World War I: Why Were Tanks Invented?

During WWI, tanks came into play as brutish devices designed to traverse the difficult landscape and unleash terror. This is their story.

Oct 6, 2021By Benjamin Kitchen, IMI Certification in Mechanics w/ Advanced Physics
wwi tank muirhead bone invention
British Mark 1 tank, Sir David Muirhead Bone, 1914-1919, via Canadian War Museum, Ottawa


Up to World War I, war engineers were obsessed with the cannon, always striving to make it bigger and deadlier. The most frightening part was that, as cannons could fire further and do more significant damage, armor and protection advances weren’t made. Men still stood and fought in rigid, marching lines. Cannons and machine guns, quite literally, turned men into mincemeat. It was an ominous sign of what would become all too manifest during WWI. Men’s lives would be traded for a few meters of gained ground and the ego of the upper classes. The tank came into being partly as a solution to this rampant destruction that took place during WWI.


Who Invented Tanks?

burstyn motorgeschutz tank model
Burstyn Motorgeschütz (model), via Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna


In 1903, an Austrian named Gunther Adolf Burstyn joined his nation’s army as an engineer to continue the development of cannons. Upon seeing the tremendous damage they could inflict, he set his sights on developing protection from these weapons.


Over time, he took an interest in navy warships, wholly enclosed in steel armor. Realizing that men approaching enemy positions with protection levels this high would be much less likely to sustain serious injuries or be killed, he took the idea and ran with it. The idea of a “land ship” was born.


The torpedo boats Burstyn was interested in were powered by massive steam engines, far too big and bulky to be effective on land. Instead, he turned to a different and recently emerging power source; the internal combustion engine. To learn more, he visited the Vienna Auto Show in 1905.


How Did an Armored Car Turn into a Tank?

Austro Daimler Panzerautomobil armoured car tank
Austro-Daimler Panzerautomobil, via Tank Encyclopedia

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At the Vienna Auto Show, Burstyn saw an armored car in the Daimler booth. He immediately decided that was precisely the sort of thing he was looking for. However, there was a potential problem. The four slim wheels that the car rested on would have to stay on paved roads. The car would instantly get bogged down and stuck in any other environment.


To get around this, Burstyn came up with the concept of what we, today, call tracks. By using more than two wheels per side, the vehicle’s weight was much more evenly spread. For this reason, it’s much harder to get a tank stuck than a conventional four-wheeled vehicle, and you can take it through rough terrain with hardly any worry at all.


By 1911, Burstyn had designed the Motorgeschütz (by translation, the Motor Gun). It had tracks and a rotating turret, similar to those seen on warships, and would have been manned by two people. There were also extendable arms at the front and rear for maneuvering over trenches and similar obstacles.


The same year, he submitted his design to the Austrian war ministry. It was rejected without a second thought. Burstyn then took his invention to Germany, a country he considered more modern. Still, they also turned down his ideas. Nobody took the slightest bit of interest in his design (or others from different engineers). The reason? The militaries at the time simply didn’t see the need for a weapon of this type.


How Did WWI Fuel the Development of Tanks?

american soldiers digging trenches wire paul nash
Wire, Paul Nash, 1919, via Imperial War Museum, London; with American soldiers digging trenches, near Beney, France, 1918, via National Archives Catalog


On 28 July 1914, WWI began. Although pretty much the whole world could see it coming a mile away, modern warfare had evolved beyond the thinking of those at the helms. The explosive and shrapnel from the shells and bullets of the machine guns tore through men like they were nothing. What the leaderships seemed to think would be one almighty, Napoleon/Nelson-esque battle turned into both sides digging in and holding their lines.


Many men died long before they reached the enemy barbed wire and trenches. In fact, within the first five months of fighting, 1,000,000 soldiers were killed. This terrible casualty count further highlighted the need for protection, leading to the trenches being dug; positions from which the soldiers could shoot but be difficult to hit.


The commanders on all sides expected the war to be over within a few months, and so Burstyn’s Motorgeschütz, which would have taken about 18 months to build, was never produced. Why make these contraptions when a hole in the dirt seems to be just as effective at protection?


As it raged on for weeks, months, and then years, it must have felt the war would last forever. Over this time, the barbed wire layers also became thicker and thicker – more and more impassable. At the same time, about early 1915, the war became a complete stalemate, leading the armies to turn to other attack methods, such as poison gas and tunneling explosives under the enemy trenches.


In the West, engineers were trying to come up with ideas to surmount these obstacles. From this, the tank – as we know it – was born.


The Need for the Schneider Tank

schneider ca 1 wwi tanks photos
Schneider CA 1 tank, 1918, via Wikimedia Commons


A French colonel named Jean Baptiste Eugene Estienne revived Gunther Burstyn’s idea. He was in charge of the best artillery unit in the French army. His cannons were highly effective, but only at close range. He suddenly realized that victory in WWI would go to whoever succeeded at creating a mobile cannon capable of crossing the battlefields to get close enough to fire into the trenches.


