Tank Tactics and Barbed Wire: February 1918

tank

British tanks and barbed wire.

The tank and the creation of tank doctrine in the First World War was a process that hoped to take advantage of the use of a mechanical machine to overcome the obstacles that the Western Front with its static warfare footprint of obstacles in the form of trenches, barbed wire, and more telling, the destruction of the landscape replacing what existed with a mire of mud and shell-holes. Using technology to leverage the mechanical advantage of motive power surrounded by a metal shell with tracks that could navigate the wasteland of battle space it was hoped that these mechanical behemoths would be a game changing tool for the Imperial forces.

11-aerial-view-somme

Aerial view of the Somme Front Photo: NARA/U.S. War Dept.

At their introduction at the Somme during the battle of Courcelette the tanks were not fully incorporated into the tactics of this engagement. The tanks wandered the battlefield, got stuck and put out of action. But worse than this was the apparent lack of coordination between the new and old – of armor and infantry – did not allow the tank and infantry to be the breakout weapon system that would radically change the course of the war.

courcelettetanks

Detail from Map 6 of the Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War showing employment of tanks at Courcelette on 15 September 1916.

Part of this was related to the mechanical limitations of the tank. It was slow. It was a noisy and noxious environment to work in. The terrain of the Western Front worked against it. The mud, ditches, and other geographic hazards offered natural obstacles to overcome and coupled with an active defence and tactics the metal encasing the tankers simply would delay the tank’s eventual demise during action.

But the tank was viewed as a breakthrough weapon. A weapon that would energize an attack and make a significant difference to the Entente Powers.

15943

An interesting photograph of captured British tanks. The soldiers behind the tree are German and they have mounted the tank on supports so that a flat-bead rail-car can be placed under it to allow it to be transported. The tank in the foreground is ready to be placed on the rail-car and the tank in the background is on a rail-car. The Germans have captured these tanks and are preparing them to be transported to the rear for reclamation and re-use.

The British High Command’s tacticians also considered the threat of German use of tanks (in fact, the Germans made use of captured British tanks during the war) and published pamphlets and guides in May and December 1917 and again in February 1918 as the doctrine for the employment of tanks changed with increased practical service and combat experience.

Barbed wire was a major obstacle in the battlespace. It was employed to limit tactical movement of attacking soldiers and this maze of razor sharp wire was unremitting in its potential harm. If avoided the soldiers were channeled into pre-sighted cross-fires of enemy machine guns. If engaged the wire slowed down the advance and separated units from each other. The cohesiveness of the attack would be lost and with the adoption of artillery “lifts” the need for the Canadian infantry to be close behind the artillery barrage during an attack in order to benefit from its effectiveness made the elimination of wire entanglements and obstacles a necessary task before an attack, in the case of artillery, or during an attack, in the case of the tank, an important tool allowing the movement of troops towards their objectives.

Double Apron Fence Image

Double-Apron Wire Entanglement Diagram

On February 28, 1918, the 8th and 10th Battalions were tasked with training with tanks of the 7th Tank Battalion. The exercise at Noulette Wood, due west of Lens, France was the location of the drill and as outlined in the instructions, the intent was to show the utility of tanks in dealing with enemy barbed wire. The instructions are concise. The battalion will use two companies as an attacking wave, half the battalions battle strength, in platoons. Each platoon would follow a tank across the intervening space until the barbed wire obstacle was breached. The first wave would then “mop-up” the first objective and the following companies would follow through to the final objective. As stated in the orders the intent is to, “…improve their [the soldiers’] confidence in the work done by tanks.”

german_barbed_wire_obstacle_ww2_wwi

Double-Apron Wire Entanglement incorporating Concertina Wire inside it.

Regretfully, the Battalion’s nor the Brigade’s War Diaries indicate the effectiveness of the exercise but one may surmise that the ability of tanks to crush wire effectively had been tested and was considered reliable enough to make the training and familiarization of infantry in this tactic important and relevant enough to familiarize two battalions.

Soon, this tactic would be useful for open warfare. Tanks and infantry would be used in concert to exploit gaps in the German defences but the full realization of the value of tanks in battle would not be fully realized by the Germans in the Second World War.

SECRET.

Copy No…..

8th CANADIAN BATTALION (90th RIFLES).
-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-

OPERATIONAL ORDER No. 1A
-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-

28th February, 1918.

  1. A Battle Practice with Tank will be carried out with the 7th Tank Battalion at Square R. 34 just south of NOULETTE WOOD,
    1. The 8th Canadian Battalion at 10.00 a.m.
    2. The 10thI.Battalion at 2. p.m.
  2. The purpose of this practice is to show Battalions the formation they must get into to cross the wire after the tanks.
  3. The formation to be used in the intervening spaces between the wire is not tied down by the fact of using tanks in this operation.
  4. The practice will also show the part that the Tanks play in an operation in addition to making a track through the enemy’s wire.
  5. On completion of the tactical exercise, a tank will make a track over a wire obstacle consisting of three rows of Double Apron Fence, file with concertina wire. Men will be marched over this obstacle, as this will improve their confidence in the work done by tanks.
  6. THE ATTACK: The attack will be made on a two company frontage in two waves of four lines.
    1. Each company will be allotted four tanks.
    2. The first wave (A and B. Coys) will go to and mop-up the first Objective which will be shown as a line of flags.
    3. The second wave (C and D. Coys) will leap-frog the first wave at this point and will proceed after the tanks to the final objective, which they will capture and mop-up in turn.
  7. THE FORMATION: The tanks will be numbered and each Platoon will be allotted one tank, which it will follow until getting to the objective to which it is going.
    1. The Battalion and the Tanks will be formed up as laid down in the attached sketch to commence with.
    2. When actually crossing the wire or the places where the wire would be, the Platoons must be in this formation. Immediately on passing this obstacle, they will deploy and carry on with the mopping up of the objective.

[Signed]
Lieut. and Adjutant
8th Canadian Battalion (90th Rifles)

Distribution:-

Copy No. 1 – O.C. A. Coy.
2 – O.C. B. Coy.
3 – O.C. C. Coy.
4 – O.C. D. Coy.
5/7 – OFFICE.

Battle Practice Instructions 8th Battalion regarding practicing tactis with tanks

OPERATIONAL ORDER No. 1A February 28, 1918.

 

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