The problem put before the Admiralty Landships Committee was how to develop an armoured fighting vehicle which could cross the trenches, mud and barbed wire and deliver an attack capable of breaking the stalemate and seeing the allies through to victory. The committee turned to a Lincoln agricultural engineering company, William Foster & Co., which had experimented with a caterpillar-tracked vehicle for difficult terrain.
Before the war, William Foster & Co. built tractors, threshing machines and other steam engines, as well as experimenting with a caterpillar-tracked vehicle. For the war they were already building tractors to haul howitzer guns and they worked on the new vehicle in great secrecy. The workers were told that they were working on 'water carriers for Mesopotamia' and this led to the use of the term 'tank'. The principal men involved in the work were Foster's managing director, William Tritton, his chief draughtsman William Rigby (who joined as an apprentice in 1903 and lived in Lincoln until 1982), and Walter Wilson, a Royal Navy Lieutenant.They worked in secret at the White Hart Hotel in the city.
William Foster's workforce rose from 350 in 1914 to 2,000 at the height of wartime production. Most were women who worked 12-hour shifts at the Wellington Foundry in Waterloo Street, Lincoln. The first tank they made was 'Little Willie' (named after Tritton) which was 37 days in the making and was tested in September 1915. It was a simple box with caterpillar tracks. These often came off during manoeuvres, but eventually a track was devised which went all the way around the tank's body. This new tank was known at first as 'Big Willie' and then 'Mother'. Foster's went into production and 'Mother' went into action for the first time at Flers.
Robert Scott of the Museum of Lincolnshire Life
Michael Lane, The Story of the Wellington Foundry, Lincoln: History of William Foster & Co. Ltd (Michael R. Lane, 1997)
Dennis Mills, Twentieth Century Lincolnshire (The King's England Press, 1989)
Richard Pullen, The Landships of Lincoln (Tucann Books, 2003)
Place to visit
Museum of Lincolnshire Life
Old Barracks, Burton Road, Lincoln LN1 3LY
Tel: 01522 528 448
Vanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald.
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