Tank crushing it's way through barbed wire
during training before the battle of Cambrai 
With kind permission of Imperial War Museum ©IWM (Q6424)

The use of tanks as a weapon of modern warfare began on the western front during WW1. Their advantage was that they could mow down and break through the barbed wire which presented such a formidable obstacle to the movement of infantry. They could also go across trenches by carrying ‘fascines’ – rolls of brushwood which they dumped in a trench, forming a rough bridge enabling a tank to ride over.

Tanks were originally referred to as ‘Landships’ – a term with which the authorities in England were unhappy as they worried that the name (which it would be unlikely to keep entirely secret) would prove too descriptive and alert the Germans to the development of this new weapon. Those building the tanks thought they looked like steel water tanks, assuming that they were for that use in the middle east theatre of war, and the name stuck.

Tanks, each requiring a crew of 8 men, were either male or female, depending on what guns they carried. The tradition of naming them - usually done by the troops who manned them - developed early on: female names for female tanks and male names for the male ones. The design changed rapidly from the Mark 1 in 1916 to the Mark V by the end of the war. Most of the British tanks built and deployed during the war were Mark IV.

In all the British built 6506 tanks between 1916 and 1918 while the French built more. The Germans built only 20: most of those they deployed on the battlefield were Allied tanks they had captured, with some tanks changing hands several times.

Tank crossing a German trench, France 1917
With kind permission of Imperial War Museum ©IWM (Q6285)
...but some weren't so lucky.
British troops resting in a captured German
trench beside their disabled tank.
With kind permission of Imperial War Museum ©IWM (Q6433)

Although eventually proving their worth in battle, the early tanks were unreliable and achieving an engine strong enough to move their great weight was challenging. On their first use in 1916 very nearly half failed to start. Where the ground was soft their weight merely bogged them down rendering them of little use, as in the mud of Passchendaele. The weight of a tank crossing the St Quentin Canal at Masnieres on 20 November 1917 crushed the bridge, greatly hindering the movement of infantry and cavalry reinforcements. Moreover conditions inside a tank were very poor: it was hot (up to 50 degrees C), ventilation was almost non-existent while they filled with exhaust and artillery fumes and it was not unusual for crews to be found unconscious inside their tank as a result.

Trains loaded with tanks at Plateau station waiting to move into position for
the assault on Cambrai. The tanks are carrying 'fascines' - bundles of wood
to help them bridge the enemy's trenches.
With kind permission of Imperial War Museum ©IWM (Q46938)

Tanks were first used in the Somme offensive at Flers-Courcelette in September 1916 (when many failed even to start but of those that did several were able to cross no-mans-land, the barbed wire and enemy trenches), then at Passchendaele and in greater numbers in November 1917 at the Battle of Cambrai.

This, usually regarded as the first tank battle, had tanks built into the battle strategy for the first time. The chalky ground drained well and was firm, unlike that on the Somme and at Passchendaele where tanks had been previously used. It was also undisturbed by earlier fighting, there having been little in this area.

In the build-up to this battle tanks were marshalled in and around Gouzeaucourt and the surrounding woods and villages, hidden in the ruined buildings in a fairly successful attempt to keep their presence secret. As they were moved forward on 18 and 19 November allied planes flew overhead along their line to try to drown out the noise of their advance.

The battle of Cambrai which began on 20 November 1917, although ultimately a failure, did show what tanks were capable of doing when used strategically on suitable ground. Much has been written about the battle in the annals of the war and the development of modern warfare.

In all 476 Mark IV tanks were assembled for the assault on Cambrai. They were able to cross no-mans-land, the barbed wire and the massive German defensive line of trenches known as the Hindenburg Line, proving both the usefulness of this new weapon and that the Hindenburg Line was not impregnable. Church bells were rung in Britain in a premature celebration.

British tanks captured during the Battle of Cambrai awaiting transport
to the German rear where they were repaired and re-painted before
being brought back into service against the Allies.
With kind permission of Imperial War Museum ©IWM (Q29882)

Lack of reinforcements (exacerbated by the destruction of the bridge at Masnieres, inadvertently crushed by the weight of a tank trying to cross it) and poor communications meant that little was achieved after the first day and the assault was called off on 27 November. It was followed by a major German counter-offensive on 30 November during which all the territory taken on 20 November was lost and 90 tanks were captured by the enemy. 89 others were disabled, either destroyed by shell fire or suffering mechanical failure.

During this German attack Gouzeaucourt was briefly recaptured, but a gallant and unorthodox manoeuvre by the British meant that this lasted less than 24 hours. In the following months Gouzeaucourt was effectively on the front line, the British building a pill box in what remained of the main street to help in their defence of the village. It was retaken by the Germans in March 1918 before being finally liberated by New Zealand troops in September 1918, 2 months before the German surrender in November 1918.



Britain continues to remember the part played by Gouzeaucourt in the history of modern tank warfare by its Gouzeaucourt Road at Bovington in Dorset, the home of the Tank Regiment.



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