‘A Very Strange Machine’

In November 1917, at Cambrai, three hundred British tanks broke through the supposedly impregnable Hindenburg trench system on a front of seven miles and, for a loss of four thousand men, captured eight thousand terrified German prisoners. It was a penetration equal to that which had taken three months and countless deaths to achieve at the Third Battle of Ypres. When the victory bells rang in England at the end of November, tank supporters were sure that they were tolling out an old style of war and sounding in a new one, which would be characterized by deep thrusts and encirclements rather than the bloody paralysis of the trenches.

These prophets were eventually proved correct, but it took a long time. It is true that the tank had an important part in the last year of the Great War—in General Ferdinand Foch’s counterattack in the Battle of Soissons on July 18, 1918, for example, and in Sir Henry Rawlinson’s rapid advance on the first day of the Battle of Amiens on August 18, 1918, which caused the chaos and panic of what General Erich Ludendorff called the “black day” of the German army. But the predicted tactical revolution was delayed for another twenty years, largely because of the entrenched conservatism of military establishments.

This conservatism took different forms in different countries. As far as Britain is concerned, the reader of Patrick Wright’s insightful new book may be inclined to believe that it was chiefly owing to the continued mystique of the cavalry, which seemed to most soldiers to be a truer form of war than anything that could be accomplished by machines. The cavalry, as one soldier explained ruefully, was “the social difficulty,” for it had always been “the high class thing to be in.” It seems likely also that the zeal of the tank’s advocates helped to discredit their arguments.

The most distinguished of these, J.F.C. Fuller, a theorist of rare imagination who was one of the architects of Cambrai, made no secret of his contempt for the uninspired strategy of Field Marshal Haig and for what he called the craven acquiescence of the civilian government in his failure of vision. But Fuller’s shrillness and his propensity for political extremism (he was a member of Sir Oswald Mosley’s Fascist Party, an early admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, and an ardent anti-Semite) helped to discredit his views and bring his military career to an early end. What postwar tank exercises there were in Britain were badly handled and tended to discourage the cause of mechanization.

This was also true of France, where the voices of the rare supporters of the tank like Charles de Gaulle were drowned out in the postwar years by the Pétainist advocates of defensive war, and also of the United States, where isolationist feeling was so strong that the promising Tank Corps of the war years was dismantled and all tanks were placed under the command of the infantry and trained in traditional infantry tactics. In…

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