A hulk on the skyline

The tank was the shocking new weapon of 1916, which some thought could win us the war. Is this one of the first eye-witness accounts, from an Old Boy of Reading School?

THE “TANK”

There it lay in its fallen majesty as I approached it in the thick fog, my landmark, the “Tank.” I heaved a sigh of relief; whereas I had been lost I now knew my bearings. Have you ever tried crossing a field cut up with trenches and pitted with shell holes in a thick fog without a compass? I can assure you it is not an easy job. And when I struck this monster of the battlefield I was naturally glad, for I knew that from this point I could work from place to place till I reached my objective. I was too pleased at the time to think of the poor wretch which had served as my guide; but later I pictured the scene.

This mighty engine of destruction pounding along over trenches and shell holes, and spitting fire as it went; and then just as I reached the ridge and could look down upon the village of —– (in which, by the way, I afterwards found one live tree, an evergreen), just there the hand of fate was stretched out. “Thus far shalt thou go and no further.” Fritz had scored a direct hit on its “prow,” and the shell had pierced clean through the armour plate and exploded inside. And that was the end of its story; duty well done, but cut off, as it were, in the prime of its life. And of the gunners inside, who shall ask ?

There it still lies, a hulk on the skyline; and there it will lie, I presume, till the end of time. First to be shown to tourists from America and the home country, then to be neglected and let to decay. And perchance one day someone will point a finger of scorn at it.

“Look at it, and learn; twenty, thirty, forty years ago it started to plough its double furrow across the field; but it exceeded in pride and offended the gods; so the hand of fate intervened and it was blasted as it went. Look at it, and learn the lesson of the gods; think not thyself too great. Boast not thyself so that men talk of thee; thou wilt perchance be cut off in the midst of thy mad career, and men will say of thee, ‘this man began to build, and was not able to finish. ”Take heed I say, and learn to be moderate in all things; and fear the vengeance of heaven when all men talk of thee.”

D.J.D.

Reading School Magazine, December 1916 (SCH3/14/34)

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“The Huns ran from the tanks like hares”

John Maxwell Image wrote to a friend with his latest thoughts, and passing on brother-in-law Percy Spencer’s impressions.

29 Barton Road
Tuesday 10 Oct ‘16

My Very Dear Old Man

I quite understand, and share with you, the absorbing interest of the daily War News. Nothing else matters, now-a-days. What do you make of this morning’s news of the U boat blockade of the United States coast? If America really shuts them out from supplies in her ports, it must be over in a month or so – and if it succeeds, the exasperation of the Yanks’ commerce must kick Wilson into activity. Anyhow it is a risky move for Germany on the brink of a Presidential election. Therefore I should judge it a sop to soothe German home politics – now that things are growing so disastrous on the Somme.

I went last Friday to see the German “Albatross” (captured by us on 15 October last year) which the WO has presented to the University. It is said to be a fine specimen, tho’ the class has been cut out since. I was very little impressed. For one thing it was so much smaller than I expected – a snout nosed, biplane, 2 seater.

We have had 2 Zepp raids since my last letter. I slept peacefully through both. In the latter of the two the Zepp dropped a starshell on Grantchester: and then passed over Barton Road, probably over our own garden, for Prof. Stanley Gardiner (opposite us) heard its drone, and turning over in bed said to his wife, “the raid is over – there are the trains running again”. We were at tea in his lovely house and garden yesterday when he told me this…

Brandon, one of the two airmen who got DSO for bringing down the flaming Zepp was at Trinity Hall.

A Tank passed through Camb[ridge] on Friday. The Signora got an amusing letter from one of her brothers at the Front, last Saturday, in which he says of the Tanks, “they are very funny, but the boundless faith in them of the folks at home is even funnier. On the day when they were first used, the Huns ran from them like hares – this, although they were aware of their advent” (clearly, nothing can be kept from the Hun spy). Two are known to have got in once to the place near Thetford where the Tanks were secretly built. To go on with Percy Spencer: “One of these contraptions was observed going through the main street of a captured village with our boys riding all over her and hanging on the back.” His chief praise, however, is for our Aeroplanes. “In the air, the Hun is a nonentity – and he owns it every day” – and I remember how, when he first went out, he used to laugh and vow that he had seen hundreds shot at, but never one brought down!

These submarine brutes, who torpedo ships without warning! Did you notice that the first question asked by the Submarine at Newport was for the Bremen? Why, his Government, weeks ago, published to the world the safe arrival of the Bremen in America. Does he presume to disbelieve his own Government? The Americans honestly know nothing of her, but we in England for some time past have heard it whispered that she is safe at Falmouth. The Falmouth watch for U boats is very strict, and has been (so they boast) inordinately successful. A lady who came back a few weeks ago from a holiday, recounted to me how she was one afternoon walking by the shore when a destroyer tore past her in furious haste, all the funnels vomiting columns of black smoke. No sooner as she past Pendennis Point than the firing began. It died away – and presently, soberly and slowly, the destroyer came back, another destroyer keeping pace, and between them – the German submarine. What wouldn’t I have given for that sight.

I am told – by Ball, so it is likely to be correct – that Trinity expects this term 47 men of all years, including BAs!

