Tank-Corps

After dinner T.E. Lawrence turned up [at Max Gate] (from the Tank Corps camp near Wool). He rang the bell, left a message with the maid that he would come to lunch tomorrow, and departed. I dashed out and caught him as he went through the gate. He looked well – a queer little figure in dark motor-overalls, his brown and grimy face framed in a fur-lined cap.
He had a passenger waiting in his side-car, and only stayed a minute.
—  Siegfried Sassoon, diary entry dated July 28, 1923

The derelict hulk of a British tank on the Pozieres battlefield. This Mark I Male tank, C1, (Champagne), belonged to C Company, Heavy Machine Gun Corps, later to become the Tank Corps. It was one of seven tanks assigned to the Canadian 2nd and 3rd Divisions for their attack on Courcelette, and German positions to the south and east of the village on 15 September 1916. The 2nd Division attacked from prepared positions across the Albert to Bapaume road toward Bapaume and to the north of the road with the village of Courcelette as their first objective. Of the seven tanks assigned to the attack on Courcelette, one broke down before the attack, three became bogged in German trenches, two reached Courcelette, although only one was still in action beyond Courcelette. C1 was commanded by Lieutenant (Lt) A. G. C. Wheeler, Machine Gun Corps (MGC), and the crew from the MGC included, 2527 Sergeant F. J. Saker, 2801 Gunner (Gnr) E. H. Bax, 2720 Gnr W. N. Smith, 2736 Gnr F. C. Stone, 2602 Gnr G. G. Lloyd, 2752 Gnr H. Rothera and the driver M2/105514 Private (Pte) H. Brotherwood, Army Service Corps. Lt Wheeler and his crew reached their start position at 0400 on the extreme left of the divisional area after moving through the ruins of Pozieres. C1’s steering had been damaged by German shellfire during the night and although this had been repaired the driver Pte Brotherwood must have had a very difficult time keeping the tank on track, avoiding old trenches, the many shell craters and the growing number of Canadian causalities falling in the tanks path. The terrain was so difficult that the tank could not keep up with the infantry and the speed was reduced to around 10 yards per minute until at about 0700 when the tank bellied out and although the tracks were still turning the tank had stopped. Lt Wheeler later placed the tank at map reference R35a 3.9. The crew tried to dig the tank out, but after laboring for four hours and just as Lt Wheeler was about to abandon the task, a shell landed nearby and a fragment severed Pte Brotherwood’s jugular; he died two minutes later. The tank was abandoned on the battlefield. Pte Brotherwood is buried in the Pozieres cemetery. This action on 15 September 1916 at Flers and Courcelette was the first time tanks were used on the Western Front. The Tank Corps Memorial, commemorating this action, is near the Windmill site on the Albert to Bapaume Road, just to the east of Pozieres, not far from where this photograph was taken. Source: The Tanks at Flers by Trevor Pidgeon, Fairmile Books Cobham, England.

3

The British Mark IX Tank: The First Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC)

During the first uses of the Mk I tank at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 it quickly became clear how useful the tank could potentially be. However, it was also noted that the infantry were often unable to fully exploit the breakthroughs made by the tanks as they were still pinned down by German shell and machine gun fire. The idea of a vehicle which could carry troops across no mans land, through the enemy’s wire and then deploy them under the cover of machine gun fire was a very attractive one. 

The development of a vehicle capable of carrying troops began in 1917 with production beginning at Armstrong & Whitworth’s in September 1917.  Nicknamed ‘The Pig’ the Mk IX was a huge vehicle, 31 feet long and nearly 8 feet wide. With 10mm thick armour and two .303 machine guns which were supplemented by 8 rifle slits on either side of the tank (these are visible in image two) that would allow troops inside to fire.

The IX was a derivative of the earlier Heavy Tanks designed by Britain but it lacked the characteristic weapon-mounting side sponsons of the earlier tanks.  The tank had a single open compartment which housed the tank’s 4 man crew, forward mounted petrol engine (which gave a top speed of just over 4 mph), controls and gearing.  It was capable of carrying up to an impressive 30 men inside with two doors either side for entering and exiting the vehicle.  

Early tanks were a notoriously unpleasant place to be with the exposed engine pumping out noxious fumes and heat, the Mk IX’s open compartment meant that the troops riding inside would have also been exposed to these conditions, which could after lengthy exposure could render troops unfit for action.

The Mk IX has a second claim to fame, not only was it the first APC but it was also the world’s first amphibious tank.  At least one Mk IX was refitted with extra buoyancy tanks (see image three) for waterborne experiments.  It was intended that the tank would float and have its ridged tracks provide forward momentum.  However, the project was abandoned not long after the war ended.  

34 Mk IX’s were built with only three being built before the end of the war in November 1918.  The Mk IXs which were built saw service during the early 1920s.  Of the 34 built only 1 survives today, at the British Tank Museum, many IX’s and other WWI British tanks were melted down and cannibalised for much needed war materials during World War Two leaving precious few behind.

Image One Source

Image Two Source

Image Three Source

“It was, I felt sure, his knowledge [of the Arabs] and his great success [in Arabia] that gave him the power to write his book…He applied for a sleeping out pass and got it, so he set to work, writing, and writing, and when he wasn’t doing that he had his gramophone playing all the classical records he could buy . To him, a day in camp in the Q.M. stores was a long day. When he had been writing the manuscript of his book, which he often passed to me to read, he would come on duty very agitated and it would be hours before he was himself again. He would sit in his corner of the stores, speaking to no one and continue to write. It would take a long time to clear up his mess when he had gone. I had been with him on Parade and at no time could he stand still, all the time he was very agitated: it put everyone who was near him into a flat spin, but… he never got put on a charge.”

 - Leslie Gates speaking about T.E. Lawrence, who worked on his subscriber’s edition of Seven Pillars during his days working in the Quartermaster’s stores, while serving in the Tank Corps. Because T.E. was continually re-writing his book and re-living his war-time memories, it caused much mental strain and probably exacerbated his PTSD. Gates and T.E would become close friends. “We would often walk and talk. In Neddy I found a good pal and I spent all my spare time with him, forever talking.”

Photo taken from here.

He looked haggard and seemed very depressed. When I sat down he apologized for his state and said he had a touch of fever. He explained, a propos of nothing, that his visit to the Hejaz in 1921 had been almost too much for him and that the mental strain to which he had been subjected during the negotiations had been worse than anything he had known during the [desert] campaign. He went on to discuss politicians, the War Office and, finally, the Army. He spoke bitterly of ‘the stiff proffesional soldiers who expect their men to be accomplished housemaids’. Then he became critical of the Tank Corps, saying that it was run by a gang of superannuated infantrymen who overruled those who were trying to build up an efficient service. Tanks, as weapons of war, amused him; he thought them 'museum pieces’ and a burden on the taxpayer. He had a weakness for armoured cars, and thought well of Rolls-Roycs then in general use.
—  Alex Dixon recalls a conversation he had with T.E. Lawrence when they were in the Tank Crops together.