Both sides of the conflict looked for a solution, inventing more and more new types of weapons until one September morning in 1916, the sound of tracks and tank engines filled the air.
Perfect Theory and Flawed Practice
The British military theorist Ernest Swinton and French Jean-Baptiste Etienne proved the need for tanks on the battlefield and described in detail how they should be used. They wrote that tanks should be used suddenly, in large numbers, and only on appropriate terrain. Here, Swinton immediately made the note that there is often a gap between theory and practice.
That was exactly what happened in first tank battles. The army, exhausted by battles at the Somme, needed hope for a victory. Not in a year or two, but now. There was no time to save up tanks, train crews, and practise cooperation with infantry. Any delay could mean loss of initiative to the Germans. This is why instead of armoured armadas, only 32 tanks went into battle on September 15th, 1916. Five got stuck in mud or craters, and nine had their engines break down, but the rest reached their battlefield.
Of course, the first tank attack shocked the Germans. However, the miserly amount of tanks failed to influence the entire front, and the Germans quickly regained their courage and no longer fled from the "devils" that appeared on the battlefield. They fought against tanks, and with some success. Grandiose claims of overwhelming success in Entente press had little in common with the truth.
Swinton's cautions were confirmed in the first battle, and the situation repeated itself with some regularity. Tanks attacked through a pock-marked landscape, got stuck in it without the aid of engineers, and were destroyed by enemy fire. Infantry followed tanks clumsily, German machineguns mowed down anyone who was visible between the tanks, and many soldiers died from fragments of shells that exploded on the tanks' armour. Tanks without infantry were easy prey for the enemy. Tanks were supposed to be a wonder weapon, but resulted in little more than disappointment and criticism.
Infantry's Low Priority Escort
Despite all that, tanks were seen as a useful invention. By the end of the war in 1918, armoured forces began to take shape. Due to technical limitations, their vehicles could not perform any tasks independently. Tanks worked tightly with infantry, and there were rigid rules about how it was done.
A tank attack was to start at dawn, so drivers could see. Excess noise was to be avoided. Tanks travelled in groups of three: while the front tank suppressed the enemy, the other two cut a path through the wire for infantry. Each tank had no more than a platoon of infantry (25-30 men) accompanying it. Tanks made very narrow openings in barbed wire, so too many soldiers would create a crowd that was vulnerable to enemy fire.
Infantry split up into three groups. The first group destroyed the enemies in trenches with the aid of tanks. The third group marked openings on the wire and guarded them from enemy counterattacks. The last group assisted the first two and other attacking infantry.
The most important thing for infantry was to not lose contact with tanks. Armoured vehicles could cover it, force the enemy to withdraw, or just distract advancing enemies. When attacking a village or a forest, some tanks would attempt to get into the enemy flank or rear. Maneuvers were concealed with a smoke screen. Some tanks were left behind to protect flanks.
If there was a delay, the tanks were supposed to take cover. After that, tank commanders and gunners were to leave the tank, meet up with infantry commanders, and discuss further action.
Definitive Success: Battle of Hamel
A classic example of a competent tank attack was the battle at Hamel on July 4th, 1918. Before its start, cooperation between tanks and infantry was drilled thoroughly. In order to "befriend" the soldiers and these fairly esoteric vehicles, a proper name was painted on each one. This simplified communications and improved morale. During training, tanks crossed real trenches and barbed wire. Soldiers not only rode on and in tanks, but were given a chance to drive them.
The Entente carefully examined enemy positions. Aircraft were constantly flying over the front lines. In the morning, the artillery and machineguns started firing suddenly. The Germans didn't know if it would be an offensive or just another day of a positional war.
When the real attack started, the noise of tank engines were drowned out by aircraft. This trick was used several times, such as when attacking Amiens in August of 1918 or by the Red Army during Operation Bagration in 1944.
60 new MkV tanks participated in the offensive. Vehicles followed the creeping artillery barrage closely. Every 3-4 minutes, the barrage shifted forward by 100 meters. Tanks proved very helpful when fighting machinegunners. As a result, the Entente captured about 1500 prisoners and many weapons, including brand new anti-tank rifles.
Support in battle was also carefully practised. Each tank carried two crates of ammunition, magazines for Lewis guns, and drinking water. They were in turn supported by tanks converted to armoured carriers. Four of these vehicles delivered over 20 tons of supplies only half an hour after enemy positions were captured: ammunition, grenades, water, barbed wire, and stakes. For the first time in history, aircraft didn't just perform reconnaissance from the air, but dropped supplies for infantry with parachutes.
The commander of the operation, Australian General John Monash, later wrote: "everything was decided within 93 minutes".
And so, within two years, tanks made their journey from questionable novelties to a fully fledged type of forces. Here, the evolution of offensive tank tactics stopped. Europe was tired of war. Although there were many conflicts between 1918 and 1939, they were mostly local. Experience gained from them was limited and specialized. When a new large war started, tank tactics had to be learned anew from almost nothing.
Original article available here.
Author: Evgeniy Belash
Evgeniy Belash is a historian, an author of books and articles on the First and Second World Wars. His best known work is "Myths of the First World War". He is the author of a book "Tanks of the Interbellum" on the participation of armoured vehicles in military conflicts in the 1920s and 1930s.
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