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Posted on Nov 4, 2014 in Carlo D'Este

Churchill’s Leadership in World War I – Part II: “Churchill’s Folly”

Churchill’s Leadership in World War I – Part II: “Churchill’s Folly”

By Carlo D'Este

As the war raged on in the trenches of France, with death the only constant, there seemed, even in 1914, as if there was no solution to the dilemma of how the war could be won.

Winston Churchill’s immense fascination with new concepts of war was in full flower that year, none more so than in the evolution of the tank. Warfare was slowly evolving into the age of mechanization, and the invention of the internal combustion engine was already in evidence in the new air services in Germany, France, and Britain.

Please click here to read Part I.

The possible uses of new machines on land actually dated to the 1880s and a self-propelled vehicle invented by a man named James Cowan that has been described as, “a locomotive land battery fitted with scythes to mow down infantry.” In 1903, the imaginative H.G. Wells wrote an article in the Strand Magazine that Churchill was likely to have read which described his conception of “a ‘Land Ironclad’ like a large blockhouse 80 to 100 feet in length that could cross trenches.”

Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty was very interested in new concepts of war.

Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty was very interested in new concepts of war.

By the early autumn of 1914 Churchill’s was one of many minds searching for new ways to help break the growing stalemate in France and the relentless rain of death that was wasting countless lives for no discernible purpose. French and British casualties were already over a million and growing daily, most of them from artillery fire. Churchill took it upon himself to find some means of defeating the formidable German trenches.

Others were also formulating ideas to overcome the increasingly bleak situation on the Western front. Lt. Col. Ernest Swinton, the British Official Correspondent attached to the British Expeditionary Force, and the only journalist appointed by the War Office who was permitted to report from the front, received a letter from friend telling him about “a Yankee tractor which could climb like the devil.”

After observing a gun being towed by a mechanized tractor first designed in the United States in 1885 by the Holt Company that utilized caterpillar-like tracks, Swinton immediately recognized its potential and sent a memorandum to Col. Maurice Hankey, the Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defense, proposing the idea of some type of armored vehicle that would be protected from rifle and machine gun fire. Hankey liked Swinton’s idea and circulated a memo about the creation of new mechanical devices that soon reached Churchill’s desk and that of the prime minister. Asquith was sufficiently impressed by the memorandum to note in late December 1914 that, “Hankey suggests the development of a lot of new mechanical devices, such as armed rollers to crush down barbed wire, bullet-proof shields and armour.”

Quite independently, Churchill had also been thinking along the same lines and was working closely with the Coventry Ordnance Works to produce a new 15-inch artillery weapon that could be towed by the Holt tractor. The involvement of the Royal Navy in the creation of the tank might seem inappropriate but it was, in fact, rooted in expediency and Churchill’s natural resourcefulness. Not only was he interested in self-propelled artillery but the navy had also deployed a number of armored cars early in the war to protect Allied airfields in Belgium, particularly in the defense of Antwerp. Having directed the construction of an armored car capable of crossing trenches, it was a simple extension of logic to develop a tracked armored vehicle.

After reading Hankey’s memo in January 1915, Churchill signaled his support of developing new methods of coping with trench warfare by means of what he was soon calling a “land ship.”

“A committee of engineer officers and other experts ought to be sitting continually at the War Office to formulate schemes and examine suggestions, and I would repeat that it is not possible in most cases to have lengthy experiments.” The cost would be minimal and “the worst that can happen is that a comparatively small sum of money is wasted.” Lord Kitchener, Britain’s Secretary of State for War, indicated his support and the project was referred to the Ordnance Department. After some preliminary work the Ordnance men were unconvinced an armored vehicle could be developed.

Churchill would later insist that the initiative died of inertia, “and was decently interred in the archives of the War Office” until the continuing death toll in France resulted in Kitchener’s renewed interest, and in early 1916, the first War Office field trials. However, with Churchill at the forefront, it was the Admiralty rather than the War Office that took over responsibility for the development of the first tanks used by the British in World War I.

