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Dawn of the Tank

The first mass use of tanks at the Battle of Cambrai proved that this strange new machine had the potential to win World War I for the Allies. Gavin Mortimer tells the story of its creation and how it has evolved over a century


British soldiers manoeuvre a Mark IV tank over a trench at Cambrai. For the first time, they had a vehicle that could traverse the unforgiving terrain of No Man’s Land

D awn was breaking on 29 November 1917, and some of the British infantrymen – huddled cold and anxious in their trenches facing the French town of Cambrai – could hear partridges calling through the ground mist. Then, from their rear, they heard another sound – a slow, grinding clank – as more than 400 tanks began moving slowly towards the German positions a few hundred yards to the north. The infantrymen in reserve lay on the lip of their trenches watching the approach of these strange monsters, hoping they would make their job easier in the coming hours. Overhead, the shells from 1,000 artillery guns began screaming towards the enemy positions.

The tanks advanced over the frozen ground at 4mph. “The noise inside was absolutely deafening,” remembered Lt Kenneth Wootton, commander of Tank A29, nicknamed ‘Apollyon II’ by its crew. “The eight-cylinder engine was going at full-speed, both six-pounder guns were firing as rapidly as possible, and I was emptying drum after drum from the machine-gun.”

So great was the noise that Wootton was forced to cup his hand to the ear of his driver, Private George Fagg, to issue his instructions. “Now and again I lifted the flap on my side and very cautiously peered out to see if anything was in front of us,” said Wootton. “So I crossed No Man’s Land, dividing the time between firing off the Lewis gun, peering out the flap, and shouting to Fagg.”

Wootton’s tank was one of 18 attached orders to neutralise a strongpoint in the German frontline trench that guarded the path to Cambrai. On reaching the enemy position, Tank A29 drove parallel to the trench, raking the ground below with its machine guns. Satisfied that the Germans were either dead or in retreat, Wootton emerged from his tank, revolver in hand. “I jumped down from the doorway, ran round the back of the tank and leaped down into the trench,” he said. Creeping along it, stepping over the bodies of the dead, Wootton turned a corner and found himself face to face with soldiers. British soldiers. “They were extremely cheerful and said they had got into the trenches very easily,” he recalled. The soldiers had good reason for their humour; not only were they alive, but in their estimation, they’d taken trenches without suffering even one casualty.

Cambrai would soon be in British hands, and as the war correspondent for The Times told his readers in the despatch he wrote on this day: “The great feature of the operation was the overwhelming share played in the earlier stages of the advance by the Tanks… His Majesty’s landships have at last had a real opportunity, and they seem to have made magnificent use of it.”

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

"With the release of Victoria and Abdul, starring Judi Dench, we uncover the story behind Queen Victoria's love affair with India. From the dawn of the British Empire to Indian Independence, follow the Crown's tumultuous rule of the subcontinent. Also inside, get a blow-by-blow of the first mass tank battle of World War I, and find out how these machines have developed over the last 100 years. You can also meet the real Prince of Persia, Xerxes, and find out what happened after his infamous fight against 300 Spartans."