Today in 1915, the first ever tank prototype was debuted in England. The tank was called Little Willie, a lumbering hulk of a vehicle that weighed fourteen tons and traveled at a screaming two miles per hour. It was also prone to getting thwarted by rough terrain – not a promising trait for a weapon that was meant to put an end to trench warfare. Nevertheless, Little Willie was a stepping stone to more advanced tanks that would forever change the face of warfare.
The Brits designed the tank in response to the intractable trench warfare of World War I. A colonel named Ernest Swinton, along with secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defense William Hankey, proposed that an armored vehicle with conveyor belt treads could be the answer to how to cross No Man’s Land. They took their case before Winston Churchill, who cosigned their idea of a “land boat.” Churchill arranged the Landships Committee to start work on a prototype.
The people who worked on the land boat project were told, falsely, that the vehicle would transport water on the battlefield. This was done in order to ensure the maximum amount of secrecy. The vehicles were eventually shipped in crates marked “tank,” as in “water tank,” giving the vehicle its name.
Little Willie was revealed to the world in September of 1915. It was immediately plagued by problems. It was, as was described before, extremely slow. It also easily overheated and, most importantly, wasn’t capable of actually crossing trenches. Little Willie was followed by “Big Willie” in 1916.
Big Willie was used in the First Battle of the Somme, near Courcelette, France, on September 15, 1916. The tank was also called “Mark I.” Like their predecessors, the Mark I tanks were encumbered by some serious design hiccups. They were extremely hot, extremely loud, suffered constant mechanical problems and their cockpits had a tendency to fill with noxious gases due to poor ventilation.
Even so, the tank’s utility was obvious. Engineers got to work making further improvements and at the Battle of Cambrai in November of 1917, the Mark IV was used for the first time. It was a vast improvement over Big Willie, and was instrumental in capturing 8,000 enemy troops and 100 guns.
The tank’s place as a permanent facet of land armies was secured. Tanks were of enormous importance in World War II, remapping how military strategy worked. They have continued to be used to the modern day.