It all began 100 years ago when the armies fighting in the trenches of the Western Front during World War I were bogged down and both sides considered any and all options to break through. The horrific war led to the use of airplanes, poison gas and even the submachine gun. World War I can also be remembered for the tank’s introduction, with the debut of “Little Willie” in the late summer of 1915.
Earlier that year the British military, at the behest of the then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill established the Landships Committee, which was composed mainly of naval officers, politicians and engineers. This small committee first proposed a strategy to develop large wheeled "landships" that were estimated to weigh as much as 300 tons and could roll over any terrain. However, it soon became apparent that the costs, complexity and logistics of creating these vehicles were unrealistic. The decision was made to go smaller with a vehicle that could carry a crew and pave the way for infantry breakthroughs.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1915 the Committee conducted a number of trials with wheeled and tracked vehicles. In July 1915 the War Office became aware of the project and its operations were transferred from the Royal Navy to the British Army.
Under the Army's direction the first completed tank prototype was developed. It was dubbed "Little Willie" and is today the oldest surviving individual tank in the world. It is housed at The Tank Museum in Bovington. Little Willie was truly a precursor of the tanks to come.
The British military planners opted not to go with the turret with the Mark I and its subsequent tanks – which used sponsons (projections on the sides of the tanks) instead. The rationale was that the turret would have made the center of gravity too high when the vehicle had to climb an enemy trench parapet. However with their light tanks the French did embrace the turret, which was seen in the Renault FT tank, also known as the FT 17.
The name “tank” came about thanks to the secrecy of the program, which tried to hide exactly what the military was building - "tank" suggested a container to transport fresh water to the front. In December the code word "tank" was officially adopted, and the Landships Committee officially became the Tank Supply Committee
While many hopes were pinned on the newly christened tank, it wasn't an instant success. At the Battle of Somme in 1916 some 40 tanks advanced over a mile into enemy lines. However, these lumbering vehicles, which did shock the enemy, proved too slow to hold their positions and many became bogged down in the mud. It has been argued that the military planners simply didn't know how to properly utilize these new machines.
However tank designs progressed quickly and by the end of the war the vehicle was used in massive attacks, allowing the infantry to break through. Specialized tanks were also designed.
One problem for the tank – as with many weapons – is that unlike the airplane, it had no civilian use and thus its interwar development was often slow.
Only after World War II did many western military planners even see the need to ensure that tank technology wasn't left to lag way behind. Prior to the advent of the M1 Abrams in the 1970s, the U.S. Army’s primary tank was the M60 Patton.
Yet throughout the Cold War and post-Cold War periods it has still been argued that the tank’s time has passed. At 100 years old, however, the tank continues to press on.
Just as the tank of 100 years ago was designed to protect the infantry, tomorrow's technology may also keep the tank crew out of the line of fire.