The tank is a mainstay of modern warfare and provides the backbone of most armies around the world. But in fact, the idea of the tank goes back a long way, with Leonardo Da Vinci usually credited with first having the idea. In 1903 the author HG Wells wrote a short story called ‘The Land Ironclads’ which featured tank-like vehicles.
In the early 20th century there were many concepts for armoured vehicles, but it took the First World War to drive practical developments. As we mark the centenary of the end of the conflict, it’s important to remember that the tank was key to breaking the deadlock of trench warfare.
Though the first tanks were used on the Somme in 1916, it wasn’t until the battle of Cambrai in 1917 that tanks achieved a tactical success, advancing six miles. As a result of this, Germany began to develop its own tanks, though these were big and cumbersome, requiring an 18-man crew.
It was in the inter-war years of the 1920s and 30s that tanks began to develop along the lines we know today, with the armament carried in a rotating turret. If you want to experience tank driving for yourself, you can do so at places like armourgeddon.co.uk/tank-driving-experience, which will give you a feel what the crews’ experience was like.
World War II and Later
By the start of World War II, the Germans had the edge in tank development, and their ‘Panzers’ were a key element of the Blitzkrieg campaign in the early stages of the war. However, German tanks tended to be complex and over-engineered. By contrast, the Russian T-34 was simple and robust and could be built quickly in large numbers. Britain had concentrated on the development of light tanks designed to support infantry. Heavier models were developed as the war progressed, and tanks were bought from the USA.
Following WWII, the Cold War saw massed armoured divisions ranged on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Since then tanks have seen many technical developments such as improved armour and laser-guided weapons. They have also been key to recent conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the changes, though, the basic concept of the tank has remained the same and would be familiar to the men who crewed them in 1916.