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Post Info TOPIC: What was the impact of Tanks on the outcome of WWI?

What was the impact of Tanks on the outcome of WWI?
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I was talking to my brother about WWI tanks. He has read some books on the politics of WWI, and he says he understands the "totality" of WWI.

He says that the impact of Tanks in WWI was 1% of the reason for the outcome.

He says that the Munitions Strike in Germany was really the biggest thing that led to the outcome, and that if high-technology weapons really affected warfare in any significant way, the outcome of Vietnam and the current struggle in Iraq wouldn't have ever happened.

That seems like the most roundabout idiotic logic I can think of.

1. Germanys massive defensive trench systems were basically impenatrable by foot soldiers.
2. The only thing that could overrun these huge trench systems were mass ammounts of tanks, the only vehicle that could hope to advance in the quagmire of mud, trenches, and barbed wire.
3. Eventually these tanks were used in massive attacks with hundreds of tanks participating.
4. Towards the end of the war, the British and the French had fielded an incredibly large ammount of tanks, while Germany had only fielded 20.
5. Tanks overrun all the largest most menacing targets in the final part of WWI.

By the time the munitions strike happened, a large ammount of supposedly impenatrable trench systems had been overrun and taken out by allied tanks. Germany was already on the losing end by the time the munitions strike happened. With tanks being the prime reason for all of those allied victories.

Because tanks were the only vehicles that could fight against the trench complexes, and because Britain and France had tons of them, and Germany had virtually none, it seems ridiculous to think that the massive use of tanks by the allies didn't contribute HEAVILY to the outcome of WWI.

What do you think? Was the tank just a neat invention, that really had no impact on the overal outcome of WWI? Or, did it have a massive impact, and was a primary contributor to the allied victory of WWI?

You tell me.



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I dont agree with your borther the tank would be the center piece of world war II staying on WWI tanks A, made the war end a lot faster, if there were no tanks the allies would not have been able to push in 1918, which would have let the germans regroup and possible bring Austiran soldiers to the western front. As for 1917 and 1916 tanks were limited but they still made a big impact and they led the big improvement of tanks in 1918, when they were a major force.

Joseph E. Fullerton

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I used to frequent a WW1 forum (now defunct) and the consensus there was that tanks were not very crucial to the outcome of the war. Perhaps they could have been, if they were utilised better and sooner, but improved artillery tactics got the most credit of any weaponry.

Looking at "the big picture", the Allied blockade with it's resultant deprivation of the Central Powers of food and materials was usually given the greatest significance. The previous impenetrability of the german trench system ceased to work as well when the german soldiers were weakened by hunger and exhausted by the seemingly endless war. Of course german civilians suffered even greater privations, and the war-weariness certainly affected the Allies, too...see the French mutinies. My view is that while the US military contributions may not have been overwhelming in themselves, they represented the potential to be so. Once the US joined, Germany had no long term hopes for victory, and ended up collapsing before the US contribution got anywhere near to it's possible magnitude. But Germany probably would have lost even without the US, it just would have taken severall months longer.

I don't know exactly how big a part tanks played in the final part of the war, but it was argued that the rate of breakdowns seriously affected exploiting the ruptures in the german tanks, anyway.

Mario Wens

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Though  I unfortunately have had to change careers I was originally trained as a historian, so I feel I have some background to react on this interesting question.

Consensus on the Tank seems to be it had little impact on the actual outcome of WW1. If I'm not mistaken the excellent documentary "Tanks, wonder weapon of WW1?" states the same. Why is this? First of all, we have a somewhat twisted view of WW1 as being the killing ground of the trenches first and foremost. In fact, trench warfare was bloody indeed, but the loss rates on the battlefield were the highest in the opening and closing months of the war, when the armies had moved into the open field. The reason for this is that the techniques of Warfare had developed at totally different speeds, and WW1 was so to speak "the War that came too soon". Firepower was on a very modern footing indeed, mechanized to such an extent that the production capacities of Britain, France and above all Russia at first could not cope with the demand. Not only Artillery, but also the personal firearm had improved in range and rate of fire dramatically. Thus, a quickly trained single Vickers machine gunner had a rate of fire 100 times or more of the most experienced Rifleman at Waterloo a mere century earlier. Yet, at the same time transport on the Battlefield itself was no faster than in Caesar's days, being mostly on foot and on horseback. The resulting slaughter was predictable and caused the entrenching of both armies, which resulted in the Stalemate that made this war so seemingly endless.

