Rise Of The Tanks

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 249th installment in the series.  

September 15, 1916: Rise Of The Tanks

Like the birth of some terrible demigod, tanks roared into the world to the awe of all who saw them amid the bloodbath of the Somme on September 15, 1916. The armored fighting vehicle has played a central role in modern conventional warfare ever since, with tanks and planes working in tandem to dominate the battlefield. But as their uneven debut at the Somme reflected, tanks had their shortcomings right from the start, due partly to short-term teething issues but also to a number of limitations intrinsic to the concept of a mobile fortress.

First conceived in February 1915 as a way to cancel out the defensive power of entrenched enemy machine guns, after 19 months of top-secret research and development in September 1916 the first Mark I tanks, in “male” and “female” versions, were delivered to the British Army. The male version was armed with two cannons and three machine guns, the female version with five machine guns; their armor and weaponry were intended to enable them to cross no-man’s-land in the face of enemy fire, destroy enemy strong points and cross trenches while also providing shelter to advancing British infantry. 

This experimental weapon received a relatively warm welcome thanks in large part to British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig, who recognized its potential early on (the French were also developing a tank of their own). But they remained unproven and were viewed with understandable skepticism by rank and file alike. Moreover the tanks suffered all the inevitable technical glitches of a new machine: just eight years after the introduction of the first Ford Model T, the internal combustion engines that propelled the tanks were more reliable but hardly immune to breakdowns. And despite their special shape and motorized treads the vehicles could also still “ditch” or roll over to become (temporarily) useless. In fact, out of the first batch of 50 tanks sent to join the next big attack on the Somme on September 15, 1916, remembered as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, only 36 actually arrived on the field of battle, as the rest fell prey to mechanical or navigational woes.

One British soldier, Reginald Grant, described the general reaction to their arrival behind the British lines immediately preceding the next “big push” (following previous Anglo-French efforts including Bazentin Ridge, Pozières, and Ginchy): 

I looked in the direction of the sound and presently there hove in sight a colossal something of behemoth proportions;--something the like of which I had never seen or heard of in all my life, and I was stricken dumb with amazement. A monstrous monstrosity climbed its way without let or hindrance, up, over, along and across every obstacle in its path. Presently it reached the top of Pozieres Ridge; every man who could see had his eyes glued on it…

Another eyewitness present for the tanks’ baptism of fire at the Somme on September 15, the cinematographer Geoffrey Malins, recorded a similar impression: 

For the life of me I could not take my eyes off it. The thing--I really don't know how else to describe it--ambled forward, with slow, jerky, uncertain movements. The sight of it was weird enough in all conscience. At one moment its nose disappeared, then with a slide and an upward glide it climbed to the other side of a deep shell crater which lay in its path. I stood amazed and watched its antics… Big, and ugly, and awkward as it was, clumsy as its movements appeared to be, the thing seemed imbued with life, and possessed of the most uncanny sort of intelligence and understanding. 

Unfortunately the tanks’ experimental nature led British commanders to make some key errors during the attack on Flers-Courcelette on September 15. The biggest mistake was their decision to break up the “creeping barrage” laid down by British artillery in front of the advancing infantry, in order to leave safe corridors for the tanks to travel through. At first glance this appeared to make sense, since nobody knew just how long it would take for the tanks to advance over the pockmarked battlefield – but it also meant that if the tanks failed to reduce the German strongpoints in front of them, the infantry behind them would be left to attack defenders in virtually untouched enemy trenches. 

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Nonetheless the British scored some notable successes at Flers-Courcelette, thanks to the strength of the artillery bombardment (where it was allowed). In the three days leading up to the attack, British artillery pounded the German lines with an incredible 828,000 shells, including counter-artillery fire directed by planes from the Royal Flying Corps. Lieutenant R. Lewis, a Canadian officer from Newfoundland, witnessed the attack on September 15 from the reserve trenches, recalling the moment when the final bombardment opened up at 6:20 a.m.: “Then all of a sudden the artillery with a mighty roar opened up the most terrific fire. It was a wonderful sight. Nothing could be seen all along the horizon in the rear but one mass of flame, where our guns were sending out shell after shell.”

