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Weapons of World War One:
Armored Vehicles


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Ever since fortresses were assailed, attackers have been searching for ways of getting their men closer to the enemy’s walls with some protection. Various mobile engines were designed that could be pushed forward using logs or hides as their armor. Though this basic concept kept up with technology, it was more easily applied to warships and trains that could easily retain mobility while wearing heavy metal plating.

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The use of armored trains dates back to the mid-19th century. By the outbreak of World War One they were in the arsenal of a number of countries but mainly used by Russia, Austria-Hungry, and Germany. Some of these were just used to securely transport important staff personnel while others were armed with artillery and machine guns to be used in combat operations, but their commonality is that all these rail cars and locomotives were covered with steel plating.

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While it may seem that their inescapable tether to rail lines made armored trains more vulnerable to attack and limited their mobility, they were employed for just the opposite reasoning. When first used there was no such thing as a tank so infantry did not carry weapons that could pierce heavy armor. While rail lines could be sabotaged, these trains were instrumental in protecting the rails against sudden cavalry raids that had no offensive capabilities against these types of trains. They also often operated in regions where good roads were scarce, which is why most were used on the Eastern Front. This meant it was unlikely that the enemy could quickly dispatch artillery to use against them while the trains had the ability to carry heavy guns into action at a relatively fast speed.

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The uniqueness of armored trains made them a popular subject for postcards but their small numbers also ensured that a limited number of examples would be printed. Those that do exist tend not to be rare, though real photo postcards of them are highly coveted. Some cards carefully document their details while others concentrate on depicting them in action.




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It was not until 1904 that armored plating was applied to a vehicle in the form of the armored car. Armored cars took up some of the work traditionally assigned to cavalry such as recognizance. While these vehicles did not have the same mobility of horses as they were confined to good roads, their armor offered their occupants enough protection to take on riskier missions. They were usually only armed with machine guns and not meant for true offensive action but they could be formidable when facing infantry or cavalry patrols that were only armed with light weapons.

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Charles Henkart added armor plating to two of his own heavy touring cars while serving in the Belgian army at Antwerp. These armored cars caused so much havoc during raids on the German lines that the army ordered many more of these vehicles into production. Most would use the heavy high powered motorcars produced by Minerva as a starting point, which were then plated at the Cockerill Steel Yards. While these Minervas proved their worth, production ceased early in the War after Antwerp fell to the Germans. As the Western Front settled into trench warfare, the usefulness of armored vehicles on the battlefield quickly diminished. Most armored cars would be deployed in the more mobile theaters of war to the east.

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Although the Germans thought that tanks needed to be developed much further before they could be put into mass production, they quickly came to see the value in armored cars and enlisted their truck manufactures to design them (sturmpanzerwagen). Bussing had already been providing the German army with trucks and tractors since 1910 and they came out with a heavy armored car (A5P) in 1916. Daimler and Ehrhardt also produced competing models. They were largely deployed in the Baltics, Romania, and the Ukraine where they were unconstrained by tench warfare.

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The Italians experimented with a number of early armored car designs but did not get a set model into production until the Lanza 1Z was introduced in 1916. This heavy vehicle was based on the trucks built by Ansaldo, and was armed with a twin and single machine guns turret. This firepower made it the most powerful armored car used in the Great War. Even though its deployment was severely limited by the rugged and mountainous terrain of the Italian Front, it proved useful enough in patrol duty for a second generation to be produced just before the War was over. These newer models (Lancia 1ZM) only had a twin turret mount for their guns. They were kept in service into World War Two.

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Armored cars were formidable weapons when facing an enemy armed with simple rifles. This match up was usually the case when performing normal patrol duties, but there was always a risk of meeting up with artillery. While not common there are postcards that show the aftereffects of the mismatch between armored cars and big guns.

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Postcards of various nations captured images of armored cars both in action and as oddities. At this time the Public was still getting used to the idea of the automobile and the introduction of armored vehicles were a true oddity that aroused great interest. While armored cars were often produced in number by established automobile manufacturers, there are many strange and unique designs to be found. Many of these show up on postcards, but because many of these vehicles were improvised it is not always easy to tell if they are of a postwar design.

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Some designs for armored vehicles are truly oddities, and since a number of them were manufactured privately rather than for the military, it is difficult to tell if a postcard image captures a rare one of a kind example. This is probably more applicable to depictions of vehicles that were not used for standard purposes.

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As with much of the new weaponry introduced in the Great War, the public grew fascinated with written accounts of their use long before ever seeing a visual depiction of them. Most artists were in no better of a position to render them accurately despite the need for their services. The lack of factual information led to many fanciful illustrations, some of which wound up on postcards. While most pictured through imagination are obvious fantasies to the modern eye, this wasn’t all so evident back when the cards were first printed. Some of this was fueled by government policies that forbid the depictions of tanks when they first made their way onto the battlefield. This ban was lifted in September 1916, but images of armored vehicles still had to be first passed by censors before they were presented to the public.

