- Sep 29, 2009
Fair, but — as with so much else — the introduction of the tanks ('the Heavy Section'), 20 November 1917, at Cambrai verged on the farcical. Far from being a 'secret weapon', there had been too many 'stunts'. Lt Col John Brough, the first commander of 'the Heavy Section', protested about the 'demonstrations'. So CIGS removed him from his command, a fortnight before the tanks were deployed in a action.The irony is the British and French pioneered tank warfare. The Battle of Amiens in 1918 was probably the first time tanks were effectively deployed en masse on the battlefield and the Germans were routed as a result.
Haig went against the counsel of his juniors to order just 49 Serviceable Mark I tanks to a limited objective at Flers-Coucelette (15 September 1916). He was deploying machines not fully tested, and manned by crew not fully-trained.
The German attitude to tanks was dismissive, an appreciation of their apparent repeated failures. Two weeks after that initial attack, the German infantry had regained all lost ground. Then evolved the method of opposing tank attacks, the 'tank fort': one or more field guns, backed by machine gun emplacements. Until the Mk IV tank (which came on line at Messines at Arras, June 1917) and senior command recognising that tanks could not willy-nilly traverse marshy and broken ground, this was enough to negate tank attacks.
Rawlinson's heavily-reinforced offensive at Amiens (04.20 hrs, 8 August 1918) involved every available piece of kit: 342 Mk 5 tanks, 72 Whippet mediums, 2,070 guns, 800 aircraft. The French contributed no tanks, but over a thousand aircraft. Rawlinson shrewdly omitted the wake-up introductory barrage, and launched against six divisions (much thinned out) of Marwitz's 2nd Army. Even then, the advance went askew: by 12 August, the entire British tank force amounted to six. So Foch changed the line of assault to north of Albert.