On this day in 1916 tanks were used for the first time in the Battle of the Somme.
The development of tanks in World War I was a response to the stalemate that trench warfare had created on the Western Front.
Although vehicles that incorporated the basic principles of the tank had been projected in the decade or so before the War, it was the heavy casualties sustained in the first few months of hostilities that stimulated development. Research took place in both Great Britain and France, with Germany only belatedly following the Allies’ lead.
In Great Britain, an initial vehicle, nicknamed Little Willie, was constructed at William Foster & Co., during August and September, 1915.
The prototype of a new design that would become the Mark I tank was demonstrated to the British Army on February 2, 1916. Although initially termed “landships” by the Landships Committee, production vehicles were named “tanks”, to preserve secrecy.
The term was chosen when it became known that the factory workers at William Foster referred to the first prototype as “the tank” because of its resemblance to a steel water tank.
The heavily shelled terrain was impassable to conventional vehicles, and only highly mobile tanks such as the Mark and FTs performed reasonably well.
The Mark I’s rhomboid shape, caterpillar tracks, and 26 feet length meant that it could navigate obstacles, especially wide trenches, which wheeled vehicles could not.
Along with the tank, the first self-propelled gun (the British Gun Carrier Mk I) and the first armoured personnel carrier (the British Mk IX) were also constructed in World War I.