The Effectiveness of Tanks in World War I

Today tanks are an important part of any army around the world. And yet, the use of tanks is relatively new since tanks were only invented during World War I. However, even the early versions of the tanks were extremely helpful and allowed the Allies to take the initiative and break the stalemate at the western front.

But why were tanks so effective in World War I? And what limitations and disadvantages did the tanks in World War I have?

Tanks were highly effective in World War I, despite their limitations. Their introduction was a turning point in modern warfare and played a significant role in the outcome of the war since the tanks could clear paths through the barbed wire in front of the German trenches. They also provided cover for the advancing infantry. Their use in coordination with other weapons, such as infantry and artillery, was key to breaking the trench warfare stalemate.

Let`s take a closer look!

Where does the name tank come from?

Tanks were called tanks in World War I because of their original cover story.

The British military wanted to keep the development of their new armored vehicles a secret, so they referred to them as “tanks” to mislead the Germans into thinking they were water tanks or storage tanks, rather than weapons. The cover story was successful, and the Germans were unaware of the true nature of the tanks until they were used in battle.

The name “tank” stuck and was adopted by the British and other Allied forces, and eventually by the Germans as well.

Speaking of allied forces in World War I. The US Army did not only adopt the name „tank“, they also took over several tanks from the French.

It was a young US Officer called George S. Patton who saw the full potential of these new weapons so he not only personally trained the first 500 US-American tank crew members. He also distinguished himself personally in the battle of Saint-Mihiel (12.-15. September 1918) in which he commanded an American tank unit that used French tanks.

Do you want to find out more about George S. Patton’s experiences in World War I? Then I can recommend you his official war diary from 1918 that you can find here*.

Ok, so tanks got that name to confuse and trick the Germans. But why did these new armored vehicles become necessary in the first place? And how effective were they?

Why did tanks become necessary in WWI?

Tanks were a new weapon in World War I and their use was a turning point in modern warfare.

The tanks were first introduced by the British in 1916 and were met with both enthusiasm and skepticism by military leaders and the public. Despite their initially slow and clunky design, tanks soon proved to be highly effective in several battles and played a significant role in the outcome of the war.

Before the tanks were introduced, the battles in World War I were characterized by trench warfare, where the opposing armies were entrenched in long, and continuous trenches, facing each other across a no-man’s land. The trenches were difficult to penetrate, making progress slow and costly, with the loss of many soldiers.

The tanks were seen as a solution to end this stalemate, as they offered the possibility of breaking through enemy lines and providing mobility on the battlefield.

How effective were tanks in WW I?

The first use of tanks in battle was at the Battle of the Somme in September 1916. Despite initial difficulties, including breakdowns and slow speed, the tanks were able to clear a path through the barbed wire in front of the German trenches, provide cover for the advancing infantry, as well as provide a psychological boost to the soldiers. The success of the tanks in this battle led to increased production and deployment of tanks in the following battles.

Tanks were also particularly effective in the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. The British used a large number of tanks in a surprise attack on the German lines and were able to penetrate deep into enemy territory. The tanks provided cover for the infantry, and their mobility allowed them to bypass the German trenches and attack from the rear. The success of the tanks in this battle marked the beginning of a new phase in the war, as the advantage had shifted from the defender to the attacker.

Another battle where tanks were highly effective was the Battle of Amiens in 1918. The tanks were used in conjunction with infantry, artillery, and aircraft, in a coordinated attack on the German lines. The tanks provided cover and support for the infantry, allowing them to break through the German trenches and capture the key positions. The success of the tanks in this battle was a significant factor in ending the war, as the German army was unable to resist the combined forces and was forced to retreat.

But these tanks also had their disadvantages.

Disadvantages of tanks in WW I

But several disadvantages and limitations plagued the newly designed tanks.

The tanks used in World War I were slow, mechanically unreliable, and vulnerable to enemy fire. They were also difficult to maneuver in the rough and broken terrain of the battlefield, which made them less effective in some situations. Additionally, tanks were very expensive to produce and maintain, which limited their deployment and availability.

Despite these limitations, tanks still proved to be a highly effective weapon in World War I and changed the way wars were fought.

But that opens up another question. If tanks were so effective in WWI, then why didn`t the German Empire really use them to the same extent as the British and US armies?

Why did the German Empire not use tanks in WW I?

The Germans did not produce tanks in significant numbers during World War I for several reasons.

Firstly, the German military was initially skeptical of the value of tanks and focused more on traditional weapons, such as artillery and infantry. They believed that the tanks would be vulnerable to enemy fire and not reliable enough to be effective in battle.

Secondly, the German economy was already strained by the demands of the war and the production of tanks was not seen as a priority. The German military was focused on the production of weapons that were seen as more essential, such as artillery and machine guns, and did not have the resources to invest in the production of tanks.

Thirdly, the German military in WW I was slow to adopt new technologies and tactics, and this also applied to tanks. The German army was organized and trained for trench warfare and did not see the need for tanks until after the success of the British and French tanks on the battlefield. By this time, it was too late for the Germans to catch up, as the British and French had already established a significant advantage in tank production and deployment.

In conclusion: The Germans did not produce tanks in significant numbers during World War I due to a combination of skepticism, economic constraints, and slow adoption of new technology. The German military’s focus on traditional weapons and tactics, and the lack of resources available for tank production, resulted in the German army being at a disadvantage in the tank warfare that characterized the later stages of World War I.

However, the German military would learn from their experiences in WW I. And although the treaty of Versailles prohibited the Weimar Republic from building a tank force, the German military still secretly trained crews with the help of the Soviet Union during the 1920s. Now that might come as a bit of a surprise considering that Hitler eventually invaded the Soviet Union (here you can find out more about his reasons for invading the Societ Union).

But it has to be noted, that Hitler didn`t hold any office during the Weimar Republic and that the German Empire even massively helped the Bolsheviks in their coup to seize power in the Russian Empire.

But that is a story for another time.

Here you can find out more about why and how the German Empire helped the Bolsheviks in 1917 to seize control over the Russian Empire.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


George S. Patton Jr.: War Diary 1918.*

Stephen Pope: The Tank Corps in the Great War: Volume 1: Conception, Birth and Baptism of Fire, November 1914 – November 1916 (2022).*

Bryan Cooper: Tank Battles of World War I (2015).*

Steven J. Zaloga: French Tanks of World War 1: Infantry and Battle Tanks (2014).*

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