The British were pioneers in the field of armored warfare during World War 1 - producing the world's first practical combat tanks in 1916. Early work began under the leadership of the British Admiralty and Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to produce the limited but evolutionary "Little Willie" landship of 1915. The Little Willie showed that a track-laying armored vehicle could effectively be utilized on a larger scale through a more refined design. While the Little Willie was largely a prototype in nature, a succeeding design was already under construction by late September of 1916.The design came to be initially known as the "Centipede" though "Mother" became closely associated with the type's existence later on. Some also knew it as "Big Willie" in reference to its relationship to the preceding design. At any rate, the full designation was "His Majesty's Landship, Tank Mk I". The word "tank" was used to disguise the true nature of the beast, intended to promote a rather non-military industrial water tank role for the design.
While the Little Willie was designed to cross 5-foot wide trenches, it failed in its design approach. Its track-laying capabilities were extremely limited (this born from a farming tractor chassis). Additionally, top speed was just two miles per hour and internal space for machinery, personnel and weapons was restricted at best. For the new design, a rhomboidal shape was assumed which sported a pair of long-running track systems that extended past the length of the hull. The tracks would run over the hull height and come down to the front of the vehicle to which it would then proceed underneath the landship itself and repeat its journey. In this fashion, the vehicle would conceivably have a better chance of crossing over a wider trench opening. The hull was situated between the track systems and contained the transmission, engine and fighting cabin.
The importance of a trench-crossing vehicle should not be lost on the reader. Trench warfare began after several months of fighting that began in the summer of 1914. The war began with fluid momentum as German ground forces invaded and conquered Belgium en route to Paris, France. It was not until successful counterattacks bogged the drive that trenches began to emerge on both sides in an effort to protect respective territories. All sides developed a vast network of trench lines across the Western Front to which these could be used in an offensive and defensive way to hold ground or dislodge opponents as necessary. As both sides dug in for the long battle ahead, engineers went to work on various weaponry that might carry the favor from one adversary to the other. Projects ultimately revealed some value in poison gas, flamethrowers, automatic weapons, the fighter aircraft, the bomber aircraft and - of course - the landship. The landship would essentially be the battleship equivalent on land, hence its name and origination with the British Admiralty. A purpose-designed landship could be equipped with various weaponry, carry its crew into battle in relative safety and engage hostiles at distance. Additionally, the heavy armored nature of such vehicles would allow them to break through enemy obstacles such as barbed wire, earthen mounts , artillery craters and trenches.
The Mk I tank was intended to cross over trenches some 12 feet wide though 9 feet proved more practical in service. Its rhomboidal design went on to inspire several future British combat tanks appearing during the war and was itself as evolutionary to the armored warfare concept as was the Little Willie before it. Armament would not be fixed to a revolving turret (as was proposed with the Little Willie design) but instead mounted within traversing stations on side sponsons protruding from either track side. This design quality was rather single-minded in its approach (from a modern standpoint) but the reasoning behind sponsons was their ability to engage enemy forces down in trenches. A hull roof-mounted traversing turret would not have had the lower elevation to meet such a threat. As the primary objective of the tank was to dislodge enemy forces, the ability to engage them at lower levels was key to success. Armament could range from cannons to machine guns or both. Primary armament for the Mk I was 2 x 57mm (QF 6-pounder) field guns. Machine guns were 8mm Hotchkiss types.
However, within time though was given to defending landships from infantry assault (via grenades or anti-tank weapons) for the design held natural blind spots in their arcs of fire. In this way, the Mk I was branches into two definitive versions - the primary one being the cannon-armed "male" and the secondary one being the machine gun-armed "female". A male would then move along its route supported by female gunships for protection. Working in such fashion, the Mk Is could then proceed at pace with all possible engagement arcs covered. In the end, half of the completed Mk I tanks were of the male type with the remaining 50% being female.
The Mk I prototype began evaluations on January 16th, 1916. Over the next few weeks, operational testing ensued and proved the design sound save for the complexity of its internal function. The engines were far from reliable and this would prove its weakness for the life of the tank. Specialists would need to be on hand in the fighting compartment to manage the finicky nature of the open-air powerplant. Steering was aided by a two-wheeled rudder-type appendage at the rear and power was provided for by 1 x Daimler 6-cylinder engine of 105 horsepower. Overall weight was 28 tons (the female versions were one ton lighter). Armor protection measured from 6mm to 12mm in thickness. Understanding the possible value of armored vehicles in combat and perhaps faced with a certain level of desperation to end the bloody business of trench warfare, the British government placed an order for 100 Mk I tanks in February of 1916.
