Churchill Convenes Tank Committee

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 170th installment in the series.

February 24, 1915: Churchill Convenes Tank Committee

The backbone of modern conventional armies, tanks may seem like an obvious idea—and indeed the model of a self-contained, mobile fortress to dominate the battlefield has been around for thousands of years. The Roman “testudo” or tortoise formation allowed legionaries to advance through hails of arrows, and during the Renaissance Leonardo da Vinci sketched a design for an armored vehicle (below), “safe and unassailable, which will enter the closed ranks of the enemy with their artillery… And behind these our infantry will be able to follow quite unharmed and without any opposition.”

In 1903 the British futurist H.G. Wells imagined armored vehicles breaking through entrenched defenders in his short story “The Land Ironclads,” inspired by the heavy casualties inflicted by massed rifle fire in the Boer War. Propelled by mechanical “feet” on wheels and followed by columns of regular infantry, Wells’ land ironclad “continued to move regardless of the hail that splashed its skin with bright new specks of lead,” eventually “hoisting itself farther and farther over the trench,” while “methodically shooting down and breaking up any persistent knots of resistance.”

However armored battlefield vehicles would remain in the realm of science fiction until the invention of the internal combustion engine in the second half of the 19th century. A huge improvement over steam engines, in internal combustion engines exploding gasoline or diesel vapor replaced steam in pistons, allowing designers to do away with cumbersome boilers as well as the huge quantities of coal needed to power them. The new, more compact engines enabled a flurry of engineering feats including the first automobile, invented by Karl Benz 1885, the first practical submarine, designed by John Holland in 1898, and the first airplane, invented by the Wright brothers and first flown in 1903.

While submarines held intriguing strategic potential and airplanes captured the popular imagination, automobiles had far and away the largest economic impact in the near term, with Henry Ford’s creation of the Model T in 1908 promising to transform middle class lifestyles and fueling another wave of industrialization in the U.S. Before long it would also change the face of war.

Following the outbreak of the Great War and the emergence of trench warfare in 1914, attention quickly turned to development of armored vehicles using internal combustion engines to break through enemy defenses. As early as December 1914 French military engineers were working on the Frot-Laffly landship, named after its designers, which combined armor plates with cannons and machine guns, but used wheels instead of tractor treads, resulting in limited mobility across open terrain. Around the same time Thomas Hetherington, a commander in the Royal Naval Air Service, saw a heavy vehicle using “Diplock pedrails,” a type of tread, and recommended it to First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. The idea was also advocated by Colonel Ernest Swinton, an influential military officer and writer who apparently suggested the codename “tank” to conceal the true purpose of the device (the term is sometimes also credited to Churchill).

Brushing aside the fact that the armored vehicles clearly fell under the category of land warfare, on February 24, 1915 Churchill convened the first “Landships Committee” (cleverly using a bit of naval imagery to bridge the gap). The committee began by considering two main prototypes for armored vehicles—the first, a bizarre “Bigwheel” model without treads, the second a large truck-like vehicle designed by Colonel Rookes Crompton, incorporating the Diplock Pedrail caterpillar tread then in use in agricultural tractors, intended to carry up to 50 infantry soldiers into battle.

On March 28 Churchill ordered twelve of the Pedrail models and six of the Bigwheels, but both soon proved impractical because of mobility issues. In April Crompton revised the Pedrail design to produce an articulated vehicle to address its mobility shortcomings, which the committee approved in May, but the articulated version turned out to have even more issues.

With Churchill’s encouragement the committee pressed on, and Crompton now turned to a new kind of caterpillar tread used on tractors made by a U.S. manufacturer based in Chicago, the Bullock Tractor Company. In August 1915 he obtained a specially manufactured extra-long version of the “Bullock Creeping Grip,” as the tread was known. However by this time the committee had lost patience with Crompton’s fixation on the articulated vehicle design, which they regarded as a clear failure. Crompton was removed from the project, but his idea of using the Bullock Creeping Grip proved to be a crucial contribution.

Meanwhile beginning in July 1915 William Tritton, managing director at the Foster’s Works factory in Lincoln, collaborated with Lieutenant Walter Wilson of the Royal Navy Reserve, who had worked as an automobile engineer before the war, on a new design: much smaller than either of the first two prototypes, the “Lincoln No. 1 Machine” (below) combined the Bullock Creeping Grip with a squat, compact (and non-articulated) body.

Although the tracks failed at the first test in September 1915, the “Lincoln No. 1 Machine,” nicknamed “Little Willie,” had confirmed the soundness of the basic concept; by now the idea had also received the endorsement of British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French (Churchill was forced to step down following the disaster at Gallipoli in April-May 1915; in June his successor, Arthur Balfour, confirmed that work on the project would continue).

Tritton and Wilson returned to the drawing board to design a new vehicle with an unusual “rhomboidal” shape to make it easier to climb in and out of trenches. Known by a number of nicknames, including “The Wilson,” “The Centipede,” “Big Willie,” and eventually “Mother,” the new vehicle (top) was designed to meet War Office specifications that it be able to cross an eight-foot-wide trench and climb parapets up to four feet six inches tall. It would be ready for testing by November 30.

