September 16: Tanks First Used on the Battlefield

2014-09-16On 16 September 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, tanks were used for the first time on the battlefield.

World War I is noted for its trench warfare; particularly on the Western Front. In this type of fighting, trenches were dug along the battlefield. These zig sagging trenches protected soldiers from both small arms and artillery fire. Because of the shape of their wheels, tanks were able to drive over—without falling into—the trenches.

Leonardo da Vinci designed a tank like vehicle during the 15th century. His “tank” was human powered and could not have traveled far even if the terrain was unobstructed. H.G. Wells’ “tanks” in his 1903 “The Land Ironclads” came closer to the types of tanks utilized during WW I. Although some credit Wells with the invention of the tank, he denied having conceived of them.

Tanks were effective because of their caterpillar tracks which were propelled by two or more wheels. In 1877, Fyodor Abramovich Blinov patented a horse drawn wagon that used caterpillar tracks. A self propelled version of this wagon was exhibited by Blinov in 1896.

The Battle of the Somme lasted from 1 July to 18 November 1916. More than 1,000,000 people were injured or killed during the battle.

Some of the earliest battlefield footage was taken during the Battle of the Somme. The Imperial War Museum compiled this footage into a film to explain the battle.  Battles from previous wars such as the Spanish American War were typically reenactments.  Edison’s “Filipinos Retreat from the Trenches” (1899) is but one example.

–Steven L. Berg

Photo Caption:  British World War I Mark V tank