One hundred years ago today, in the early hours of 15 September, the first tanks went into action at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, itself part of the prolonged, bloody quagmire that was the Somme.
It was a world war that brought enough misery to last a millennia but mankind seemed determined not to learn its lesson and stoke the embers only a generation later.
Recognising, but putting to one side, the terrible human cost, war did bring about some of the most important technological developments and laid the template for warfare in the latter part of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
From the first tentative creaks of MkI’s tracks, to the vast rumbling of the 400 or so MkIV’s that took part in the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, the tank was on the path to become king of land warfare, just as biplanes were having the same impact in the sky and submarines at sea.
The invention would be considered a game changer for the Great War. As nations each sought and acquired their own tank programmes, industry created a range of different styles, interpretations and uses for such vehicles.
Following on from World War One, the tank had gained a rightful place as a vital part of an army’s makeup, although exactly how they would and should be operated was open to interpretation.
Much of the interwar period saw nations looking at ways and means to develop more capable vehicles that could continue to move with dismounted infantry. However, it was Germany that brought the next evolution of the tank in making it a reinterpreted version of the cavalry of yesteryear, able to advance quickly, piercing perceived front lines and bringing the efficacy of the Blitzkrieg.
We know the history of course. German Panzers became synonymous with the idea of mobile armour, a lesson British designers tried to follow with their Cruiser series, most often used in North Africa. Tanks were being mass produced, with hundreds of thousands of Panzer IV’s, T34’s, M4’s and Crusader’s and all the variants in between cemented armour as the pre-eminent force in war.
However, the armour protecting the crew was becoming unsuitable as the destructive power of artillery was fused with the mobile promise of the tank. Vehicles became heavier, the destructive power of the main guns making for slower and far larger platforms. Tanks developed sub-variants, vehicles designed specifically to hunt their own kind.
Armoured warfare became just that.
Following the last World War, tank design moved on, further improving on established capabilities and taking advantage of better science, better design and better technology. As the Comet gave way to the Centurion, Centurion to Chieftain and Chieftain to Challenger, the tank has for a century been at the forefront of military thought.
Any army needs a good tank. And as it moves into its second century it perhaps faces its biggest challenge in order to stay if not relevant, then its standing in the order of battle. Kinetic attacks with advanced munitions, airborne tank killers and unmanned capabilities all threaten the ageing beast.
A century from now, when Quill next marks the occasion and 200th anniversary of the tank, it might well be offering a postscript to a platform that had its day, its century, but had to step to one side.