Although the First World War contributed to the development and regular use of tanks, it would be a mistake to believe they were an invention of the 20th century. In fact it was in 1854, during the Crimean War, that a steam tractor running on two caterpillar tracks made its first appearance on the battlefield, the tracks helping it to move forward more easily on damp, muddy ground. Later research, in particular on the combustion engine, led the Daimler firm to develop a "military motor vehicle" in 1899 which it subsequently presented to the British Army. This vehicle was armoured to protect it from bullets and carried two machine guns. Initial reaction to this new potential weapon was mitigated. Field Marshall Horatio Kitchener, who was to be appointed Secretary of State for War in 1914, originally considered the tank to be a "pretty mechanical toy".

However faced with the deadlock of trench warfare, many officers in the British Army began to champion the potential of the armoured military vehicle. Initial trials showed that it was capable of crossing the densely interwoven lines of barbed wire protecting the trenches and these findings finally convinced both politicians and soldiers to back it. Production of the vehicles began in secret in the summer of 1915. Given their shape and composition, they were given the code name "tank". The first such vehicle, nicknamed "Little Willie", weighed almost fourteen tons and moved at a speed of two miles per hour. Due to its design, it bore far more resemblance to an armoured vehicle than a genuine tank and proved to be incapable of crossing a trench. In June 1916 production began of the Mark I, a longer and heavier but also quicker model. Caterpillar tracks turning around its rhomboid shape enabled it to pass over trenches.

The Mark I's baptism of fire came on 15 September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, on the occasion of the British offensive at Flers–Courcelette. The intervention of tanks in various offensives gradually enabled the British military staff to codify their use: they were to lead the infantry advance in order to destroy the barbed wire entanglements and protect the soldiers from artillery fire coming from enemy trenches. But as events of the First Battle of Bullecourt proved in 1917, their use was a very delicate procedure because they often made slow progress across the no man’s land and this would force the infantry to pass in front of them, thus exposing themselves to enemy artillery. They were also prone to breaking down.

Meanwhile in January 1916 the French Army ordered 800 tanks from the Schneider and Saint Chamond companies. These first French tanks encountered the same problems on the ground as their British counterparts. The French Army used its tanks for the first time during the Nivelle offensive on the Chemin-des-Dames Ridge in April 1917. Incapable of crossing the trenches, the tanks were rapidly neutralized by the German artillery.

In November 1917, during the Battle of Cambrai, the massive use of new-generation Mark IV tanks enabled the British Army to make significant advances into the enemy's lines and this episode marked a real turning point in the war. The Allied Armies finally understood the major role tanks could play in the fighting, especially in the event of a return to a war of movement. Research on the subject continued and production was increased in Great Britain and France alike. The French Army was equipped with new Renault FT-17 tanks which were smaller and easier-to-handle than their British counterparts. Over 3,500 of these tanks were built between 1917 and 1918. The Renault FT-17s were also used by the American and Italian Armies and in the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918.

Amazingly enough Germany showed no interest in acquiring tanks, producing only twenty or so during the Great War. Even though the German Army captured a large number of British Mark IV tanks during the Battle of Cambrai, the tank they went on to develop––the A7V––proved to be completely ineffective on the battlefield due to its inappropriate design and weight. The first "tank versus tank" combat in history took place at Villers-Bretonneux, in Somme, on 24 April 1918.

During the course of 1918 the strategic role to be played by tanks became clearer. Major-General John Fuller, a leading officer in the Tank Corps which had been created by the British Army in July 1917, drew up a new attack strategy founded on the use of tanks. He believed in the advent of a new "mechanical war" and called for a massive offensive to be launched in 1919 which would be led by tanks, closely followed by the infantry. He suggested that their objective would not be to take the enemy's positions but to advance as quickly as possible to the enemy's artillery positions and command and communication centres and neutralize them. After the war Fuller improved his strategy by incorporating aviation, a field which had developed greatly during the Great War. It is often suggested that the army of Nazi Germany was greatly influenced by this strategy when it implemented its famous Blitzkrieg or "lightning war".

Edouard ROOSE

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