You may be aware that Wargaming.net recently made a donation to the Lincoln Tank Memorial Group. The aim of this group is to build a memorial close to the site of Foster’s factory where the first tank came out of the production line in 1916.
The story is told by my friend and author Richard Pullen, whose grandfather George Atkin worked on tank production at William Foster and Co in Lincoln during World War I.
By 1915, the Great War was in full swing and the horrific potential of this new kind of warfare had become painfully apparent to everyone. Over the last 100 years, millions of words have been written to try to explain the reasons behind the trench fighting and the awful slaughter that ensued, but the reasons for the stalemate can perhaps be summed up in a single word; Mechanisation. For the first time, two World Super Powers were pitted against each other and they were both armed with the most efficient and technologically advanced weaponry available. Submarines, aeroplanes, accurate artillery, high explosives and poison gas were all being used on a daily basis. Despite all of these new machines of war, perhaps two seemingly unconnected inventions were more responsible for the deadlock that characterised the Great War than any other and they were the Machine Gun and Barbed Wire. If either side tried to get up out of their trenches and cross no man’s land, they would be stopped by the impenetrable belts of barbed wire and cut down by deadly interlocking fields of machine gun fire. The question was simply, how we get men into the enemy’s trench without being slaughtered by the machine guns or caught up on the wire; this became known as ‘The Riddle of the Trenches’. Whoever was the first to solve the seemingly unsolvable riddle would make the war mobile again and perhaps even have a chance of winning, but how could the wire and Maxims be overcome without losing every man in the regiment?
The answer to the riddle of the trenches eventually came from a small agricultural engineering firm in Lincoln, England. William Foster and Co Ltd were relatively tiny, but were well known for their high quality and speed of manufacture. The first machine Fosters produced for the newly formed Admiralty Landships Committee was the Tritton Trench Crosser and although full of good ideas, it was not the machine that the committee were looking for. One of its main problems was that it had wheels, which were no good for crossing barbed wire strewn, shell torn swamps such as those now found around the Ypres Salient. What was needed was a vehicle that could crush the barbed wire down as it moved along and it soon became apparent that only a track laying vehicle would ever be able to breach the wire and perhaps solve the riddle of the trenches.
Both the Allies and the Germans knew this and suddenly the race was on to create the war winning wonder weapon!
Mother takes the bank in Burton Park (Lincoln) in her stride
The first true track laying, trench crossing vehicle created by William Foster and Co Ltd in Lincoln was known as Little Willie.
Little Willie shows what he can do during early trials at Burton Park.
The machine had originally been fitted with commercially available American tracks, which were fine in their intended roll, moving a light farm tractor over flat open ground, but they couldn’t take the weight or the forces being exerted on them by Fosters and were soon scrapped. The replacement tracks eventually created in Lincoln for Willie had been the idea of Fosters Managing Director, William Tritton and they were as simple and robust as possible, making them perfect for the new creation. Little Willie, complete with his new Tritton Tracks, was powered by a 105hp Daimler engine and transmission taken from one of the Foster Daimler tractors the company had been making since 1914 and despite various claims to the contrary, neither Little Willie nor any Great War, British produced tank, used as much as a single nut or bolt from a Holt or any other American manufacturers machine. Little Willie was a valuable test bed and several new ideas and designs were used on it. The machine was intended to be fitted with a turret on the roof, directly over the mid mounted engine, but there is little evidence to suggest that the turret was a success and it seems to have been removed almost immediately.
Brand new Mk. IV tanks taking shape
Willie was actually of a very modern design, having the main hull riding between the track frames and the turret on the top, just like a tank of today. By all accounts, the machine was terrific off road and took replica shell holes in its stride at tests in Burton Park in Lincoln and later at Hatfield House. Unfortunately, it had almost no trench crossing ability, there is no way the vehicle would have been able to cross even a narrow trench, let alone the huge fortified trenches now being dug by the Germans and so it never went into production. Little Willie cannot perhaps be strictly described as a tank as such and almost as soon as it was finished it was obsolete as a new idea was already taking shape in the erecting shed in Lincoln.
