from ‘The War Illustrated’, 11th May, 1918
'A Tank and Two Crosses'


Little Journeys to the Great War

a British 'Whippet' tank


Who does not recall the thrill that went through the world when the first stories ot the great British Battles of the Somme came out early in July, 1916 ? We read of the weird fighting-machines that led our brave soldiers across the ghastly wastes of No Man's Land, riddling the astonished Huns with streams of bullets and behaving in such antic ways that the light-hearted khakied men who followed up with gleaming bayonet and ready bomb could but laugh — laugh and forward to kill or be killed.

Coming of the Monster

"Monsters of the primeval ooze and slime," "Antediluvian creatures that grunt and slither through the mud, that lean against trees and crush them ; that put their snouts to the wall of a house and it falls, while they crawl imperturbably over the ruin they have made," "Behemoths" — a rich variety of phrases such as these flowed from the pens of the war correspondents, then long starving for an opportunity to be "picturesque."'

It was the joy-day of the Tank. No British paper was allowed to describe the new creation of English mechanical genius ; to have shown a photograph of one would have been something like treason. Not until the counterfeit presentment of H.M. Landship Creme de Menthe and various others of the first quaint fleet had been published widely in the American Press, and the Huns had secured some of the material monsters, were we in England allowed to see what they were like ; and with admirable wisdom the official photos first issued all depicted Tanks that had come to grief.

Many stranger things than Tanks have occupied our minds since then, and Tanks themselves have waddled along the streets of many a town in these islands on stranger missions than their first job at zero hour on the Somme. They have even been transported across the Atlantic to stimulate American interest in .the war, and one at least has figured in the streets of Berlin to grace a Hunnish holiday. "Hush, hush !" no longer applies to them, and the Hun has made his own, like the sedulous ape he is.

Weird Pioneers

To me, however, my first sight of the Tanks in the autumn of 1917 was a sensation never to be forgotten. At the "Tankodrome" where I first saw them parked, distantly suggestive of what Hamilcar's elephants under the walls of ancient Carthage may have looked like before being caparisoned for battle, no close inspection was allowed ; but, later, on one of the bloodiest battlefields of the Somme, where several had ended their all-too-brief careers, I was able to explore their mysteries.

One of these weird pioneers in that opening Battle of the Somme — when another of them captured a village of machine-gun emplacements and still others achieved feats of valour which the fabled doings of the gods of old could not have rivalled — one had just crawled across a highway and was dragging its slow length along the sodden field of battle when a random shot put it out of action for ever.

There it lay by the roadside, no longer an object of terror, but of curiosity, of pity.

There was rust upon it, and one felt for the great inert mass of reddening metal a curious sympathy, as though it had been a thing from which life had gone out while it had been clumsily "doing its bit." The Byronic lines :

And there lay the rider, distorted and pale, With the dew on his brow and the rust on his mail,

did not seem absurdly inapposite to the stranded Tank-, save that it was naught but "mail" and rust. What, after all, are Tanks but mammoth coats of mail to encase as brave men as ever went into battle ?

A dead soldier by the roadside could not have stirred more sorrow in me than this poor Tank, struck down on its maiden journey and probably before it had achieved anything of the purpose for which it had been laboriously created.

Thing of Wonder

One thought of the immense human labour that wrought those mighty plates of steel and drove home those thousands of rivets, of the months of loving craftsmanship that went to the fashioning of its intricacies of motive machinery, the elaborate testings of the individual parts, before the leviathan crawled away from its base and gruntingly reached the scene of action. .Above all, of the wonderful, godlike brains that conceived, designed, and made such living things out of base metal.

And all for this ! To be knocked out by a lucky shot from a barbarian's cannon.

Within, one could reconstitute in some degree the fate that had overtaken the thing. Nothing seemed destroyed in all its maze of complicated levers and tie-rods ; the steering-gear, though rusted, still showed a willingness to respond to the touch of the handle; the revolving gun-turrets on the port and starboard sides still swung round to a moderate pressure; the powerful Daimler engine astern looked as though it might "start up " after a little oiling ; but all the racks where the plentiful machine-gun ammunition had been stored were empty, and burnt bullets lay about in hundreds. Only the petrol reservoirs were wreckage ? — it was as though the heart of the uncouth thing had burst. Its eyes, too, were blinded, for the prisms in the periscopes were shattered into fragments.

The sense of pity for the hapless thing grew on me. Such a marvel of mechanism destroyed at one blow — one random shot! It seemed horribly unfair. Yet there was the evidence of it — a jagged hole, a little forward of the port gun-turret, into which- you could no more than put your fist, told the tale. Here the shell had penetrated, bursting in the forward part of the interior, wrecking the petrol containers, and in an instant the doomed Tank was a blazing inferno, the ammunition discharging as the flames licked around the magazines.

Scant imagination is needed to picture the terror of that scene. Yet not till now does the fate of the gallant fellows — bravest of pioneers, who were to the mechanical leviathan as the soul and spirit to the body of man — engage us. Seven of them went forth that fateful day in this strange coat of mail that is, when you think of it, and especially when you see it laid upon its side, horribly suggestive of the coffin of some fabulous giant.

A Tragic Close

Seven of them, young, full of enthusiasm, devotion, cooped up here so that they could not stand erect, wearing padded steel headgear to prevent their skulls from cracking on the riveted metal roof as the .strange craft lurched and swayed down shell-holes and over heaps of ruins, each at his particular post, to move the inert thing forward into the furnace of death and to die, or to slay and to live.

And one lucky shell out of the thousands the Huns sent over decides that they are to die, and this pioneer of land-ships is to end in a ditch by a highway of the Somme.

Nothing was known of the fate of the crew to the officer who brought me to the scene ; but when we emerged from the Tank's interior we noted, close by, two small mounds, well kept, with two neat crosses and the names thereon of two of the crew who had perished in the Tank.

We had not remarked the little grave before, so familiar are these tiny crosses throughout that vast graveyard of the Somme, where for generations crosses will far outnumber trees. There, side by side, lie two of the thousands of brave souls who gave their lives for England that day ; and somehow their graves are to me more memorable than any of the multitude I saw, by reason of the dead Tank at their side.

On Sacred Ground

Often had I thought of this little scene as the panorama of my Somme journey-ings came back to my mind's eye, and it was strange enough that at a later day, in the radiant spring weather of 1918 when larks were singing joyously above these fields of death, and all the mighty armies of the Allies were "standing-to" for the opening of the mighty German Battles for Amiens, I came again, with other friends, to this same spot; stood by these little graves and explored once more the interior of the Tank that told, as in a written book, their sad, brave story.

Not many days afterwards the new hordes from Hunland Game back once more, and doubtless their foul feet would defile that little bit of ground which seemed to me as sacred as any in Westminster Abbey.

What of the other five brave men who companioned the two who rest beneath the little crosses ? Who knows ? Five men, even of the bravest, are as nothing in an army of, five million. The finest stories of the Great War are those that will never be told.


a Canadian tank


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