By Patrick Wright
Last updated 2011-02-17
From science fiction to reality
There was, as most of the pioneers later agreed, no single inventor of the tank. By 1916, the constituent elements - armour plating, caterpillar tracks and the internal combustion engine - were already to hand.
As for the idea of a war machine that combined mobility with protection and firepower, this had been mooted for hundreds of years. The armoured knight of medieval times was surely, as one early tank officer remarked, a 'living tank'.
Covered war carts had been used by the Scots against the English in the mid-15th century, and Leonardo da Vinci had sketched his famous 'tank' design in the 1480s. Later centuries had seen attempts to create wind-powered 'landships' and various steam-powered contraptions.
The tanks that first saw action at the Somme in September 1916 had, to a remarkable extent, been engineered out of the cultural imagination. Tank-like machines featured in HG Wells' short story 'The Land Iron Clads', a work of science fiction first published in the 'Strand Magazine' in 1903.
It was hastily reprinted as a 'prophecy fulfilled' after tanks first went into action on the Somme. Wells' story was known to some of those who designed the first tanks, and Wells himself would be invited to inspect tanks as they emerged from a factory in Birmingham.
Another pioneer took his inspiration from the 'Great Wheel' that had been one of the main attractions at London's Earls Court a few years before the war. Indeed, Winston Churchill’s Admiralty Landships Committee, which promoted the first tank prototypes and trials, considered a proposal for a vast 300-ton vehicle that would be made by suspending a 'sort of Crystal Palace body' between three such enormous devices.
Six 'Big Wheel' landships were eventually commissioned. The idea proved wholly impractical, but the influence of the big wheel would persist in the 'creeping grip' tracks of the first tanks, which were wrapped around the entire body of the machine.
Even the tactics eventually developed for the tank seem to have been foreshadowed in poetry and magic. One of the chief tacticians with the early Tank Corps, JFC Fuller, had previously been an exponent of the poetry of Aleister Crowley, a notorious occultist known as the 'Great Beast'.
Fuller's ideas of mechanised warfare, which went on to inform the German blitzkrieg strategy of World War Two, were remarkably similar to Crowley’s 'magical' thinking in their adherence to restored mobility, their absolute hostility to ossified convention, and even in their emphasis on the ‘decisive breakthrough’.
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