20 December, 1914, London
Prime Minister Asquith thoughtfully tapped his fingers on the sheets of paper that have been neatly collected into a folder.
"This captain Hanky can cut to the heart," he said to himself.
The memorandum, composed by the Assistant Secretary of the Defense Committee Maurice Hankey, looks convincing and has a very British honesty to it: judgment, but it's mainly about machine guns.
These guns were one of Britain's many contributions to the progress of the world. In 1898, Lord Kitchener, annihilated the Mahdists army with them, and it was in the battle at the Nile's headwaters that England first used them. Those fanatics rushed forward and died from English bullets. Indeed, a truly beautiful and deadly weapon.
"God save the King and England, this very weapon can be turned against British forces," Asquith said aloud. "What if English soldiers would have to charge under enemy machine gun fire?"
Captain Hankey has proposed to create an armored machine gun carrier. He spoke in Navy terms like "fully-tracked" land cruisers (with cannons) and light "land destroyers" (with machine guns). Intriguing.
"Contact Churchill," Asquith calls to his secretary. "Tell the Lord of the Admiralty it's urgent."
December 1914, London
Churchill whistled for his dog and the jolly pug jumped into his master's arms.
"Nothing's more comforting than a dog's devotion," said Churchill. "I'm bloody tired. Therefore, sir, if possible, spare me the fine papers with too many words?"
"Witty as always, sir," replied the Prime Minister. "I've brought you papers, but may I tell you that the matter concerns armored machine gun carriers?"
"Oh!," said Churchill. "Interesting. Yes, sir, it's definitely interesting. Our airfields at Dunkirk are in need of good protection."
"Wheel transport is always bound to roads," answered the Prime Minister. "Unfortunately, it leads to inevitable limitations. But Hanky speaks about fully-tracked vehicles…"
"I've been working on the problem of equipment for armoured bridge-builders," said Churchill as the dog on his lap yawned. "It's necessary to give them the ability to work through trenches and destroyed roads."
"I'm informed of your initiative," said Asquith as he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and blotted his forehead.
The air in the cabinet office is cool but Asquith was visibly nervous. Things of great importance are at stake. It's simply unbelievable how Churchill could keep his perfect calm. A pretender for sure, but a very able one.
"Yes, I offered to construct a special transportation vehicle with a steam engine on Holt's track system," explained Churchill. "What good for American farmers will be good for English soldiers too. But our "tractor" is harnessed with armor and machine guns."
"How did you manage to get the support of the Chief of Fortifications?"
"Let's say, I reasoned him," answered Churchill with a narrow smile.
12 January, 1915, London
The Lord of the Admiralty crumples his newspaper, throws it away, and ferociously bites his cigar. The La Bassee offensive was a catastrophe. Machine gun fire and barbed wire became an English soldiers' doom.
"Good lord, such losses!," Churchill said to an empty room. "What's next? Dig in even deeper? No, there must be some breakthrough, some principal innovation!"
7 June, 1915, London, Ministry of War
"Have you read Colonel Swinton's report?" Field Marshal John French asked Churchill. "Very interesting."
Churchill kept silent, wearing an impenetrable expression on his face. Eventually he sighs and lets a narrow smile.
"Oh, yes," said Churchill. "Swinton's report is extremely informative. His idea of a machine gun destroyer sounds timely, given our recent losses."
"Bygones are bygones and we should think of the future!" Sir John French interrupted.
"There was a time when we felt sorry about the poor dervishes that ran into our machine guns unarmed," said Churchill. "How could this condescending pity not turn against us?"
"English soldiers will no longer be defenseless," retorted French, coldly, as he lowers his eyes to see the sheet of paper before him on the table. "We shall take care of it. And this information from Colonel Swinton should be kept in the strictest confidence. These vehicles must be built in secret, at home, and their existence should not be revealed before we are ready. There should be no preliminary tests with several vehicles at the same time because these will result in blowing the cover."
"That makes sense," grumbled Churchill and then one of the Ministry officials asked a question that was on the tips on many tongues: What's the novelty of this new vehicle? We already undertook the experiment of running the barriers with heavily harnessed "Holt" tractors back in February.
Churchill stared out the window. "What's good for the American farmer, will be good for English soldier. It didn't work. So it's best to forget."
But the tactless official continued, highlighting that a complete failure of these tests led to the idea of building "land ships" as they called those strange tractors.
"If we do not take any measures against barbed wire and machine guns, we'll stay in trenches until we rot," said Churchill.
Looking into the Lord of the Admiralty's grim face, nobody in that room would even dare to think that Winston Churchill himself was going to stay and rot anywhere.
2 February, 1916
Royal Navy Lieutenant Wilson looked with elation at his "tank." This was the name that, for conspiracy's sake, was decided to be given to the machine. Germans would never guess what a "tank," "tanks" or even "barrels" meant.
Minister of War Lord Kitchener skeptically raised his brows. His famous moustache bristled. The demonstration of the new vehicle seemed like a waste of time.
"I refuse to believe that a war can be won with machines that are so vulnerable to hostile artillery!" He pronounced.
Strong wind flapped the ends of his white scarf. He wanted to smoke, but in this weather it was too hard to light a match. Lieutenant Colonel Swinton, however, was full of enthusiasm.
"How come he's not cold?" thought Kitchener as he watched Swinton who seemed to be exhaling energy.
"We have here a life-sized model of the machine," exclaimed Swinton. "We call it Mother. Note its interesting diamond-shaped form and the tracks going around the outside of the body. We performed proof-shootings for these armor plates back in January using German machine guns."
"And how does it move?" Muttered Kitchener through his teeth.
The expression on Swinton's face showed that he didn't understand the meaning. Finally the Lieutenant Colonel answered. "For driving tests we prepared obstacles identical to German defense lines, and our military officers graded it with high marks."
"I also believe it's necessary to use these machines in large quantities," continued Swinton. "The initial success of the tank attack will be in its novelty. Therefore, these machines should be operated in small groups. The fact of their existence itself is still in secret, so when they're ready to start a major operation is how we'll be able to break through the frontline.
Swinton knew that before dealing with Germans, he would have to break another frontline: the Minister of War's disbelief. But eventually Kitchener spat out:
"And what do you suppose is the maximum speed and distance for these vehicles?"
"Approximately 12 miles per day. Our objective will be capturing enemy’s artillery; I assume artillery to be the most dangerous adversary of this new weapon."
Lord Kitchener watched as the heavy diamond-shaped vehicle lumbered the testing ground crawling across trenches and tearing through barbed wire lines. Still it was clear that the Minister of War was only partially convinced in the invention’s usefulness.
"We shall place the initial order for, say, 40 tanks,"
March, 1916, “Siberia” camp (Bisley)
Colonel Swinton walked past the line of his subordinates. Many he knew by sight. Like Major Wilson, former Lieutenant of the Royal Navy, now developing tanks.
And there stood another perspective commander, Major Stern, also recently a Lieutenant of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. Most of these officers and men were trained to use machine guns which was essential.
Of the 150 tanks -- Swinton was able to increase the initial order -- half of them were armed with two guns and three machine guns. Others were equipped only with machine guns and from here on out, the face of war changed forever.
© А. Мартьянов. 10.11. 2012. (перевод И.А.Майоров. 05.12.2012)