The Centenary of the Tank – and an Unexpected Story (Part 2)

In part 1 here, we wrote about the centenary of the tank. The critical design and development work took place in the White Hart Hotel, Lincoln during 1915, driven by Sir William Tritton, then Managing Director of Lincolnshire engineering and agricultural equipment firm William Foster & Co; his Chief Draughtsman, William Rigby; and Major Walter Wilson of the War Cabinet. It is a remarkable story, but we asked in our previous article how it might have relevance to the procurement and supply chain community today.

The first point to note is the sheer speed of the development process. Work had gone on prior to the famous telegram described in part 1, but the dates from there on are worth highlighting. After the initial “Little Willie” machine had performed well in trials but could not cope with the width of some trenches, a full-sized wooden mock-up of a new vehicle was presented at the military testing grounds in Wembley on 29th September, 1915. This was “Mother”, arguably the first real tank. Just 36 days later, a working vehicle was being tested in Lincoln, and on 13th January official trials took place in Lincoln again with the Admiralty watching carefully. On February 2nd, the tank was demonstrated to Lord Kitchener, Churchill, King George V and other dignitaries, and by September 1916 tanks were in battle action.

The point here is what can be achieved when there truly is a burning need to make something happen. In peace-time, you can imagine the development process for a radical new weapon like this taking years. Think of the committees, the business cases, the procurement exercises, that we would need today if someone came up with a radical new “tool” for the military. But when everyone is aligned to a cause, and the stakes are so high, it is amazing what can be done in a short time.

The second point is around innovation. Like the vast majority of innovations and inventions, the tank did not emerge from thin air. It drew on Foster’s experience as a manufacturer of agricultural vehicles, including some that had been half-tracked. There was innovation in the materials used and in the concept of the tracks running around the whole vehicle, but it built on past work. Similarly, the people involved were deep experts in their field. Again, whilst innovation can come from blue-sky thinking and people new to an industry, it more often comes from people who are expert but also have the right sort of enquiring minds to seek out new approaches – but approaches built on that expertise.

The tank also illustrated a very early example of what we might call a public / private partnership. It was Foster & Co, the private sector firm, who drive the process, but Major Wilson was a military man seconded into the business to assist with the project. Funding at every stage was also provided by the Admiralty, so the risk was in effect shared in an appropriate manner, we might suggest. It is unlikely that the development could have happened at the pace it did if it had been an internal government project; yet the government did play a vital role in the process.

But one sad point to finish. Foster & Co got very little long-term benefit from the invention. Other firms were given the plans for the tank because Foster’s could not meet the whole demand, and after the war they did not continue with manufacture. So we can see this as another industry where once the UK was a global leader, but handed over that lead to others.

Indeed, even before the tank, the chain tracked design was patented by another English engineering firm, Hornsbys, who decided it wasn’t of much interest and sold the patents to a US business in 1912. That buyer in time became the company we know as Caterpillar, now one of the largest manufacturing businesses in the world. So Lincoln might have ended up as a centre of military manufacturing, or producing billions of pounds worth of huge construction and mining vehicles – but it didn’t.

For more of the tank story, read The Landships of Lincoln by Richard Pullen, And Lincoln is a truly beautiful city that I thoroughly recommend for a weekend break if you haven’t been there!

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