Spotlight On: Tanks – transcript

Hello, my name is Dr Will Butler and I’m the Head of Military Records at The National Archives, and today I’m going to talk to you about a record in our WO series.

The records in this collection come from the War Office, which was the government department responsible for administering the British Army up until the creation of the Ministry of Defence in 1964. And the War Office was created in 1857 and so it inherited an awful lot of records and documentation from prior to that, which is why our collection, the WO series, contains a large number of records which go all the way back to the 16th century up until almost the present day. And the records in this collection contain a range of material from any British operation, military operation that you can think of – war diaries of operations, things like that, military maps, an awful lot of maps particularly for the First World War period, to administering the changes to the British Army over any period of time, but also include records relating to personnel who served in the British Army up until the end of the First World War, so things like service records and pension records and enrolment books so you can really get a personal insight into the individual’s service. We have the personal element but then also the higher governmental strategic areas relating to the administration control and operations of the British Armed Forces.

So what I’m going to do now is open up the document very carefully, taking off the ribbon that’s keeping everything in place. And quite often at the front of a document here we have the subject, you know, what it includes inside, along with the reference and also some dates as well. And quite handily in in this particular case we also have almost like a contents page, so it includes the letters, the list of the correspondence, the dates and the subjects that they cover as well, and that can be really helpful for us when we’re researching these types of documents because they can give you a bit of an idea of where you actually need to look at specifically.

So this record actually contains a range of different documents and the main one actually is a manual, which relates to the employment of tanks during the First World War. And this manual was produced in August 1918 but actually there’s lots of correspondence in there that goes all the way back into the middle of 1916 so you can see that they’re trying to refine and really establish what they’re trying to tell those within the various branches of the British Army how to use tanks and how best to employ them.

So this manual was obviously produced quite near to the end of of the war, in August 1918 – not that they knew it then, of course – but was based on the experiences of using tanks in various operations for the two years prior to that. And the manual itself contains some really interesting information about planning operations using the tank in certain conditions and really provides an insight into what military planners were thinking in terms of how tanks might be used, where they might be used, how they might negotiate the battlefield so how they might negotiate things like trench systems, villages and also, importantly, barbed wire.

And I think perhaps interesting to us is really how the manual presents how the general staff saw the employment and use of tanks and really the focus of the manual is to show that the tank should be used mainly in a supporting role. There is in fact an entire section of the manual entitled the ‘Limitations of the Weapon’, which talks about things like its limitation in mobility – it can only travel between two to five miles per hour at best, and even slower at night – and it was obviously also limited by things like the weather and the terrain in which it was trying to traverse.

And obviously tanks were also quite unreliable. They were very prone to breaking down and this was a real issue in those two years in which tanks were employed is that quite often in some cases really the majority of tanks broke down before they even got to the starting line of any offensive. It goes on to say that the main objective of a tank was to support the infantry in the offensive. They were there to support in whatever way they could, both in terms of providing protection for the infantry, but also it talks about the moral effect of the tank on the enemy. It goes on to highlight the effect of tanks in various battle situations and in particular notes the severe moral effect that it has on the enemy on all occasions and what they mean by that really is how scary quite frankly the tank is, this big machine coming at you very slowly but also seemingly impenetrable in terms of being shot at. It’s not, you’re not able to destroy it very easily as an individual infantry soldier. The moral effect is really key in all of this.

There’s also a number of diagrams that are included alongside the manual sent in by other officers who have used tanks in the offensive and in various different operations so we have pictures and diagrams of various different tanks and what they look like, how it’s possible to identify them on the battlefield, but then we also have diagrams and almost like maps I suppose, which look at providing scenarios in which tanks might be used and how best to use them within those different scenarios.

So this is just one of the documents within the War Office collection, which can be used to find out about the impact of technology on the First World War, and you may wish to have a look at our First World War war diaries, which have been digitised and relate to the Western Front and can be downloaded from our website.

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