One hundred years ago this week tanks made their first appearance on the battlefield and the face of modern warfare was changed for ever. They were large and unwieldy machines only capable of travelling at two miles per hour but as trench-crossing and barbed-wire crushing leviathans they were hailed as wonder weapons. Confirmation of the weapon’s abilities was provided by British commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig who immediately ordered 1000 further tanks putting the British armaments industry into overdrive with 90% of their armour plating being supplied by Scottish firms.

Scotland had the key role in developing the tanks and the Ministry of Munitions established a Scottish Tank Production Committee which co-ordinated the work of several engineering works in the Clyde heartlands such as John Brown, Mirlees Watson, Coventry Ordnance and the North British Locomotive Company. It helped to swell order books but there was a hidden consequence to the development of this new wonder weapon. In the immediate post-war period the tank had also been recognised as a weapon of repression and six tanks were sent to Glasgow in January 1919 when a violent demonstration in Glasgow’s George Square was denounced as a “Bolshevik rising”. Although the tanks were not used and remained in their base in the Cattle Market they provided a powerful image of the government’s intention to use military force in support of the civil powers – some 12,000 troops from England had been deployed in Glasgow as a result of the violence which was triggered by police over-reaction against strikers demonstrating for a 40-hour week.

The tanks in Glasgow were Medium Mark Cs which had not seen service in the war and were much improved versions of the tanks which had first gone into action on September 15 1916. On a day of cool hazy autumnal weather the third phase of the Battle of the Somme began with a multi-divisional assault on the German positions between the villages of Flers and Courcelette.

Little remembered as a battle – the anticipated breakthrough failed to materialise – Flers-Courcelette owes its place in history to the introduction of the tank, the revolutionary new weapon which would transform the face of modern warfare. Only 21 tanks took part in the battle and they failed to play a decisive role but their appearance caused a sensation. Here was a heavily armed monster with caterpillar tracks and shielded by armour plating which gave the crews a measure of protection. Whatever else they achieved the appearance of the tanks caused wonderment amongst the soldiers who saw them such as Arnold Ridley who later played the part of Private Godfrey in the television comedy series Dad’s Army.

“We in the ranks had never heard of tanks” he wrote in his memoirs. “We were told that there was some sort of secret weapon and then we saw this thing go up the right hand corner of Delville Wood. I saw this strange and cumbersome machine emerge from the shattered shrubbery and proceed slowly down the slope towards Flers.”

In some respects the tanks used that day lived up to their billing. While they were slow, unwieldy, mechanically unreliable and incapable of long-distance operations they did supply close-quarter fire and boosted the morale of the British infantry. While the use of armoured tactics was not nearly as effective as it would become in later years it was a turning point in the history of warfare. As the distinguished military historian Gary Sheffield put it in his account of the Battle of the Somme “using the tanks in small numbers as a kind of mobile pillbox to bring fire support to the infantry was as good a way of using them, bearing in mind their technological limitations.”

In the following year at the Battle of Cambrai 378 tanks broke through the German lines and the largest tank battle of the war was fought at Amiens in August 1918 when over 600 British tanks were in action. By then smaller and faster Whippet tanks had come into service while Mark IV heavy tanks were equipped with fascines (bundles of brush wood) to overcome the problem of ditching in the trenches. Thicker armour plating gave protection against German armour-piercing shells and the bulk of this came from Scottish firms such as the long-established Clyde shipyard Beardmore which built a new facility specifically for the construction of tanks. This diversification came at a price as during the conflict the Clyde was responsible for building 481 warships for the Royal Navy and this had to be the priority. After constructing its quota of Mark IV tanks Beardmore returned the riveters to shipbuilding duties.

Tanks also helped the war effort in Scotland by acting as a focus for raising money through War Bonds. In January 1918 “Julian the Tank” (No. 113) made a tour through Scotland to raise funds as the result of an initiative of the Scottish War Savings Committee known as the “Tank Bank”. The tank, a Mark IV, visited several parts of Scotland including Aberdeen where crowds clamoured to scramble on board in Rosemount Viaduct and Union Terrace, ironically under the giant statue of William Wallace. It also gave a demonstration in the Castlegate and within a week over £2 million had been raised, some £16 per head of population. After the war Julian the Tank was presented to Aberdeen and was sited at Broad Hill until 1940 when it was removed for scrap.

Top secret plans behind the 'land ship'

Developed as “land ships”, tanks were so called to camouflage their identity by describing them as mobile water tanks for use in the Middle East. They were first suggested to the War Office in October 1914 and as a result a prototype armoured vehicle mounted on a Holt caterpillar tractor was developed but abandoned early the following year. The project then passed to the Admiralty under Winston Churchill, the aim being to produce an armoured vehicle capable of crossing enemy trenches and destroying the barbed wire and machine gun positions which had produced the static warfare of the Western Front.

Thanks to the initiative of Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Swinton, an innovative engineer officer, the Admiralty committee produced its first tank in February 1916. Known as the Mark I it had a crew of eight and was armed with five machine guns or two six-pounder naval guns and was manned by soldiers of the newly formed Heavy Section, Machine-Gun Corps.