Page 1 of 2Introduction
Like all eventually successful projects, that of the genesis of the 'Landship/Tank' project during the Great War had many putative 'fathers'. They ranged from Leonardo da Vinci and H.G. Wells to E. D. Swinton and W. S. C. Churchill. Indeed, after the end of the Great War, there were so many claimants that the British Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors (1919) held special sessions to decide who could genuinely claim to be the definitive inventor of the 'tank' and thus be eligible for compensation by a grateful nation. A lump sum of £100,000 sterling (£10 million today) was postulated for the individual successful claimant. The conclusion of the Committee was that no specific person could be identified. It decided that many people had paid a greater or lesser role in its genesis from an idea to a potent new weapon of war, if not exactly a campaign-winning weapon: that was to follow in later wars. In the end, the Commission paid lesser sums to several of those involved. The largest amount being £15,000 shared between the prime contractor of the prototype, William Ashbee Tritton, William Foster & Co,. Lincoln, UK. and his designer, Walter Gordon Wilson, Royal Navy.
On the other hand, the records of the Great War show that there is no doubt who was the British Army officer that had readied and commanded the first British tanks to go into battle on the Western Front. (And, coincidentally, these were the first purpose-made armoured, tracked, and internal combustion engined chariots of war to go to into action anywhere). His name was John Brough - pronounced Bruff – (hereafter JB) and he was a Lieutenant Colonel (temporary) of the Royal Marine Artillery (later of the Heavy Machine Gun Corps); he was also familiarly known as the 'Commander of the Tankies'.
As we shall see, JB played the leading role in forging his disparate volunteer tankies into a working unit overcoming the initial teething problems of a new weapon of war and its introduction onto the battlefield of the Western Front. He also prepared the first manual on tank tactics on the battlefield
JB was a true sailor/soldier of the British Empire. He was born in 1872, in what is now the Pakistani part of the Punjab, into an established military family of the British Raj. He received training in the British naval and military establishments at Greenwich and Camberly respectively. Pre-1914 he served with Royal Navy and the British West African Frontier Force (WAFF) as well as a gunnery officer (Royal Marines) on several Royal Navy warships. He was also a tutor at Sandhurst Military College, UK.
When the Great War began in 1914, JB was in his early forties and a substantive major. He became a wartime temporary Lieutenant Colonel and was sent out again to West Africa to participate in the campaign to expel the Germans from their colony of Kamerun (German Cameroon) – a rugged campaign that lasted until 1916. He was eventually repatriated to the UK having acquired what was probably the malignant strain of tropical malaria (Plasmodium falciparum), and was subsequently transferred into the Royal Artillery. From there he became involved in the Heavy Section of the Motor Branch of the newly formed Machine Gun Corps in May 1916. (In 1914/15 the then Motor Machine Gun Service was administered by the Royal Artillery). This Heavy Section was formed to bring into operation the new and secret armoured tracked vehicles – tanks - that were the outcome of the Admiralty sponsored Landship Committee project. The chosen production model of the tank was called 'Mother' and 100 were designated for the Western Front.
Getting the tanks onto the Somme battlefield
At the end of 1915, it was decided that the British Sector troops in the Arras/Somme Sector would play only a minor role in a planned joint Anglo-French offensive on the German front-line following the now standard frontal attack scenario. The French were to play the major role in what was seen by them as a battle of attrition to weaken the German Army. But the success of the German offensive at Verdun forced the French to ask that the British take the lead role in the 1916 Somme Offensive as soon as possible. So, in March 1916, at the request of the French, the British Fourth Army also took over a large sector of the French lines in the Arras/Somme area.
Accordingly, at forefront in the minds of the commanders of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was the ever increasing pressure to meet this commitment to relieve German pressure on the French Army at Verdun, but at the time same achieving the long desired ambition of the British to obtain a significant 'breakthrough' against the Germans.
All the while, at Verdun itself, a huge maelstrom of a battle was underway. The Germans were determined to force the French, in turn, into a battle of attrition as the French Army strove, at all costs, to repel the invaders and retain their hold on the 'sacred' territory of Alsace/Lorraine.
Kitchener's New Army volunteers formed the bulk of the British infantry battalions in the new offensive. British plans increasingly included the deployment of the new Mark I tanks in this attack with the agreed production figure rising to 150 tanks; equivalent to six companies with 25 tanks each.
JB spent the first few months in his new post in the remoter parts of the English countryside demonstrating the operational characteristics and potentialities of the still secret new armoured vehicles – the tanks – to various military and political figures including King George V.
In July 1916, JB was officially appointed as the second in command of the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps under Lt. Col. E. D. Swinton, with specific responsibility of getting the tanks to France and making them operational. Effectively he would be the field commander whilst Swinton 'looked after the shop' at home.
Inevitably, the question was again raised whether the tanks should be sent piecemeal to France or held back to provide a tactically significantly large number of them for the first foray into battle. This single large, and hopefully still secret, consignment of the tanks would then be deployed in a large co-ordinated attack. Thus the element of surprise would be retained to achieve the maximum shock effect on the enemy front-line troops.
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