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Post Info TOPIC: "How the Tank Got Its Name"


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"How the Tank Got Its Name"

We're nearly there.

The Strand Magazine plays a major role in this tale, and has a lot to answer for.

In 1883 it published Arthur Conan Doyle's short story J. Habakkuk Jepson's Statement, which is why, to this day, most people get the name Mary Celeste wrong.

It published The Land Ironclads in 1903, which is why some people insist that the tank was invented by H.G. Wells.

On the plus side, in June 1917 it published an article on our friend Albert Robida.


The author describes Robida's armoured cars as "motor bombards" and his tank-like vehicles as "rolling blockhouses."

Then, in September 1917, comes this:


As you can see at the top of the page, it carries an account by Ernest Swinton of the the origins and naming of the tank, an eight-page article :


However, in February 1918, The Strand publishes an article by a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, F.J. Gardiner, who rejects Swinton's account and claims that the tank was named to honour an engineer named Thomas Tank Burrall, who died in 1884.


This in turn brought about William Tritton's refutation in July, 1918, in which he specifically refers to a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society having misled the public. It's not clear whether The Strand published it - the only reference I've found is in Popular Science magazine of July, 1918, although they might have picked it up from The Strand.

Despite this, S.H. Tremayne, of Plymouth was moved to write a letter to the Western Morning News in September, 1918:


Sir - An article appearing in the Feb. number of the "Strand Magazine," under the above title, states that Mr. Thomas Tank Burrall, whilst manager for the firm of Messrs. Burrell and Sons, agricultural engineers at Thetford, invented the famous pattened (caterpillar) wheels, originally for agricultural traction engines, and now used with such marked success for the war tanks, and that in their recognition of their admiration of the inventor the authorities named the new engine of war "The Tanks," a family name.

Thomas Tank Burrall's home was at Devoran, Cornwall, in which district he was trained as an engineer, and afterwards employed as engineering-draughtsman at H.M. Dockyard, Devonport, he was at that time a successfl science teacher in connection with the local science and art classes.

It is with the hope that the Westcountry (sic), and particularly Cornwall, may share the distinction of this famous invention that these details are given, for although the device was introduced for peaceful purposes, it was ultimately adopted most successfullywith the tanks which were acknowledged the principal factor in driving the Germans  from their dangerous and threatening proximity to Paris and the Channel ports.

The circumstances deserve more than a passing notice, and it is considered that the committee of the local War Museum might be inclined to cause the particulars to be noted with their other items, so that the records should preserve the connection with this locality.

It seems that 100 years later, Mr. Gardiner is still misleading some people. On this Renault enthusiasts' site an author asks, rhetorically, "QUI INVENTA LE PREMIER LE CHAR D'ASSAUT MODERNE?" ("Who first invented the modern tank?"), and replies:

The English were the first to deploy an assault vehicle, a "tank"*, at Flers on the Somme Front on Septeber 15th, 1916. It was on the initiative of Lieutenant-colonel Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the British War Committee, that its construction was undertaken. The idea goes back to an English engineer, Tank Burral (sic), who had developed an agricultural machine for uneven ground.

* Tank: in English, "reservoir." either a code-word to disguise the nature of the tank project, or the name of an English engineer Tank Burral.

I am awaiting a call from the Royal Historical Society to see if we can find out more about F.J. Gardiner, and what lay behind his extraordinary theory.







-- Edited by James H on Sunday 10th of June 2018 08:38:12 AM


"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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RE: Thanks!

Thanks for sharing. Interesting. Best regards, Willem



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"How the Tank Got Its Name"

Information kindly supplied by the Executive Secretary of the Royal Historical Society.

F.J. Gardiner


Elected Fellow of the Society 18 June 1896

Resigned fellowship 13 April 1916

Fellowship reinstated 18 May 1916


Resigned Fellowship 18 October 1917


Re-elected Fellow 8 May 1924


Died February 1930


Our file notes that he was a newspaper proprietor and editor (presumably at the time of his first election in 1896 - any later occupation is not listed)

In February 1918, he was actually not a Fellow of the Society.

Mr. Gardiner seems to have been an interesting and imaginative gentleman.

