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Post Info TOPIC: Why "Little Willie"?


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Why "Little Willie"?

I've been meaning to do this for ages. I think I promised Helen a world exclusive a while back. Anyway here goes:

The name Little Willie is said by, amongst others, David Fletcher to be a reference to Crown Prince Wilhelm, based on a German nickname for him. I think that's correct, but in a rather more circuitous way than is usually understood. In the first place, why would one name something after one's arch enemy? It's not even derogatory in the way that a lot of military nicknames are.

According to Swinton, in Eyewitness, both prototypes were known as Centipede by the time of the Hatfield trials in Jan 1916. John Glanfield says that "Foster's had stencilled across (the rhomboid's) grey hull 'HMLS Centipede'" but I must say that although I thought I remembered seeing photos of, it I can't actually find any now.

Now comes a most important passage from Eyewitness (pp 167-8 in the 1933 Edition), written in 1922. In January 1916, as Swinton approached the testing ground at Hatfield, ". . . not two hundred yards away . . .  squatted two sinister shapes swathed in tarpaulins . . . One was much larger than the other! These were the first machine, which had been discarded, and the first Tank 'Mother.' "

He then quotes the Royal Tank Corps Journal: "As the pair of shapeless masses nestled close together, their appearance suggested a gigantic canvas-covered sow with a sucking pig alongside her. And it was on that day that that they received the names of 'Little,' and 'Big,' 'Willie.'"

I haven't been able to find the Tank Corps Journal in question; there might be a copy in the library at King's College. But this suggests to me where the names came from.

It makes even less sense to call the two machines after both enemy Wilhelms. These machines were on "our" side. The conclusion I've come to is that on the day of the trials, someone saw the mismatched vehicles and was put in mind not of the real Kaiser and Crown Prince, but of two cartoon characters, Big and Little Willie, created by William Haselden.

Haselden's strip in the Daily Mirror was The Unfortunate Adventures (or sometimes Experiences) of Big and Little Willie, in which the cartoon Kaiser and Crown Prince repeatedly come to grief in their attempts to conquer Europe. There was even a 1915 cinema film featuring the figures, and the Mirror was the most read newspaper in Britain during the War, with a circulation of over a million. There is every likelihood that the characters would have been well-known to many present on that day and the allusion would have been widely understood. I think that someone who was there must have had a small joke and said something along the lines of, "They look like Big and Little Willie."

Here's info on Haselden:

Examples of his cartoons:

And especially relevant wartime cartoons:

And the film reference:

And you could buy the collection in book form:


For some reason, the name "Little Willie" stuck for posterity, whereas "Big Willie" seems to have been very short-lived, possibly being used only on that day in January before Mother became semi-official.

There are objections to the above. David Fletcher raises some: " Nobody else who was (at Hatfield), Stern or Swinton in particular, mention Little Willie being there at all and ask yourself what was it doing there, it would not have been much of a substitute for Mother because it couldn’t do the things Mother could do. I’ve also read an account which claims that Little Willie was at Elveden, and there might have been some point in that, but nobody else, not even Swinton who was there, mentions it.
Bearing in mind that Swinton was a good storyteller, he may well have invented the presence of both tanks at Hatfield in order to make his claim. There is a photo of Mother at Hatfield in the Tank Museum and there is no other tank in the picture."

Fair enough, but I think it makes more sense than DF's explanation. (He also says, "The crew of a Royal Naval armoured train in Flanders built two snowmen and named them Big and Little Willie (you can even find a picture of them in the book ‘Naval Guns in Flanders." I'm sure they did - and it's a fair bet that it was the cartoon characters after which the snowmen were named, for exactly the same reasons.) One might have expected photos of Little Willie, but their absence doesn't prove the vehicle wasn't there. And it could have been there as a (very second-rate) standby in case Mother failed entirely.

So that is my theory. As ever, discussion is invited.


"Sometimes things that are not true are included in Wikipedia. While at first glance that may appear like a very great problem for Wikipedia, in reality is it not. In fact, it's a good thing." - Wikipedia.


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James, what can I say... brilliant!

To Me the Cartoon theory has a lot more going for it than the current one. Cartoons back then were very popular, something I don't think many people would understand these days. Characters from cartoons are often used in the Military to bring a bit of humour to an environment that is anything but.

Little Wille and Mother could have been at Hatfield, although superseded they would be useful to show how the design has evolved, rather than just a quickly thrown together jumble of ideas. Ok it was quickly thrown together, but at the heart of the design was the requirements set by the War Department.


I think we go wrong some times when we talk of official names as regards Tanks, it is clear that only the numbers are something that is designated to them, everything else is nicknames given by designers, builders and crew. I could of course be wrong on that. :)




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Ta, Hel.

We shall never know, of course, unless some evidence emerges from an archive or an attic, but the standard theory just doesn't make sense to me.

Having read a lot of stuff by and about Swinton, I know his propensity for giving himself credit for things knows no bounds, and he often uses sleight of hand to encourage the impression that he was responsible for certain things, when he actually wasn't. But I don't see what he stood to gain by making up this minor anecdote. At least it offers an explanation for why the name "Big Willie" was used at all, which is more than I've seen other accounts do.

Btw, Eyewitness was written in 1932, not 22. Sorry. 

-- Edited by James H on Tuesday 1st of March 2016 09:46:10 PM


"Sometimes things that are not true are included in Wikipedia. While at first glance that may appear like a very great problem for Wikipedia, in reality is it not. In fact, it's a good thing." - Wikipedia.

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