What Was Life Really Like for WWI Tank Crews?

Searing heat. Noxious fumes. Ear-splitting noise. The lives of the first tank crews in WWI were far from easy.

May 23, 2024By Ashley Wright, MA History, BA (Hons) History

life wwi tank crews


On September 15, 1916, the first tracked armored vehicles – codenamed tanks – rolled into action on the side of the British at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Toiling in the belly of these metal monsters were men from every walk of life, drawn from all across the army to fight in the soon-to-be-formed Tank Corps.


How did these early pioneers fight and live? What did they think about this new technology?


Read on to find out.


Tanks: The First Landships

da vinci tank
Sketches for an armored fighting vehicle by Leonardo Da Vinci, circa 1485. Source: British Museum, London


By the time of the First World War (1914-1918), the concept of an armored fighting vehicle was by no means new. The idea goes all the way back to antiquity, with numerous civilizations (especially the Romans) employing mobile siege towers in their assault on cities and fortifications. These machines, however, were so far from modern tanks – both in appearance and their role on the battlefield – that we must look to the more recent past for a direct ancestor.

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In 1485, Leonardo Da Vinci devised the machine that many consider to be the true precursor to the tank. Centuries ahead of its time, this mechanical wagon or “car” was covered by a shell of wood and metal, sloped at an angle to prevent the penetration of enemy fire. Of course, much like many other of Da Vinci’s inventions, such an idea was never going to be realized in the late 15th century. It would take another 400 years for the concept to become truly workable, and by then, Da Vinci’s design was long obsolete.


little willie tank iwm
“Little Willie,” the world’s first tank prototype, 1915. Source: Imperial War Museums


In the early 20th century, several proposals for an armored vehicle had been put forward by numerous inventors and engineers, but none were put into production. The outbreak of the First World War, however, put a renewed focus on such projects.


The digging of trenches soon brought the war to a grinding halt, leading to a stalemate in early 1915. From the Belgian coast to the borders of Switzerland, the Western Front became a warren of trenches, barbed wire, and machine-gun emplacements.


Something was needed to break the stalemate. Several officers – most notably Ernest Swinton of Britain’s Royal Engineers – quickly came to recognize a solution: a tracked armored vehicle capable of crushing barbed wire and crossing trenches.


Many remained skeptical, but the idea eventually found the backing of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. In February 1915, Churchill established the Landship Committee, and after a number of tests and experiments, the first prototype was built six months later. This prototype, nicknamed “Little Willie,” was followed by an improved prototype in December – “Mother.”


It was on Mother’s design that the first Mark I land ships – codenamed “tanks” to disguise their nature – were based. Over 150 were ordered following Mother’s trials, and throughout the war, their design would continue to be improved upon.


The Tank Corps

mkv tank iwm
A British Mark V tank of the Tank Corps, 2nd Battalion, en route to Amiens, 1918. Source: Imperial War Museums


By 1916, the first tankers had their machines but not their name. The regiment that would later become the Tank Corps actually began life as an arm of the Machine Gun Corps (MGC), known as the Heavy Section (HSMGC). It was established and based in Bisley, Surrey, but this small village offered little space for testing their machines. Training, therefore, was moved to Elveden Camp in Suffolk – the world’s first tank training ground – and later Bovington Camp in Dorset.


Two months after the tank’s first deployment at Flers-Courcelette in September 1916, the HSMGC was redesignated the Heavy Branch MGC and organized into battalions. In July 1917, finally, the Heavy Branch broke from the MGC and was christened with its own title – the Tank Corps.


The new regiment soon saw action. A few months later, on November 20, the Tank Corps’ entire strength was thrown at the Germans in the Battle of Cambrai, with over 300 Mk IV tanks (plus another 180 in supporting roles) participating in the assault. Despite some initial success in breaking the heavily fortified German lines, the regiment lost 179 tanks on the first day alone.


A year later, on November 4, 1918, the Tank Corps would see its last action of the First World War. It was on that day that the regiment suffered its final casualty: Major Frederick “Eric” Robinson.


The Beginnings of Experience: Recruitment & Training

ww1 recruitment poster
A British Army recruitment poster, 1915. Source: Victoria Art Gallery


For every soldier in the First World War, the very beginning of their experience was always colored by two initial events: their recruitment into the army and the training they underwent to prepare them for combat. The men of the Tank Corps were no different.


Unlike the regular Tommy, however, those looking to join the HSMGC found the recruitment process to be somewhat unique. Shrouded in mystery, the appeal for volunteers was extremely limited in the details it revealed, with recruits being told almost nothing about their new posting. The covert nature of the process piqued the curiosity of many a soldier, fuelling rumors about this new branch of the army that heightened expectations even further.


Intrigue aside, many recruits held more pragmatic reasons for joining. Second Lieutenant Horace Leslie Birks was one such individual, joining up with the HSMGC in 1916 because he was “sick of walking about in France.” Colonel Norman Dillon shared a similar sentiment, joining up for the apparent protection the new machines could provide from the weather.


Others found themselves taken in by the new technology and its engineering, especially those soldiers with a background in mechanics or automobiles. Such an interest brought a number of men to the HSMGC, with many posted there after joining the Motor Machine Gun Service (MMGS). For Eric Potten, a railway clerk until November 1916, it was the MMGS that was to catch his imagination. Motorcycle-mounted machine guns were an exciting prospect and, like the later tanks, proved to be a popular draw for “mechanically minded” recruits.


training tank bovington
A British tank training at Bovington Camp, October 1916. Source: Tank Museum


Following the recruitment and selection process, weeks and weeks of specialist training were to follow. This was not unusual for soldiers in specialist roles – Lewis gunners and snipers, for example, could expect to be sent to specialist schools to learn their craft, and the men of the HSMGC were no different.  Given the novelty and complexity of the tank, however, such training was far from perfect.


