The First Tank War

November 1914

The Origins and Heritage of the Tank

Covered war carts had been used by the Scots against the English in the mid-15th century, and Leonardo da Vinci had sketched his famous “tank” design in the 1480s. Later centuries had seen attempts to create wind-powered “landships” and various steam-powered contraptions. — BBC Website

Sirs, the victory in this war will belong to which of the two belligerents which will be the first to place a gun of 75 [mm] on a vehicle able to be driven on all terrain. — Lt. Col. Jean-Baptiste Eugène Estienne, 23 August 1914

It was Mr. Churchill who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, gave the first order for eighteen tanks, or “landships” as they were then called, on March 26, 1915. He did not inform either the War Office or the Treasury–an almost unprecedented and certainly unconstitutional reticence, dictated by fear that conventional minds might stifle a great idea. — Sir Winston S. Churchill, quoted in Colin Coote, ed., Maxims and Reflections, 1949

September 15, 1916: First tank attack in history during the Battle of the Somme at the village of Flers.

The tanks that first saw action at the Somme in September 1916 had, to a remarkable extent, been engineered out of the cultural imagination. Tank-like machines were featured in HG Wells’ short story “The Land Iron Clads,” a work of science fiction first published in the Strand Magazine in 1903. — BBC Website

October 20, 1917: First successful large-scale attack integrating tanks with infantry attack at the Battle of Cambrai by the British Army.

The tank enables the main advantages of sea warfare, unrestricted movement, to be to a great extent superimposed on that of land warfare… — Major General JFC Fuller, principal planner of the British Tank Corps, 1918 Memorandum

April 24, 1918: First tank vs. tank action in history; German AV7 destroys two female (machine gun equipped) British Mark IV tanks but later received his comeuppance from some of their brothers at Villers-Bretonneux, Somme Sector.

June 1918: After overcoming early development problems, the French Renault FT-17 light tank, with the first fully rotating turret, sees service with French and American forces. Nearly 3,700 are delivered before the Armistice.


British Mark series Tank Excavated Near Cambrai Battlefield

The French Renault light tank and the British Mark series heavy tanks contained severe technical limitations. With maximum speeds of only 6 mph, these tanks were hardly able to keep up with the infantry when crossing a shell-holed battlefield. When separated from the infantry, the tanks were vulnerable to [artillery and first-generation anti-tank] weapons and could not communicate with supporting artillery. These technical limitations, as well as numerous mechanical problems, justifiably confined the World War I tank to an infantry support role. — LTC Kenneth A. Steadman of the US Combat Studies Institute

August 8, 1918: Tanks play critical role in the successful British attack at the Battle of Amiens, called by General Ludendorff the Black Day of the German Army.

September 12-13, 1918: Lt. Col. George Patton takes personal command of the first American tank attack in history during the St. Mihiel Offensive.

…The internal-combustion engine which is ready to carry whatever one wants, wherever it is needed, at all speeds and distances… the internal combustion engine which, if it is armoured, possesses such a fire power and shock power that the rhythm of the battle corresponds to that of its movements. — General Charles de Gaulle, The Army of the Future, 1934

…The higher the concentration of tanks, the faster, greater and more sweeping will be the success–and the smaller our own losses… — Col.-General Heinz Guderian, Panzer Marsch!, 1937

Credits: Illustrations from the collection of Tony Langley,
contributing editor of Trip Wire


Learn More about Tanks in the Great War


Leonardo Had the Right Idea


  1. Tanks and World War One from The History Learning Site
  2. American Armour in the Great War by Dale Wilson
  3. British Mark-IV Video Tour from Landships
  4. Tanks to the Front by Robert Robinson
  5. The Renault FT-17 Tank from Landships
  6. First Panzers, 1917-1918 from Achtung Panzer!
  7. Tanks in Action: Illustrations, Photos, Firsthand Accounts from War in a Different Light

French Tanks Advancing During the Second Battle of the Marne


  1. The First Men in Tanks, Christy Campbell, HarperPerennial, 2008
  2. Ironclads of Cambrai: The First Great Tank Battle, Bryan Cooper, Cassell 2004R
  3. British Mark IV Tank, Fletcher and Bryan, Osprey 2007
  4. The Devil’s Chariots: The Birth and Secret Battles of the First Tanks, John Glandfield, Sutton Publishing, 2001
  5. Hamel (Somme), Battleground Europe, Peter Pedersen, Pen & Sword, 2003
  6. Treat ‘Em Rough!: The Birth of American Armor, 1917-20, Dale E. Wilson, Presidio 1990
  7. German Panzers 1914 – 18, Steven Zaloga, New Vanguard (Osprey), 2006

Captured German AV7 Tank

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