How WW1 Gave Us The Tank

How a small team of intrepid inventors – and a young Winston Churchill – gave birth to the tank.

Military tank


Vague, tank-like concepts had been around for years before World War One - Leonardo da Vinci sketched a rudimentary version back in 1487. But it would take the awful deadlock of trench warfare to make some Brits seriously ponder the creation of a new, mobile, man-operated weapon that could rampage across No Man's Land and smash into the enemy defences. The trouble was, the higher-up bigwigs in the army were dismissive of the idea as too impractical - except for one key politician: Winston Churchill.

Then serving as the First Lord of the Admiralty - the head of the navy - the young Churchill nevertheless seized upon the idea of this new land-based weapon, first petitioning the British prime minister to green-light the plan, and then going ahead and creating the "Landships Committee" to orchestrate the creation of the new weapon. As David Lloyd George later said, "It is really to Mr Winston Churchill that the credit is due more than to anyone else... He converted me, and at the Ministry of Munitions he went ahead and made them."


Who was tasked with building the world's first tank? It wasn't some secret sub-section of the military. It was actually a company in Lincoln which was best known for making farming equipment. Dating back to the mid-Victorian era, William Foster & Co began as a manufacturer of flour mill machinery, but they were now tasked with inventing a super-weapon from scratch. The two men spearheading the strange task were company chief William Tritton - who was a brilliant engineer - and army man Walter Wilson.

To be free from distractions, the pair holed up in a Lincoln hotel and literally scribbled numerous designs, throwing out any they didn't like. They worked quickly, horribly aware the Germans may very well have been doing the same. Their work resulted in the first tank prototype, dubbed "Little Willie." This rudimentary design never saw combat, but paved the way for the first operational tank: the Mark I.


While the early machines were thought of as "landships" by some, they soon became known as tanks. It's generally thought this began as a codename for the sake of secrecy, so factory workers would think they were creating the components of mobile water tanks.

Curiously, tanks were originally gendered as males and females. The designation depended on the exact time of weaponry they carried, and some tanks were eventually both "male" and "female". It was an exciting evolution in warfare for the British, but the unsuspecting soldiers tasked with actually driving the things were in for a shock.


Tanks made their battlefield debut on 15 September 1916 at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, which was part of the wider Battle of the Somme. The early tanks were true monsters to handle, each carrying a crew of eight men working in almost literally hellish conditions. Deafeningly noisy, the tanks were also cramped, overheated and filled with the stench of fuel. Despite the seemingly tough exterior, the men in the tanks were also frighteningly vulnerable to shells and bullets, and had to navigate the metal beast while being at constant risk of sudden death.

That said, there was no denying the impact of the early tanks. As one German soldier later recounted, the sight of tanks in battle caused "panic" among his peers, who ran from their trenches "pursued by the merciless tank machine-gun fire which cut down many men as if it were a rabbit-shoot." The tanks would undergo rapid evolution during the war years, eventually taking on the shape of the tanks which dominate battlefields to this day.