See the previous installment or all entries.

11 Surprising Facts About Sylvester Stallone

Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As streetwise boxer Rocky Balboa (in eight films) and haunted Vietnam veteran John Rambo (in five films), the man born Michael Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone has made his brand of muscular melodrama a staple of the action film genre across five decades.

The latest Rambo chapter, Rambo: Last Blood, opens September 20. In the meantime, check out some of the more intriguing facts about the actor, from his modest beginnings as an accidental porn star to his peculiar rivalry with Richard Gere to his waylaid plans to run a pudding empire.

1. An errant pair of forceps gave Sylvester Stallone his distinctive look.

Many comedians have paid their bills over the decades by adopting Sylvester Stallone’s distinctive lip droop and guttural baritone voice. The facial feature was the result of some slight mishandling at birth. When Stallone was born on July 6, 1946 in Manhattan, the physician used a pair of forceps to deliver him. The malpractice left his lip, chin, and part of his tongue partially paralyzed due to a severed nerve. Stallone later said his face and awkward demeanor earned him the nickname “Sylvia” and authority figures telling him his brain was “dormant.” Burdened with low self-esteem, Stallone turned to bodybuilding and later performing as a way of breaking through what seemed to be a consensus of low expectations.

2. sylvester Stallone attended college in Switzerland.

A publicity still of Sylvester Stallone from the 1981 film 'Victory' is pictured
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite a tumultuous adolescence in which he was kicked out of several schools for misbehavior, Stallone eventually graduated high school while living with his mother in Philadelphia. He went on to attend American College, a university in Leysin, Switzerland, where he also worked as a gym teacher and dorm bouncer in addition to selling hamburgers on campus. It was there he became interested in theater—both acting and writing.

Stallone continued his education at the University of Miami before moving to New York with the hopes of breaking into the entertainment industry. While auditioning for parts, Stallone worked as a movie theater usher and cleaned lion cages at the zoo. He was fired from the theater for trying to scalp tickets to a customer. Unknown to Stallone, the customer was the theater owner.

3. Sylvester Stallone’s mother was an expert in “rumpology.”

Stallone’s parents separated while he was still a child. His father, a beauty salon owner named Francesco Stallone, was apparently prone to corporal punishment, and would cuff his young son for misbehavior. (Stallone was once caught swatting flies with a lead pipe on the hood of his father’s brand-new car.) His mother, Jackie Stallone—whom he once described as “half-French, half-Martian"—later grew interested in the study of rumpology, or the study of the buttocks to reveal personality traits and future events.

4. Sylvester Stallone had a small part in a porno.

Actor Sylvester Stallone is pictured during a promotional tour for the film 'Rambo' in Madrid, Spain in January 2008
Carlos Alvarez, Getty Images

While struggling to make it as an actor, Stallone was talked into making an appearance in Party at Kitty and Stud’s, a 1970 softcore adult film that was not as explicit as other sex features of the era but still required Stallone to appear in the nude. While he was initially hesitant to take the role, Stallone was sleeping in a bus shelter at the time. He took the $200 for two days of work. Following the success of Rocky in 1976, the film’s producers capitalized on their now-valuable footage and re-released it under the title The Italian Stallion. In 2010, a 35mm negative of the film and all worldwide rights to it were auctioned off on eBay for $412,100.

5. Sylvester Stallone wrote a novel.

In addition to his acting ambitions, Stallone decided to pursue a career in writing. After numerous screenplays, he wrote Paradise Alley, a novel about siblings who get caught up in the circus world of professional wrestling in Hell’s Kitchen. Stallone finished the novel before deciding to turn it into a screenplay. Paradise Alley was eventually produced in 1978. The book, which was perceived as a novelization, was published that same year.

6. Sylvester Stallone was not a fan of the Rambo cartoon series.

After the success of 1982’s First Blood and 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, Stallone was confronted with a litany of Rambo merchandising. Speaking with the Chicago Tribune in 1986, he said he disliked that the psychologically-tortured war veteran was being used to peddle toys. “I couldn’t control it,” he said. “I tried to stop it, but I don’t own the licensing rights.”

On the subject of Rambo: The Force of Freedom, a 1986 animated series featuring a considerably softened-up version of the character, Stallone was resigned. “They’re going to make this Saturday morning TV cartoon show for kids with what they tell me is a softened version of Rambo doing good deeds. First of all, that isn’t Rambo, but more important, they tell me I can’t stop them because it’s not me they’re using. It’s a likeness of a character I played and don’t own.” The show lasted just one season.

