57mm) to provide heavy firepower on the battlefield.

Big Willie’s body consisted of steam-boiler plating riveted to an angled iron frame. Inside, secondary gears were added to cope with the landship’s increased weight. Big Willie also topped out at three miles per hour (not the four mph as originally hoped), but it was easily able to cross obstacles, and it could cross a nine-foot trench, a much wider traversing skill than what had been called for in the early criteria.

The new vehicle was put through its paces during a major demonstration held on January 29, 1916. The British War Office was suitably impressed with Big Willie, too, and in February, 1916, the Ministry of Munitions ordered 100 production vehicles. A new military unit, the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps, was founded to provide manpower, a tactical framework for using the new mechanical creation, and training in maintenance and repairs.

Colonel Swinton was given responsibility for developing and training the elite new unit. The War Office had its new weapon, and now they simply needed to determine what use would be made of it.

(Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two part series on the 100th anniversary of the tank in warfare; Thursday Review will present the next installment later in October.)

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Legacy of Tannenberg; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review archives; August 29, 2014.

The Little Boat The Won the Big War; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review archives; June 9, 2014.