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View of Combles.
Mark I. Tank (Male). See larger image.

People who read my war dispatches will remember my first descriptions of the tanks and those of other correspondents. They caused a sensation, a sense of excitement, laughter which shook the nation because of the comicality, the grotesque surprise, the possibility of quicker victory, which caught hold of the imagination of people who heard for the first time of those new engines of war, so beast-like in appearance and performance. The vagueness of our descriptions was due to the censorship, which forbade, wisely enough, any technical and exact definition, so that we had to compare them to giant toads, mammoths, and prehistoric animals of all kinds. Our accounts did, however, reproduce the psychological effect of the tanks upon the British troops when these engines appeared for the first time to their astonished gaze on September 13th. Our soldiers roared with laughter, as I did, when they saw them lolloping up the roads. On the morning of the great battle of September 15th the presence of the tanks going into action excited all the troops along the front with a sense of comical relief in the midst of the grim and deadly business of attack. Men followed them, laughing and cheering. There was a wonderful thrill in the airman's message, "Tank walking up the High Street of Flers with the British army cheering behind." Wounded boys whom I met that morning grinned in spite of their wounds at our first word about the tanks. "Crikey!" said a cockney lad of the 47th Division. "I can't help laughing every time I think of them tanks. I saw them stamping down German machine-guns as though they were wasps' nests." The adventures of Crème de Menthe, Cordon Rouge, and the Byng Boys(1), on both sides of the Bapaume road, when they smashed down barbed wire, climbed over trenches, sat on German redoubts, and received the surrender of German prisoners who held their hands up to these monsters and cried, "Kamerad!" were like fairy-tales of war by H.G. Wells.

Yet their romance had a sharp edge of reality as I saw in those battles of the Somme, and afterward, more grievously, in the Cambrai salient and Flanders, when the tanks were put out of action by direct hits of field-guns and nothing of humankind remained in them but the charred bones of their gallant crews.

Before the battle in September of '16 I talked with the pilots of the first tanks, and although they were convinced of the value of these new engines of war and were out to prove it, they did not disguise from me nor from their own souls that they were going forth upon a perilous adventure with the odds of luck against them. I remember one young pilot -- a tiny fellow like a jockey, who took me on one side and said, "I want you to do me a favor," and then scribbled down his mother's address and asked me to write to her if "anything" happened to him.

He and other tank officers were anxious. They had not complete confidence in the steering and control of their engines. It was a difficult and clumsy kind of gear, which was apt to break down at a critical moment, as I saw when I rode in one on their field of maneuver. These first tanks were only experimental, and the tail arrangement was very weak. Worse than all mechanical troubles was the short-sighted policy of some authority at G.H.Q. who had insisted upon A.S.C. drivers(2) being put to this job a few days before the battle, without proper training.

"It is mad and murderous," said one of the officers. "These fellows may have pluck, all right -- I don't doubt it -- but they don't know their engines, nor the double steering trick, and they have never been under shell-fire. It is asking for trouble."

As it turned out, the A.S.C. drivers proved their pluck, for the most part, splendidly, but many tanks broke down before they reached the enemy's lines, and in that action and later battles there were times when they bitterly disappointed the infantry commanders and the troops.

Individual tanks, commanded by gallant young officers and served by brave crews, did astonishing feats, and some of these men came back dazed and deaf and dumb, after forty hours or more of fighting and maneuvering within steel walls, intensely hot, filled with the fumes of their engines, jolted and banged about over rough ground, and steering an uncertain course, after the loss of their "tail", which had snapped at the spine. But there had not been anything like enough tanks to secure an annihilating surprise over the enemy as afterward was attained in the first battle of Cambrai; and the troops who had been buoyed up with the hope that at last the machine-gun evil was going to be scotched were disillusioned and dejected when they saw tanks ditched behind the lines or nowhere in sight when once again they had to trudge forward under the flail of machine-gun bullets from earthwork redoubts. It was a failure in generalship to give away our secret before it could be made effective.

I remember sitting in a mess of the Gordons in the village of Franvillers along the Albert road, and listening to a long monologue by a Gordon officer on the future of the tanks. He was a dreamer and a visionary, and his fellow-officers laughed at him.

"A few tanks are no good," he said. "Forty or fifty tanks are no good on a modern battle-front. We want hundreds of tanks, brought up secretly, fed with ammunition by tank carriers, bringing up field-guns and going into action without any preliminary barrage. They can smash through the enemy's wire and get over his trenches before he is aware that an attack has been organized. Up to now all our offensives have been futile because of our preliminary advertisement by prolonged bombardment. The tanks can bring back surprise to modern warfare, but we must have hundreds of them."

Prolonged laughter greeted this speech. But the Celtic dreamer did not smile. He was staring into the future. . . . And what he saw was true, though he did not live to see it, for the Cambrai battle of November 11th the tanks did advance in hundreds, and gained an enormous surprise over the enemy, and led the way to a striking victory, which turned to tragedy because of risks too lightly taken.


(1) Lieu.-Gen. Sir Julian Byng was commander of the Canadian Corps.

(2) ASC -- Army Service Corps.

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