A hundred years ago this week, British and German tanks made history on the battlefields of World War I. In the last year of war, at the French town of Villers-Bretonneux, the two sides clashed in the first tank-on-tank battle in history.
Looking back at the battle, and the tanks on both sides, illustrates just how far armored warfare has progressed over the past century. The tank battle of Villers-Bretonneux, although short, was a harbinger of things to come.
In the spring of 1918, the German military situation looked desperate. Germany was exhausted both economically and militarily after four years of war. With millions already killed and maimed, the Army was dangerously short of manpower. A spring offensive aimed at the vulnerable seam between the French and British armies, dubbed the Kaiserschlacht, failed to achieve its goals that would have put the Germans at a better bargaining position to end the war.
A follow-up offensive launched in late April to seize the French city of Amiens. The town of Villers-Bretonneux was a stepping stone to victory. In advance of the offensive, the German army assembled what tanks it could to spearhead an attack.
By 1918, the concept of the tank had been bandied about for some time. Leonardo DaVinci had conceived of a heavy armed and armored mobile land vehicle as early as 1482. The first modern tanks however were created by the British Army under the cover of “water tank” development. The Mark I “tanks” first saw combat in 1916; the nickname is still in use today.
On April 24, 1918 German forces launched the assault on Villers-Bretonneux. A preparatory artillery barrage of smoke, high explosive, and mustard gas fell on British Army lines. This had the effect of lowering visibility to just 30 yards, so the defenders had no idea what was about to befall them. After the artillery ceased, a wave of German infantry and A7M tanks advanced on British positions.
The British side had 12 Mark IV tanks. Introduced in 1917, the Mark IV weighed 28.4 tons, had a crew of eight, steel armor protection between 8 and 12 millimeters thick, and a 105-horsepower Daimler engine that gave a top speed of 3.6 miles an hour. The Mark IV came in two versions: a “male” (armed with three naval guns adapted for land use and three machine guns) and “female” (armed with five machine guns to protect the male tanks from enemy infantry).
The German side committed 13 A7V tanks. Also introduced in 1917, the A7V weighed 29.9 tons, had a crew of no less than 18, and featured steel armor protection between 6 and 20 millimeters. Two Daimler 100-horsepower engines gave it a zippy cross country speed of almost five mph. The A7V had two 57-millimeter guns and six machine guns.
The battle itself was short on duration but long on historical significance. Six British Mark IVs were sidelined by battle damage. Two A7s suffered mechanical breakdowns on the battlefield, while a third, nicknamed Nixe, was heavily damaged by the guns of a Mark IV. Nixe’s crew, fearing the ammunition would explode, abandoned the tank.
German and British tanks were mainly designed as offensive weapons to fight dug-in infantry in trenches, with machine guns to engage the infantry and field guns to destroy bunkers and other fortifications. Although both the Allies and Central Powers both knew that eventually tanks would face one another, tanks were so new that neither side had prepared for such a battle. Tanks lacked the high velocity guns specifically designed to destroy tank armor.
That wouldn’t last. As tanks grew in battlefield prominence they became faster, more heavily armed, and more heavily armored. The trend towards mechanized warfare led to all the powers abandoning trench warfare, and many tanks were specifically designed to fight other tanks. Today, 70 ton tanks race down roads at speeds of 45 miles an hour, covered in steel armor measured in the hundreds of millimeters, engaging enemy tanks at ranges of more than a mile. Technology has ensured that on the 100th anniversary of the first tank on tank battle, tanks will continue to dominate the battlefield for the foreseeable future.