Now, did the Tank break through all this? It is true that is could breach lines, but it proved too experimental and too vulnerable (both technically and militarily) once it got through, and incapable to capitalize on the gains made. If asked which Allied military improvement did most to win the war I'd say "the rolling barrage". Here the British above all learned to turn the disadvantage all sides had (the tremendous industrial firepower of modern armies) into a weapon they could control. It allowed for the first time infantry to breach and HOLD positions by denying the enemy the time to regroup when a barrage lifted.

The tank touched people's imagination and had enormous potential for morale boosting, but on the battlefield they could -as yet- not make the difference it was hoped they would when they were introduced. When they became faster and more reliable, and when ideas about their use evolved and semi-independent battle-units with their own supply columns developed, the Tank came of age and could make a difference. All that happened (long) after hostilities had ended however, and those lessons were best learned by the Germans.

By the Spring of 1918 WW1 had both sides on the brink of collapse. The fall of Russia gave Germany a last hope in the race against time before the USA came into the war in full force. The troops freed from the Eastern Front gave them a short-lived numerical superiority which they used for their Spring Offensive. This succeeded at first (which according to the above view should have been impossible, as Germany had no Tank force to speak of) and drove the Allies into a wild panic. It was not brilliant military action which saved the Allies, but the wealth of their supplies. When the starved German Army overran the rich stores they started plundering and stopped advancing. More important: the stores brought home the message that all the deprivations had been in vain, as the War seemed to have worn down the Germans but had left the Allies untouched. Or so it seemed at least when the German soldier compared the wealth of Allied stores with his own scarcity of food. It was the wrong conclusion, and had the German soldier known just how wild the panic in the Allied Army was when they broke through, they might just have pulled it off. As it was, the offensive bogged down, the gaps were filled, the opportunity lost.

More important: the German Army and Germany itself began to loose all hope. When the US Army finally entered the War in their millions the last hopes were dashed. There was never any serious chance of Austrian troops coming in in force on the Western front. By 1918 they were trying to find a way to get out of the War behind Germany's back. In fact, ever since the desater at Przemysl it had been the Germans who had to send in troops in force to support the Austrians, not the other way round!

Gradually losing the will to fight by losing all hope for victory (or at least a way to extract Germany from the war in an honorable way) did more than all those Tanks.


Tim Gale

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I beleive that Mario isw largely correct. There have been arguments about the effect that tanks had on the Great War battlefield ever since they first appeared. Foch told Repington in September 1918 that; ‘it was an idea of amateurs that tanks and aeroplanes could win a war,’ tanks were ‘accessories’ to the infantry, Repington (1920), p. 376. This conversation was admittedly in the context of a complaint by Foch about the British manpower problem of 1918. More recently a number of scholars have gone further and suggested that armoured warfare in WW1 was ‘marginal’, tanks being a ‘specialized luxury’, (Albert Palazzo (2000), p. 193 & Paddy Griffith (2001), p. 37). 

However, for the most part, contemporary opinion was much impressed by the tanks. Weygand contradicted his old chief by stating in his memoirs that France had won the war thanks to the tanks, an opinion largely shared by Hindenburg.  Herbert Sulzbach refers in his diaries to a meeting in August 1918 where he discussed with his regimental commander a secret paper by Ludendorff. There was general agreement that enemy tanks had an ‘unbelievable effect’ in recent battles, a judgement agreed with by Guderian. Although the opinion of the German High Command must be treated with suspicion, due to a reluctance to admit the German army had been comprehensively beaten on the field, Sulzbach seems a reliable and representative witness. It seems difficult to justify relegating the importance of the French tanks as they were an integral part of many successful French army operations during the war, particularly during the 2nd Battle of the Marne. However, tanks were certainly not as important to succeassful military operations in WW1 as they were to be later.

