US Tanks of WW1

The US entered the Great War with no tanks of their own – by the end of the war they had designed and built their first tank, collaborated on a leviathan heavy tank with Britain and built their own copy of the French FT. In this video we look at how the US Army hit the ground running and formed two tank corps and built their first tanks.

In recent videos we’ve looked at all of the US Army’s early tanks, here’s a round up:

Ford M1918 3-Ton Tank

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The tinny 3-ton Ford was the first American designed and built tank. Aiming to use readily available parts and materials it took inspiration from the French Renault FT but was smaller and lacked the FT’s revolutionary turret. The Ford was only lightly armoured and did have the best cross country handling. Check out our full article on the Ford here.

MkVIII ‘International’ Heavy Tank

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The MkVIII was a truly ‘international’ effort with the US, UK and France all working on the project. The US and UK provided the mechanical components while France provided a factory to assemble the formidable vehicles. The MkVIII wasn’t ready in time to see action during the war but remained in US service into the 1930s. Check out our full article on the MkVIII here.

The M1917 Light Tank

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The US also sought to produce their own licensed version of the French Renault FT, making some slight changes the tank was adopted as the M1917 but despite production being well underway by late 1918, none of the M1917s reached the front. Instead they became the backbone of the US Army’s interwar tank force. One even climbed a mountain!  Check out our full article on the M1917 here.

You can find a playlist of all our videos looking at the US Tanks of WW1 here.


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Tank vs Building (1917)

I’m this short video a British MkIV heavy tank ploughs through a series of wooden buildings during a 1917 demonstration.

The tank crashes into the first building

The MkIV was a ‘female’, machine gun-armed, tank that weighed in at around 27 tons. Designed to support infantry, it had a top speed of just 4mph.

The tank pushes over and crushes another wooden-framed building

In this footage the tank does not have its guns mounted as it runs through a succession of wooden framed builds, as British and American officers and men look on.

Don’t forget to check out our series on World War One tanks here.


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MkVIII Heavy Tank In Action

This week’s bonus video features some contemporary footage of a MkVIII Heavy Tank showing off what it can do during a demonstration outside Bridgeport, Connecticut, in October 1918.

We have a full episode on the MkVIII detailing its history and development here

 

MkVIII ‘International’ Heavy Tank

This is the last of our series of videos/articles on the US Tanks of WWI, you can find all episodes here.

The MkVIII Heavy Tank holds the distinction of being the result of the first successful international co-operative tank project. Developed with input from British and American designers and engineers, intended to be equipped with British weapons and an American engine, with parts made in the US and Britain and to be assembled in France – a truly international undertaking. The MkVIII, sometimes referred to as ‘The International’ or ‘Liberty Tank’, owed its basic design to earlier British heavy tanks but a number of important changes were made.

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Port side of a MK VIII heavy tank (US National Archives)

Intended for introduction in 1919, the war ended before the MkVIII could enter service and even before its French factory had been completed. It did, however, see some production and inter-war service providing the heavy tank backbone of the US’ tank force for many years.

The design evolved from work by British Lieutenant G.J Rackham with later input from American engineer Major Herbert Alden. The MkVIII heavy was very much an evolution of the earlier British rhomboid heavy tanks but Rackham and Alden made some important improvements. Chiefly the redesigning of the tank’s sponsons which housed a pair of British 6pdr guns. While the tank was a foot narrower than its predecessors, the new folding sponsons could enabled the tank to be transported more easily by rail and to also, in theory, navigate narrow spaces. Alden patented this feature in December 1918 (US #1366550). Additionally, the commander’s ‘outlook turret’ positioned on top of the tank’s turret, which had vision slits on all four sides, was also retractable. Alden’s sponsons were hinged at the front and mounted on rolling bearings so they could pivot inwards.

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Alden’s patent for his pivoting sponson (US Patent Office)

The MkVIII directly addressed several shortcomings of earlier British heavy tanks, firstly the engine was insulated in its own compartment to prevent exhaust fumes overwhelming the crew. A new ventilation system was also added with a fan keeping fumes out of the fighting compartment. Secondly, overall visibility was improved with protected vision and revolver slits and the addition of the tank’s commander’s turret.

