First World War Mark IV Tank
World War 1 Tank “Flirt”
The Development of the Tank
The first trenches of the Great War (1914 – 1918) were dug in the battlefields of France and Belgium by Christmas 1914, but the opposing forces soon became bogged down in the mud. The widespread use of the machine gun and shells led to high levels of casualties and this, along with the mud, made advance impossible. This was the problem which faced the Admiralty Landship Committee in 1915, who were given the task of developing ‘a machine, strongly armoured, carrying powerful guns, capable of negotiating reasonable obstacles in the battle area and crossing the opposing trenches’.
The Committee approached a Lincoln engineering company, William Foster & Co. Ltd. Fosters specialised in agricultural machinery, building steam engines, threshing drums and tractors. With Hornsbys of Grantham they had even experimented with caterpillar tracked vehicles. The Fosters team included managing director William Tritton, his chief draughtsman William Rigby and Major Wilson of the War Cabinet. The need for secrecy was so important that the team met in a room at the White Hart Hotel, Lincoln, now known as The Tank Room, and Fosters workers were informed they were making ‘watercarriers for Mesopotamia’, which they shortened to ‘tank’.
It took just 37 days to produce a prototype tank, named Little Willie after William Tritton. It was tested on waste ground near the factory, but the caterpillar tracks kept coming off, so the tank was redesigned with a track which went all the way around its body. This tank was known as Big Willie but renamed Mother. Tanks were in full production in Lincoln by 1916, the original designs being developed as expertise grew. The Whippet was lighter, designed to be fast and reaching speeds of 9 miles per hour; the Hornet, which was better armed having all-round field of fire, was the last tank to be designed in Lincoln, much of the production being outsourced to other engineering companies, although Fosters were called upon to build tanks in World War II.
Mark I tanks were first used at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, but they were limited in number and not used effectively. The Battle of Cambrai in November 1917 saw the first use of tanks on a large scale when an advance was made of 5 miles. The tank had changed the face of warfare.
At the end of the war Fosters returned to agricultural engineering work. The company was taken over in 1960 and the Waterloo Street Foundry later demolished, but the road which runs through the tank testing site has been named Tritton Road in honour of William Tritton.
Mark IV Tank Flirt II
Flirt II was built by the Metropolitan Carriage Works in Birmingham in 1917, as by this time the production of tanks was also contracted out to other manufacturers. Flirt II is a female Mark IV tank (female tanks were fitted with machine guns only, whilst male tanks have two six pounder guns and a machine gun). Flirt II was commissioned to the Tank Corps 16th Company, F Battalion and replaced Flirt I which had been badly damaged and abandoned at Ypres.
Flirt II first saw action at Cambrai and was involved in the taking of Bourlon village, but was ditched due to engine problems. She was recovered and repaired and her final battle was at Arras in March 1918. Flirt II was withdrawn from the front, along with the other Mark IVs, in June 1918. The recovered tanks spent the remainder of the war working as supply and salvage tanks.
At the end of the war surviving tanks were decommissioned and sent to Bovington Training Camp in Dorset. Many of these tanks were presented to the cities and towns which had raised money through War Bonds, where they were placed on public display and became static memorials (Ashford in Kent is the only place where one of these tanks can still be seen in its original setting). The remaining tanks either rusted at Bovington Camp and were sold as scrap, or, like Flirt II, were used in gunnery practice.
In 1932 Flirt II was set up as a static exhibit outside Bovington Camp, where she remained until 1982. At some point the engine was removed and the tank gradually deteriorated. In the 1970s the Lincoln Tank Group approached Bovington, which by then had become Bovington Tank Museum, to ask if they could borrow a tank for display in the City of Lincoln, the birthplace of the tank. Ruston Gas Turbines agreed to finance the project. Permission was granted on condition that the tank be restored and placed on public display.
Flirt II came to Lincoln and after restoration work was displayed in the British Museum’s Treasures of the Nation exhibition in London in the late 1980s. In 1989 Flirt II returned to Lincoln to the Museum of Lincolnshire Life, where she remains to this day.
The Restoration of Flirt II
Restoration work on Flirt II took place between September 1983 and November 1985, when the tank was handed over to the City of Lincoln. The work was carried out by apprentices and Youth Training Scheme trainees at Ruston Gas Turbines in Lincoln, for the Lincoln Tank Group.
Flirt IIwas dismantled and it was found that most of the deterioration was due to corrosion. The armour plate, floor, sponsons (gun platforms), track, rollers and gears were removed and many of the parts had to be replaced. It would have been too expensive to manufacture new parts from original materials, so alternative materials were employed, for example wood and fibreglass were used to make new tracks. Unfortunately the engine could not be replaced as an appropriate example could not be found. Despite the restoration work it is still possible to see indentations on the side of the tank, the marks left by machine gun bullets from the Great War.
Tank Names, Call Signs and the Playing Card System
To enable each tank to be easily identifiable in battle they were given a name, usually by the commander of the tank and relating to the battalion, for example names within the F Battalion began with the letter ‘F’ and tank names chosen by F Battalion, besides Flirt, included Flying Fox, Fearless and Friar Tuck. On Mark IV tanks the name was either painted on the front or high on the front sides. If a tank was transferred to another battalion the name would be changed.
Call signs or crew numbers were also related to the battalion using the unit’s letter - Flirt II’s call sign was ‘F4’, Flying Fox ‘F22’, Fearless ‘F26’ and Friar Tuck ‘F12’. The call sign was kept for as long as the tank was with that unit, but like tank names was transferable. On the Mark IV the call sign was usually placed high on the front sides. Tanks were also issued with a serial number by the manufacturer for administration purposes and remained with the tank throughout its service. Flirt II’s serial number is 2179. This number was painted on the rear side.
The use of playing cards suits was introduced by the 16th Company. Each company had its own suit and each tank within that company had its own card – Flirt II’s playing card is the four of hearts, however photographic evidence has come to light which suggests Flirt II’s playing card may once have been the four of clubs. The playing card was painted on the side of the tank, usually next to the call sign.
- The Tank Papers, published by The Lincoln Tank Group, 1988
- Leaflet Lincoln The Birthplace of the Tank, published by Lincoln City Council
- Water Carriers for Mesopotamia http://homepage.ntlworkld.com/peter.fairweather/docs/tanks.htm
- Lincoln’s Connection with the Tank http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/making_history/makhist10_prog8f.shtml
- William Foster & Co. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Foster_&_Co
- Tank Banks http://enwikipedia.org.wiki/Tank_Banks