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The British have got Tanks!

“A wounded man from the 7th Company approached us from the right and gasped a few heavily charged words. ‘The British have got tanks!’ A cold shiver ran down my spine; the effect of this information on the morale of my men was plain to see. they. who had just been pouring scorn on the British, saying that they would all be tearing their trousers on our barbed wire, suddenly looked disconcerted. All of a sudden there was a muffled shout from a neighboring sentry post. Everyone, rushed to the parapet and then we saw, looming out of the swirling fog, a dreadful colossus heading straight for us. Every single one of us could almost hear his heart beating in his chest! However, we were seized only momentarily by leaden indecision. With weapons tucked into our cheeks we fired shot after shot at the enemy. Unfortunately, this affected them not in the slightest. Slowly, but unstoppably, they drew closer. Firing also began left and right of us. As I pulled myself up to look over the parapet, I could see a whole chain of these steel monsters advancing toward our trenches. The tank to our front was barely a hundred metres away by now. The light machine gun had fired off its last belt of ammunition without visible effect. What was to be done?” Second Lieutenant A. Saucke, 84th Infantry Regiment, quoted in Peter Hart, The Great War. page 370-71

The British (and French) of WW1 took the development of tanks seriously once it was obvious the Western Front was bogged down in trench warfare. Tanks were thought to be at least part of the solution with the idea being once the trench lines were pierced the attacking army would be free to maneuver once again.

Although the British introduced their MK I tank at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 they were not all that successful given a considerable breakdown rate and the terribly muddy ground the tanks were expected to cross.

Undeterred, the British continued to improve on the MK I and by 1917 in the Battle of Cambrai they had considerable success as illustrated above by the quote from the panicked German officer.

Cambrai made it clear that the tank was a weapon to be reckoned with.

When the US entered the war in April, 1917 our army was tiny and under equipped having zero tanks.

At first this didn’t matter much since most of the American Divisions didn’t arrive in France until the Spring of 1918 and then had to be trained on the spot. By then tanks were common in the British and French armies.

American forces for the most part were equipped by the French as they shared sectors of the front with the French. A few American tank units were formed being equipped with the excellent FT-17 a tank of French design that had a fully rotating turret.

French FT17

French FT17 in the WW1 Museum in Kansas City, MO

The fact that we used French tanks makes the below postcard interesting and worthy of some speculation.

American Tank in Action Brit MkI.jpg

The caption states, “American Tank in Action” and indeed the soldiers standing around the tank are Americans in their famous campaign hats.

The tank however is one the British marks probably a MK I or MK II “female” given the absence of the 6pdr (57mm) cannon on the male Marks.

I think there is a clue on the reverse side of the postcard.

American Tank in Action reverse.jpg

The post mark is dated Nov 25, 1918 and the correspondence reads:

“First to let you know I am transferred to another co (company) arrive soon Co. No.3 replacement camp, Camp Shelby Miss.” The card is to Miss Nina Flora from Sam Flora probably Nina’s brother.

The Great War ended on November 11th, 1918, fourteen days before the card was sent. Sam is in a replacement camp either to be an actual replacement or to be released from service. Camp Shelby would either serve as a training facility as a replacement center or where men were processed out given the postwar date.

I surmise that at that some point early British Mk1 tanks were sent stateside to familiarize American troops with the concept of tanks. Sam simply picked up a postcard, wrote his message to his sister and that was that. The point being the tank is British not American.

The second card is also interesting given that it also features a WW1 tank..

Whippet Tank frontWhippet reverse

The front of the card features a British tank known as the Whippet.

The Whippet was designed to supplement the larger and slower Marks. The idea was that the Whippet Battalions would act as mechanized cavalry exploiting the holes the heavier tanks made in the trench lines.

As can be seen from the postcard the Whippet was an unusual looking tank but it did feature 4 heavy machine guns and when used in some of the final offensives of the war proved to be effective.

The caption reads “Whippet Tank in Action Troops Digging in-France.

The soldiers appear to be British and as far as I know American troops never operated with Whippets. This is speculation but given the peaceful nature of the postcard I’d say the scene represents a training session as the infantry had to learn how to cooperate with the tanks,

Unfortunately, the postmark is covered by a 1c stamp but I do think there is a clue as to when it was mailed.

The correspondence reads:

“Dear Mrs. Hacket, Miss Warme said you could get the strawberry plant any time you wish. Love Friend Mrs. Johnson.

My speculation is that Mrs. Johnson has a Mr. Johnson and Mr. Johnson brought some postcards back from training or sent Mrs. Johnson a pack of unused cards and she utilized this one to send a friend to discuss a strawberry plant. In other words I doubt Mrs. Johnson or Mrs. Hackett had any interest in a British Whippet tank and the card was simply handy and maybe even postwar.

I picked the cards up in an antique shop in Lacrosse, WI. The cards cost more than I like to spend but the subject matter forced my hand. The cards are both published for the Chicago Daily News. J. G. Kavanaugh and both marked War Postal Card Department. Both were mailed to Wisconsin cities, Mauston and Stanly respectively.

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