Another important design change was the move to longer tracks, about 5 inches in length, which required a dozen less links than the MkV. Each of the links was shallowly stamped to increase its strength. In terms of armament the MkVIII was designed as solely ‘male’ – with guns in its sponsons, not machine guns – however, with a raised tower on the tanks roof this provided positions for five machine guns in hemispherical ball mounts. Two more machine guns could be mounted in the tank’s hull doors located behind the sponsons. The ammunition for the 6pdr guns was held in a central ammunition storage box but the sponsons also had shell storage space surrounding the guns themselves.

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The MkVIII’s V12 engine (US Army Preliminary Handbook for the MkVIII)

The 37 ton tank was to be powered by an American V12 aircraft petrol engine manufactured by the Liberty company. Although a cheaper, water-cooled Liberty was eventually used in the American tanks. The British developed a similar 12 cylinder engine from Ricardo. This, in theory, produced 300 horsepower with a top speed of just over 6mph and a range of just under 40 miles. The MkVIII’s engine was moved from the centre of the tank to a separate engine compartment at the rear of the tank. This not only reduced engine heat and fumes in the fighting compartment but also made communication easier. Some sources also suggest that the MkVIII was the first tank to have an electronic intercom system.

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An officer illustrates how one of the tank’s ball mounted machine guns worked – the gun itself is an M1919 tank machine gun (US Library of Congress)

The American Preliminary Handbook for the MkVIII listed the tanks as being equipped with 7 ‘Hotchkiss .303-inch machine guns’, these are likely to be Hotchkiss Portative MkI*s popular in British service. In US service, however, the tanks were likely later equipped with the new Browning M1919 Tank Machine Guns. The tank carried 182 rounds of 6pdr ammunition and an additional 26 smoke rounds as well as 21,000 rounds of machine gun ammunition to keep the 7 machine guns fed.The tank’s armour was also increased lightly from the previous MkV, with 16mm of frontal armour and between 10 and 12mm at the sides. Less vulnerable areas had armour 6mm thick.

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A partial cutaway view of the tank (US Army Preliminary Handbook for the MkVIII)

The American MkVIIIs were initially planned to be manned by an eleven-man crew made up of a driver, commander, two gunners and two loaders to man 6pdrs, four machine gunners and a mechanic. Later crew complements probably dispensed with two of the machine gunners as the US MkVIIIs operated during the inter-war period dispensed with two of the midships machine guns. The British crew was planned to be smaller with 8-men fighting the tank, made up of a driver, commander a pair of gunners and loaders for the main guns and two machine gunners who were tasked with manning the tank’s various machine guns. Impressively the 34 feet long tank also had room for as many as 22 infantry to be transported.

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A MkVIII demonstrating its power by destroying a tree during testing (US National Archives)

As an allied collaborative project the production of parts was to be a collaborative effort. Britain was to contribute armour plate, structural frame work and armament. The American contribution was to include the automotive parts including the engine, brakes, drive sprockets, gears and transmission.

The French were largely uninterested in British heavy tanks and their primary contribution to the MkVIII project was a factory site near the village of Neuvy-Pailloux, 165 miles south of Paris, in central France. Critically located well away from the fighting on a main rail route north, through Issoudun. Construction of the impressive factory appears to have begun in early 1918, with the framework of seven long production halls and the installation of a powerplant and generators and the building of railway sidings completed before the armistice in November 1918. Production barely got underway in Britain, let alone in France. Contemporary photographs taken in January 1919, by the US Army Signal Corps show the factory with its roof in various stages of completion, its shop floors unfinished and empty and open to the elements. The factory would eventually be completed and used by the French army as an artillery park and later a maintenance depot.

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The incomplete Neuvy-Pailloux factory c.1919 (US National Archives)

The oringal plan was for the tank parts to be shipped across the channel and the atlantic through France’s western coastal ports to be shipped by rail to Neuvy-Pailloux where they would be assembled into working tanks. It was envisaged that the workforce would be made up of Chinese labourers with British and American foremen and managers.

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Inside the incomplete factory (US National Archives)

As many as 3,000 tanks were planned for 1919. The British intended to build 1,450 MkVIIIs of their own use in addition to the 1,550 to be produced for general allied use. The British tank parts were to be manufactured in Manchester, by the various workshops of the Manchester Tanks Association, and in Glasgow, by the North British Locomotive Company. Mass production in Manchester never got underway and the initial British MkVIIIs were built in Glasgow – just 24 are believed to have been built, all but six of these were scrapped almost immediately. The first American tanks were assembled by the Locomobile Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. The American-assembled MkVIII completed acceptance trials in the spring of 1919. With the end of the war the US order was reduced from 1,500 to 100. 100 sets of hull components were bought from Britain and assembled with corresponding American parts at the Rock Island Arsenal.