The development of the tank might have remained in limbo had it not been for a fortuitous encounter in February 1915 at a dinner held by the Duke of Westminster where Churchill met Flight-Commander Thomas Hetherington, one of the first volunteers to join the Royal Flying Corps in 1912.

Hetherington was involved with producing and field-testing armored cars and was cognizant that the War Office was conducting experiments and had independently noted the need for some type of armored vehicle on the battlefield. He proposed to his superior, Captain (later, Commodore) Murray F. Sueter, the Director of the Air Department, the construction of “a giant wheeled vehicle for cross-country traveling, which was to have wheels of such large diameter and to be provided with such great propelling power that it could travel indiscriminately over all but the greatest natural and artificial obstacles. It was to be armoured against hostile gun-fire and to be armed with a naval 12-inch gun.” This great machine, thought Hetherington, would roam behind enemy lines, destroying trenches and artillery batteries and breaking railways by literally ripping out the tracks.

Hetherington told Churchill he was convinced that an armored vehicle equipped with machine guns and capable of maneuvering over open terrain under fire was entirely feasible and might turn the tide of the war. The officer, recorded Churchill, “spoke with force and vision on the whole subject, advocating the creation of land battleships on a scale far larger than has ever been found practicable.”

Already disposed toward any new idea that had military importance, Churchill directed Hetherington to submit a proposal for his consideration. The next day the young officer submitted his ideas and Churchill immediately summoned one of his top naval architects, Captain Eustace Tennyson D’Eyncourt, presented him with Hetherington’s proposal, and sent him off to investigate and, if possible, design what he called a “land ship.”

Although suffering from the flu and confined to his bedroom, Churchill immediately convened the first official Admiralty talks about the creation of the tank. This landmark meeting resulted in the formal creation of what was called the Land Ship Committee, chaired by D’Eyncourt.

Adamant that the Germans not learn of the project Churchill directed that strict secrecy be maintained. The enterprise was identified as “water-carriers for Russia” until Col. Swinton pointed out that the War Office was bound to classify it as “WC’s for Russia,” thus causing inevitable bafflement and unwanted speculation as to why the Admiralty was concerning itself with designing toilets for the Czar. To avoid such confusion the project was re-named “water tanks for Russia” which, at Swinton’s suggestion, was eventually shortened to simply “tanks.”

Although initially stymied by the belief that the only vehicle that could be produced would be too heavy, D’Eyncourt reacted with unusual speed by producing the first rough designs within a matter of days, earning from Churchill a response of “Press on.” From there, development progressed to field trials the following year that finally convinced the Army it was time to take the concept seriously.

In addition to the “land ship” project under the direction of D’Eyncourt and his team, Murray Sueter was overseeing a separate project to turn an armored car into an armored tracked vehicle. Many of the old school admiralty brass were appalled at the crass folly of Churchill and his damned air service; now the First Lord was absorbed in producing a silly “land ship,” and, as if this were not bad enough, there was also the newfangled armored cars the air service was utilizing.

Opposition simmered, kept in check only by the presence of Churchill whom none were prepared to openly defy. The Fourth Sea Lord grumbled (not loud enough for Churchill to hear) that this was not the business of the Navy, and a visibly irritated Second Sea Lord sent for Sueter and demanded to know: “what do you mean by allowing those awful armoured cars of yours with their objectionable smells to fly the White Ensign?” Sueter pointed out that it was upon Churchill’s order and invited the Second Lord’s presence at a demonstration on the morrow that would be attended by Churchill. “The Second Lord declined, saying he was not interested in the armoured cars or those stupid Caterpillar land ships.”

The first makeshift demonstration took place on February 16, 1915. In one of the most remarkable sights ever seen in Whitehall, a prototype “land ship” was pulled around the historic Horse Guards Parade by a large white horse in what derisively was referred to by some as “Winston’s Folly.” As the horse towed a small, engineless tracked vehicle, Sueter briefed Churchill on the characteristics and capabilities of the engine-powered version he planned to build. “I pushed the caterpillar truck, loaded with large stones, about with my hands,” he wrote, “to show Mr. Churchill how easily it could be manipulated.”

