Today on Project Gutenberg #54

Another day, another weird rabbit hole. Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Life in a Tank by Richard Haigh

Pop quiz! When was the modern tank introduced into warfare? Believe it or not, we can trace it down to an exact date.

Like many things which are good at killing people, the modern military tank was developed and first deployed during World War One. Over in England in February 1915, the First Lord of the Admiralty — some guy named Winston Churchill — created the Landship Committee for the purpose of designing an armored vehicle to use in battle on the Western Front. The process of developing, building and shipping these vehicles took over a year. On September 15, 1916, the first tanks roared into action during the Battle of the Somme. Well, “roared into action” might be an overstatement. Out of the 49 initial tanks that were shipped to France, only 32 worked well enough to be used in battle. And out of those, only 9 made it across the no man’s land. But regardless of how effective those first tanks were, the landscape of warfare forever changed once they appeared.

Sometime after that first battle, infantry lieutenant Richard Haigh and his fellow soldiers came across one of the derelict tanks in No Man’s Land. “We had swarmed around and over her, wild with curiosity,” Haigh wrote, “much as the Lilliputians must have swarmed around the prostrate Gulliver. Our imagination was fired” (page 2). That experience was one of the main factors in Haigh’s decision to sign up for the Heavy Branch Machine-Gun Corps and learn how to operate a tank. His experiences in training, as well as some of the battles he took part in, form the basis of this book.

As far as I can tell, Haigh was not normally a writer. I can’t find much biographical information about him, and I can’t find evidence that he wrote any other books besides this one. So it’s a little surprising to get into this book and find out that Haigh has a pretty good way with words. His language is often blunt, to the point and probably easy for modern audiences to understand. But at the same time, he can be evocative in a way that really brings these characters and locations to life. Whether he’s using the names of real people or fictionalizing them, I have no idea. But he paints the members of the H.B.M.G.C. as an excited bunch of young men awestruck at this revolutionary piece of equipment.

When you enter a tank, you go in head first, entering by the side doors. (There is an emergency exit—a hole in the roof which is used by the wise ones.) You wiggle your body in with more or less grace, and then you stand up. Then, if it is the first time, you are usually profane. For you have banged your head most unmercifully against the steel roof and you learn, once and for all, that it is impossible to stand upright in a tank. Each one of us received our baptism in this way. Seven of us, crouched in uncomfortable positions, ruefully rubbed our heads, to Rigden’s intense enjoyment. Our life in a tank had begun!

We looked around the little chamber with eager curiosity. Our first thought was that seven men and an officer could never do any work in such a little place. Eight of us were, at present, jammed in here, but we were standing still. When it came to going into action and moving around inside the tank, it would be impossible,—there was no room to pass one another. So we thought. In front are two stiff seats, one for the officer and one for the driver. Two narrow slits serve as portholes through which to look ahead. In front of the officer is a map board, and gun mounting. Behind the engine, one on each side, are the secondary gears. Down the middle of the tank is the powerful petrol engine, part of it covered with a hood, and along either side a narrow passage through which a man can slide from the officer’s and driver’s seat back and forth to the mechanism at the rear. There are four gun turrets, two on each side. There is also a place for a gun in the rear, but this is rarely used, for “Willies” do not often turn tail and flee!

Pages 30-31

But if you think the inside of a tank is the safest place to be on a raging WWI battlefield, you’d be dead wrong (with extra emphasis on the “dead”). Your tank could take a hit and go up in a fireball, as the soldiers learn during their first real battle. And as they learn the second time out, being inside a tank can’t even protect you from an ordinary bullet:

Then a sudden and unexplainable sense of disaster caused McKnutt to look round. One of his gunners lay quite still on the floor of the tank, his back against the engine, and a stream of blood trickling down his face. The Corporal who stood next to him pointed to the sights in the turret and then to his forehead, and McKnutt realized that a bullet must have slipped in through the small space, entering the man’s head as he looked along the barrel of his gun. There he lay, along one side of the tank between the engine and the sponson. The Corporal tried to get in position to carry on firing with his own gun, but the dead body impeded his movements.

There was only one thing to do. The Corporal looked questioningly at McKnutt and pointed to the body. The officer nodded quickly, and the left gearsman and the Corporal dragged the body and propped it up against the door. Immediately the door flew open. The back of the corpse fell down and half the body lay hanging out, with its legs still caught on the floor. With feverish haste they lifted the legs and threw them out, but the weight of the body balanced them back again through the still open door. The men were desperate. With a tremendous heave they turned the dead man upside down, shoved the body out and slammed the door shut. They were just in time. A bomb exploded directly beneath the sponson, where the dead body had fallen. To every man in the tank came a feeling of swift gratitude that the bombs had caught the dead man and not themselves.

Pages 108-109

I would recommend reading a few chapters of this if you have the time. It’s relatively short, the writing style is lively, and Haigh gives us a fascinating account of what it was like to work with these machines and be part of an important moment in military history.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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