Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.
Tanks and Modern Warfare
When tanks first appeared in the First World War, fear and confusion were the initial reactions among military ranks. Based on reports from the trenches, German soldiers gave conflicting descriptions on what these mysterious new weapons looked like.
Some say their shapes ranged from X-shaped to square. These vehicles were said to carry 40 infantrymen or fire land mines. But one thing is for sure, the varying reports of the soldiers exemplified the confusion the tanks caused. The uncertainty on what the Germans were facing made these early tanks somewhat mythical and frightening. Eventually, the Germans would soon learn to face that fear as they discovered means to destroy the slow-moving primitive tanks.
The introduction of tanks into warfare represents a significant stage in the modernization of ground war. Though slow and prone to mechanical failures, they helped win the Second World War by breaking the static nature of trench battle. Gone were the great cavalry charges, as troops now rode into battle on their armored vehicles.
The early tanks of World War I, however, were completely unrecognizable primitive beasts, with the classic turret and gun missing. Back then, tanks were tracked, rhomboid-shaped armored boxes, designed to traverse trenches. Indeed, the British heavy tanks were a success, but before that, the French came up with their own design — a design that resembles a poorly budgeted, fictional dystopian vehicle.
The First Tanks
The original tanks that were seen back in the First World War were nothing like the rolling beasts that decimate each other in modern armored warfare. People have grown so used to the usual tank design of an armored hull on tracks, and a gun sticking out from a turret, that they might find World War I tanks unrecognizable.
In World War I, breaking through the defenses of trenches and machinegun fire, traversing difficult terrain, and crushing barbwire were the primary purpose of tanks. Hence, the British “Landship Committee” was formed to address such needs. After several trials with various armored vehicle designs, the prototype “Little Willie” came out. And from here the Mark I tank was developed.
Much of the features of the modern tank were missing on the Mark I. Firepower was never a priority, hence it never had a turret or any heavy gunnery that might hinder its movement on the terrain and trenches of the battlefield. Because of this, it adopted a rhomboid-shaped body with tracks around the hull. The guns stick out on either side. This design allowed the tank to cross rough terrains and trenches with a width of eight feet.
Now, the first tanks were slow and often broke down during advances, but some made it through the no-man's land, with devastating effects on the enemy. Successes varied in offensive assaults. However, large-scale use of tanks working together with infantries during the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 overwhelmed the German lines, while the Battle of Amiens (August 1918) further prove its efficacy.
All in all, tanks proved their worth as an effective fighting vehicle in the First World War. The French also had their own version of these so-called “landships." These early predecessors of tanks looked so bizarre and were quite awkward.
The Ugly Boirault Machines
Preceding the development of the British tank prototype “Little Whillie,” there was the Boirault Machine. It looked less than a fighting vehicle, and more like a playground ride for children.
It was the French engineer Louise Boirault who proposed such an idea to the French War Ministry, back in December 1914. Again, the objective here was to break through the defenses and gaps of trench warfare, but the approach was different. The vehicle design that resulted was a skeletal machine with no armor and all frame.
It also used tracks, but its tracks weren’t the familiar caterpillar threads. The tracks were formed by six metallic frames with four transverse beams, which rotated around a motorized center (with the driver’s cabin). An 80 hp petrol engine drove the tracks via chains.
The purpose of the peculiar design was that the tracks of beams and frame would be flexible enough to adapt to any terrain. A second version, the Boirault 2 was built. It offered some improvements over its predecessor, being smaller and lighter and with an enclosed cabin.
But both of these weapons never saw combat, for a good reason. In fact, both were cancelled for a number of shortcomings.
The Boirault Was an Awkward Fighting Vehicle
You probably guessed that a skeletal vehicle with no armor would be too fragile for battle. You are not mistaken. Aside from being fragile, the whole thing was also slow, thanks mostly to the poor engine output. Plus, the Boirault 1 was incapable of changing direction.
Its poor maneuverability, low speed, noise, and the fact that it presented a large target meant the whole project was destined for cancellation. In fact, it earned the sarcastic nickname "Diplodocus militaris" because of its awkwardness and prehistoric visage.
What About the Boirault 2?
It was an improvement, but not a vast improvement. In tests, it flattened everything in its way, but as General Gouraud noted, those trials never reflected real-life battle conditions, where it would drive through machinegun fire and artillery barrages.
Though the tracks used metal plates instead of frames, which made it less skeletal, and while the cabin was enclosed, it never solved the mobility problem. It had the same speed and steering shortcomings as its predecessor. And it stood little chance against a rain of artillery shells. Unsurprisingly, it met the same fate as its predecessor, which was project cancellation.
The French Persevered
The failure of these mechanical monsters never derailed the French tank program, however. Later on, they opted for the more superior American tractor system after the French arms corporation Schneider & Co studied the tractors of the Holt Company. Later on, on February 25, 1916, the first French tank was fielded — the Schneider CA1, a fully armored steel box running on tracks.
- Forty, George; Livesey, Jack (2012), The Complete Guide to Tanks and Armoured Fighting Vehicles, Southwater.
- Glanfield, J. (2001), The Devil's Chariots: The Birth and Secret Battles of the First Tanks, Sutton Publishing.
- Larson, Caleb (26 May 2020), World War I History Lesson: Why Early French Tank Designs Were a Disaster, National Interest.
Mamerto Adan (author) from Cabuyao on August 23, 2021:
Thanks John! I'm always fascinated with early tanks, but this French version really caught my eye :)
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on August 22, 2021:
What weird looking contraptions and hard to imagine ever being considered for use in war. I guess they did lead to later and more successful advancements though. Interesting article.