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The Tank: A Brief History

A tank is a tracked armored defense/ground strike vehicle designed to engage enemies head-on, using direct fire from a large caliber-gun. Heavy armor - as well a high degree of mobility - give it survivability, while the tracks allow it to cross even rough terrain at high speeds.

Tanks were first used in World War I to break the deadlock of the trenches, and they evolved gradually to assume the former role of cavalry on the battlefield: to either flank opposing positions with fast movement, or to penetrate defenses by massive concentration. Either movement may then be followed up by deep penetration into enemy rear areas, again supported by their high mobility. Tanks seldom operate alone, being organized into armored units, usually in combined arms forces. Without such support, tanks, despite their armor and mobility, are vulnerable to special anti-tank artillery, other tanks, anti-tank mines, infantry (at short ranges) as well as specialized anti-tank aircraft such as attack helicopters or close air support aircraft.

While tanks are expensive to operate and support, they remain among the most formidable and versatile weapons of the modern battlefield, both for their ability to engage other ground targets (including fortifications) and their shock value against infantry. Tanks and armor tactics have undergone many generations of evolution over nearly a century. Although weapons systems and armor continue to be developed, often at very high cost, many nations have reconsidered the need for such heavy weaponry in a period characterized by unconventional warfare.

The name 'tank' first arose in British factories making the hulls of the first battle tanks: the workmen were given the impression they were constructing tracked water containers for the British Army, hence keeping the production of a fighting vehicle secret.

The stalemate on the Western Front prompted the British Army to begin research into a self-propelled vehicle which could cross trenches, crush barbed wire, and would be impervious to fire from machine-guns. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill sponsored the Landships Committee which created the first successful prototype tank, 'Little Willie' in September 1915. The vehicles were colloquially referred to as water carriers, later shortened to tanks, to preserve secrecy and the name became official in December 1915.

The first tank to engage in battle was D1, a Mark I British tank used during the Battle of Flers-Courcellette (part of the Battle of the Somme), on September 15th, 1916. Whilst it assisted the British infantry in capturing some German trenches, it was knocked out by friendly fire. The French developed the Schneider CA1 working from Holt caterpillar tractors, and first used it on April 16th, 1917. The first successful use of massed tanks in combat meanwhile occurred at the Battle of Cambrai on November 20th, 1917. Tanks were also used to great effect in the Battle of Amiens, when Allied forces were able to break through entrenched German position due to armored support.

Germany fielded a small number of tanks during World War I, notably the A7V, of which only about twenty were produced. The first tank versus tank action took place on April 24th, 1918, at Villers-Bretonneux, France, when three British Mark IVs met three German A7Vs. German forces initially lacked countermeasures, though they did (accidentally) discover solid anti-tank shot, and the use of wider trenches to limit the British tanks' mobility. However, changing battlefield conditions and continued unreliability forced Allied tanks to evolve throughout the war, producing models such as the very long Mark V, which could navigate large obstacles, especially wide trenches, more easily than their predecessors.

Initial results with tanks were mixed; significant reliability problems caused considerable attrition in combat, with up to one third breaking down due to mechanical problems unrelated to enemy fire. Deployment in small 'penny packets' also lessened their nonetheless formidable tactical value and impact. The spear-thrust type Blitzkrieg-tactics were only to be developed fully in WWII, and while the tank would eventually make trench warfare obsolete, World War I came to an end before this fully came to pass.

During World War I two major types of tanks had evolved; the 'male tank' which is the vehicle associated with the word today, and the 'female tank', which contained a series of smaller weapons located around the hull as opposed to a single large gun. The female tank was mainly designed as an anti-infantry platform to defend the male tanks. After World War I ended, this type of vehicle was largely replaced by infantry carriers.