The peaceful city that gave birth to the greatest war machine in history

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World War One began on July 28 1914 and the impact of that war is still being remembered to this day .  One place in particular not only helped turned the tide of the war into the allies favour but altered future warfare forever.

Britain relied deeply on a nationwide effort to support the battles over in France with every man and woman playing their part, be it on the battlefield or working in the factories making weapons.  The English county of Lincolnshire stands out as one of the places that devoted a great deal of time and energy towards helping with the war effort.   Around 18,000 Lincolnshire people sacrificed their lives in the Great War.

It was originally anticipated that the war would be over by Christmas 1914, but soon the war became a stalemate, with thousands of soldiers dying each day in 450 miles of disease filled trenches.   The ability for any side to make any advancement had been lost; anyone who attempted to cross an opposing trench being shot down immediately.   In early 1915 David Lloyd George claimed ‘This is an engineer’s war.’  He was not wrong.

Farming heroes

During the early 20th century Lincolnshire was for many a place for agriculture and farming.  Farming technology and Lincolnshire are synonymous, even to people who have never visited the county.

Lincolnshire agricultural machinery companies, such as, William Foster & Co, Richard Hornsby & Sons and other companies were central to Lincolnshire’s agricultural success.  Lincolnshire’s advanced agricultural machinery production was relied on heavily during the war.  Cath Pike, Lincolnshire’s War Memorials Officer, explains the importance of the county’s machinery production:

“Industrial Lincolnshire had a vital role to play during World War One – it was here that the first tank was developed by Fosters; a company that produced agricultural machinery before the war. Lincolnshire’s industrial engineering companies also built planes and developed munitions during this period.”

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William Foster established himself as a successful farming machine manufacturer in the late 1800s. It was only when war was declared in 1914 where he turned his interests into developing a machine to be used in war.

Churchill enters the war

In the spring of 1915, Winston Churchill established the Admiralty Landship Committee.  The committee was set up to develop armoured fighting vehicles for use on the Western Front.  First designs of vehicles were very trivial and rarely worked in the field; the first one being a tractor vehicle that had very little protection and often faulted in practice.  Another absurd creation was nicknamed ‘elephants feet’; a single tractor with beams alongside the vehicle, the theory being if the tractor got stuck in the trench the poles would push it out.  Of course the idea failed horribly; early developments of the tank are filled up with these bizarre vehicles.

In late 1915 the Admiralty Landship Committee ordered certain components from the Bullock Creeping Grip Tractor Company in Chicago.  These components were farm tractor tracks along with the rollers and wheels that went with them.  The idea was to fit these tracks onto a metal hull of the tank which was being constructed by William Foster & Co in Lincoln.  It was hoped this would be the prototype for all tanks.  This first model was named ‘Little Willie’, the name then commonly used by the British to mock the German Imperial Crown Prince Wilhelm.  Unfortunately the tracks constantly fell apart as the metal hull was too heavy for the tracks and every time the prototype went over a trench it would break up collapsing in on itself.

Winston and his tanks

A young Winston Churchill (left) established the Admiralty Landship Committee in 1915. The committee was set up to develop armoured fighting vehicles for use on the Western Front. Unfortunately the first few attempts looked more humorous than deadly (right).

The tracks that changed the world

As a result two engineers, William Tritton the Managing Director of William Foster & Co and Lieutenant Walter Gordon Wilson, designed a completely new type of track that was much heavier and much more useful than the tracks from Chicago.   These caterpillar tracks were revolutionary and changed the way tanks were produced in the future.  The tracks were the real success story as far as British tank engineering was concerned.

Although Little Willie appeared only briefly in late in 1915 with the new track design, it was only the predecessor of what was to come.  It was only a simple small box of metal; but it was really the tracks and running gear that the engineers took time to construct.  The tank was built without springs, so going over bumps and trenches was near impossible as drivers would be able to feel every minor knock and it was extremely uncomfortable to use.  It wasn’t an armoured tank, any bullet could easily pass through it.  The prototype was fitted with a non-rotatable dummy turret mounting a machine gun; a Vickers 2-pounder was to have been fitted, with as many as six Madsen machine guns to supplement it.  The main gun would have had a large ammunition store with 800 rounds.  It took a team of 4 to drive and it reached speeds of 2mph.  In total there was a crew of 6 that would fit into the 9x19m hunk of metal.

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It was the caterpillar tracks on ‘Little Willie’ which were the essential part for the successful creation of the tank.

The tracks on Little Willie worked well in practice but Wilson was unhappy with the basic concept of the design.  On 17 August 1915, Wilson suggested to Tritton the idea of using tracks that ran all around the vehicle.  Construction on this new design started on 17 September 1915 with ‘Big Willie’ or the more commonly known ‘Mother’ being born a few months later.  This design had a rhomboid track frame taking the track up and over the vehicle.  It was an immense machine compared to Little Willie; weighing 28 tonnes, 12 tonnes more than its predecessor.  The tank was fitted with a formidable arsenal including four Vickers machine guns and one Hotchkiss.  It was the first tank to be used in combat and 48 were sent off to fight in France.

Little Willies successful track design was used on all First World War British tanks up to the Mark VIII. The vast advancement and the constant upgrades the tank went through proved critically important in the last few days of the war.  The tank proved its worth especially in combats situations such as the Battle of Cambrai.

Unfortunately by January 1916 Little Willie became surplus to the development of British tanks.  Though it never saw combat, Little Willie was a major step forward in military technology, being the first tank prototype to ever be produced.

To discover more about the creation of the tank historian David Fletcher discusses Little Willie in more detail in the video below:

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