In Osprey New Vanguard #100 David Fletcher, a historian at the Tank Museum in Bovington (UK), provides an excellent summary of the development and introduction of the first British tanks in the First World War. Fletcher succeeds in assembling a lot of disparate information into a tight package, that outlines the development, training and entry into combat of the British tank force. This Osprey summary is an excellent starting point for academics or professional military readers who wish to study the introduction of a radical new weapon system. Overall, in terms of narrative, freshness of information, and graphic appeal, this volume is excellent.
Fletcher begins the volume with background information on how Winston Churchill's idea for "landships" was translated by two engineering geniuses into the prototype "Lincoln Machine" and "Little Willie." Most readers will be surprised to learn that the original track set was built in Chicago (which doesn't cast the concept of American "neutrality" in a particularly sincere light), although this track was deemed unsuitable for the later prototypes. Fletcher details how the initial requirement for tanks in February 1915, after passing through the "Little Willie" design, resulted in the first tests of the Mark I tank or "Mother" in January 1916; less than a year from concept to working prototype! Considering that aircraft and submarines both existed prior to the First World War and their wartime developments were evolutionary in nature, the development of the British Mark I tank may be one of the most rapid weapons breakthroughs in military history. Fletcher also notes that it was the development of a functional track design that "was the single most important factor in the evolution of the British tank" - not the engine, transmission, armor or weapons.
Fletcher also spends several pages discussing how the Mark I tanks were built - a subject that is rarely discussed in other sources. By the summer of 1916, Fletcher notes that British industry was capable of building about 25 tanks per week, but many were siphoned off for training duties, so few were available for the battles of 1916-1917. One item that Fletcher does not cover is the issue of how much the first tanks cost; again, from the point of view of R&D and weapon development, it would be interesting to see how much the British investment in tanks cost (versus say, development in new heavy artillery or aircraft). Fletcher's section on crew duties is also very interesting, and as a former tanker myself, it is hard not to sympathize with the early tankers who had to operate inside a vehicle filled with "gushing clouds of carbon monoxide" and with temperatures rising to 120º F. Fletcher also includes brief sections on training for war and the initial introduction into combat. Although recently there has been a school of revisionist historians who have challenged the value of the early tanks, Fletcher notes that despite heavy losses and awkward moments the British Mark I tanks did prove their worth. In one engagement, a single British Mark I commanded by a 2LT Storey single-handedly captured a formidable German position and 300 prisoners. Fletcher also discusses the eight Mark I tanks used at Gaza in Palestine in 1917. The final sections cover several variants of the Mark I, included the similar Mark II and Mark III. The photographs and illustrations in the volume are excellent. The color plates include: the Lincoln Machine; Little Willie; Mother; camouflage schemes on Mark Is in 1916; a cutaway of a Mark I Male; a Mark I in Palestine; the Mark II and III variants; and the supply tank and wireless radio tank variants. Unfortunately, the author does not provide a bibliography or notes on sources of photographs.
All told, the British built 150 Mark I tanks, plus 50 each of the Mark II and Mark III variants. Virtually all of these tanks were non-operational by 1918, but these 250 early tanks paved the way for their sturdier successors. While some modern critics have attempted to characterize the early British tanks as too few in number and mechanically unreliable to matter, they tend to ignore the value of these first steps in creating a viable tank corps. Like many early-model weapons, the British Mark I was not itself destined to conquer on the battlefield, but it laid the seeds for its successors to reap at Cambrai in 1917 and Amiens in 1918.