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World War 1 History: First Tank Versus Tank Battle

Updated on May 28, 2012
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

WW1: British Mark IV (Tadpole) tank - A Mark IV with an extended 'Tadpole' tail designed to increase it's trench-crossing ability.
WW1: British Mark IV (Tadpole) tank - A Mark IV with an extended 'Tadpole' tail designed to increase it's trench-crossing ability. | Source

First Use of Tanks

The very first use of tanks in the First World War was by the British during the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916. Nine of the 32 tanks managed to get across no man's land to the German trenches-- a fete exceeding many critics' expectations. The French employed tanks for the first time on April 16, 1917 during the Nivelle Offensive. The first tank versus tank battle did not occur until April 24, 1918, near the small town of Villers-Bretonneux (vil-AIR BRIH-toh-na). There were two reasons it took so long for such an event to happen:

  1. The Germans, perhaps uncharacteristically, were far behind in tank technology and didn't deploy tanks in the field until March 21, 1918.

  2. The Germans only produced 20 tanks during the whole war, compared to the Allies who produced about 7,700 tanks of various designs.


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A markervillers-bretonneux -
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Villers-Bretonneux

B markerAmiens, France -
Amiens, France
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Amiens

The Bigger Picture

In April of 1918, the massive German Spring Offensive that had started in March was still underway. One of their strategic objectives was the city of Amiens (AM-yeh), an important rail and road center and the junction between the British and French armies. By taking Amiens, the Germans hoped to split the Allies in two or, at the least, seriously disrupt their supply lines. As they fought their way toward Amiens, the German forces, including 15 of their A7V tanks, approached the small town of Villers-Bretonneux. If they could punch through the town, they could then gain the high ground from which they could shell Amiens. Defending this area was the British 8th Division, much depleted from earlier fighting, some French Foreign Legionnaires and a detachment of tanks consisting of three Mark IVs (one male armed with cannon and two female armed only with machine guns) and seven Mark A Whippets (armed only with machine guns). The British tanks and artillery lay hidden under camouflage in the woods behind Villers-Bretonneux.

WW1: Mark IV Female Tank in Anzac Hall, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
WW1: Mark IV Female Tank in Anzac Hall, Australian War Memorial, Canberra. | Source
WW1: The Medium Mark A Whippet was a British tank of World War I. Intended to complement the slow Mark V tanks by using its relative mobility and speed in exploiting any break in the enemy lines.
WW1: The Medium Mark A Whippet was a British tank of World War I. Intended to complement the slow Mark V tanks by using its relative mobility and speed in exploiting any break in the enemy lines. | Source

The Tanks

The British Mark IV tank, with its classic lozenge shape, weighed 28 to 29 tons, was almost 26 1/2 feet long, more than 8 feet high and up to 13 1/2 feet wide. It had a crew of seven or eight and came in two versions: the male, with two 6-pounder (57mm) guns mounted on each side and three .303 machine guns, and the female, with just five .303 machine guns. Its top speed was 4 mph.

The British Medium Mark A Whippet weighed 14 tons, was 20 feet long, almost 9 feet wide and 9 feet high. It had a crew of three, four .303 machine guns and a top speed of slightly more than 8 mph.

The German A7V tank weighed 30 to 33 tons, was more than 24 feet long, 10 feet wide and more than 10 feet high. It had a crew of 18, a single 6-pounder (57 mm) gun mounted at the front and six 7.9 mm machine guns. The Germans called it “The Monster”.

WW1: 21 March 1918: German tanks in Roye during the Battle of France (First World War) (March-July 1918). Seen from the rear.
WW1: 21 March 1918: German tanks in Roye during the Battle of France (First World War) (March-July 1918). Seen from the rear. | Source

German Assault: The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux

During the night between April 23 and 24, the Germans bombarded the area using 1,200 guns, firing high explosive and mustard gas shells. At 7:00 in the morning, they attacked and Villers-Bretonneux soon fell. The German guns then turned on the woods, where the British tanks had been spotted by low-flying planes. The three Mark IVs were ordered to stop the Germans from gaining the high ground. All of the tank crews were affected by the gas and some were incapacitated and had to be left behind. The rest, with burning eyes and lungs climbed into their vehicles. The lone male Mark IV, commanded by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell and short two crew members, and the two females crawled out of the woods toward the enemy. They soon encountered three A7Vs and waves of infantry. The closest German tank, the “Nixe”, commanded by 2nd Leutenant Wilhelm Biltz, was 300 yards away.

WWI German tank "Mephisto" at en:Queensland Museum and at en:A7V
WWI German tank "Mephisto" at en:Queensland Museum and at en:A7V | Source
Nordenfelt 57-mm gun from German A7V tank from WW1. At Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, England.
Nordenfelt 57-mm gun from German A7V tank from WW1. At Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, England. | Source

Tank Versus Tank

Mitchell had his tank zigzag to confound the enemy artillery and one of his gunners started firing his cannon at Biltz' tank. Because of the torn up ground and vibrations, the lumbering Mark IV could not provide a steady platform for the gunners and none of the shots hit. When the German tank returned fire, it was with armor piercing bullets, which caused sparks and splinters of minute fragments to fly about inside the tank. One of the machine gunners was wounded in both legs. Mitchell maneuvered his tank beyond effective machine gun range, and positioned it so the other 6-pounder gunner could try his luck, but the Mark IV was heaving up and down like a ship in rough seas and no shots found their mark. Mitchell also noticed that the two females were withdrawing, having both been hit by shells, their crews now exposed to rifle fire through rents in their armor. Their sole armament of machine guns were of no use against the monstrous “Nixe”. Mitchell's gunner's shots were landing closer to the enemy tank, so Mitchell stopped the tank-- making them a sitting duck for both enemy tanks and artillery-- but the gunner was then able to hit Biltz' tank with three shells, causing it to heel over to one side. The German crew abandoned her and Mitchell's machine gun crew fired into them.

