Over the past few months I have heard a whole range of views on how and, indeed, whether we should should celebrate the invention of the tank, here in Lincoln.
I love the simplicity of the memorial on Tritton Road, but also the imagery of the tank being painstakingly put together by the ordinary men and women of this city. For me this resonates with the original purpose of the tank. The story goes that in 1915 First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had become horrifically aware of the stalemate of the Western Front and how young men were being slaughtered because, whilst mankind had invented bullets and shells, it had not yet found an effective defence against them. Thus time and again the order would come for an advance and time and again it would fail with horrific loss of life. What was needed was a machine out of HG Wells, a ‘Landship' protected by steel armour capable of travelling over trenches, mud and barbed wire. For the Great War, the rest is, as they say, history. The tank was invented and built here in Lincoln by Fosters under the guidance of William Tritton, interestingly using caterpillar tracks which had been invented just down the road in Grantham. By all accounts it was largely instrumental in shortening the war and so could be said to have saved a great many lives.
In the 1920s and 1930s, British governments strove for peace and the only possible use they saw for a tank was to protect the far reaches of Empire. It follows that little was done to develop the idea, indeed many soldiers believed that there would be a return to the use of horses. Nevertheless Vickers Armstrong kept producing the Matilda and in the mid thirties Lord Nuffield brought to bear the expertise and resource of Morris Motors. Again ‘the story goes’ that he visited Moscow with senior generals and they witnessed the powerful displays of the Russian Army, in particular a very fast tank which used a revolutionary American invention that made it much less hazardous over rough ground. Nuffield then developed a British version which became the Cruiser and which had a big and positive influence in the early years of the Desert War in WW2.
It was though a two edged sward.
It is probably fair to say that many of the allied WW2 tanks were deathtraps for their crews. The British tanks had less firepower and thinner armour than the tanks they faced. American GIs nicknamed the Sherman Tank, the “Ronson’, after the famous cigarette lighter, because when it was hit, it had a 50% chance of catching fire, and, if it caught fire, the crew had only a 50% chance of survival.
The tank was though a triumph of engineering. This is what my father wrote about it in 1940.
‘There is not only the tank itself, but the guns, the machine guns, the wireless which has to operate under the most difficult conditions, and stand up to incredibly rough treatment, and many other things as well - watches, binoculars, sighting instruments and other secret devices of all sorts. All these are items of extreme delicacy in design and manufacture and need skilled hands to make them. All these different articles of equipment have to be married together in our Ordnance Depots before the tank can be issued to the troops or fighting unit’
The devastation caused to people and buildings by the tank was incalculable.
The story of the tank is a sharp reminder of what human beings are capable. We should celebrate the engineering but then use theatre and other art forms to remind a new generation of the horror.
This piece was published in the Lincolnshire Echo on 16 July 2015