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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 September 2006, 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK
Ninety years of the tank
German photo of a British tank
When first used in battle, only two tanks broke through

By Peter Caddick-Adams
Military Historian

They made a boggy debut in the Somme but rose to play a vital part in the World War II. This week sees the 90th anniversary of the first use of the tank - but are they a still a weapon of choice?

Tanks. The very word conjures up an image of armoured monsters emerging from the smoke of war or morning mist, trundling their way across the battlefield, turrets searching for targets.

Or perhaps long columns of panzers clattering along tree-lined French roads in that long, hot, disastrous summer of 1940.

One of the first tanks in action

Leonardo da Vinci first conceived of some kind of armoured battlefield chariot and HG Wells wrote of steam-driven "land ironclads" in 1904.

But tanks have been with us for less than a century - their 90th anniversary is on 15 September, when they were first deployed against German troops during the latter stages of the battle of the Somme.

They looked very different then, and had an altogether different purpose.

Several people had a hand in their development, particularly once the fighting was constricted by trenches and barbed wire.

An agricultural manufacturer came up with the idea of an armoured trench-crossing tractor, moving on caterpillar tracks, but the Army rejected it.

An engineer officer with vision, Lt-Col Ernest Swinton, took a similar American design to First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, known for his fondness of wacky military gadgets.

Gender specific

Headed by Churchill, a Landships Committee of soldiers, manufacturers and politicians was formed in 1915 to design a "mobile machine-gun destroyer".

Major Charles Caddick-Adams
My grandfather was warned he would be 'working with tanks tomorrow', but no one could tell him what a tank was
Peter Caddick-Adams
Needing a code name to conceal their real use from the Germans they were labelled "mobile water tanks for Mesopotamia" (the campaign in what is now Iraq) and the name stuck. They did indeed resemble a water tank - large and box-like, made from boiler-plate and peppered with rivets.

Early tanks came in two varieties - Male, with a naval cannon mounted on each side and no turret, and Female, with machine guns. The crew of eight had to communicate by hand signals, so loud was the 105hp Daimler engine inside.

General Douglas Haig soon found out about the proposed weapon. Once their role had been modified to trench-crossing, barbed-wire crushing and machine-gun destroying, he ordered 150 for delivery as soon as possible.

With losses on the Somme mounting, Haig and his generals were in a quandary - should they use the new weapon as soon as possible, or wait and attack with all 150? Tank crews trained in great secrecy (labelled as part of the Machine Gun Corps), but no one else was in on the secret.

In the end, 50 were shipped over, labelled "With Care - Petrograd" as a further ruse.

My grandfather was warned the night before their first use - on 15 September 1916 - that he would be "working with tanks tomorrow", but as no one could tell him what a tank was, so he and his chums had no idea how they should work with them.

Wonder weapon?

In the event, the launch was bizarre: the tanks were spread along the front line and attacked in "penny packets" - deployed in small groups.

British tank burns in Basra, Iraq, September 2005
Today debate rages over the role for tanks in modern warfare
Of the 49 delivered, 31 broke down before or just after the attack started; of the 18 that rolled into action that morning at a stately three mph, six bogged in the cratered ground, eight were hit by shellfire and two caught fire.

But the remaining two broke through; one captured a strongpoint and the other waddled through a nearby village, behind German lines. A British biplane reported back "a tank is walking up the high street of Flers with the British army cheering behind it".

It was not the wonder weapon the newspapers first claimed, but it showed promise and the public was curious to see one.

The War Office refused to release a picture, but the Daily Mirror published the first photograph a month after the attack, on 22 November, for which they paid the unprecedented sum of 1,000 (over 35,000 today).

With the secret out, tanks became a common sight and the French also produced them. On 20 November 1917, the British changed tactics and launched 476 of them on a narrow front against the Germans at Cambrai.

The Germans later counter-attacked, but the initial breakthrough proved that a concentrated tank force could punch its way through almost anything. In April 1918 the first tank-v-tank encounter took place, the Germans coming off the worse.

Modern warfare

In 1939-41 the Germans conquered much of Europe using massed tank formations. The Western Desert campaign revolved around tank clashes, and D-Day in 1944 launched the Allies back into Europe with many specialist tanks.

Margaret Thatcher in a tank
Tanks also serve as a deterrent
Today, Western armies are debating the future of the Main Battle Tank, an expensive piece of kit and, as losses in Israel and Iraq show, vulnerable to anti-tank weapons.

Pre-2003, there was a move to gradually reduce the numbers of big tanks and switch to lighter, air-portable armoured vehicles that match the modern Western doctrine of "expeditionary warfare".

But operations in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan have shown that tanks remain a powerful deterrent and a much-needed weapon system on the modern battlefield.

Troops wading through the Somme mud alongside those first tanks in 1916 might have thought otherwise.

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