The 6-pounder gunners then switched to case-shot, which scattered like the charge of a shotgun, and poured round after round into the advancing infantry as the other two German tanks, "Siegfried" and "Schnuck", approached. Sensing sure destruction, Mitchell's gunners desperately fired at one of them. The shots missed, but, to their amazement, it slowly started to back away and its companion also turned and retreated. Momentarily victorious, Mitchell and his crew were still in no man's land facing the German assault and were now the sole target for the German artillery.

Splatter Mask worn by tank crews in WW1 to protect from flying fragments.
Splatter Mask worn by tank crews in WW1 to protect from flying fragments. | Source

Counterattack

Mitchell kept his tank moving, crawling actually, zigzagging through no man's land as shells fell all around them. A German plane appeared a hundred feet above and dropped a bomb which exploded sending the front of the tank bounding up into the air. Fortunately, no real damage was done, but a few minutes later, while still frantically maneuvering, the tank slipped into a large crater and became stuck, its engine stopped and its underbelly exposed. In the distance, they could see the German infantry forming up for a fresh attack. As shells came closer and closer, Mitchell's crew managed to get the tank restarted.

Their hopes soared when, to their right, they saw the seven small Whippet tanks roaring at their top speed of nearly 10 mph toward the enemy infantry. When the two forces converged, the Whippets plunged into the infantry, spraying them with machine gun fire and grinding them under their treads. The Germans fled as the Whippets continued their slaughter. When it was all over, only three returned, their tracks dripping with blood and gore; the other four lay burning in the distance. The fate of the missing tanks' crews was not known, but after such slaughter, any who survived their tank's destruction would not have been taken prisoner.

Mitchell continued advancing and approached Villers-Bretonneux. A fourth German tank appeared 1,000 yards away and the two tanks blazed away at each other while continuing to lurch around the battlefield. An artillery shell finally destroyed one of Mitchell's tank treads and the tank could only turn round and round in circles. At this point, Mitchell decided to abandon the fight. They fired off their last remaining shells and escaped through the hatches, making their way to the nearest friendly trench.

Amiens Saved

Thus ended the world's first tank against tank encounter. For his actions, Frank Mitchell was awarded the Military Cross. During pauses in the battle, the British managed to retrieve Mitchell's tank. Biltz and the crew of the “Nixe”, noticing that its engine was still running, returned and managed to drive it away for two miles before it broke down for good.

Late that night of April 24, the Australian 13th and 15th brigades were ordered into the attack. Though vastly outnumbered by the German defenders, the Australians succeeded in recapturing Villers-Bretonneux the next morning. Amiens was saved.

The ruined church of Villers-Bretonneux after the second battle that took place in the village, in World War I
The ruined church of Villers-Bretonneux after the second battle that took place in the village, in World War I | Source

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    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      Hmm. I can't say a female tank looks very feminine. But before this I had no idea tanks came in male and female. Thank you for the lesson. It is interesting to see how much of warfare that is associated with WWII got its start in WWI.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Glad to add to your store of knowledge, aethelthryth :) Seems pretty un-politically-correct of them. Yes, lots of things in WWII got their start in WWI-- especially those who would be in positions of power in World War Part 2. Thanks for your comment.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

      This is an area I'm not real familiar with, World War one tanks, so your hub here was very interesting UH. The Spring 1918 offensive by Germany came close to sealing up the victory for them but the British tanks and AEF dashed those hopes. Although have an idea, what exactly is the difference between a male and female tank?

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks much for the comment, Alaster. Apparently, size does matter when referring to Mark IV tanks. Ahem. Those armed with cannons were called "male", while those without cannons (machine guns only) were "female". There was a version that had no weapons and was used to carry supplies under fire; they were called "tenders". I'm surprised they weren't called "eunichs".

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Ha Ha good ones UH! Thanks for the tank sex info. Look forward to more of your WWI writes.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Ha yourself! I wonder if my Google rating would improve if I used the keywords "tank sex info".

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 5 years ago from Singapore

      It's a great hub. Very well written with tons of info. As a man who served in the armed forces, I found it doubly exciting to read it.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you very much for the comment and compliment, MG Singh. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • profile image

      mr.bigboss 4 years ago

      very nice

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      mr.bigboss, thanks for taking the time to comment. Glad you liked it.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 22 months ago from sunny Florida

      How well you have shared this. So sad that it is a story that had to be told....things should never get to a warring state...but as we know, down through history into the now...it happens.

      It was very intriguing to me to read about the tanks...I wondered as they zig zagged if they were going at a high speed..it just seemed to me it would be difficult to zig and zag going quite slowly and make it effective; perhaps I am clueless. My Daddy was in the War...he was a WWI flying ace and we are so thankful he came home.

      Angels are headed your way this morning ps

      Congrats on HOTD

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 22 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you for your kind comment, Patricia. It's so interesting that your father was an actual ace in the war. You are indeed fortunate that he survived, considering the (very) short average lifespan of WW1 pilots. Yes, "zig and zag" does connotate frenzied, desperate maneuvering, but, at a maximum of 4 miles an hour, it would have been a very slow motion scene-- more like zzzziiiiiggg... aaannnddd... zzzaaaggg. It wasn't extremely effective (artillery destroyed many Allied tanks) but it was better than continuing in a straight line.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 22 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      David, what a fascinating hub on world war one and the tanks that were used. I enjoy your historical hubs. Congrats on HOTD!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 22 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, Kristen. I'm glad you like them. It's a pleasant surprise that one of my older hubs has been selected for HOTD.

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