In the USA the Holt Company built a tractor with caterpillar tracks that was used to move over difficult territory. It was suggested that this machine might be adapted for military use, those in positions of authority failed to see the significance of this new development.
In 1899 Frederick Simms made a design of what he called a motor-war car. This vehicle had a Daimler engine, a bulletproof shell and was armed with 2 maxim guns on revolving turrets. The British War Office didn’t like Simms' car and showed no interest in similar schemes.
By the outbreak of the First World War Richard Hornsby & Sons produced the Killen-Strait Armoured Tractor. The tracks consisted of a continuous series of steel links, joined together with steel pins. In June 1915 the Killen-Strait was tested out in front of Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George at Wormwood Scrubs. The machine successfully cut through barbed wire entanglements.
Another person influenced by Holt's Caterpillar Tractor was Colonel Ernest Swinton. With the help of Colonel Maurice Hankey, Swinton managed to persuade Winston Churchill, the navy minister, to set up a Landships Committee to look building a new war machine.
The Landships Committee and the newly-formed Inventions Committee, agreed with Swinton's proposal and commissioned Lieutenant W. G. Wilson of the Naval Air Service and William Tritton of William Foster & Co. Ltd. of Lincoln, to produce a small landship. Constructed in great secrecy, the machine was given the code-name tank by Swinton.
Nicknamed Little Willie, this prototype tank with its Daimler engine, had track frames 12 feet long, weighed 14 tons and could carry a crew of three, at speeds of just over three miles. The speed dropped to under 2 mph over bumpy ground and was unable to cross wide trenches. Although the performance was disappointing, Ernest Swinton remained convinced that when modified, the tank would enable the Allies to defeat the Central Powers.
The tanks was first used at the Battle of Flers. It was then used at the Battle of the Somme but didn’t work as well. Though the tank was highly unreliable it did a great deal to end the horrors of trench warfare and brought back some mobility to the Western Front.
The first tank did not go well. The first model came off the factory floor on September 8th 1915. On September 10th, its track came off. The same thing happened on September 19th when government officials were watching. However, these officials were impressed as they knew that any new weapon was bound to have teething problems and their recognised the potential that the new weapon had. Its main weakness was the track system. Tritton and Wilson designed a new and more reliable version and on September 29th a meeting took place in London that recommended the new weapon should have 10-mm frontal armour and 8-mm side armour. There would be a crew of eight and the large guns would be 57-mm naval guns mounted on the sides. The vehicle would have a speed of 4 mph. "Big Willie" ran with these specifications for the first time on January 16th 1916. Churchill had directly contacted Haig to convince him about the usefulness of the new weapon. Haig sent a major, Hugh Elles, to find out more about the machine and he reported favourably to Haig.
On January 29th 1916, "Big Willie" went through it first big demonstration –under secrecy. On February 2nd, Kitchener, Lloyd George and McKenna, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, attended another demonstration. It was at this meeting that Kitchener described "Big Willie" as a "pretty mechanical toy". However, those close to Kitchener said that he said this as a way to...