Tracked armored warfare itself presented a whole slew of problems unseen in modern warfare before. Crews with no experience in landship function would need to be trained by personnel with no military experience. The concept proved all too new and crews quickly discovered the rather unforgiving nature of armored warfare when within these new steel beasts. Working conditions were excessively noisy for the engine was set in the middle of the fighting compartment without any sort of cover or muffler. Not only was noise a factor (detrimental to communications between crewmen) but it also released poisonous gasses to the entire crew. Since ventilation within these steel tanks was already poor, this added rather deadly results. The open-air nature of the engine did, at the very least, allow for unfettered access to the engine in the event of a breakdown - which proved common in early tanks. Another design flaw of note with early tanks was lack of a suspension system which, as one can imagine going over rough terrain, led to many crewmembers being injured during travel.
The Mk I required a crew of eight and, with the internal noise levels, communications was accomplished through hand signals or physical pats. Communications with outside forces was managed through carrier pigeons or runners. Four crew members were charged with the steering and brakes of the tank while the rest managed the weaponry or engine function.
Tanks of World War 1 combat were exposed to all manner of lethality. Chief among these was enemy artillery to which the tank held little to no protection from. Early tanks also featured armor too thin to even protect from machine gun fire and shot-traps were mistakenly inherent in their design. Direct hits from shells could also send rivets and shrapnel flying about the inside of the vehicle, causing unimaginable levels of carnage to the occupants. There was also no defense against poison gas to which the crew would have to don clumsy masks and suits for protection - this already in a cramped, hot and smelly environment. The use of gasoline to fuel the engine provided for its own let of issues for a direct hit could easily spark an internal fire and burn the crew alive.
The enemy was soon developing anti-tank measures all their own in the way of grenade attacks, landmines, armor-piercing artillery shells, flamethrower attacks and dedicated anti-tank rifles. Each held their own limitations and benefits but few made any impact in stopping Allied steel forces. Grenade attacks were partially countered by the installation of a crude netting system atop the hull, shaped in such a way as to help grenades (they being cylindrical in nature) roll off the approaching tank. At some critical junctions, the Germans even devised "tank forts" complete with a pair of field guns and defended by machine guns. Other than that, trench networks could simply be constructed wider than the Mk I could simply cross. Methods were eventually developed where the Germans would "funnel" Allied tanks into predetermined "kill zones" by way of minefields, ditches and artillery fire.
Despite all of these dangers, the greatest threat to a World War 1 tanker crew was unreliability of the powerplant. Mk Is proved notorious for their in-the-field breakdowns and their first engagement actions were limited successes at best. The two-wheeled rudder appendages were found to offer little value and were removed from future production for it was found that applying brakes to one track side while running the other provided a much more efficient turning method. Many examples became ditched in the artillery craters due to pilot error or some design limitation.
Mk I tanks took part in history's first tank actions in 1916 though terrain limited effectiveness. Early actions saw German infantry simply retreat rather than face these steel menaces head-on. Regardless, the age of the tank had arrived and more designs were soon to follow. Hundreds would eventually take part in massive land actions to help end World War 1. On September 15th, 1916 as part of the Somme Offensive, some 50 Mk I tanks were available though only 32 were operational and 21 of these were actually used in the fray. The target was a five mile front against German forces leading up to the town of Flers. The tanks led the way and were able to break through the barbed wire defenses, cross a trench and take out fortified defenders in the village with cannon fire. The value of the landship as a combat vehicle - especially when coupled with air support and effective artillery barrages - was specifically noted. While some Tan Mk Is inevitably gave way to mechanical unreliability and others became bogged in the soft terrain, the landship was here to stay and the nominal success ushered in orders for more of her kind in the following months.
In the end, it proved to be the British willingness and foresight to design, develop and produce these landships that gave the initiative back to the Allies. The Germans were fought into an Armistice in November of 1918 which ended with their humiliation that laid the groundwork for World War 2. Thousands of tanks were produced during the war but it was the British who ultimately led the way. The tide in the Second World War would undoubtedly change, however, with the Germans assuming the same role.
Approximately 150 Mk I tanks were produced and many, when in action, were given up to mechanical failures or lost in combat. Production included an initial order of 100 vehicles with 25 provided by Fosters of Lincoln and the remaining 75 by Metropolitan Carriage & Wagon Company. A heavy mover supply vehicle version existed as the Mk I Tank Tender which had its sponsons removed of their guns and sealed. Similarly, the gun-less Mk I Wireless was a roving command post identified by its aerial mast.