Initially, he wanted to build a cannon with an engine, tracks, and thick armor. Like with Burstyn, Estienne’s commanders also rejected his idea because they didn’t believe any engine could drive something so heavy. After almost giving up, Estienne heard that the Schneider-Creusot company, situated near Le Creusot in Eastern France, had begun making a tank of its own. Production had started in May 1915. When Jean Baptiste Eugene Estienne eventually managed to get himself transferred over to Schneider, he found that the CA 1, as it was called, was in full production.


However, unlike his designs, the Schneider CA 1 would not have been able to carry a vast, heavy cannon. Instead, it used a much smaller 75 mm cannon, along with two machine guns. It was designed to cut through barbed wire, forging a path behind it for others to follow. It had a max speed of 8 km/h and 11 mm armor.


In December 1915, Estienne pushed the French to create armored units. Following this, the French army ordered 400 CA 1 tanks in February 1916.


The CA 1 wasn’t considered a perfect design. However, compared to the Saint-Chamond – another tank the French army had commissioned – it had considerable advantages.


The British WWI Tanks

landship little willie wwi tank
Landship Little Willie, via The Tank Museum, Dorset


The Heavy Machine Gun Corps, a branch of the Machine Gun Corps, was formed on 1 May 1916. Its name was intentionally non-specific, but the men of this branch would command tanks into battle. Eventually, the Heavy Machine Gun Corps became the Tank Corps and then the Royal Tank Regiment.


British engineers had also been working on a “tank” since 1915. However, unlike Estienne’s Schneider CA 1, their vehicles were built to mow down and crush the barbed wire. Originally, it was named Landship Little Willie, with many aspects of its design also coming from the navy. Upon first glance, Landship Little Willie looks very similar to a water tank, and so the name “tank” became used as a code word – something that would hide its true purpose from the Germans.


Further design improvements saw Little Willie extended and fitted with cannons. At this point, it was renamed as Mother. It was this tank that the Heavy Machine Gun Corps trained with and would eventually take into battle.


Mother Tank

mark ii 2 training wwi tank
Mark II training tank, via The Tank Museum, Dorset


The Mother tank of WWI had a crew of 8 men. It was designed to drive over the enemy tanks and fire down into them simultaneously. “Female” tanks had two machine guns on each side, whereas “male” models had one giant cannon instead. Like the CA 1, it also had a top speed of 8 km/h, slightly faster than the average walking pace.


Although they were intimidating and impressive, there were several substantial problems with Mother. First of all, its necessarily large size with its slow speed made it a relatively easy target for German artillery. The tank’s sides weren’t bulletproof, and so crews were incredibly vulnerable to attacks from the flanks. Perhaps most damningly, the British army had the men training on terrain utterly different from the mud and shell holes of the WWI battlefields.


When Were Tanks First Used?

painting battle courcelette wwi
Battle of Courcelette, Louis Weirter, 1918, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa


In August 1916, the Heavy Machine Gun Corps was called up to the front at the Somme. They were moved in utmost secrecy, intended to surprise and demoralize the Germans in their first, unexpected attack. Once the tanks had broken through, the rest of the army would follow, quickly making their way to Germany to end the war. Or so they imagined.


On 15 September 1916, the tanks rolled out towards the Somme battlefield. As they attacked, some parts of the Germans panicked, but their line held. Overall, it was a disaster. The Germans remained firmly in position and, of the 50 tanks to attack, only 10 made it back to their lines. Most of the tanks had been damaged, broken down, or caught fire. Many of the survivors suffered from PTSD and had nervous breakdowns.


Although the tank’s advance had been a complete disaster, the British press claimed there had been a splendid victory. Although this was nothing short of a lie, public support quickly rallied behind it. The uptake in morale was a massive boost to the British, who had suffered enormous casualties up until that point.


How Did Tanks Affect WWI?

british tank in action daniel sherrin wwi
British Tank in Action, Daniel Sherrin, 1917, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa


The Germans captured British tanks left behind on the Somme battlefield and commissioned their own versions. However, the British navy had been blockading Germany, and their raw material supplies had run desperately low. As such, even though Joseph Vollmer designed tanks such as the A7V for use in the German army, they could only afford to make 10. There wasn’t enough steel to build anymore.


Overall, WWI tanks didn’t have a particularly huge impact on the war. Certainly, they didn’t trample the enemy lines without fail and led the army behind them straight to Germany. However, they were a valuable tool in the war effort. The British and French often used them in conjunction with the army and air force to launch coordinated assaults on the German lines.


If anything, it’s arguable that the most significant boost the tank provided was morale. In a war, that was perhaps the most crucial factor imaginable. Since that time, tanks have evolved. WWI itself even saw several generations of tanks. Nowadays, we can all recognize them, and they’re a vital part of militaries worldwide.

Author Image

By Benjamin KitchenIMI Certification in Mechanics w/ Advanced PhysicsBen is an automotive journalist from the West Midlands in England. He holds an IMI certification in light vehicle mechanics and three A-Levels in Physics and Further Maths. With five years of writing experience, he spends most of his time delving into the fields of engineering and motoring. When he’s not working, you’ll find him reading his Bible or traveling around the world.