Churchill Archive for Schools - Themes_Key questions_developing the ta

Who deserves the credit for developing the tank?

Source 4

Memorandum relating to potential value of tanks


CHAR 2/109/136 [5-7]

We've highlighted the parts of the document which appear in the transcription below.

Simplified Transcript

Memorandum by Major The Right Honourable Winston Churchill

New ways to attack

3. Caterpillars

These machines can cut the enemy’s wire and destroy his firing line. About seventy are almost ready and can be inspected. None of them should be used until they are all ready to be used at once. They should be spread secretly along the battle front. They should move into no man’s land ten or fifteen minutes before the attack. The machines should move across the best and most open ground, crossing over our own trenches at prepared points. They can cross any ordinary obstacle or ditch. They carry two or three machine guns each and can be fitted with flame throwers. Only a direct hit from a field gun will stop them. On reaching the enemy trench they sweep his positions with fire and crush his wire. They will be so close to the enemy that the enemy’s artillery will not be able to fire on them. If we use artillery to cut the enemy wire the enemy knows in advance where we will attack. But with this method the wire can be cut almost immediately and the enemy cannot bring up help.

Original Transcript



Variants of the Offensive.


3. Caterpillars.

The cutting of the enemy's wire and the general domination of his firing line can be affected by engines of this character. About seventy are now nearing completion in England, and should be inspected. None should be used until all can be used at once. They should be disposed secretly along the whole attacking front two or three hundred yards apart. Ten or fifteen minutes before the assault these engines should move forward over the best line of advance open, passing through or across our trenches at prepared points. They are capable of traversing any ordinary obstacle, ditch, breastwork or trench. They carry two or three Maxims each, and can be fitted with flame apparatus. Nothing but a direct hit from a field gun will stop them. On reaching the enemy's wire they turn to the left or right and run down parallel to the enemy’s trench sweeping his parapet with their fire, and crushing and cutting the barbed wire in lanes and in a slightly serpentine course. While doing this the Caterpillars will be so close to the enemy's line that they will be immune from his artillery. Through the gaps thus made the shield bearing infantry will advance. If artillery is used to cut wire the direction and imminence of the attack is proclaimed days beforehand. But by this method the assault follows the wire-cutting almost immediately i.e., before any reinforcements can be brought up by the enemy, or any special defensive measures taken...

What is this source?

This is part of a Memorandum written by Churchill explaining the use of tanks. It was written by Churchill in December 1916.

Background to this source

The first tank prototype, Little Willie, was unveiled in September 1915. Following its very poor performance–it was slow, became overheated and couldn’t cross trenches–a second prototype, known as “Big Willie,” was produced and an initial order for 100 tanks was placed in December 1915.

At this point, Churchill’s political career had taken a nosedive. He had resigned from his ministerial position in the government over his involvement in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign and was now serving on the Western Front with the Grenadier Guards. He had first-hand experience of conditions in the trenches but was now not in any position to make things happen.

Churchill later selected this document and had it copied as evidence as part of his submission to the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors. The Royal Commission was set up to investigate the development of the tank and to consider involvement by particular people.

Additional information

Through much of 1915 Churchill was preoccupied with the difficulty of a breakthrough on the Western Front. One of his reasons for supporting the disastrous Dardanelles Campaign in 1915 was an attempt to outflank the Germans and thus create the opportunity for a decisive battle in France and Belgium. This extract is just one of Churchill's ideas for decisive action in the trenches. Part of the reason for secrecy - up to the time of writing this source - is that many people in power, both civilian and military, thought many of Churchill's ideas were 'madcap' and Churchill felt they would try to prevent them reaching fruition.

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. Why does Churchill use his military title 'Major?'
  2. What does Churchill say tanks can do?
  3. What role does Churchill say the infantry can play?
  4. How are his tactics different to normal practice on the Western Front?

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 seen tanks in action in England

Churchill is cautiously optimistic that tanks can change the course of fighting on the Western Front

This memorandum is aimed at the military commanders

This memorandum is aimed at civilian decision-makers

Churchill is not trying to sell the idea of tanks, but is simply providing information to the government

Churchill demonstrates a good understanding of the way tanks could be useful

Churchill felt that this document was significant evidence of his involvement with the development of the tank

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Need help interpreting the source?

Churchill spent a few months at the Front from November 1915 to the spring of 1916. He was a Major in his old regiment where he had last served during the Boer War. In January 1916 he became Lieutenant-Colonel, commanding the 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers, part of the 9th (Scottish) Division. This is probably why he is using his rank of Major – to show his understanding of the situation on the ground. Using the title of ‘Major’ here might also be evidence of the bitterness and frustration Churchill may have felt about no longer being able to progress his ideas, now that he was out of government.

Source 5

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