Gunners, for instance, were first trained aboard the HMS Excellent or at the Royal Navy Gunnery School, and the original training site at Elveden soon proved wholly inadequate. A shortage of tanks also meant training was often limited to using mock-ups – wooden frames simply carried around by the crew.


Although the inadequacy of these methods was shown during the early tank battles, the training itself was something of an experience for the crew members. The imitation tanks, in particular, were a source of great amusement. Crews could easily lose their gunners down large holes or craters, something Captain Ernest Hayward and his crew would “laugh like hell about.”


As the war progressed and the tanks themselves became more sophisticated, so did the training of the crews. It became exceedingly thorough, with almost all of it conducted within the newly designated home of the Tank Corps and its schools, Bovington. A “military university” of sorts, courses in driving, navigation, engineering, gunnery, and signaling were all taught in its tankodrome.


This training could be an intense experience and was often accelerated and condensed prior to any major action the Corps was to engage in. The tanks themselves made the experience even more exciting for the men, with live firing exercises being especially thrilling.


Perceptions & Combat

polygon wood tanks
Camouflaged tanks at the Battle of Polygon Wood, September 1917. Source: National Army Museum


Tankers’ first impressions of their machines varied greatly, but underpinning each of them was the novelty of it all. These machines were (and still are) the most bizarre of contraptions, completely unlike any other vehicle of the day. At over twenty-six feet in length and rhomboidal in shape, they instilled men with fascination and, in some cases, great trepidation. Daniel Sheryer, for instance, a budding engineer and officer in the HSMGC, was nothing short of “startled” when he first witnessed a tank, piquing his curiosity in such a way that he had to volunteer for the regiment almost immediately.


Others had different reactions to the tank’s design, in particular its movement. Rolling along at a heady three miles per hour, some found it nothing short of hilarious. In contrast, the Germans’ first impression was one of pure terror. At Flers in 1916, the hulking masses of steel that crawled toward their trenches caused such fear and panic that many simply turned and fled at the sight.


As men became more accustomed to their machines, however, perceptions soon began to change. Fighting inside them, many tankers soon realized, was even worse than fighting in the trenches.


Enclosed in a steel box with little room to maneuver, the eight-man crew were forced to endure temperatures upwards of 125 degrees Fahrenheit. The deafening noise of the engine and six-pounder cannons further added to the misery, as did the tank’s lethal unreliability. While its armor was generally bulletproof, it soon proved extremely vulnerable in places – a bullet through either of the thinly armored sponsons would ricochet violently inside. Similarly, a bullet through one of the prisms or periscopes and the driver was effectively blind to the outside world.


tank mask helmet
A “splatter” mask and helmet worn by crewmen to shield themselves from ricochets and shrapnel hitting the tank’s vision ports, circa 1917. Source: Canadian War Museum


While the tank’s mechanical inefficiency and glaring vulnerabilities were a great source of dissatisfaction among crews, many came to both fear and appreciate the power of their machines. Even out of combat, they could still kill and maim, and accidents certainly did happen – often with fatal consequences.


With this appreciation came respect and an unlikely attachment for some. Tank commanders, in particular, had a great reverence for their machines, and their naming was something of a personalizing ritual for them. HMLS Casa, for example, of Company 18 No. 3 Section at Flers, was named after its commander’s family home.


When the British were forced to set their tanks ablaze at Courcelette (so the Germans could not retrieve them), Section Commander Daniel E. Hickey recalled how a fellow officer had told him that he was “heartbroken,” as if they had just killed a “faithful companion.”


Esprit de Corps

canadian rifles amiens
The 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles piled on a Mk V British tank at the Battle of Amiens, 1918. Source: Canadian War Museum


Amid stalemate on the Western Front, the everyday life of an ordinary First World War soldier could be tediously mundane. These long periods of inaction, however, coupled with the stresses of combat, gave rise to friendships that would last through the war and beyond.


When living and fighting in small teams, men developed an even closer comradeship. Private Alexander H. Wright, a gunner in a six-man team with the MGC, recalls this great sense of camaraderie:


“The machine gun team I was on… one of them was a solicitor, his name was Pilgrim, there was another… a typical East End cockney. [Another was] a medical student, another man was an Irishman. We lived and slept together day and night, and yet we got on wonderfully well.”


The men of the Tank Corps had a very similar experience. They lived, worked, and fought together on a daily basis. Any periods of inaction they shared were even longer, too, given the constant need for maintenance, training, and drill.


Even the commanders seemed to have a close affiliation with their men. One commander, Captain Alfred Enoch, apparently felt comfortable enough to defy military conventions and call his crew by their Christian names, while another commander even provided cakes for his crewmen when they performed well.


More on Tanks & Tank Crews


To read more about the engineering and history behind the tank itself, see Benjamin Kitchen’s fascinating article here on TheCollector.


For further information and an up-close look at the few surviving vehicles from this period, visit The Tank Museum and explore its world-leading collection.


Alternatively, if you wish to learn more about the men behind the machines, Stephen Pope’s The First Tank Crews reveals their untold stories in exceptional detail, while the Imperial War Museums’ oral history collection offers a similarly remarkable insight into the lives of these brave soldiers.

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By Ashley WrightMA History, BA (Hons) HistoryAshley is a published novelist and contributing author from Greater Manchester, England. He holds an MA and BA (Hons) in History, graduating from the University of Huddersfield in 2020. His research and interests include the First World War, late 19th century British politics, and the Middle Ages in contemporary culture. When not writing, he enjoys hiking, playing historical games, and supporting Arsenal Football Club.