100 years ago today, British Mark I tanks lumbered into action at Flers-Courcelette, marking a new shift in modern warfare. Flers may be a significant anniversary but the tanks on that day had limited success. Moving at just four miles an hour, seven tanks failed to start and only four made any meaningful progress. Winston Churchill, a prominent champion of the tank, felt they had been employed in battle too soon, writing “My poor land battleships have been let off prematurely on a petty scale.” Nevertheless, the Germans, whose bullets made little impact against the metal monsters, were severely ruffled by this unexpected development and the press at home made optimistic noises about this new great hope. The Tatler commented:
Mr Winston Churchill, Colonel Swinton and anybody else who is responsible for the adopton of this very novel complement to our fighting force are to be sincerely congratulated. It is indeed a healthy sign that we have freed ourselves from imitation of the enemy's poisonous and unfair methods of warfare and have regained the initiative in invention as well as in tactics over our opponents. The development of this particularly form of offensive seems illimitable in extent and we may have some further surprises for the foe in the future.
Lagging behind the British, German tank technology would never quite catch up and British tanks did indeed play a pivotal role in future combat making a real impact a year later at the Battle of Cambrai.
As a symbol of British success on the Western Front, and as a source of intense fascination among the public, the tank was held in special regard. A Regent Street retailer began to sell handbags in the shape of a tank and one reference in The Sketch from October 1917 even reports on a new-born baby girl, whose father was serving with the tanks, being christened "Tankie"! Exploiting the current curiosity about tanks, they were employed in a very different role in the autumn of 1917 when, following success at Cambrai, some were repurposed as a fundraising tool. Throughout the war, but particularly in the latter part, there was a continuous campaign to encourage the public to buy war bonds - a system where people could loan their savings to help finance the war. As the war progressed, increasingly imaginative ways to persuade British civilians to invest in war bonds were required so after a number of tanks took part in the 1917 Lord Mayor's Parade, one settled in Trafalgar Square, under the gaze of Lord Nelson, as a temporary bank. Around the same time, another was used in New York in connection with the Liberty loan, and others toured around Britain. Well-known figures set a patriotic example by publicly depositing money - the popular Julia James led other actresses from the Gaiety Theatre, just a short distance away, to buy their war bonds in front of adoring fans.
The enterprise was a roaring success - The Tatler described the rapid business being done:
The vision of 'Julian'* swallowing war bonds by the million in Trafalgar Square with the complacency of an elephant poaching his ha'penny buns on a bank holiday at the zoo.
*presumably the tank was named in honour of General Julian Byng, in command at Cambrai.
Proving a popular attraction, the tank became a regular feature at further fundraising events. During Tank Week in March 1918, a genuine tank a veteran of Cambrai was again exhibited in Trafalgar Square. Anyone wishing to look inside could do so after purchasing war bonds, and the band of the Coldstream Guards was requisitioned by cigarette company Drapkin's to provide tunes, adding to the carnival atmosphere. Society ladies volunteered to administer the war bond process and one reporter in The Sketch remarked how a female friend of his, 'bought several War Bonds she could ill afford in order to have a close look at Lady Swaythling's pretty frock'.
Phrynette, The Sketch magazine's gossip columnist described the scene.
I paid an early afternoon call on 'Egbert of Cambrai' now in Trafalgar Square, somewhat battered, four men having been killed in him recently. Two charming, fur-clad ladies were sitting on ammunition cases inside, very busy stamping war certificates, and a brace of sentries guarded his hull carefully. There was a tremendous crowd in the Square and hawkers were doing a brisk business in postcards etc. The crowd was certainly half of it in khaki and there were numbers of wounded blue taking a cheerful interest in things.
Several other exhibits added to the novelty. There was a mobile pigeon-cote used at the front from which Queen Alexandra purchased war certificates, and Lady Drogheda distributed leaflets from the gondola of a captured German Zeppelin.
Tanks were a focal point for deposits during Businessman's War Bond Week, also held in March 1918 when in London, six tanks were stationed in various boroughs and business owners and manufacturers pledged to encourage their employees to visit and raise funds. Londoners were challenged not only to vie with one another to see who could raise the most money, but was expected to raise more than the combined subscriptions of the rest of the country. The Bystander felt that pitting one London borough against another rather pointless arguing there was no such thing as 'local patriotism'.
Among the images on this subject in our archive are several examples of metal or china 'tank banks' from the David Cohen collection - an alternative piggy bank encouraging people to save their pennies and, through their contributions and investment, bring the war to an end.
The tank not only made a difference on the battlefield, but as an emblem of British ingenuity helped to keep the country's coffers full as the war rumbled on.
© Luci Gosling/Mary Evans Picture Library
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