from 'the War Illustrated', 9th December, 1916
'Cruising in a Tank'
by Max Pemberton

Battle Pictures of the Great War

'Creme de Menthe' - one of the first British tanks in action


It is evident that the "tank" has not come to stay. It is here to go on. When it first burst upon the astonished Germans like a dragon upon children from a wood of fables our critics were a little doubtful about its future. "It is experimental," they said. "Famous things have been done, but we do not know how far it will go." Well, it has gone a long way already, and we may say in all moderation that it has but begun.

There have been new things in this war—as perhaps in all wars—but the "tank" was both a new and à humorous thing. When Hannibal introduced the Roman to the elephant there may have been laughter in Carthage, but no historian has recorded it. Gunpowder about the time of Crécy does not appear to have inspired the Harry Tates of the time. The first man in armour may have amused his relatives at home, .and no doubt the small boy of the period had observations to make upon his appearance. For all that, the man in armour is ever historically a gentle knight sans peur et sans reproche. Even throwing back to the East and the coming of the Juggernaut, it has needed a twentieth- century artist to hitch laughter to that singular coach. Yet I suppose the Juggernaut is the true forbear of the "tank.”

Some people will tell you that it all arose from the employment, both by us and the Germans, of the armoured car at the beginning of the war. We put machine-guns upon fine Rolls-Royce chassis, sent them into France and Flanders, and often left them in a few weeks hut rusted wrecks upon a roadside. They were not new, for, oddly enough, in the very earliest days of the motor movement inventors came forward with contraptions of the kind; and so closely did they resemble the machines which fought in Flanders that one must look twice at the picture to discover their lack of modernity.

Deadly Droller of the Somme

For all that, the very failure of the initial armoured car inspired the inventor of the "tank," and his secret was well kept. How many people knew before that famous day of September 15th that in many great factories the ribs and heart, the lungs and the steel bodies of these pachyderms had been hammered and forged during the summer of 1916? Soldiers sometimes learned of it, but wisely held their tongues. It may be that the higher authorities had little expectation of the monsters, and regarded them drolly as gargantuan puppets to scare the Germans. But, however it may have been, and whoever is entitled to the credit of them, a comfortable fleet of the new landships was parked for the battle of September 15th, and with such success that the whole of the world laughed at the story before twenty-four hours had run.

We have the photographs of these drolleries by this time, and the man in the street knows at last what they look like. Sometimes he will say that they are vast hump-backed turtles; others call them toads. They are driven, as we see, by two caterpillar bands, and they have controlling wheels behind which help them to steer.

New Knight of the Old Time

Functionally we must not discuss them, but we know that their crew of eight climb into their bowels through a panel, arid that once inside nothing but a shell of large calibre can; fetch them out. Eyes the monsters have, though vision thereby is—as Sam Weller's—limited. Their speed, they tell us, is as high as ten miles an hour, though frequently slower for obvious reasons. Nothing, as we know stops them. They squat upon trenches and shell the defenders out. Houses come crashing down upon their approach. They .break great trees like sticks; barbed-wire before them is like string at the touch of a locomotive. The captain of the "tank" is a new knight of the old time. He enters the dragon's wood, and should the beast devour him, there is none to hear his groans. His mission is not so much to slay as to prepare for slaughter. The infantry follow him as the Carthaginians followed the elephants more than two thousand years ago.

Let us take the imagined case of such a captain and of his adventure.

It is a night of early autumn, and a drizzling rain is falling. You cannot see your hand before your face, except in those lurid intervals when the star-shells burst like enduring meteors above. Fitfully the searchlights sweep the sodden ground and their aureole is a mighty arc of silver.

Into the Bowels of the Mystery

The boom of cannon thunders everywhere; the far horizon suggests the forked lightning of a summer storm. The nearer field is ever and anon shaken by the crashing explosion of the larger shells. Men are dying in this darkness, but none see them fall. Night hides a thousand horrors. It hides also the British trenches, where the infantry are awake and waiting.'

