It happened today - September 6, 2015

Little Willie - early designDo not laugh at technology. Well, don’t only laugh. I say this because today is the 100th anniversary of the very first tank coming off an assembly line in England. It’s surprising that “Little Willie” even got out of the factory, as it was heavy, underpowered, slow and clumsy. But tanks sure got going in a hurry. You might not think so looking at pictures of tanks with weird extra wheels stuck in the mud of the Somme or Passchendaele as part of the World-War-One-Was-Fought-By-Callous-Idiots narrative. But in fact the tank was a rational response to the trench stalemate and one that was recognized in the very first year of the war by British military leaders including then navy minister Winston Churchill.

It took a while, if you’re impatient. The second prototype, “Big Willie,” went into battle on Sept. 15, 1916, and it too broke down and got stuck in the mud. But by November 1917 at Cambrai the Mark IV tank created a breakthrough the rest of the army wasn’t ready to exploit. And by 1918, as you can see in footage from the period, the war of movement that concluded the Great War featured tanks racing about making a real difference.

Then came World War II. The Allies got complacent with the tactics and doctrines that had won them the victory in 1918, when Germans including men like Rommel who’d been at Verdun were hard at work refining mechanized warfare. And in the spring of 1940 the Germans swept to the Channel and to Paris in tanks vastly superior to anything dreamed of in 1918 but vastly inferior to the Tigers and T-34s that would clash at Kursk and elsewhere. (It’s disconcerting to visit the Canadian War Museum and see, in its splendid collection, the Mark II tanks that formed Rommel’s spearheads in 1940 in France because they look like lightly armoured toys.)

Then of course came the big battle tanks of the Cold War clash that never came, the T-72s and Leopards and Abrams, updated versions of which are still in service today.

Perhaps the day of the tank is gone. Technology changes so fast these days that smaller, unmanned, high-tech devices may be sending these behemoths the way of the battleship and, before that, the armoured knight. But it’s amazing to see how fast laughable Little Willy became the terror of the battlefield. And sobering as we wonder what Terminators today’s headless cheetah robots and drones may mutate into faster than you can say “Fall of France.”

It happened todayJohn Robson