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Today in history... ‘Little Willie’ was a military milestone

12:00am | & Lifestyle

Fast moving tanks played a crucial part in Adolf Hitler's 'Blitzkrieg' (lightning war) tactics at the outbreak of World War II, a conflict which would later feature epic tank battles on several continents.

Even today tank regiments are a key part of modern armies, but they owe it all to a decidedly underwhelming prototype first unveiled to a sceptical public on September 6th, 1915.

The ‘Number 1 Lincoln Machine’ (pictured right) was the first working prototype in the development of the British Mark 1 tank. Better known as “Little Willie”, it was developed by agricultural machinery company William Foster & Company, of Lincoln, which had been given the contract by the Government's newly-formed “Landships Committee”.

With the First World War under way, it soon became clear that a method was needed to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Oddly, it was the Admiralty which pushed for a solution, forming the Landships Committee at the instruction of one Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty.  Comprising mainly naval officers, engineers and politicians, the committee pressed for an armoured vehicle which could break the deadlock of trenches, carrying the battle forward and sheltering advancing troops in its wake.

As a brave first attempt, Little Willie could do few of those things and never actually saw combat. The prototype which trundled out of the Lincoln factory weighed 14 tons, could manage only two miles per hour over rough ground, could not cross trenches and was prone to overheating. Nevertheless, it met its brief in many ways and, despite its shortcomings, demonstrated the potential for an armoured vehicle running on tracks.

Finally acknowledging that the days of the cavalry charge were over, it was a major step forward in military technology and a landmark in being the first finished prototype. A second and improved prototype soon followed, inevitably called “Big Willie”, although its official title, reflecting its naval heritage, was HMLS (His Majesty’s Land Ship) Centipede.

It too required further development, but a year later, on September 16th, 1916, the first British Mark 1 tanks rolled into action at the Battle of the Somme. Although hot, noisy, unwieldy and prone to breakdown, they scored some early successes and, perhaps more importantly, were said to “strike the fear of God into the hearts of the enemy”. More refinements followed and when 400 Mark IV tanks saw action at the decisive Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, they were credited with capturing 8,000 enemy troops and 100 guns.

Just after two years since Little Willie made its faltering debut, its direct descendants had more than proved their worth on the modern battlefield. In 1922 the newly formed Royal Tank Regiment adopted a folk song called “My Boy Willie” as its regimental march.

Remarkably, Little Willie survives, on display at The Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset. Although essentially an empty hull, without its original 13-litre Daimler-Knight engine or any of its planned armaments, it is the great granddaddy of every tank that has seen service since.

As for how ‘tanks’ got their name, there are several versions of the story. One is that workers at the Lincoln factory were told the new vehicle would be used to transport water on the battlefield, in order to keep the true purpose of the project secret. Another is simply that the riveted boilerplate exterior of the vehicles made them resemble rolling water tanks. In either case, the new vehicles were shipped in crates marked “tank”, again to keep the project secret, and the name stuck.

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