Just to the left in picture is William Tritton
The ideal trench crossing, wire flattening machine would be a huge wheel, but such a vehicle would have made an perfect target for the German guns, so the idea of a wheel, which would simply roll over anything put in its path, was flattened down into a rhomboid shape, thus giving us the universally recognisable profile of the world’s first true tank. The first of the rhomboid machines left William Fosters factory in January 1916 and at this early stage was officially known at the factory as ‘Order AX’. When the military arrived, they renamed it ‘His Majesties Landship Centipede’, but it wouldn’t be long before everyone, military and civilian, agreed that it should be known as Mother from now on. Mother was tested on Poppletons Field in Lincoln and then went on for more rigorous testing in the peaceful surroundings of the nearby Burton Park. On the 2nd February 1916, the new machine was taken to Hatfield Park to the north of London, for official War Office testing. Mother sailed through it all, taking trenches and boggy ground in her stride and one of the officials present for the tests suggested that Fosters of Lincoln should build a further 3000 Landships straight away! This was quite unrealistic, as test runs were one thing, but the Landship was still unproven in battle. The War Office did place orders, but the tiny company of William Foster and Co Ltd would have never been able to complete them on their own, so factories in Newcastle, Glasgow and Birmingham had to brought in to keep up with demand.
Little Willie in William Foster’s work yard, 1915
The answer to the Riddle of the Trenches had been found at a small agricultural manufacturer in Lincoln and soon the Mk. I would see action on the Western Front. Unfortunately, the first tanks had been hurriedly constructed from ‘off the shelf’ materials and their first battle at Flers-Courcelette on September 15th 1916 was a disappointment.
An Mk. I C13 before the first battle at Flers-Courcelette, September 1916. Commanded by Lt Sir John Dashwood
Although the 105hp Daimler sleeve-valve engine was the largest land based petrol engine available to the designers, it was actually the early tanks Achilles Heel. The first tanks weighed around 30 tons and the engine had real problems moving this weight along firm roads, let alone through shell holes and thick mud. This problem with the power to weight ratio also had an obvious knock on effect on the armour plate of the tank. The plate thickness had to be kept at a maximum of just 8mm, if it had been any thicker than this, the weight would have been drastically increased and tank would never have moved at all. The two other main problems with the Daimler unit were that it was fitted with neither fuel nor oil pumps. The oil simply sloshed around in the sump pan and bathed the big ends and crank shaft, which was fine on a flat road, but if a tank was at 45 degrees, trying to get out of shell hole, the oil would all run to the back of the engine and it wouldn’t be long before the front was running dry and the engine would seize. The lack of a fuel pump was perhaps the most serious problem with the Mk. I tanks as the petrol had to be gravity fed to the carburettor from petrol tanks in the highest point of the machines front track frame. This was fine in theory, but the front of the tank was exactly what the German gunners would be aiming at and the tendency for tanks to catch fire soon became well known to the tank crews and the German gunners. The tank had been rushed into battle and given time, many of its teething problems could have been worked out on the testing fields in Lincoln, but the rush to get them into battle meant that these flaws were noted after actual battle experience that cost the lives of many of the pioneering tank crews.
Thankfully the tank evolved and by the time the Mk. IV was put into battle at Cambrai on November 20th 1917, many of the old problems had been addressed. The new Mk. IV may look like a Mk. I, but it had many improvements, including bigger escape doors, unditching gear and a fuel pump, which meant that the petrol could now be stored more safely at the back of the tank. The Mk. IV finally proved just what a tank could and couldn’t do; it showed that with proper support, tanks were an indispensable part of modern war. By the end of the Great War in 1918, the Mk. V and the Lincoln made Medium A Whippet had joined the ranks and then nobody would ever dream of going into battle again without the might of the tank.
A Lincoln made Medium A Whippet captured by the Germans and being evaluated by their technical department