The Centenary of the Tank – and an Unexpected Story

Exactly 100 years ago today, on September 22nd 1915, a momentous telegram was sent to the UK Admiralty in London.

New arrival by Tritton out of pressed plate STOP
Light in weight but very strong STOP
All doing well Thank you STOP Proud parents

This was the acknowledgement that a new invention was moving from concept to reality, and that a new era for warfare was under way. The telegram, sent a year into the bloody Great War, referred to work on what was to become the first tank, developed, built and first used in battle by the British forces in 1916. There had been versions of armoured, mobile fighting vehicles for centuries, but this was the first vehicle that we would recognise today as a tank.

But where do you think the top secret design work was taking place, exactly 100 years ago? From where was that telegram sent? In a British military establishment, guarded day and night by hundreds of soldiers? In a US engineering plant? In a top university’s engineering department maybe?

No, the centre for this revolutionary work was the White Hart Hotel, a 14th century coaching inn tucked away in the centre of the old City, just outside the walls of Lincoln Cathedral in the East of England. To be precise, it was in the first floor Yarborough Room, which you can still book for your meetings today.

I became aware of this story a couple of years ago when I visited the excellent Museum of Lincolnshire Life  (I took the picture above during my visit - this is the early tank on display there). I hold a non-executive director position with a firm based in that beautiful city, and during a visit for a board meeting, I had a couple of hours to kill and popped into the museum, and was immediately fascinated by the story of the tank, a story that was centred in the city.

The three individuals who generally are given most of the credit for the invention are Sir William Tritton, then Managing Director of Lincolnshire engineering and agricultural vehicle firm William Foster & Co; his Chief Draughtsman, William Rigby; and Major Walter Wilson of the War Cabinet. Charles Maughan, another Lincoln man, was the world’s first ever tank driver.

Tritton and Wilson spent long days and nights in the White Hart working on the design, through several iterations and prototypes, but it is not only the fact that the tank came from such an unlikely quarter that is noteworthy; many aspects of the story are similarly remarkable.

For a start, the British Army was not terribly excited by the concept of the tank, so it was developed under the auspices of the Navy, who formed the “Admiralty Landship Committee” to oversee the development. That is another credit against the life of Winston Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. (Indeed, the British Navy was the driving force behind many of the more innovative ideas during that war, including using aeroplanes in battle).

Then there is the name of the invention. No-one is quite sure how it ended up being called the “tank.” The most convincing theory is that the workers in the factory were told that they were manufacturing water tanks for use on the Russian Front. It is also incredible that the old photographs show the first “tanks” being tested in fields around Lincoln, with curious bystanders looking on! Not the top secret process you might imagine. But the inventors worked on the basis that if you didn’t try too hard to conceal anything, then no-one would realise how significant this invention really was – “hiding in plain sight,” as it were.

In fact, the whole story of the tank is less well-known than might be expected – for many years, a mythology grew up that tanks were US made Holt Tractors with a bit of armour attached, and the role of the Lincoln pioneers was almost forgotten.

So, apart from commemorating a significant anniversary, this being a fascinating story in itself, and my Lincoln connection, why are we featuring this here? It strikes me that there are some interesting supply chain and procurement issues that emerge from the story, so we will come back to those tomorrow.

(And I can recommend The Landships of Lincoln by Richard Pullen if you want to read a lot more of the story, early days and onwards).

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