Like all good ideas, the British armoured vehicle that became known as 'The Tank' had many putative fathers, prominent amongst who were:
- Mr. Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty.
- Colonel Maurice Pascal Alers Hankey, Secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defence.
- Colonel Ernest Dunlop Swinton, Royal Engineers/Official British War Correspondent.
- And even Leonardo Da Vinci, artist, sculptor of repute, and inventor.
However, concerning the deployment of the British tank on the Western Front in the Great War, there is little contention that the principal military advocate and strategist was General John Frederick Charles Fuller. No matter that his ideas were rather controversial and dogmatically expressed, in 1916 Fate put him in the position with the power to see his ideas implemented.
John Frederick Charles Fuller (1878 - 1966), later to be known as 'JFC' or 'Boney' - due his facial likeness to Napoleon - was a Light Infantryman (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire) who spent the first two years of the Great War training officers for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).
Earlier in a career that included service in India and South Africa, he had gained a reputation for not suffering fools gladly and an impractical turn of mind. However, his energy and intelligence were not in doubt; he just didn't fit in very well with the military type of the day. However, his seniority and Staff College qualifications stood him in good stead for advancement at the outbreak of the Great War.
In December 1916 he was appointed, somewhat to his amazement, to the post of Chief General Staff Officer of the Machine Gun Corps Heavy Branch that was soon to become the Royal Tank Corps. His amazement was due to his not knowing anything about the new tanks and mechanical devices in general, and his conviction that the 'tank concept' wouldn't work on the Western Front.
The development and deployment of Tank Corps on the Western Front
Once in post, Fuller soon began to see the potential of the new tank in trench warfare. From the outset he astutely foresaw the need to ensure that the tanks were only deployed where the terrain was suitable for their operation and that they would operate best when closely supported by aircraft. He also saw the infantry as supernumeraries to the tank, and not vice versa as was the consensus in much of the British Army.
After the early deployment of the tank on the Somme in late 1916, Fuller's concern about the terrain was proven in spades. The performance of the tank in the mud of the Somme battlefield, although literally awesome initially, was much less cataclysmic than that anticipated by the HQ Staff of the BEF.
Accordingly, much more thought was given to the next large-scale deployment; Fuller and his Tank Corps colleagues were consulted from the outset. The aim of BEF HQ was a coup de theatre that would reinstate the reputation of the British Army after the debacle at Ypres earlier in the year.
The Battle of Cambrai
It was decided that the next major deployment of the tank in large numbers would be at Cambrai on the 20th November 1917. Cambrai was part of the formidable German defence-line called by the British the Hindenburg Line, located in Artois, East of the 1916 Somme battlefields. Here the terrain was chalky and dry, which was considered ideal for the new Mark IV tanks.
Fuller's plan for the attack included the following elements:
- There would be extensive artillery cover before and during the attack, but no extended preliminary bombardment. The artillery would calibrate their guns using the new grid map system of pre-registration so there would be no need for ranging shots that would forewarn the enemy of imminent action. Also, the 'creeping barrage' would move forward in vastly increased increments of 100 yards that would also facilitate the element of surprise and allow the tanks to advance at full speed.
- The tanks (over 300) would make a mass attack and not be used in uncoordinated dribs and drabs.
- The tanks would be supported by 300 aircraft which would attack the enemy ground defences, troop concentrations, supply lines, artillery batteries and any other military installation so as to cause a hindrance to the enemy's troops and his support elements.
- The concept of the attack would be of a rapid advance and a retirement.
Haig finally agreed to the overall concept. But he also supported Third Army commander General Sir Julian Byng's change in emphasis to focus on a 'Breakthrough' strategy rather than the raid and retire tactic preferred by Fuller and the Tank Corps. Moreover, the attack was scheduled for November, even though the weather was unpredictable and there were few reinforcements immediately available to follow-up on a successful breakthrough. The Tank Corps commanders vainly submitted their reservations to these changes.
The 10km long German front was attacked as scheduled by six British infantry divisions with two cavalry divisions in reserve ready to exploit the anticipated 'Breakthrough'. Of 476 serviceable tanks, 324, mostly the new better armoured and more reliable Mark IV's, went into the first attack. As mentioned previously there was no extended preliminary bombardment by the 1,000 assembled guns to warn the two German divisions of the Second Army, under General George von Marwitz, of the impending attack. The Royal Artillery used the new science of 'silent registration' to align their guns on their targets without the need for preliminary ranging shots.
In the initial phase of the attacks the tanks cut swathes through the multiple belts of barbed wire and each tank provided a wide path for the infantry to proceed down. The sudden arrival of the tanks at the German Front Line awed and surprised the defence, many of whom fled. However, the Germans quickly learned effective defence tactics and used clumps of stick grenades that were placed under the hull and tracks of the tanks - rather than single grenades thrown at the exterior. These German defence tactics were aided by the British commanders' orders later on in the offensive that allowed the tanks to get involved in urban fighting; a dire situation that had not been foreseen in the briefings of Fuller and the Tank Corps commanders. Also, the German artillery was particularly effective at knocking out the tanks having trained specialist anti-tank units using 77mm cannon for the purpose.
Although the air support suffered very heavy losses from accurate ground fire, and a large influx of enemy fighter aircraft, they served an important support role and, at some additional cost in both men and machines, maintained aerial dominance over the battlefield.
Fuller's tank tactics were generally considered to be a success. But even the new Mark IV tanks were still too slow, mechanically unreliable and over-susceptible to skilful artillery and anti-tank fire. However, there had been big territorial gains: the British infantry swept forward to make a 5 km break in the German line that allowed next day a penetration of up to six km in depth. For the first time in the Great War the church bells were rung throughout Britain to celebrate a great victory.