Meanwhile, the captain of the "tank" and his merry men are busy in their places apart. The oiling of the brute, the replenishment, the loading of munition, the many details of preparation, were done before dark came down. And now the crew climb into the bowels of the mystery as boys disappear through the manhole into a boiler that must be cleaned. They have their instructions, and yet, how difficult it would seem to carry them out! The luminous compass is in the captain's hand, but the void before him is black as Styx. He has to go over yonder and cut the wire of the German first and second and, perchance, of their third line trenches. Behind him, at a proper interval, will follow the infantry, held ready for the night-attack. Well he knows the perils of the way. It is a horrid land of vast pits and craters and roads hacked to pieces—a land covered by the debris of ruined villages and factories laid low, and cemeteries so broken that the long- hidden dead have corne to light again. But tell him this, and he and his men will laugh at you. It is all nothing to the "tank." The very mystery of it delights the boys who hold the castle. No youngsters upon a sand-heap which defies the tide are more merry. "Let her rip!" is the cry, and with the noise of half a dozen Zeppelins she digs her bars into the soft earth and heaves forward on her way.

Its Forward Plunge

"A black night," says the captain, as he stands trying to pierce through that fish-like eye of bullet-proof glass. He sees, in truth, nothing at all ; has no idea what the ground is like over which he is lurching ; can in no case make himself audible to the others because of the row. For all that he stands there, his men at their posts, the guns ready, the " tank " driven everywhere irresistibly. Sometimes at the very beginning there will be a terrible lurch, which throws the whole crew headlong, but is attended by nothing worse than the English of Stratford-le-Bow. "She is over!" you would say—and yet the words would hardly be out of your lips before she has righted herself again. Now it will be a monstrous plunge like that of a bull-nosed tramp into an Atlantic hollow ; again a rearing-up as though she were a thoroughbred horse confronted suddenly by a peace tract on a high road. But the wildest capers are "hardly incidents to the captain and his trained crew. "Cheer-oh!" they will cry, and "Good old girl!"—and they peer more intently into the blackness, and even their shield of armour cannot hide from them the nearer booming of the shells.

So we come to the first line of the German trenches. There is wire before them—a very forest of wire, crossed and tangled—a death-trap for any infantry that should come upon it unawares. To the "tank" it is a little scratching of the back—a light caress such as a patient dog will suffer at the fireside. Those maidens do not know that they have gone through wire at all. There is a great jolt at the trench's edge—a warning cry; then the flashing of lights ; the discovery in the pit below of the white and ghastly faces of men. Well may the Hun cry out in fear. What is this terror that is upon him? Is it of earth or hell? His flares show him the great round dome and the blinking eyes; never has he seen their like. Feverishly he heaves his bombs. They are but pebbles cast at the ramparts of a castle. He swings his machine-guns round and the bullets rain like hail upon the "tank." It does not answer; its laughter is imagined.

Wilder and Wilder still becomes the Boche. He yells in his fright, turns tail and would run, and then—then the "tank" speaks. Its deadly gun flares the trench in a twinkling. Flame vomits from unseen mouths. There is a sauve qui peut, a mad sortie of men— anywhere for safety. The captain of the "tank" gives an order; she climbs laboriously from the pit leaving, it may be, the crushed and mangled bodies which she has cast from her deadly embrace. Again she is a rover. Direction is only got by the compass, but that is well enough. There comes a fearful crash, and for a moment she staggers—a house, maybe, has stopped her, but soon it will be a house no more. She withdraws and charges it. A hail of bricks rains upon her. She crunches the fallen walls between her relentless teeth, and presses on she knows not whither.