7. Sylvester Stallone never planned on the Rocky series enduring as long as it has.

Through the years, Stallone has made some definitive declarations about the Rocky series, which has been extended to eight films including its two spin-off installments, 2015’s Creed and 2018’s Creed II. Speaking with movie critic Roger Ebert in 1979 shortly before the release of Rocky II, Stallone indicated Rocky III that would conclude the series. “There’ll never be a Rocky IV,” he said. "You gotta call it a halt.” In 1985, while filming Rocky IV, Stallone told Interview magazine that he was finished. “Oh, this is it for Rocky,” he said. “Because I don’t know where you go after you battle Russia.” In 1990, following the release of Rocky V, Stallone declared that “There is no Rocky VI. He’s done.” Upon the release of Rocky Balboa in 2006, Stallone once more declared he was finished. "I couldn't top this," he told People. "I would have to wait another 10 years to build up a head of steam, and by that point, come on."

Creed was released nine years later. Following Creed II, he posted a message on Instagram that served as a “final farewell” to the character. Several months later, in July 2019, Stallone told Variety that, “There’s a good chance Rocky may ride again” and explained an idea involving Rocky befriending an immigrant street fighter. It would be the ninth film in the series.

8. Sylvester Stallone was offered the lead role in Beverly Hills Cop.

Actor Sylvester Stallone is pictured during production of the 1978 film 'Paradise Alley'
Central Press/Getty Images

In one of the more intriguing alternate casting decisions in Hollywood history, Stallone was originally offered the Axel Foley role in 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop. Not wishing to make a comedy, Stallone rewrote the script to focus more on the action, as Detroit cop Foley stampedes through Beverly Hills to find his friend’s killers. Stallone described his version as resembling “the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan on the beaches of Normandy” and said his climax involved a game of chicken between a Lamborghini and an oncoming train. Producers opted to go in another direction. It became one of Eddie Murphy’s biggest hits. Stallone would later use some of his ideas for a rogue cop in the 1986 film Cobra.

9. Sylester Stallone does not get along with Richard Gere.

While filming 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush, in which Stallone and then-unknown actor Richard Gere both played 1950s street toughs, the two actors apparently got off on the wrong foot. Stallone recalled that Gere drew his ire for being too physical during rehearsals—and worse, getting mustard on Stallone during a lunch break. Incensed, Stallone demanded the director choose one of them to stay and one of them to be fired. Gere was let go and replaced by Perry King.

10. Arnold Schwarzenegger once tricked sylvester stallone into starring in a box office bomb.

Actors Sylvester Stallone (L) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) are photographed during the premiere of 'The Expendables 2' in Hollywood, California in August 2012
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

Stallone has often discussed his rivalry with Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the two action stars were believed to be the two biggest marquee attractions in the 1980s. Recalling his 1992 bomb Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Stallone told a journalist in 2014 that he believed Schwarzenegger was to blame. “I heard Arnold wanted to do that movie and after hearing that, I said I wanted to do it,” he said. “He tricked me. He’s always been clever.”

11. sylvester Stallone wanted to create a pudding empire.

In 2005, shortly before Rocky Balboa resurrected his film career, Stallone embarked on a line of fitness supplements. His company, Instone, produced a pudding snack that was low-carb and high in protein. Stallone even appeared on Larry King to hawk the product. A legal dispute with a food scientist over the rights to the concoction dragged on for years and Instone eventually folded.

Highclere Castle—the Real-Life Downton Abbey—Is Available to Rent on Airbnb

Highclere Castle, used as the setting for Downton Abbey
Highclere Castle, used as the setting for Downton Abbey
Emily_M_Wilson/iStock via Getty Images

Have you ever wanted to spend a night in a castle? And not just any castle—the Downton Abbey castle, Highclere Castle? On November 26, one lucky couple will get the opportunity to relive the TV show and movie, when castle owners Lady and Lord Carnarvon will cordially invite one person and their guest of choice to spend the night in the castle, which is located in Hampshire, England—about 45 miles west of London. On October 1 (Airbnb reservations go live at noon BST) anyone with a verified profile, positive reviews, and passion for Downton Abbey can vie for the opportunity. Even though the castle has 300 rooms, they are only making one bedroom available, for $159.

Upon arrival, the royals will host cocktails with the guests in the saloon. Visitors will hear stories from more than 300 years of Highclere Castle history (construction on the castle began in 1679, and has been in the Carnarvon family ever since).

“I am passionate about the stories and heritage of Highclere Castle and I am delighted to be able to share it with others who have a love of the building and its history,” Lady Carnarvon said in the Airbnb listing.

The Earl and Countess will host a dinner for the guests in the state dining room, and afterwards have coffee in the library. Before bed, the guests’ butler will escort them to their gallery bedroom. The next morning, guests will receive a complimentary breakfast, a private tour of the 100,000-square foot castle and 1000-acre grounds, and a special gift from the Carnarvons. (Airbnb will also make a donation to The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.)

It should be noted the castle doesn’t have Wi-Fi or central air, but it does have fireplaces and central heat. There are a few rules guests must follow, though: all newspapers must be ironed; one butler per person; cocktail dress is required at dinner; gossip is restricted to downstairs; the listing is midweek because, as the Dowanger once said, “What is a weekend?”

If you don’t win the opportunity to stay at Highclere, all is not lost: you can tour the castle year-round.

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