A British Mk IV heavy tank negotiates a German trench near Cambrai, France in October 1917.

A British Mk IV heavy tank negotiates a German trench near Cambrai, France in October 1917.

Churchill then pushed the contraption “about the Horse Guards Parade and was amazed at the ease with which the truck with a full load of large stones could be moved. “Although Mr. Churchill does not shine at his best in dealing with mechanical matters,” wrote Sueter in his memoirs, “he has the sharpest brain for grasping a new idea that I have ever met and at once saw that my proposals (for the armored car) were a better proposition than his steam-roller idea or Flight-Commander Hetherington’s giant wheel scheme.”

Observers from the War Office were unimpressed by the demonstration and doubted the vehicle would ever work in the conditions of trench warfare. Undeterred by the criticism of others and firmly convinced that somethinghad to be done to save lives and help shorten the war, Churchill directed Sueter to build eighteen of the new land ships.

The development of self-propelled artillery, the armored car and a “land ship” were not the only new inventions Churchill was pursuing early in the war. Always searching for an edge, he began to conceive of another radically new device. In mid-January 1915, he summoned Commodore Sueter and subjected him to a passionate harangue that would typify his leadership in two world wars. Warming to his subject, Churchill strode back and forth as he outlined what he wanted accomplished, stopping only to declare: ‘We must crush the trenches in. It is the only way. We must do it. We will crush them. I am certain it can be done.’”

What Churchill had specifically in mind was a mechanized steamroller. “I wish the experiment made at once,” he commanded. “Two ordinary steam-rollers are to be fastened together side by side with very strong steel connections … covering a breadth of at least twelve to fourteen feet … The ultimate object is to run along a line of trenches, crushing them all flat and burying the people in them … The matter is extremely urgent … Really the only difficulty you have got to surmount is to prevent the steam-rollers from breaking apart … In a fortnight I wish to see these trials.” With that, Sueter was dismissed.

The project was a disappointing failure; the machine proved incapable of crushing trenches and usually became mired in the mud and soft earth. Although the problem was never solved, it was not for lack of trying by Churchill, who doggedly pursued the idea whenever he met with Sueter, instructing him to “put your best brains into this.”

Many resourceful people had a hand in the development of the first tanks. After the war an independent Royal Commission investigated and attempted to sort out the claims of individuals to monetary rewards, and of being first. Ernest Swinton sought that honor and while he may have been the first to articulate the need for a “land ship,” that was the extent of his involvement. He had no influence over the creation and design of the first tanks.

Pioneer thinkers and doers like Hetherington and Sueter deserve the lion’s share of the credit. While Swinton claimed to have fathered the tank, Winston Churchill can more appropriately be termed its midwife. He saw the potential of new types of vehicles that could be utilized to overcome enemy trenches and aggressively pursued their development.

Did Churchill overstate his role? Hardly. His memoir of World War I actually understates his achievement. “There never was a person about whom it could be said ‘this man invented the tank,’” he wrote. Nevertheless, the Royal Commission gave Churchill far more credit. Its creation, it concluded, “was primarily due to the receptivity, courage and driving force of the Rt. Hon. Winston Spencer Churchill that the general idea of the use of such a machine as the ‘Tank’ was converted into practical shape.”

Churchill took special pride in recounting how he had daringly spent £70,000 of public money on such a speculative venture. “I did not inform the Board of Admiralty to share this responsibility with me. I did not inform the War Office, for I knew they would raise objections to my interference in this sphere.” Nor did he bother to inform the Master General of Ordnance whom he knew to be skeptical, and perhaps most important of all, “Neither did I inform the Treasury,” the Whitehall mandarins from whose purse strings all things monetary flowed and were jealously guarded.

While the Royal Navy struggled through accelerated research and development, the war dragged on throughout 1915 with no uniform consensus on when or even if the land ship would ever be seen on a battlefield.

By 1916, minds would be changed about the value of the tank as a weapon of war, and in 1917 its employment would have effects so dramatic they would change the future course of warfare.

Next month, in Part III, the story of the first tanks on the battlefields of France.