Hi everyone, this week I’m doing things a little differently. I think this will be a one off, but the process was fun. A few weeks before this will publish I got a message via the portal from WordPress follower Tom Doberman – Hi Tom. His question, have I thought of picking a date then doing a post based on that date. Short answer yes, I did the Christmas Carol episode last year, on the stories of O Henry – writer of Gift of the Magi, and Lee Shelton, the man behind the Stagger Lee legend.
I’m also planning a Halloween week this year, a post a day for five days all on ghosts, and monsters and other spooky things.
‘But’, Tom replied, ‘what about a normal day on the calendar?’
I said no, but I could. The next date free was 15th September. According to the ‘today in history’ type sites, what happened on this day that I could spin an odd tale out of?
Hmm… not my usual brand of history really…. OK let’s go with the tanks.
A Very Graceful Machine
As stated – tanks were first used in the Battle of the Somme, September 15th 1916. The Western Front had devolved into a messy stalemate with an ever growing death toll, while the opposing trenches stretched out for hundreds of miles. Neither side’s infantry, or cavalry could make any headway on the other. They just sat there in the damp trenches waiting to become cannon fodder. The top brass were eager for any solution to this dilemma, no matter how mad. Putting Da Vinci sketches aside for a moment, the idea of a tank like contraption had been floated before.
In 1855 inventor James Cowen had built a model he named a ‘Locomotive Land Battery’, hoping Britain would develop and use his steampunk contraption in the Crimean War. The top brass passed on Cowen’s invention. In the First World War the ‘landship’ got the green light – Lincolnshire agricultural machinery manufacturers William Foster & Co were awarded the contract. The prototype, nicknamed Little Willy, was described by one officer who is very important to our tale as
“…a very graceful machine with beautiful lines. Lozenge- shaped, but with two clumsy looking wheels behind it.”
Little Willy came to be known as the Mark I. Landships were re-named tanks.
The first tanks were horrendously unreliable; buggy and constantly breaking down. Many early crews found them death traps – but at their best, they were spectacular. Where soldiers were stuck in the mud, a tank could just roll over trenches, crush razor wire, and shake off machine gun fire like it was nothing. Over the course of the war they developed – the bugs ironed out of the design. The French seemed especially tank mad in these early days, making a lot of tanks, and working out many of those teething pains. The Germans also got into the tank game towards the end of the war, but of course were banned from owning any tanks after, as per the Treaty of Versailles.
For all the French innovation, Britain should have had an unassailable lead in the tank game. It didn’t work out that way. To explain why, we first must meet the man from the ‘lozenge’ quote, Major General John Frederick Charles ‘Boney’ Fuller (1878- 1966).
Now, when discussing J.F.C Fuller you must keep two things in mind. 1. He was a brilliant military strategist, and 2. he was a remarkably unlikeable guy. Perhaps his sense of ‘otherness’ distanced him from other soldiers – he was a short, slightly built guy who preferred staying home reading classic literature over mixing with his peers (if you recall the tale of his contemporary Adrian Carton De Wiart; De Wiart’s downtime was full of sports, drinking and pulling off dangerous stunts) – I don’t think it justifies his argumentativeness, bloody-mindedness, and utter disdain for his fellow officers; so evident in letters, essays and documents left behind by (or concerning) him. By today’s standards, his white supremacist views would be abhorrent to wide swathes of society today, but it was his strong belief in occultism, particularly the Thelemic Mysticism of his close friend Aleister Crowley, that separated him from many of his peers.
Fuller had been trained at Sandhurst, before being assigned to the Oxfordshire Light Infantry in the 2nd Boer War. During the war he formed an opinion that wars should be fought with increasingly agile forces, at lightning fast speed, as opposed to slow, steady and methodical formations. After the war he was sent to India – where he fed his passion for occultism – before coming back to the United Kingdom to take on a role at Staff College, Camberley. When World War One broke out, the top brass put him to work coming up with strategies and tactics. Much of the time he rubbed his superiors up the wrong way – in one task they were worried a large number of sheep on rural roads would hamper a quick defence if needed and tasked Fuller to come up with signs. Fuller replied asking what to do with the sheep who were illiterate. When the tank came along however, Fuller began planning tactics in earnest. He came up with a strategy called ‘Plan 1919’.
Fuller believed the way to stop an army was to win the battle in a single, decisive attack on it’s command. If you took a large contingent of tanks, and drove them straight through enemy lines – directly for the high command who were safely ensconced an hour from the front – the front lines would not realize what was happening till it was too late. They would also be powerless to stop you. When you smashed the command, the army would turn into little more than a rabble and soon surrender.
Fuller never had the chance to test his plan. The war came to an end in November 1918, by other means. In peacetime he became an advocate for the widespread adoption of the tank by the military. He met opposition, on the face of it from generals who wanted to return to using cavalry. In 1919 he wrote an essay advocating for tank warfare, reminding everyone of the great advances made – but of a need to keep developing. Fuller wrote
“Race horses don’t pull up at the winning post”.
His essay won him a gold medal from the think tank The Royal United Services Institute. His superiors were furious at his subordination. Fuller continued to be a thorn in the side of top brass until 1926. In 1926 he was offered a promotion, and command over a new infantry force, which would include tanks – but also included foot soldiers. Fuller wanted no part of the foot soldiers, and resigned. In the following years Fuller would become involved in fascist groups, including Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists; but far more concerning, the Nazi party. General Heinz Guderian was a particularly big fan of Fuller, and invited him to see the rollout of the Panzer tank in 1935.
Why did Britain not take up the tank?
… at least not till much later (it is true that as war broke out the top brass ordered 1,000% more hay for their horses, even insisting their few tank commanders also keep a horse in reserve.) This would change, at a huge cost to them.
Fuller’s unlikeability probably played a small role, but it appears the biggest reasons revolved around the British armed forces not being set up for tanks. First, who owns them? If they are put in with cavalry they are a bad cultural fit and sow discord among cavalry officers, concerned the tanks are there to take their jobs. As a result they will do their best to undermine them. If a separate division, then they become competitors with every other division of the army, for attention and resources, running the risk of being deliberately stifled by top brass looking out for their pet projects. Does the British army even have the organizational architecture to develop tank divisions, people (Fuller aside) with the skill sets to build the division, and to know what to do with it? Think of recent examples in business – Xerox built the first personal computer in their Palo Alto ‘PARC’ facility in 1970, but were not set up to do anything with the invention. Sony built a digital music player before the iPod, but did not have the organizational architecture to capitalize either.
No doubt some generals were struck with the ‘innovators dilemma’ if you’re in at the ground floor, you also get to see all the flaws, all of the bugs. These blind you to the future potential of the tank – baggage other nations are not burdened with. No doubt some generals just felt mechanized warfare ‘ungentlemanly’ and wanted no part in it.
Of course one power had none of that baggage. Nazi Germany more or less rebuilt their military from scratch, free of such limitations. General Guderian turned to Fuller’s writings, and put his plan 1919 to use, first in the invasion of Poland, then much of Western Europe. Dunkirk was quite a wake up call. Of course they gave it a different name – the Blitzkrieg.
OK, back to normal transmission next week – Simone.