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Heavy touring cars were also converted into armed reconnaissance vehicles by adding a machine gun mount above their hood. While some were made from scratch, civilian owners were encouraged to donate their vehicles for military service. These cars performed many of the same reconnaissance duties as their more heavily armored cousins but lacked the same protection if they got into trouble. A common theme on postcards was to show armored or scout cars suddenly surprising enemy cavalry on patrol at night. Not only was there drama in the situation, headlights could create visual drama as well to quickly attract the buyers eye.




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While the armored car was most effective on good roads, it was of little use on a battlefield where it could not maneuver across the churned up no manŐs land between the trenches. Caterpillar tractors however were already in use to move heavy guns over bad terrain and some saw this as the solution to moving heavy guns into more dangerous battlefield situations. The Mark I, a tracked and armored self-propelled gun was introduced by the British in 1916 but few were produced and none saw action.

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It was obvious that another type of tractor-type vehicle was needed that could offer some protection to its operators through the application of armor and be mobile enough to operate on a battlefield. While such types of armored vehicles might have the potential of breaking the deadlock of the trench, they were a hard sell to those encased in tradition. In Great Britain this problem was not tackled by the army but the Royal Navy’s Landships Committee. Although the Russians and the French were working on this idea, it was the British that introduced the first tank prototype in September of 1915, and an improved model in January 1916. They would be built in two models, designated Male and Female. Both carried machine guns but the Male model was also armed with a naval gun. As more models were introduced the original came to be called the Mark I tank.

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Though designed to traverse rough terrain, tanks still had great difficulty crossing steep ditches and trenches, which were commonly found on most battlefields. Even shell holes created by large caliber guns became formidable obstacles that a tank could get stuck in. Often large bundles of sticks (fascines) or metal reinforced oak (unhitching beams) were strapped to their tops that could be pulled down by chains attached to their tracks into a depression too deep for them to otherwise cross. While such devices were commonly used, it is rare to find them depicted on postcards as few photos could be taken on the eve of a battle before the sticks were discharged. They gave an awkward appearance to tanks, so they were typically omitted from artist renderings.

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Steering a heavy tank required the attention of four crew members who would manipulate the gears so that one track would run at a different speed from the other. In addition to this the British added a two wheeled mechanism to the back of their first Mark 1 tanks to aid in this difficult task, but these peculiar devices did not function well when the terrain of a battlefield was heavily broken. These wheels were easily subject to damage and could be completely destroyed in combat, which was antithetical to the situations that tanks were to be used for. When latter models of British tanks were made, these fragile devices was left off.

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By September 1916, forty-nine Mark I tanks had been built and they went into action at Flers-Courelette as part of the Somme offensive against Combles. They were very slow, difficult to maneuver, hard to communicate with, and broke down easily, but they did have a detrimental affect on German morale. While their presence on the battlefield proved to have no strategic affect, production still went on. By the end of the War, Britain had manufactured about 2,600 tanks of various models.

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Tanks were used again on a much larger scale in November 1917 during the Battle of Cambrai. The 378 tanks of the British Expeditionary Force Tank Corps were designated to play a pivotal role in breaking through German defenses. Here they had initial success ripping through barbed wire and opening a gap in the German line, but as these fragile creatures pressed onward and enough of them broke down, the offensive ground to a halt. Though still capable of creating shock, the Germans soon found they could knock them out with light mortars and armor piercing bullets.

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After the Germans launched their counterattack at Cambrai, they recovered about half of the British tanks that were disabled and added those that could be repaired to their own arsenal. A large iron cross livery was then added to their sides for identification. Many of these tanks were later pictured on British postcards once they were destroyed or captured.

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The poor performance of the first tanks coupled with the ease in which they could be destroy led many in the German army to dismiss their value. There main problem was their engines that could not move these large heavy vehicles faster than a crawl, making them easy targets. Even so German tanks would be designed but not placed into production until many of these flaws were worked out. When the A7V was introduced in October of 1917 it was armed with a cannon in front and six machine guns but it still proved to be no more effective than Allied models in combat. In April of 1918 three of these tanks met up with three British tanks at the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux inaugurating the first tank battle. Germany did not manufacture more than twenty of these tanks relying more on those captured from the Allies.

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The development of tanks in France was initiated by Colonel Eugene Estienne. His first model used a caterpillar tractor chassis and was plated by the naval armament giant, Schneider. Along with machine guns these Schneider CA1 tanks were armed with a 75mm cannon. They were primarily designed to be put to use as mobile artillery that could support the infantry when trying to eliminate strong pockets of resistance. When the Neville offensive was launched in April 1917, 128 of these tanks advanced into the Champagne sector. They could barely maneuver across the broken terrain and were easily destroyed by German gunners aiming at their fuel tanks. Fewer than half survived.

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The French Schneider tank evolved into the heavier St. Chamond tank, but despite its thicker armor it still proved very vulnerable to German anti-tank rifle fire. Its primary role as a mobile assault gun remained the same, and so did its related problems. If was very effective in ideal conditions but its forward mounted gun could still not be turned and the entire vehicle had to turn to change aim. Its gun also had limited elevation, which restricted its range. Only 377 of these tanks were built during the War.

