'the Coming of the Tanks'

by Philip Gibbs


Observations from a British Reporter

pages from 'the War Illustrated'


On September 15th during the Battles of the Somme, when we broke the enemy's third line of defence before Bapaume, the troops had a surprise which sent them forward cheering and laughing.

It was the greatest surprise of the war, and for once imagination came to the rescue of our flesh and blood. Many men claimed the honour of it. General Swinton established his claim and Winston Churchill was one of those to whom honour is due as patron if not part author.

It was the coming of the tanks which helped us to victory in the first World War and to a much greater degree in the second World War, though for a time we forgot and abandoned our original invention, and let the enemy - the same enemy - get away with it, and smash through Europe and North Africa before we put it into mass production.

It is impossible to revive the extraordinary thrill and amazement, the hilarious exultation with which these things were first seen on the fields of the Somme. It had been a secret, marvellously hidden. We war correspondents, who came to hear of most things in one way or another, had not heard a whisper about it until a few days before these strange things went into action. In my book The Battles of the Somme I record a conversation I had with an officer who first told me about them, and I reproduce it here because it brings back the mood, the astonishment, the wildly exaggerated hopes which this new invention caused in our minds in those first days.

"Like prehistoric monsters," said the officer. "You know, the old ichthyosaurus."

I told him he was pulling my leg.

"But it's a fact, man!"

He breathed hard and laughed in a queer way at some enormous comically.

"They eat up houses and put the refuse under their bellies! Walk right over'em !"

I knew this man to be a truthful and simple soul, and yet could not believe.

"They knock down trees like matchsticks," he said, staring at me with shining eyes. "They go clean through a wood."

"And anything else?" I asked, enjoying what I thought was a new sense of humour.

"Everything else," he said, earnestly. "They take ditches like kangaroos. They simply love shell craters. Laugh at 'em!"

It appeared also that they were proof against rifle bullets, machine-gun bullets, bombs and splinters. Just shrugged their shoulders and passed on. Nothing but a direct hit from a fair-sized shell could do them any harm.

"But what's the name of these mythical monsters ?' I asked.

He said "Hush!"

Other people said "Hush!, Hush!" when the subject was alluded to in a remote way.

I came across a herd of them in a field, and like the countryman who first saw a giraffe, said "Hell! I don't believe it!" Then I sat down on the grass and laughed until the tears came into my eyes. (In war one has a funny sense of humour.) For they were monstrously comical, like toads of vast size emerging from the primeval slime in the twilight of the world's dawn.

When our soldiers first saw these strange creatures lolloping along the roads and over old battlefields, taking trenches on the way, they shouted and cheered wildly, and laughed for a day afterwards.

On that morning of September 15th, 1916, the front-line troops got out of their trenches laughing, and cheering, and shouting again because the tanks had gone ahead, and were searing the Germans dreadfully while they moved over the enemy's trenches and poured out fire on every side. One of them called 'Creme de Menthe' had great adventures that day, capturing hundreds of prisoners, and treading down machine-gun posts, and striking terror into the enemy. A message came back: "Creme de Menthe is walking down the High Street of Flers with the British Army cheering behind."

We thought these tanks were going to win the war, and certainly they helped to do so, but there were too few of them, and the secret was let out before they were produced in large numbers. Nor were they so invulnerable as we had believed. A direct hit from a field gun would knock them out, and in our battle for Cambrai in November of 1917 I saw many of them destroyed and burnt out. But after the German retreat from the Somme battlefields it was the tanks who broke the Hindenburg Line, which the enemy had believed impregnable. They had dug a wide anti-tank ditch too broad for any tank to cross. But the commander of tanks, General Hugh Elles, had thought that out. He ordered the gathering of vast quantities of twigs and small branches of trees. They were tied into bundles like the Italian fasces. He called them 'fascines'. Each tank advanced upon the Hindenburg Line with one of those bundles on its nose. By working a pulley the skipper could drop it into the ditch, then by nosing forward he could get the front part of the tank on to the bundle and so reach across. I followed up our troops that day across the Hindenburg Line.

The Germans had withdrawn their guns back and they had a big scare. I saw our tanks cruising about like a fleet in action and was in one of them myself for the first, but not the last time.


pages from 'the War Illustrated'


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