James H. Reeve

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It's claimed that the person who most overstated the Tanks' part in the Allies' victory was Ludendorff, who, after the War, exaggerated their achievements in order to divert attention from the German High Command's failings. This contrasts with attempts during the War to play down the Tanks' significance and point out their many shortcomings so as not to undermine German troops' morale.

On the other hand, the Tanks' achievements and potential were exaggerated in the British, French, and American press in order to boost Allied morale.

The truth lay somewhere in between, as is often the case.

The paradox is that the Tank pioneers who advocated holding back until a mass, "breakthrough" attack could be launched, and who tried to resist the use of Tanks in "penny packets", were wrong, at least in 1917 and 18. Cambrai and Amiens demonstrated that you could not undertake a blitzkrieg with such slow and unreliable machines, and, which is not often mentioned, negligible air support. Twenty years later, with speeds increased by 400% and more, it was a different proposition, and the tactics worked.

The practice which emerged of using small numbers of Tanks, working in close support with infantry to overcome specific obstacles was exactly the right one for the circumstances. Until there could be huge technological improvements, the mass attack had to remain a theory.

The contribution of the Tanks has been summed up in more or less these terms:

The Allies were going to win the War anyway. What the Tanks did was enable them to win the War with far fewer casualties than would have been sustained without them.

If you'd like to read some views on the subject, try A Peripheral Weapon? : The Production and Employment of British Tanks in the First World War by David J. Childs, and A New Excalibur by A.J. Smithers. Rather different books, but both excellent.


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I found A New Excalibur online for quite cheap.

But the cheapest I found 'A Peripheral Weapon?" was $110... A bit pricey for me. I might pick up A New Excalibur though. Of the two, which would you say is better...? I hope you say A New Excalibur, just because its far cheaper !


James Reeve

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I've seen T.A.P.W. for $85, but, yes, it is an expensive book. It's an academic work, obviously not intended for a big print run. Luckily I have a friend in the book trade who got it for me at cost price.

Excalibur is an excellent book, very entertainingly written and sometimes highly amusing. It covers all the salient points, but is very uncritical of Albert Stern, giving him a somewhat heroic status.

T.A.P.W. is much more formal in style and technical in content. Don't be put off by the fact that there is an entire chapter entitled "Sprockets". It follows the same chronology but deals with several aspects which Excalibur doesn't; for example the physical problems of moving hundreds of 30-ton Tanks across the Channel and around France. It also has a lot more to say about Stern's sacking by Churchill.

In an ideal world I should read both and combine the two accounts. I found Excalibur in hardback at a model fair for £10, and came across the paperback in a second-hand bookshop in London for £5. Of course, you can always put your library service to the test.

Needless to say, in both of the above there are no more than a couple of sentences on the subject of Estienne and the French.

jose l. chinchilla

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We all love WWI tanks! And we like to believe those great machines saved allies in that war, but that´s not exactly truth.
In 1918, Germany was almost collapsed:
1) Germany people was starving: in Berlin, it was not unusual to eat rats!
2) Most of the people was poor due to the high inflation; money had lost all its value.
3) Germany was in the verge of a soviet-style revolution. Comunist and socialist groups were working every day for the revolution.
4) Most of german soldiers were 30 year old or more. They were married with children and worried for their relatives, not for war.
5) Military factories were almost unproductive due to power and row material shortages produced by the international blockade.
6) In the last months of war, Austria and Bulgaria left Germany alone, making secret contacts with allies.

A war is not only won or lost depending on the hardware, but also (and many times) due to other political, social and economical reasons.


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