To combat trench warfare and the stalemate it often caused, the British knew they needed to design something that could cross the muddy uneven ground of the killing zone between trenches, and break through the enemies lines of defences such as barbed wire and machine gun nests. What they came up with was a weaponised armoured vehicle on tracks, called a tank, and the first ever prototype was named ‘Little Willie’.
Little Willie can still be seen today at the Tank Museum in Dorset, and is the worlds oldest surviving individual tank. Although Little Willie never actually saw combat, it was the first tank prototype to be finished, and was the predecessor to the British Mark I Tank – the first ever tank to be used in a theatre of war, when in September 1916, 49 tanks were shipped to the Somme for the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Unfortunately reliability was an issue, and out of the 49 tanks, only 32 made the first attack, and out of those only 9 made it across no mans land to the German trenches.
– Little Willie was a name commonly used to mock the German Imperial Crown Prince Wilhelm.
– Winston Churchill championed the development of the tank, after establishing the Landships Committee in early 1915 to develop an armoured vehicle for use at the frontlines.
– The first tanks on the battlefield could only travel at walking speed.
– The British Mark I carried a crew of 8, 4 of which handled the steering and gears.
– To keep the new armoured machine a secret, the word ‘tanks‘ was used, to make the enemy think they were simply water tanks being shipped to the front. That is where they got their name from, although in the early days of WW1 they were also called ‘Willies’ and also ‘Buses’.