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Though the Schneider tanks continued to be revised and used until the end of the war, a better model was needed. It was the automobile manufacturer Renault that eventually came up with a workable design for a lighter tank with a rotating gun turret. They first saw action in May 1918 at Ploisy-Chazelle during the second battle of the Marne where about 350 of these Renault FT tanks were deployed. Because of the more fluid nature of this battle they were quite successful and more were rushed into production. Over 3,000 would be manufactured by the War’s end.

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The American Expeditionary Force arrived in France with no tanks of their own, and so they were issued 514 Renault FTs. This became the core of the first U.S. Light Tank Brigade placed under the command of Captain George Patton. They saw action at the Battle for St. Mihel and the Argonne Forest. Additional M1917 tanks began being manufactured in the United States based on the French Renault design, but only the first of ten of these reached the front lines during the last month of the War and never saw service. They were however used back home to catch the attention of the public for the last war bond drive.

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The British would develop another fast moving light tank of their own designed to exploit any breakthroughs in enemy lines. This was the Mark A Whippet, armed with four machine guns. It did not go into service until March 1918 but it still saw sporadic action. It is one of the least represented tanks to be found on postcards.

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Most postcards depicting tanks were created by the publishers of only four nations, and each approached the subject differently. Most seem to come from Great Britain where they depicted all sorts of tanks, including many engaged in battle. The most prolific publisher of cards depicting tanks was probably the Delta Fine Art Company who produced two sets of these cards.

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While the light tanks introduced near the end of the war appeared on many postcards, nearly all of these are photo-based and depict them on maneuvers. This also makes it difficult to distinguish between cards that were printed at the end of the War from those produced in the years immediately following since the same models were still in use. Many French cards fall into this category, especially those depicting Camp de Mailly, which was used as a training center for most of the 20th century and was very active in the Great War.

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Tanks could cause panic, but the scores of Germans surrendering before them on Allied postcards probably represented propaganda efforts more than reality. German publishers were more likely to show their troops swarming enemy tanks trying to kill their crews by any means possible. Tanks did not operate with close infantry support at this time, which allowed enemy soldiers to get up close to these slow moving vehicles. The Germans found a variety of ways to kill tanks with things as simple as firing bullets with a blunted tip that would often punch right through a tank&rsqo;s thin armor. Flamethrowers were also aimed at viewing slits, and sacks of hand grenades were thrown into their tracks to blow them off.

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By June 1917 tanks were being manufactured with heavier armor and their crews could no longer be killed by rifle fire. In response the Germans developed the Mauser 13mm high velocity anti-tank rifle, and trained special teams in its use. It had no recoil mechanism, which meant that the soldier using it could be knocked off his feet. When put into action in May 1918 it was the first weapon of its kind. This long anti-tank rifle rarely appears on postcards, and when it does captions tend to take little note of it.

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A hit by an artillery shell would kill a tank if properly aimed, but by this stage in the conflict most artillery was fired indirectly against fixed positions not moving objects. Even so, blanket bombardments could cause serious problems for tanks. Direct fire from an anti-aircraft gun was more of a sure thing and they were sometimes deployed for this purpose. Anti-tank mines with pressure plates were also developed late in the War. Most tanks were probably lost to their unreliable engines, which made them available for reuse by the enemy if captured.

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The Germans produced so few tanks it is difficult to find scenes of them in action. Most depictions of them come from Allied publishers while most German cards depict their troops killing British tanks. There were however many real photo postcards of destroyed tanks, sometimes with their freshly dead crews. For the most part these cards lack titles and publisher credits so it is difficult to determine their origin like most other unauthorized cards. One might guess that they are mostly German just because such images of enemy tanks would benefit them the most in the propaganda war but this by no means is a guaranty. Many of these cards reproduce images are of the same tank or tanks composed from different angles.

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Many postcards depicting tanks were published in Japan. They were not deployed in Asia during the First World War so it can be assumed they are from the European theater of war. These are mostly static views rather than of tanks in action. Like their European counterparts they can easily be confused with images of tanks used in China after the Great War ended.

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The public’s fascination with tanks extended beyond postcards. When captured they would often be hauled back to friendly cities and put on display as war booty. This not only satisfied curiosity, it showed that these formidable looking weapons were no match for their own army. Such messages also helped in selling war bonds; so tanks were often included in rallies and parades. Images of crowds surrounding these tanks on public squares of all nations were also placed on postcards.

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Not all tanks pictured on postcards are real. When the organizers of a parade could not get their hands on a real tank, one made out of cloth over a wood frame might do. These sculptural works can be more visually intriguing than the real thing. A number of photographers also used large wooden tanks as props in their portrait studios.

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It is uncertain if dummy tanks were first used for public theater or military training but their use and production became an art form during World War One with special pioneer/ propaganda units deployed to deceive the enemy on the battlefield. Few soldiers had enough experience with tanks to detect a decoy from a distance, and many were willing to let their imaginations run wild. Their primary use however seems to have been to fool enemy air reconnaissance. Such programs using decoys rely on secrecy, so they were not considered subjects for printed postcards until the postwar years. They can however be found on real photo cards but these are rare.




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