Another observer, R. Derby Holmes, an American volunteer serving in the 22nd London Battalion, Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, left a frank account of his feelings during the final countdown to the tank and infantry attack: 

My ear drums ached, and I thought I should go insane if the racket didn't stop. I was frightfully nervous and scared, but tried not to show it. An officer or a non-com must conceal his nervousness, though he be dying with fright… I looked over the top once or twice and wondered if I, too, would be lying there unburied with the rats and maggots gnawing me into an unrecognizable mass.

At 6:20 a.m. ten British Divisions from the Fourth Army and Reserve Army (including the Canadian Corps and New Zealand Division) plus elements from the French Sixth Army attacked a defensive force of roughly half their strength in the German First Army.  In some areas the tanks were employed in concentrated columns, while in others they were interspersed among the attacking troops – but at this early stage, with the benefit of surprise still on their side, even a lone tank could make a decisive difference. 

Indeed one famous tank, C-5, better known by its nickname “Crème de Menthe,” singlehandedly cleared a ruined sugar refinery of its German defenders, opening the way for the Canadians to advance into the rearward German trenches, eventually approaching the village of Courcellete. The Canadians managed to hold on to their gains here, fending off a number of fierce German counterattacks – but their success (and the tank’s) were hardly typical for the Allies that morning. 

Further to the east the 50th Northumbrian Division succeeded in taking its first objective despite withering flanking fire from High Wood, the strategic heights that had been the object of so much bloodshed since mid-July. However they were battered back from their second objective, a German support trench, by a blistering enemy bombardment (one of many examples indicating British counter-artillery fire was insufficient). During the initial attack many soldiers sheltered behind the advancing tanks, but discovered this could be very slow going. Holmes, the American volunteer, recalled the progress of the tanks near High Wood: 

The tanks were just ahead of us and lumbered along in an imposing row. They lurched down into deep craters and out again, tipped and reeled and listed, and sometimes seemed as though they must upset; but they came up each time and went on and on. And how slow they did seem to move! Lord, I thought we should never cover that five or six hundred yards. 

Holmes and his comrades also realized that the tanks offered no protection against heavier fire: 

There was a tank just ahead of me. I got behind it. And marched there. Slow! God, how slow! Anyhow, it kept off the machine-gun bullets, but not the shrapnel. It was breaking over us in clouds. I felt the stunning patter of the fragments on my tin hat, cringed under it, and wondered vaguely why it didn't do me in. Men in the front wave were going down like tenpins. Off there diagonally to the right and forward I glimpsed a blinding burst, and as much as a whole platoon went down… I don't suppose that trip across No Man’s Land behind the tanks took over five minutes, but it seemed like an hour.

Towards the center of the British line the New Zealand Division, along with the 14th and 41st Divisions, was assigned the task of capturing Flers, assisted by eighteen tanks, of which a good number naturally broke down before or during the battle. Here the tanks showed up late, but then did a respectable job helping the attackers overcome secondary German defenses to capture Flers (another problem encountered across the Somme battlefield, and especially where there had been no creeping barrage, was the German practice of hiding machine gun nests in craters in front of their trenches in no-man’s-land). 

On the right the British attack by the Guards, 6th, and 56th Divisions turned into a complete debacle, including an unimpressive performance by the tanks, which all got lost on the battlefield or suffered mechanical mishaps. As this was one of the corridors spared the creeping bombardment during the early stages of the battle, the failure of the tanks to even make contact with the enemy in most places meant the infantry faced an impenetrable wall of machine gun and rifle fire. Making things even worse, one tank that did actually make it to the frontlines headed into no-man’s-land early, alerting the enemy to the coming attack before withdrawing under heavy fire.

