On this day in history : 29th January 1916 – Britain’s Mark I prototype tank is trialled for the first time at Hatfield Park, Hertfordshire….

The prototype was commonly known as ‘Mother’ or ‘Big Willie’ – a pun directed at the German Kaiser – but its official name was ‘His Majesty’s Land Ship Centipede’…. ‘Tank’ was initially a code name….

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HMSO – Public domain

Developed in 1915, as a means to break the stalemate of trench warfare, the MKI prototype was built by Fosters of Lincoln in the December of 1915 – and was the World’s first tank…. Initial driving, firing and obstacle-crossing trials took place in Lincoln before ‘Mother’ was taken by rail to Hatfield Station on the 28th of January 1916…. The last part of the journey was made under the cover of darkness, when she was driven to Hatfield Park….

Three days of demonstration then followed – for civilian, military and naval personnel – and started on Saturday the 29th of January…. Over the course of the following week she was shown to various dignitaries including King George V, David Lloyd George and Lord Kitchener – who made the remark that she was a “pretty mechanical toy”…. A rather large toy – ‘Mother’ was 31ft 3ins long (complete with her rear steering wheels) and weighed 28 tons 8cwt….

Following the successful trials an order was placed for 150 tanks….and the first saw action on the 15th of September 1916, when used at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, part of the Somme Offensive….

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Mark I tank – image: Ernest Brooks. Public domain

With a crew of 8, the tank had a range of 24 miles and could travel at a speed of 4mph…. It could negotiate rough terrain, go through barbed wire, cross trenches and survive machine gun and small-arms fire…. The MKI had a mounted 6-pounder cannon and a Hotchkiss machine gun on each side – and became referred to as ‘male’ – as a later version with no cannon, only machine guns, became known as ‘female’…. The one weakness that blighted the tank throughout its service being the Daimler 6-cylinder 105 horsepower engine – which proved to be far from reliable….

Tankschlacht bei Cambrai
Captured British tank in German hands destroying tree…. Unknown author CC BY SA 3.0

The original ‘Mother’ prototype, which had been used at the Hatfield trials, had her guns removed and was used for driver training…. Around December 1916 she was modified to a petrol-electric drive, using Daimler (of Coventry) parts…. This was intended to make the drive easier but was unsuccessful…. Eventually all of her equipment was stripped out and her tracks removed….leaving just an empty shell…. Finally, she was scrapped…. Her predecessor, ‘Little Willie’, fared better and can be seen in the Bovington Tank Museum….

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‘Little Willie’ – Photo credit: Andrew Skudder via Flickr
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‘Little Willie’ showing rear steering wheels – Public domain

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