The only real hold up in the advance was in the Flesquières Sector where the 51st Divisional Commander Major General George Montague 'Uncle' Harper, after his initial success in capturing the defences of the Hindenburg Line, stuck strictly to the Plan and Timetable. Not only did he give his infantry and their tank support a one hour break (shades of General Frederick William Stopford at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli in 1915), he instructed his infantry follow their tanks with a 200 yard gap - not 100 yards as stipulated in the Plan. Unfortunately, these dubious decisions proved to be of critical importance. The tanks blindly proceeded according to plan - without the benefit of the infantry's 'critical eye' on the battlefield - and ran smack bang into the ranks of German 77mm cannons. The Germans waited until tanks crested Flesquières Ridge and fired over open sights into their elevated hulls. In this sector alone 28 were knocked by artillery fire, nine by a single German gunner. Many of the other tanks were brought to a premature halt by a design fault in the caterpillar track system. They too became easy targets for the German guns. The exposed British infantry were left at the mercy of the ever-alert German machine gunners.
After frantic efforts by other British Divisions, Flesquières eventually fell the following day. But the momentum of the advance was irretrievably lost. It was too late: the lack of available reserves allowed the Germans to regroup, reinforce and counterattack. On the 23rd November 1917 the British offensive ground to a halt at Bourlon Wood where 60 of the fast fading tank force were deployed. Once again many were knocked out by gunfire or failed mechanically. The element of surprise had been lost as well as the strength in numbers of the tanks. A great tactical advantage had been squandered by the British commanders with considerable loss of life.
By the 27th November 1917 the British were forced to call off the attack; the town of Cambrai was beyond their reach. But their ordeal was by no means over. On the 30th November 1917 the Germans counter attacked with seven divisions and had huge success using their new infiltration tactics of the Sturmtruppen (Storm troopers). On the 7th December 1917 the British were, in places, back behind the line from whence they started, In the latter stages of this retirement, the tanks, further encumbered by snow-falls, played very little effective part. It was back to classic trench warfare and hand-to-hand fighting.
The disappointment of Fuller and the entire Tanks Corps at the failure of the tanks at Cambrai to effectively 'turn the tide' can only be imagined. Fuller was left with the conundrum of how to realise the potential of this new weapon. On the other hand, the German Army still showed little enthusiasm for it.
The new tactics
Paradoxically, the solution to the more effective deployment of the tank, apart from the obvious one making it faster and more mechanically reliable, appeared to be to improve the co-ordination between the RFC ground support aircraft and the movement of the tanks. Toward this end the RFC introduced armoured ground support aircraft with better camouflage and more sophisticated communication backup.
The new tactics were tried successfully in the Battle of Hamel in July 1918 on the old Somme battlefield, when 60 of the new improved Mark V tanks were backed by intelligent artillery support of 600 guns; phosgene gas was used extensively.
Next came the Battle of Amiens, that began on the 8th August 1918, when even more tanks were deployed than at Cambrai, - 552 - which represented almost the total operational tank force on the Western Front. Included, for the first time in numbers, was the new fast British light Whippet tank as well as some armoured cars.
Well protected by a creeping barrage, the troops and the tanks made an advance of up to 13km deep in the enemy defences. Although, many of the tanks again broke down or were knockout by artillery fire. The following day - the 9th August - the Canadians advanced another 6km and reaching the limit of their artillery and depleted tank support they halted. Finally, General Sir Henry Rawlinson's 'Bite and Hold' strategy was being put into effect.
General Ludendorff declared the 8th of August 1918 as 'Germany's Blackest Day' and the pernicious seeds of pessimism wore sewn in the higher ranks of the German High Command.
The Plan 1919
Whilst the Hamel and Amiens attacks were going on, Fuller was already producing a plan for 1919 in which he envisaged a mechanised army with heavy air support using the following principles:
- The first objective would be to storm and breech the enemy lines with the heavy, but slower, Mark V tanks.
- Artillery support would be intense and carefully targetted to keep up with the advancing troops.
- Large numbers of armoured ground attack aircraft would be deployed in a co-ordinated way to support the advance. (Whether the newly formed and independent RAF would have gone along with this highly dangerous concept is another matter).
- Once a tenable breach in the enemy's front line had been achieved, the new 20mph Medium 'D' Type tanks would then swarm in and head for the German rear. Their objective was to neutralise the German command structure, rear-area support organisation and general communications. In effect roll up the enemy's defences from behind.
- The infantry, transported by lorries, would follow through on the tank attack, hold the ground and mop up the remaining enemy defences.
Because of the Armistice in November 1918, the Plan 1919 was never put in action. Since then, many authoritative figures have claimed it to be everything from 'just plain impracticable' to 'a fanciful pipe-dream'. What is known is that later, between the First and Second World Wars, the Germans studied it carefully and used elements of it as a blue print for their 'Blitzkreig' tactics of 1940.
Whilst General Fuller cannot be depicted - by any stretch of the imagination - as a soldier's soldier, the position he held from December1916 to the end of the war, enabled him to exert extraordinary influence on the deployment of the new British tank after the debacle of its introduction on the Somme in 1916. He was a definite case of someone being in the right place at the right time and seizing his opportunity with both hands.
Apparently, he was bookish and unofficer-like to his fellow officers, being intolerant, dogmatic and unsociable; even malign with an obvious air of self-interest. But he had good writing skills and it was through the medium of The Dissertation and The Plan that he presented his most influential ideas, with some success.