Letting Her "Rip"

The wood that should have been impassable is clearly marked upon the map; but maps mean nothing to captains of "tanks." This particular captain drives on and merely cries, "Hold tight!" when the first of the trees is struck. He knows now that he is in the wood and "lets her rip" because of it. She ploughs onward over the stricken trunks, rolling them almost joyously in her jaws—emerging gorged upon the plain and confronting the second line of trenches. Within you hear the bullets raining upon her ; you are shaken when the bombs burst ; you feel her almost lifted when a great shell bursts near by—but confidence remains. "Nothing is going to hurt Crème de Menthe," you say.

Here is the second line at last; we are going to wipe it out as we wiped out the first. The infantry must soon be upon our heels. Dawn is breaking, and the whole of that drear scene revealed. Aurora has not looked down upon anything of this kind since the beginning. All the great plain is now alive with the activities of ten thousand times ten thousand. Infantry leap into the trenches and the Hun leaps out. The white and red and black loom of battle gives an immense circle of smoke for an horizon. Flashes of fire dart from concealed covers; cries come from the very bowels of the earth—and yet, after all, the number of men actually to be seen is small. Only his fellow "beetles" are of interest to the captain of the "tank." He sees them here and there as fabulous things that have come out of their lairs to greet the dawn. One over yonder has been struck by a shell, and lies upon its side. It is a barrier between bombers, who heave their grenades across it. Another has waddled into a trench and there is struggling to get out, while all the time its guns are rattling. A third has broken down, and is surrounded by a host of excited Huns. Now surely they have got it.

Their cries are fiendish as they run right up to it and smash their bombs at its iron ribs. A colonel, flushed to the point of apoplexy, roars for a jack to lift the thing and heave it upon its side. He has caused machine-guns to be thrust at its very forehead, and there to be discharged triumphantly as though this must be the end. We watch the scene and laugh consumedly. Is it possible that Daphne is lying "doggo" with all the cunning of her sex? We soon learn that this is the truth. She has let the Germans cluster thickly about her before she looses off her guns. Suddenly with a cheering rattle she opens fire. The ground around her is strewn with dead before a man can count ten. The Boche flies terror-stricken—what is left of him. He will tell that tale with awe in any dug-out he can find to-night.

The Hun Watchword: "Surrender"

But, if some of our consorts enjoy bad luck, others enjoy the best. Look at that fellow over there by the wood who has been enfilading the enemy's trenches for a long while and is now wondering why the infantry is not there to support him. Disturbed at being alone, he makes a return journey of more than 1,500 yards to discover that his supports have been held up by a group of machine-guns turned upon them from a trench they thought unoccupied.

"We will soon make an end of this," says the "tank," and calmly thrusting itself astride the trench it knocks out one machine-gun after the other until nothing but the bodies about them speak of its recent position. Farther away still, upon the brink of another wood, a white flag is being waved vigorously and there are fearful howls for mercy. These are faint-hearted fellows whom Colossus has driven almost mad with terror. Surrender at any price is their watchword. They climb from the depths and run toward the unpitying horror with hands uplifted. It drives them headlong back to the cages, and they do not hesitate to tell of their gratitude. So at all points of the field the "tank" is making this a famous day. There will not be a dinner-table in London to-night which will not echo the story with laughter.

Like a Pantomime Animal

As for Tommy himself, we know well what he thought of it. "I heard," says one lad, "a sound out of the fog which was like three or four motor-horns rolled into one. Toot, toot, toot ! and the boys came staggering along—all muddy and bloody ; but some of them laughing fit to kill themselves.

"Look out for the Lord Mayor's Show,” sings out one chap, and then through the mist came No. 1 tank—the most comical sight you ever saw in your life. She looked like a pantomime animal, or a walking ship with iron sides moving along, very slow, apparently all on her own and with none of her crew visible. There she was, and groanin' and gruntin' along, pokin' her nose here and there, stoppin' now and then as if she was not sure of the road. The last I saw of her was when she was nosing down a shell-crater like a great big hippopotamus with a crowd of Tommies cheering behind."

It could not be better. We take up Tommy's cheers for the "tank." May its shadow never grow less!


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