The balance of warfare has shifted markedly in favour of defenders since the armies of Europe hunkered down in trenches. In the East, where the fronts are longer it is still possible to concentrate enough men in one place to achieve a local breakthrough. But on the Western Front things are much harder for attackers, as there is a much greater density of defenders on both sides.
How to attack well defended trenches without suffering ruinous casualties is something of a conundrum. While he was still serving as First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill set up a Landships Committee to investigate ideas for the building of armoured vehicles capable of crossing trenches and advancing under fire.
One Colonel Ernest Swinton had suggested that vehicles equipped with caterpillar tracks would be better equipped to traverse obstacles than wheeled vehicles. Now the first prototype of such a contraption makes its first trial run. Known as Little Willie (a nickname in the British press for the Kaiser’s son, Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia), the tracked armoured vehicle goes through its paces in the yard of its manufacturers in Lincoln.
Little Willie has its limitations but as a proof of concept the test is successful. Building on the trial the engineers start to revise the vehicle’s design and work to prepare something that can eventually be tested in combat.
The work is being undertaken amid the utmost secrecy. Noticing that the workmen who have assembled Little Willie are referring to it as a “tank” (because of its similarity to metal water tanks), the Landships Committee start referring to the vehicles they are designing as “tanks”, in the hope that this will confuse any German spies who catch wind of the project.
image source (Landships II)