The Evolution of the Landship
outset of the First World War the British Army had a motley collection of motor
vehicles including staff cars, trucks and a handful of artillery tractors. The
early fighting on the Western Front saw the hasty deployment of rudimentary
armoured cars but as the front lines became static thoughts began to turn to a
different kind of armoured vehicle. One which could punch through tracts of
barbwire, cross enemy trenches and was impervious to enemy fire. The
development of what later became known as the tank began in early 1915.
The name ‘Landship’ comes from the Landships Committee established by Winston Churchill,
the First Lord of the Admiralty, who was one of a number of key figures that drove the tank’s development. While early designs had been referred to as Landships by February 1916, the new armoured vehicles had been
codenamed ‘tanks’, Landships was believed to be too descriptive.
The following is a brief overview of the evolution of the various tanks developed by the British during the Great War.
Willie’ evolved from the Foster Company’s first attempts to build a tank, No.1
Lincoln Machine, with improved tracks developed by Sir William Tritton. Powered
by a huge 105 horsepower Daimler engine, the 16 ton ‘Little Willie’ was no more
than a proof of concept. The development of a robust and reliable track system
was paramount and ‘Little Willie’ was instrumental in testing various track and
steerage systems. Today ‘Little Willie’ is displayed at the The Tank
Museum at Bovington.
Caption: Little Willie photographed at
Cricklewood, near London, during trials in late 1915.
Wilson’s design for a vehicle with a track that encompassed the whole
circumference of the vehicle was realised with the construction of ‘Big Willie’ in late 1915. ‘Big Willie’ also
nicknamed ‘Mother’ and ‘His Majesty’s Landship Centipede’ weighed in at an
impressive 28 tons and was the first tank to use the instantly recognisable
rhomboid track shape and introduce the gun sponsons either side of the vehicle.
Caption: ‘Big’ Willie undergoing testing in
Burton Park in Lincoln, in January 1916. Note the rhomboid shape which formed
the pattern for all future tanks.
The Mark I
was Britain’s first tank to see action during the Battle of the Somme in
September 1916. A refined version of ‘Big Willie’ it utilised the now standard
rhomboid shape and was built in both male and female configurations. 150 of
this first batch of tanks were built. As lessons were learnt in the field
improvements to the design were made leading the Mark II.
Caption: Tank ‘Clan Leslie’ preparing to advance on Flers during the Battle of the Somme, 15th September 1916. Part of the first wave of tanks to go into action.
Caption: A Male Mark I tank that broke down on its way to attack Thiepval on 25th
September, 1916. Note the steering tail and anti-grenade frame on top of the
The interior of a British heavy tank, note the empty shell racks next to the driver and the exposed engine and gears behind him (source)
Mark II / Mark III
The Mark II (see image #5) differed very little from the earlier Mark Is, incorporating some small changes
it was intended to be used as a training tank but shortages saw them pressed
into service during the Battle of Arras in April 1917. Just fifty
Mark IIIs were built, none saw action overseas, instead they remained in
Britain and were used to train tank crews.
Caption: The drolly named ‘Lusitania’, a Mark
II male tank, of the 1st Tank Brigade moving along a ruined street in Arras.
The Mark IV
was the first true improvement over the earlier Mark I, with thicker armour and
shorter 6 pounder guns which were easier to aim. Production began in May 1917,
with over 1,200 built. They first saw action at Messines Ridge during the
summer of 1917 and later more successfully at Cambrai. The Mark IV was the most
widely produced and used British tank of the war.
Caption: A Mk IV Female Tank moves over dense mud at the testing ground at Cricklewood.
Caption: A tank crashing through barbed wire
at the Tank Driving School at Wailly, during the special training for the
Battle of Cambrai, October 1917.
The effects of a direct hit could be
devastating, this Female Mark IV lost its tracks and took heavy damage (source)
version of the Mark IV it utilised a new 19 litre six cylinder in-line Ricardo petrol
engine and transmission. 400 Mark Vs were built, first seeing action in the
spring of 1918. Several lengthened variants, the Mark V* and V**, experimented
with carrying a section of infantry but these proved to have poor
manoeuvrability and never saw action.
Caption: A column of Mark Vs carrying fascines
to help them cross the ditches of the Hindenburg line, September 1918.
The Marks VI and VII were cancelled to enable concentration on production of earlier models and the new Mark VIII ‘Liberty’, co-developed and manufactured with the US. The great improvement of the Mark VIII was that the engine was sectioned off from the crew, however, the war ended before any of the new tanks saw action.
Caption: With a twelve man crew the Mark VIII had seven Hotchkiss machine guns and two quick-firing 6 pounders.
Whippet Medium Tank
be faster and more agile than the earlier heavy tanks, the Whippet could reach
speeds of up to 8.5mph and was armed with four Hotchkiss machine guns. Again
developed by Sir William Tritton at Fosters of Lincoln, the Whippet was
intended to exploit gaps made by the heavier tanks.
Caption: The Whippet was Britain’s principle
light tank with a small, three man crew, it first saw action March 1918.