Evolution of the Landship

British tanks evolved quickly during World War I

Evolution of the Landship Evolution of the Landship
At the outset of World War I, the British Army possessed a motley collection of motor vehicles including staff cars, trucks and a handful... Evolution of the Landship

At the outset of World War I, the British Army possessed a motley collection of motor vehicles including staff cars, trucks and a handful of artillery tractors. The early fighting on the Western Front compelled the British to hastily deploy rudimentary armored cars.

And as the front lines became static, thoughts turned to a different kind of armored vehicle — one which could punch through tracts of barbwire and cross enemy trenches and was impervious to enemy fire. The development of what eventually became known as the tank began in early 1915.

At first, the British call tanks “landships” after the Landships Committee that Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, organized in order to drive the development of armored fighting vehicles. By February 1916, the “landships” moniker had given way to the now-universal “tank.”

Imperial War Museum photo

Little Willie

Little Willie was an evolution of the Foster Company’s first tank, the No.1 Lincoln Machine. Powered by a huge, 105-horsepower Daimler engine, the 16-ton Little Willie was no more than a proof of concept. Little Willie helped the British to develop reliable track and steering systems. Today the one-off Little Willie is on display at the The Tank Museum at Bovington.

Imperial War Museum photo

Big Willie

Maj. Walter Wilson’s design for a vehicle with a track that encompassed the whole circumference of the vehicle became a reality with the construction of Big Willie in late 1915. Also nicknamed “Mother” and “His Majesty’s Landship Centipede,” Big Willie weighed an impressive 28 tons and was the first tank to use the instantly recognizable rhomboid track shape and also introduced side-mounted gun sponsons.

A Mark I preparing to advance on Flers during the Battle of the Somme on Sept. 15, 1916. Imperial War Museum photo

Mark I

The Mark I was Britain’s first tank to see action — at the Battle of the Somme in September 1916. A refined version of Big Willie, it featured the now-standard rhomboid shape. The army acquired 150 in all before moving on to the Mark II.

A Mark II of the 1st Tank Brigade moving along a ruined street in Arras. Imperial War Museum photo

Mark II/Mark III

The Mark II differed very little from the earlier Mark I. It was supposed to be a training tank but owing to vehicle shortages, the army pressed the Mark II into service during the Battle of Arras in April 1917. Just 50 Mark IIIs were built for training purposes. None saw action.

Imperial War Museum photo

Mark IV

The Mark IV was the first true improvement over the earlier Mark I. It possessed thicker armor and shorter six-pounder guns that were easier to aim. Production of more than 1,200 copies began in May 1917. The Mark IV first saw action at Messines Ridge during the summer of 1917 and later — and more successfully — at Cambrai. The Mark IV was the most widely-used British tank of the war.

A column of Mark Vs carrying fascines to help them cross the ditches of the Hindenburg line in September 1918. Imperial War Museum photo

Mark V

An improved version of the Mark IV, the Mark V boasted a new, 19-liter, six-cylinder, in-line Ricardo petrol engine and transmission. The British built 400 Mark Vs. They entered combat in the spring of 1918. Lengthened variants including the Mark V* and V** were optimized for carrying infantry, but these models possessed poor maneuverability and never saw action.

Imperial War Museum photo


London canceled the Marks VI and VII in order to concentrate industry on producing larger numbers of earlier models of tanks plus the new Mark VIII Liberty, which the United Kingdom co-developed and co-manufactured with the United States. The Mark VIII’s best new feature was that its engine was sectioned off from the crew. The war ended before any of the new tanks could enter combat.

Imperial War Museum photo

Whippet Medium Tank

Designed to be faster and more agile than the earlier heavy tanks, the Whippet could reach speeds of up to 8.5 miles per hour and was armed with four Hotchkiss machine guns. The army intended to send Whippets to exploit gaps that heavier tanks punched in enemy defenses. The Whippet entered combat in March 1918.

This story originally appeared at Historical Firearms.

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