A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Enter the huge, lumbering, mechanical monsters

Bert Chaney, a signaller with the 7th London Territorial Battalion, witnesses a turning-point in military history

We heard strange throbbing noises, and lumbering slowly towards us came three huge mechanical monsters such as we had never seen before.

My first impression was that they looked ready to topple on their noses, but their tails and the two little wheels at the back held them down and kept them level. Big metal things they were, with two sets of caterpillar wheels that went right round the body. There was a bulge on each side with a door in the bulging part, and machine-guns on swivels poked out from either side. The engine, a petrol engine of massive proportions, occupied practically all the inside space. Mounted behind each door was a motor-cycle type of saddle seat and there was just about enough room left for the belts of ammunition and the drivers...

The Germans must have heard them too and, although they had no idea what to expect, they promptly laid down a heavy curtain of fire on our front line. This had the effect of making us keep our heads down, but every now and again we felt compelled to pop up and look back to see how the tanks were progressing. It was most heartening to watch their advance, we were almost ready to cheer. But there was a surprise in store for us. Instead of going on to the German lines the three tanks assigned to us straddled our front line, stopped and then opened up a murderous machine-gun fire, enfilading us left and right. There they sat, squat monstrous things, noses stuck up in the air, crushing the sides of our trench out of shape with their machine-guns swivelling around and firing like mad.

Everyone dived for cover, except the colonel. He jumped on top of the parapet, shouting at the top of his voice, “Runner, runner, go tell those tanks to stop firing at once. At once, I say.” By now the enemy fire had risen to a crescendo but, giving no thought to his own personal safety as he saw the tanks firing on his own men, he ran forward and furiously rained blows with his cane on the side of one of the tanks . . .

Although, what with the sounds of the engines and the firing in such an enclosed space, no one in the tank could hear him, they finally realised they were on the wrong trench and moved on, frightening the Jerries out of their wits and making them scuttle like frightened rabbits.

‘Moments’ that have already been published can be seen at independent.co.uk/greatwar

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