The British Mark I was the first ever tank to see combat.
150 were built, divided into male and female types with 75 of each. Male tanks had sponsons, each one mounting a 57mm, six-pounder gun. Female tanks, on the other hand, each mounted two cumbersome sponsons, designed to carry two Vickers, water-cooled, heavy machine guns instead, with tiny escape doors at the back. Both had a wheeled tail assembly at the back which could be used for steering and as a counter-balance when going over a ridge or even additional support when crossing a wide trench.
Mark I tanks went into action for the first time on 15 September 1916 on the Somme. Eight others were shipped out to Palestine and saw action at Gaza, the first time tanks were ever used in a desert setting. Later in 1916 the wheeled tails, which were proving more trouble than they were worth, were removed and it was found that the tanks ran just as well without them. Other modifications included fitting stronger brakes and better track rollers and removing the teeth from the idler wheels at the front. Some minor actions took place later in the year and fifteen Mark I tanks were earmarked to take part in the Battle of Arras in April 1917. After that, as new tanks were coming along the surviving Mark Is were relegated to subsidiary roles as Supply or Wireless tanks.
The Tank Museum’s Mark I
The Tank Museum has the last surviving example of a Mark I. It was presented to Lord Salisbury in 1919 for display on his Hatfield Park estate in Hertfordshire to commemorate the use of his grounds for some of the earliest tank demonstrations in 1916.
It was equipped with the short six-pounder guns and small diameter gun shields from a later type of tank, was damaged at the rear and lacked the steering tail assembly and hydraulic apparatus. When it arrived at the Tank Museum it received the hydraulics and tail from the Mark II tank and had the appearance of the guns restored cosmetically with wood.
Originally displayed in grey, with the ‘Russian’ inscription, it was later repainted to represent the tank ‘Clan Leslie’ as it appeared during the Somme battle on 15 September 1916, complete with a replica of the ‘bomb-proof’ roof.