Churchill Archive for Schools - Themes_Key questions_developing the ta

Who deserves the credit for developing the tank?

Source 1

Copy of letter sent by Mr. Churchill when First Lord of the Admiralty to Mr. Asquith when Prime Minister, in the first week of January 1915


CHAR 15/97/1-3

Simplified Transcript

My dear Prime Minister

I agree with what Colonel Hankey has said about developing technology for attacking trenches. I am amazed that the Army and the War Office have not made progress on this sooner.

The present war has changed what we know about war. The power of modern rifle fire means that any charge over 100 yards will be stopped. In order to avoid artillery fire both sides are dug into trenches. The result is that we have a short range war instead of the long range war we expected. Opposite trenches are close to each other to avoid enemy artillery. The problem we have to solve then is not how to carry out a long range attack but how to get across 100 to 200 yards of trenches and barbed wire. All this was obvious months ago but nothing has been done. It would be quick and easy to fit some steam tractors with armour protection and place men and machine guns in them. If they were used at night artillery would not be able to hit them. If they have caterpillar tracks they will be able to cross trenches easily. 40 or 50 of these engines would be able to advance into enemy lines, smash away obstructions and sweep the trenches with machine gun fire and grenades. They would then make many staging points for infantry to move forward and support them. The engines could then move on and attack the next line of trenches.

Original Transcript

Mr Marsh
2 copies attached as desired by the Minister.
N.S 26/9
“Keep handy” …

My dear Prime Minister,

I entirely agree with Colonel Hankey's remarks on the subject of special mechanical devices for taking trenches. It is extraordinary that the Army in the field and the War Office should have allowed nearly three months of trench warfare to progress without addressing their minds to its special problems.

The present war has revolutionised all military theories about the field of fire. The power of the rifle is so great that 100 yards is held sufficient to stop any rush, and, in order to avoid the severity of the artillery fire, trenches are often dug on the reverse slope of positions or a short distance in the rear of villages, woods, or other obstacles. The consequence is that the war has become a short range instead of a long range war as was expected, and opposing trenches get ever closer together for mutual safety from each other's artillery fire. The question to be solved is not therefore the long attack over a carefully prepared glacis of former times, but the actual getting across of 100 or 200 yards of open space and wire entanglements. All this was apparent more than two months ago, but no steps have been taken and no preparations made. It would be quite easy in a short time to fit up a number of steam tractors with small armoured shelters, in which men and machine guns could be placed, which would be bullet- proof. Used at night they would not be affected by artillery fire to any extent. The caterpillar system would enable trenches to be crossed quite easily, and the weight of the machine would destroy all wire entanglements. 40 or 50 of these engines prepared secretly and brought into positions at nightfall could advance quite certainly into the enemy's trenches, smashing away all the obstructions and sweeping the trenches with their machine gun fire and with grenades thrown out of the top. They would then make so many points d'appui [rallying points] for the British supporting infantry to rush forward and rally on them. They can then move forward to attack the second line of trenches. The cost would be small..............

What is this source?

This is a 1918 copy of a letter sent by Churchill to Prime Minister Asquith in the first week of January 1915, expressing his support for the development of armoured vehicles for use in trench warfare.

Background to this source

War broke out in August 1914. For a short period of time there was rapid movement on the Western Front as German forces swept through Belgium and into France. However, they were stopped outside Paris. By the autumn of 1914 both sides were finding it impossible to make headway and a stalemate developed. Each side dug trenches and built defensive positions. By January 1915 there was no sign that the stalemate might be broken.

Additional information

At the time Churchill originally composed this letter (January 1915), he was a senior minister in the government. Churchill was full of enthusiasm to make things happen and bombarded his colleagues both within his department (the Admiralty) and the government with lots of different suggestions. He had military experience and good contacts in the armed forces. On the other hand, Churchill was known for being impatient and sometimes reckless. There are plenty of sources which show that commanders on the ground were innovating and prepared to experiment with new weapons; however, no commander in the trenches would have been able to do what Churchill was proposing because they did not have the time or the resources.

The letter you are looking at is a copy of a letter from January 1915. It is part of a file of documents which were collected together later in 1918 (when Churchill was Minister of Munitions) and copied to release to the media.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember we are hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating who deserves credit for developing the tank. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level: details, facts and figures

  1. What idea is Churchill proposing in his letter to Asquith?
  2. Who does Churchill say mentioned this idea to him?
  3. Why is he proposing this idea to Asquith? What problem does he think it will solve?
  4. Why is he surprised that the army have done nothing about the problem of trench warfare at this time?
  5. Why might Churchill have chosen this letter as a good example of his support for the development of the tank?

Deeper level: inferences and using the source as evidence

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?

On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference? Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?
Churchill has no faith in the army to come up with a solution

Churchill is impatient with the lack of progress made by the army

Nobody else has mentioned mechanical devices for trench warfare

Churchill wants to lessen the loss of lives on the Western Front

Churchill is describing the first tanks, or something very similar to one

This document is a good source of information about Churchill’s early involvement with the development of the tank

Churchill felt that this document showed his involvement in the development of the tank in a good light

Download table (PDF)
Download table (Word document)

Need help interpreting the source?

This source presents some interesting questions for historians. We see Churchill putting forward ideas which could be seen as the origins of the modern tank. What we are not sure about is whether these are Churchill’s ideas or whether he is putting forward the ideas of others, perhaps the Colonel Hankey he mentions. The tank was developed by Churchill’s own department, the Admiralty, and in this document Churchill is critical of the Army and the War Office for not developing the idea. This raises some interesting issues. Was it logical for the Admiralty (the government department in charge of the navy) to take the lead on developing a weapon which would be used on land? Can we infer anything about how effective Churchill was as a leader, or about whether the British government was efficient?

Churchill later selected this source as a good illustration for the press about the development of the tank: this later re-use of the document raises questions about bias and the selection of information to support a particular point of view.

Explore the guide to interpreting letters

Source 2

 Back to sources page

 Back to investigation page