On 15 September 1916, German soldiers around Flers and Courcelette, near the Somme, got a nasty shock.
They were on the receiving end of a new weapon – the British Mark I tank.
Originally conceived as ‘landships’, that is precisely what these 30-tonne hulks musk have looked like when they rumbled over the mud towards their petrified enemies.
(The word ‘tanks’ came about because the ‘landships’ were referred to as ‘water carriers destined for Mespotamia’ in order to facilitate secrecy).
Almost two years later it was the Brits who were on the receiving end of early German panzers when the Spring Offensive of March 1918 was unleashed, punching a hole in the Allied line right where French and British armies met.
A7Vs, the German version of the tank, had taken part in this battle and the Allies now braced themselves for continued onslaughts… by getting their own armour ready.
Operation Michael, or ‘Kaiserschlacht’, the name of the German Spring Offensive, petered out in early April.
But follow up offensives would come, and again, the Germans had every intention of using their panzers.
Knowing, as they must have, how devastatingly effective their field artillery had been at destroying British tanks around the village of Flesquieres during the Battle of Cambrai, the Germans were careful to maximise concealment.
Tanks were to be moved by rail at night, whilst idling in woodland was normal during the day.
Smoke cover was also incorporated into the subterfuge as the vehicles moved onto the battlefield.
That battlefield would be the town of Villers-Bretonneux, which lay in the way of the Germans’ next objective, Amiens – and the battle there would take place largely over two days, April 24 and 25.
Of course, the Allies anticipated an attack and a defending force of British, French, Australian and Moroccan troops was cobbled together, supported by Mark IV tanks, Mark A Whippets (light tanks) and French Renault FTs.
Those that would actually be at the forefront of the battle were the three British tanks of 1 Section, ‘A’ Company, 1 Battalion.
One of these was a male, or ‘bull’ tank, equipped with two 6-pounder artillery guns and three machine guns; those equipped entirely with five Lewis machine guns were in turn labelled as female tanks, or ‘bitches’.
The tank clash was really a side element of the larger battle taking place largely in and around Villers-Bertonneux. The tanks met near Cachy, to the south.
As David Higgins explains in ‘Mark IV vs A7V: Villers-Bretonneux 1918’:
“Under the skilled tactical leadership of Major-General (substantive) William Heneker, the defending British 8th Division’s sector protecting Villers-Bretonneux included 25th Brigade north of the Roman road, with its 2nd Rifle Brigade forward, 2nd Royal Berkshire in support, and 2nd East Lancashire garrisoning the town.
"To it’s right, 23rd Brigade’s 2nd Middlesex and 2nd West Yorkshire occupied front-line positions, with 2nd Devonshire behind along the Cachy Switch and the gully south of the town.
"173rd Brigade held a sector to Bois d’Hangard, while 174th Brigade idled further west near Cachy and its aerodrome, recently abandoned by the Royal Flying Corps’ No. 62 Squadron.”
A huge German bombardment consisting of artillery, gas and smoke opened up on April 24.
Again, as Higgins explains, there was real method to the madness:
“After targeting British artillery positions for half an hour, the Germans adjusted their fire to hit the town for 15 minutes, before returning to a further 30 minutes of battery-suppression fire.
"The beleaguered defenders once again donned gas masks, and vacated low-lying and heavily forest areas to avoid the worst effects of the oily, brownish-yellow mustard agent, not to mention falling trees.”
Smoke and gas mixed with fog to reduce visibility to a mere 30 metres.
German infantry and tanks began emerging from the mist, pushing straight through men of 2 Middlesex and then into 2 West Yorks.
One A7V drove right through the centre of Villers-Bertonneux, passing the town church. For the startled British, tackling it must have been akin to fighting a giant Dalek:
“Stunned defenders skirmished with the behemoth, with its grinning white skull painted on the bow, but inflicted little damage as its commander continued ahead, believing friendly infantry had kept pace.
"On reaching the town’s far side, however, (the tank commander) realised his error. Vulnerable in such a confined environment… he… returned the way he had come”.
Trenches in and around the town were cleared with grenades and flamethrowers – the horror of this must have been what prompted so many British defenders to surrender.
Meanwhile, house-to-house fighting erupted to the north of the town as men of 2 Royal Berks tried to cling on.
As continued across the battlefront…"(2 Lieutenant) Mitchell negotiated his Mark IV toward the Cachy Switch.
"His crew continued to struggle with swollen eyes and inflamed skin resulting from the morning’s gas attack, as much of the residue lingered inside the enclosed tank.
"To his right, 1st Section’s crews in the two accompanying females under Lieutenants Edward Hawthorne and J. Webber suffered similarly as the trio skirted the Bois d’Aquenne and entered the fray”.
A British soldier climbed out of a nearby trench and informed Mitchell that German tanks were lurking nearby:
“Mitchell opened a loophole to see the Feldgrau-coloured ‘Nixe’ (561) approaching half a kilometre away…”
The British tanks were at a distinct disadvantage. As mentioned, two out of three of them were female and therefore armed only with machine guns.
These would be hopeless against the frontal 18mm-thick German armour.
For their part, the A7Vs were faster despite being more ponderous (British tanks could manage around four mph on rough terrain, German tanks around five).
They were also better armed, with six machine guns and one artillery gun each.
That, though, didn’t stop Mitchell engaging them. One of his gunners loosed two rounds, both going wide of the nearest A7V.
German infantry fired a machine-gun burst at the tank before it could fire a third shot, and the sparks this caused inside the tank sent the crew ducking for cover.
Now the lead German panzer spotted the British tanks, firing first at the male (Mitchell’s tank) and then, believing he’d hit it, the females.
In actual fact, Mitchell’s vehicle was just slowing down, giving his gunner a better aim, whilst the two female tanks were hit by the A7V, tearing holes in their hulls and exposing them to small arms fire.
As the two females retired, Mitchell’s ‘bull’ paused, which allowed the gunner to finally hit the first A7V:
“The impact killed the 57mm gun operator, mortally wounded two crewmen, and slightly wounded three others. Two more rounds struck its starboard flank… the crew abandoned the tank, fearing additional hits on the hull.”
‘Nixe’ was loaded with combustibles like ammunition and grenades, after all.
It was also loaded with people. British tanks were crewed by eight men whilst A7Vs required at least 18 to run them and often had a small contingent of eight infantry. Thus, early Panzers were both tanks and a form of APC (Armoured Personnel Carrier).
At this point, the other German tanks withdrew – though accompanying infantry did not.
Fortunately, several light whippet tanks 'sped' into the fray at eight mph, at one point ploughing into surprised German infantry and helping to turn the battle.
So too did the Australian counter-attack which finally put Villers-Bretonneux back in Allied hands by April 27.
And just like that, the world’s very first tank-on-tank engagement was over.
But, capable as the German A7V was, its involvement in Villers-Bretonneux can be misleading. Whilst the German and Allied tank crews were roughly evenly matched during this encounter, for the wider war it was a very different picture.
Higgins lists numbers that sum things up perfectly: Allied tank production over the course of the war amounted to some 2,636 British and 3,900 French.
German machines, meanwhile, may have been well-produced and the crews manning them brave, but the figures show that they never stood a chance: Only 20 A7Vs were ever produced, and only 30 captured Mark IV British tanks incorporated into German front-line service.
The Germans appear to have lost the First World War, in other words, at least partially because they were simply out produced. Yet the importance of armoured warfare was not lost on them, a lesson that would eventually help give them the upper hand at the beginning of the next war.