Just unearthed this:

Frederic (sic) John Gardiner was proprietor and editor of the Isle of Ely and Wisbech Advertiser. In 1898 he wrote and published a history of Wisbech in the previous 50 years, describing himself as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. During the First World War he published extracts from the diaries of his son, Ernest Frederic, until the latter's death in action in 1915.

-- Edited by James H on Wednesday 13th of June 2018 12:12:20 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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This is extremely interesting stuff!

Thank you. 


I have always felt it quite plausible that in an attempt to mislead or hide what is being built, 

that someone might have said something like "we're building a tank" (as in a water tank, boiler tank, using boilerplate and rivets, etc). 

And from that moment, the secret contraption becomes known as the "tank". 


But was the word "tank" in common use at that time? As in "water tank"? 


The idea of naming a farm tractor design after Mr. Tank seems a bit farfetched.

I could see factory workers calling a particular tractor design "the Tank" model, but how does that spread beyond the factory?

Wouldn't we have heard the name "tank" associated with a Tractor at some point before or after?

And its a big jump from a wheel tractor to Little Willie, especially when this factory and Mr.Tank had nothing to do with the War.



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RE: "How the Tank Got Its Name"

My personal theory is this:

The various accounts by the major players in this story (Stern, Tritton, d'Eyncourt, Sueter, Swinton) give slightly and not necessarily crucially different versions of what happened. Swinton's is that after the Inter-Departmental Conference on Dec 24th, 1915, he was instructed to find a non-committal word when writing his report of the proceedings. In the evening, he discussed it with a colleague, Lt-Col Walter Dally Jones, and they, jointly, it seems, chose the word "tank". In Eyewitness (1932) Swinton is happy to share the credit, even though Dally Jones died six years earlier and wouldn't have known if Swinton had taken it all himself.

We know that, as Tritton explained, the running gear of what would become Little Willie was known as "the Instructional Demonstration Unit." It was the hull that was called in the shop orders a '"water carrier for Mesopotamia"; no one knew that the hull was intended to be mounted on a truck. Naturally, the water carrier began to be called a "tank". So the name came to be used by managers and foremen of the shop, until now it has a place in the army vocabulary."'

But it's too much of a coincidence that Swinton (or Dally Jones) came up with the word unaware that Tritton's workers were already using it. He says that he and Dally Jones considered words such as "reservoir" and "cistern" before deciding on "tank." Why start there? They had the whole of the English language to choose from. It's hard for us to imagine a world where "tank" doesn't conjure up an image of . . . well, a tank. These were military men; you would have thought they would have begun by considering some sort of vaguely military words, but enough to disguise the vehicle's purpose. Or, to be completely random, they could have called it a coconut, or anything.

I think the answer must be one of these two possibilities:

Swinton first visited Foster's at Lincoln on September 19th, 1915, and saw the almost complete Little Willie and the mock-up of Mother. I don't know if he was told during that visit that the workers had the habit of using the word "tank," but it's possible. It might have, as Swinton would say, planted a seed that germinated three months later

On the other hand, there was clearly a discussion during the meeting on the afternoon of the 24th about possible codenames. Details here (It's OK, it's Wikipedia, but I wrote it.) Stern says, "Mr. d'Eyncourt agreed (with Mr. Thomas Macnamara) that it was very desirable to retain secrecy by all means, and proposed to refer to the vessel as a 'Water Carrier.'" That must have started the ball rolling. And d'Eyncourt had been closely involved with Foster's right from the start, so he is likely to have been aware of the workers' use of the word. We know the humorous reservations about calling it a W.C., but I think there must have been a discussion about d'Eyncourt's suggestion, during which various thesaural alternatives were put forward. The meeting obviously left it to Swinton to decide when he wrote up the minutes, with the result that we know.

Since starting this, I've come across This impressive site says Swinton and Jones "used D’Eyncourt’s 4 Nov 15 suggestion of ‘Water Carriers’ as their start point," which ties in, although I haven't come across the Nov 4 reference elsewhere. I shall contact them and see what they can tell us.

There is, though, no denying that Swinton and Dally Jones made an excellent choice.

In the meantime, Wikipedia requires a small adjustment.



"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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