The Fellowship dinner was for tonight. It is postponed till Thursday – after the funerals of Keith Lucas (killed from an aeroplane) nd poor Alfred Humphry. He is buried today at Thaxted…

Our most affectionate wishes to you both.
Bild

Letter from John Maxwell Image to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

Don’t imagine tanks mean the end of the war

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence to describe his current quarters (a cowhouse in a devastated village), and the impact of our newest weapon: tanks.

3.10.16
My dear WF

It sounds paradoxical, but the nearer to the enemy we get, the more peace we get. In other words, action replaces preparation.

It’s 9 am and I’ve just had brekker after a fairly good night – turned in at 10 pm, called at 1 am, up till 4 am, put Garwood in then, and turned in till 7.30 am. Turning in consists of rolling myself up in my blankets on the bench where I am sitting, and falling straight off to sleep in spite of constant traffic and telephoning within a few feet of me. I’m writing from a spacious cellar in which there is a telephone exchange, officers’ mess and sleeping accommodation, our office, officers’ kitchen and men’s sleeping accommodation. In peace times it was an underground cowhouse. The whole system of accommodation here is most interesting and I should love to show you over it – after the war. The village where it is is a complete ruin – scarcely a vestige of the place remains and none at all of the church – a couple of crosses of before the war-date stand in the little churchyard, and standing there before brekker this morning I saw the bodies of a couple of Huns who had been buried there and been concealed by a shell.

[Censored section]

Outside at this moment is a very pale Hun – you could only tell he was a Hun by his tin hat (a very useful and artistic design), for he’s been in a shell hole for 3 days and is thickly muddied khaki from head to foot. He like all the others we get is very thankful to be cotched [sic].

The “tanks” are of course very funny, but the boundless faith of the folk at home in them is even funnier. Our native concert in our ideas is apt to run away with us. With enough of them they may go a long way to winning the war for us. But don’t imagine “tanks” mean the end of the war. (more…)

Shot in cold blood, and now “beyond the reach of human injustice and incompetence”

Cambridge don John Maxwell Image was excited by the new tanks rolling into action; philosophical about air raids – and horrified by first-hand stories of the executions of young men for cowardice or desertion.

29 Barton Road
[Cambridge]

23 Sept. ‘16

Mon Ami!

I share your views about the ghastly War. With its slaughters and its expenditure, where shall we be left after it is over. Any peace that leaves Germany still united – united for evil – is a fool madness that deserves the new War it will render a certainty.

I am in a fever to see the photograph of a Tank in action. I can’t imagine its appearance. I don’t believe them lengthy like caterpillars – but more like mammoths, Behemoths – “painted in venomous reptilian colours” for invisibility – and “waddling on” over trenches.

Today’s paper speaks of a seaplane over Dover yesterday. This is the very general prelude to a Zepp raid: and we expect one accordingly tonight, if their courage hasn’t oozed out. There is a Flying Camp near here – at Thetford, I believe. Daily, Planes soar over us – a sight I view every time with fresh pleasure. Twice we have had an Airship – huge, but not like the pictures of the German Zepps. I may as well tell you of our own experience on Saturday 3 weeks ago. Peaceful and unsuspecting, we were sitting in the drawing room at 10.30 when suddenly the electric lights went down and left the house in darkness. This is the official warning of Zepps. So we went out into Barton Rd. Not a glimmer, nor a sound. Quite unimpressive.

We turned in to bed – all standing (in Navy language) – and I into the deepest slumber, from which I was eventually shaken to hear an agitated voice, “they’re here”. I bundled out, lit a match and read on my watch 2.50. There was no mistaking – a thunderous drone, such as I had never heard before – and, seemingly, exactly overhead. We hurried down into the road. The roar grew fainter, and then began – deep and dignified – the guns. I guessed them to be on the Gogmagogs – then sharp explosions, which we took for bombs, thrown haphazard by the Zepp which was undoubtedly fleeing for the coast.

Robinson’s Zepp had come to earth at 2.30. Possibly ours was the wounded bird, which dropped a gondola or something in Norfolk when making its escape?

At 4.5 our electric lights went up again, and we to bed. Decorous night-rails, this time.

The Signora has a wee aluminium fragment from the Zepp that was brought down at Salonica. It was picked up by a young soldier who had been in her Sunday School Class. We had a sudden visit from her youngest brother, Gilbert, home on 6 days leave from Salonica. You have heard me speak of him as the rising artist who at 20 years of age sold a picture for £100, and is now a Tommy at 1/- a day. I fell in love with him on the spot. So simple, so lovable, – above all, such a child – going about the world unprotected!

By the way Gilbert saw the Zepp come down in flames at Salonica.
He had many yarns. The one that most made me shudder was of the announcement at a morning parade, “Sergeant So-and-so of the Connaught Rangers was shot this morning by sentence of a Court Martial for refusing to obey an order”. Just that! I have heard of these shootings in cold blood, several times, at the Front in France. Always they made me feel sick. A boy (on one occasion) of 17 ½, who had fought magnificently at Hill 60: and then lost his nerve, when his 2 brothers were killed in the trench at his side. Pym (our TCC [Trinity College, Cambridge] chaplain) sat with him all night and gave him the Sacrament. He

“could only feel what a real comfort it was to know that the boy was now beyond the reach of human injustice and incompetence”.

Letter from John Maxwell Image to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)