The overall performance of the tanks across the Somme was therefore mixed, at best. One account by a British soldier, Bert Chaney, encapsulates the wildly differing fortunes of various tanks involved in the attack on September 15, along with some comic details: 

One of the tanks got caught up on a tree stump and never reached their front line and a second had its rear steering wheels shot off and could not guide itself… The third tank went on and ran through Flers, flattening everything they thought should be flattened, pushing down walls and thoroughly enjoying themselves… The four men in the tank that had got itself hung up dismounted, all in the heat of the battle, stretching themselves, scratching their heads, then slowly and deliberately walked round their vehicle inspecting it from every angle and appeared to hold a conference among themselves. After standing around for a few minutes, looking somewhat lost, they calmly took out from the inside of the tank a primus stove and, using the side of the tank as a cover from enemy fire, sat down on the ground and made themselves some tea. The battle was over as far as they were concerned.

Despite the tanks’ many failures on September 15, their isolated successes had proved what armored vehicles were capable of, at least to careful observers. One thoughtful chaplain with the Guards Division, T. Guy Rogers, mused: “Of course their virtues are exaggerated, but they are only in their infancy and did well – really well in some places. I would like to see them with double the horsepower; less impotent when they get sideways, and with some contrivance to reduce the noise.” 

Designers would indeed remedy these shortcomings and others revealed at the Somme, with wireless sets for example eventually enabling communication between commanders and tank crews. At the same time, tanks faced some basic constraints which still limit their use today, including their high fuel consumption (incredibly, many went into battle at the Somme covered with highly flammable fuel cans) and their inability to tackle certain kinds of terrain. 

In the short term, tanks remained secondary: as always, the heavy lifting on the battlefields of the First World War was done by infantry and artillery, with newer weapons like tanks and planes playing a subsidiary, sometimes experimental role. 

For the infantrymen who suffered the brunt of the fighting in the trenches, conditions at the Somme were something close to infernal. Paul Hub, a German officer, recounted a typical trauma in a letter to his wife dated September 20, 1916:

My dear Maria, I had just taken up my position when a heavy mortar hit the wall, burying me and two of my company under the rubble. I can’t describe what it felt like to be buried alive under such a mass of earth without being able to move a muscle… When someone called out asking if there was anyone underneath, we shouted ‘Yes!’ and they started digging us out right away. They thought they would have to free the others before they could reach me, but in the end they pulled me out at the same time. I felt as if my legs had been chopped off… The weight of the earth had pushed my head forward and torn my back muscles. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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The Annual Festivals That Draw the Most People in Every State
iStock
iStock

Every state has that one big event each year that draws residents from across the region or even across the nation. Louisiana has Mardi Gras. Kentucky has the Kentucky Derby. South Dakota has Sturgis. Genfare, a company that provides fare collection technology for transit companies, recently tracked down the biggest event in each state, creating a rundown of the can't-miss events across the country.

As the graphic below explores, some states' biggest public events are national music and entertainment festivals, like Bonnaroo in Tennessee, SXSW in Texas, and Summerfest in Wisconsin—which holds the world record for largest music festival.

Others are standard public festival fare. Minnesota hosts 2 million people a year at the Minnesota State Fair (pictured above), the largest of its kind in the U.S. by attendance. Mardi Gras celebrations dominate the events calendar in Missouri, Alabama, and, of course, Louisiana. Oktoberfest and other beer festivals serve as the biggest gatherings in Ohio (home to the nation's largest Oktoberfest event), Oregon, Colorado, and Utah.

In some states, though, the largest annual gatherings are a bit more unique. Some 50,000 people each year head to Brattleboro, Vermont for the Strolling of the Heifers, a more docile spin on the Spanish Running of the Bulls. Montana's biggest event is Evel Knievel Days, an extreme sports festival in honor of the famous daredevil. And Washington's biggest event is Hoopfest, Spokane's annual three-on-three basketball tournament.

Mark your calendar. Next year could be the year you attend them all.

A graphic list with the 50 states pictured next to information about their biggest events
Genfare

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