On 15th September 1916, at Flers on the Somme, tanks were used in battle for the first time. In 2016 we are celebrating 100 years of tanks throughout history, and with no surprise, my article is about Little Willie, the first tank in the World.
It’s the first months of 1915, the Western Front was a deadlock where neither side was able to penetrate the wall of machine gun fire or cross the enemy trenches. Plans to produce a Land Battleship started to be talked about, the army needed something else than the armoured cars used successfully by the Royal Naval Air Services (RNAS) during the early period of the Great War. In this stage, the front wasn’t fluid and the armoured cars weren’t capable of crossing the muddy shell pounded ground and the enemy static defences any more, so something new had to be built.
To coordinate operations, the Landship Committee was formed and they recommended that a vehicle capable of crossing a standard German trench of 2,5 meters long and a 1,2-meter high mound. At the same time, it needed to be capable of firing a high explosive shell to support the troops.
Various designs were tried, ranging from vehicles that walked to gigantic powered wheels, but none of them was successful or strategically satisfactory.
In America agricultural tractors with caterpillar tracks were receiving wide acclaim so the Landship Committee purchased two “Creeping Grip” tractors from Bullock Tractor Co. Instructions were send to Mr. William Tritton, of the William Foster & Co Ltd in England, where assisted by Lieutenant W G Wilson of the RNAS, should design a small landship with Bullock tracks. On 29th July 1915, the Chairman of the Landship Committee, Mr Tennyson d’Eyncourt gave the go-ahead order for the experimental vehicle.
The tracks ordered specially from Bullock Track Co were longer than the normal type used on the agricultural tractors, tried out in the earlier landship experiments. They were supplied as a complete unit, with frames and wheels and had seven small road wheels and five guide wheels, compared with the four road wheels and three guides on the standard type.
No attempt was made to introduce the Rolls-Royce engines on the shortened chassis, some of which had already been completed for the Pedrail landships because it would have complicated the design. Instead, a 105hp Daimler six-cylinder engine was used because it had already been used on Foster’s Wheeled tractors and it was well known to Tritton.
Tritton made provision for a pair of steerable wheels at the rear of the machine, these wheels were intended to improve the balance, assist in crossing trenches and aid the normal steering of the vehicle, which was by breaking on either track.
The Tritton Machine was the first vehicle to be designed and completed as a landship, or tank, but was not entirely successful because the lengthened Bullock tracks were found to be of poor quality and were still too short, making it only capable of crossing a 1.2 meter long trench, when the War Office requirement was of at least 1.5 meters long trench.
These shortcomings were foreseen and a second type was drawn up, even before the first was completed. This had improved tracks, specially designed and new track frames that were about 90 cm longer and running gear, although the other features remained the same. This became “Little Willie” – the name is said to be a reference to the German Kaiser.
Little Willie was about 8 meters long by 3 meters high and weighed about 16.5 tons. The track-plates were 52 cm wide steel plates riveted to guided links. The 105hp engine was retained, steering was achieved by applying breaks or clutch to one track, with minor course corrections made using rear tail wheels. The round plate on the superstructure blanked out the turret ring, which was to support a 2pdr gun giving a 360º traverse.
It started the trial tests in early December 1915, and was much better than in its previous form, but was still unable to meet the new War Office obstacle crossing requirements. In addition to this, it was found to be too heavy and the proposed 2pdr gun was not capable of delivering a high explosive shell.
A revised design known as “Big Willie” or “Mother” was proposed, despite its new outward appearance, was mechanically almost identical to “Little Willie”, the main difference being that the tracks passed over the superstructure, giving greater trench-crossing capacity and stability. Two sponsons were added which, although giving a restricted traverse, could fit a 6pdr gun and deliver a high explosive shell.
With this revised design the first operational tank was born, the Mark I, that became the basis for all British tanks up to the Mark VIII The International in 1919.
Little Willie was preserved for posterity after the war, saved from being scrapped in 1940. Today is displayed at The Tank Museum at Bovington. It is essentially an empty hull, without an engine, but still some internal fittings.