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A US MkVIII at Camp Meade, c.1921 (US National Archives)

The MkVIII was the last of the British rhomboid heavy tanks. The handful of British MkVIIIs built never entered service but the 100 American tanks along with American built M1917s, MkV Heavies and Renault FTs brought back from France, formed the backbone of the US Tank Corps throughout the early inter-war period. The US MkVIIIs remained in use as training tanks until 1932. Today, just three are believed to survive; two in the US and one in Britain.


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Specifications:

Length: 34ft 2in / 10.4m

Height: 10ft 3in / 3.12m

Width: 12ft 4in / 3.75m

Weight: 37 tons

Powerplant: V12 Liberty or Ricardo engine

Speed: ~7mph / 11km

Armour: 6 – 16mm

Armament: Two QF 6pdr guns and seven .303 Hotchkiss Portative Mk1* or M1919 Browning Tank Machine Guns


Bibliography:

Preliminary Handbook of the Mark VIII Tank, US War Department, (November 1918) (source)

‘Tank’, H.W. Alden, US Patent #1366550, 25/01/1921 (source)

British Battle Tanks, World War I to 1939 – D. Fletcher (2016)

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Military Vehicles, I.V. Hogg & J. Weeks (1980)

The Complete Guide to Tanks & Armoured Fighting Vehicles, G. Forty & J. Livesey, (2012)

Liberty Engine: A Technical & Operational History, R.J. Neal, (2009)

Tanks: 100 Years of Evolution, R. Ogorkiewicz (2015)

The Tank That Climbed A Mountain

In April 1919, a lone US-built M1917 light tank climbed over 11,000 feet up a mountain in Colorado. We are lucky enough to have some original photos and footage of the tank’s climb up Pikes Peak in the Rocky Mountains.

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The tank with ‘Pikes Peak or Bust’ painted on its hull (US National Archive)

Why was a tank driving up a mountain?

Simply put the expedition was a publicity stunt to help raise cash to pay off America’s war debt. By 1919 the cost of US involvement in World War One had reached $32 billion – that’s around $547 billion today.

The purpose of the stunt was to encourage Americans to purchase ‘Victory Liberty’ War Bonds which would help pay off some of the debt accrued by the war. This was the fifth, and final, round of Liberty Bond sales. The drive began in mid-April 1919, and aimed to sell $4.5 billion of government bonds.

The tank arrived in Colorado Springs at the beginning of April and on the 14th a crowd of nearly 1,000 people watched Mrs W.H.R. Stote, the chairwoman of Colorado Springs’ Victory Liberty loan committee, christened the tank ‘Little Zeb’  – after explorer Brigadier Zebulon Pike – who led an expedition that attempted to climb the mountain in 1806)

Mrs Stote reportedly declared  “I charge you with making the trip to the summit. As the Victory Loan shall not fail, you must make it to the top!” The tank’s commander Sgt. A.H. Worrell, told The Colorado Springs Gazette that he had “driven tanks over trees and trenches on the western front and I am betting we get to the top.”

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The road up to the summit of Pikes Peak, photographed in 1934 (US National Archive)

At the time the 19 mile road up to Pikes Peak was said to be the ‘World’s Highest Motor Drive’ with the summit at 14,115 feet (or 4,302m). Cpl. Howard Brewer, the tank’s driver told reporters “I know we can climb it. Given time, the tank could go to the top of the world.” In terms of publicity having the tank make it up the mountain would certainly have been quite a feat.

On the front of the tank’s hull the words ‘Pike’s Peak or bust’ were painted in white – this is a reference to a phrase coined by prospector’s during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of the 1860s.

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The tank on the road up Pikes Peak (Pikes Peak District Library)

The tank was driven by Corporal Howard Brewer and tended by a crew of mechanics and support vehicles. The road which climbed the mountain was unsurfaced and had only been completed in 1916. The tank’s ascent began on April 15, and incredibly over the next two days the tank climbed to 11,440 feet, 13 miles along the road and through several deep snow drifts, reportedly up to 20-feet tall, before a track plate snapped. After repairs the tank and support convoy pressed on – but the tank never made it to the summit. Not because of mechanical failure but unbelievably because it was needed to appear in other Colorado towns as part of the Victory Loan drive.

While the tank may not have reached the very top of the mountain, it unsurprisingly became a record breaker – setting the first elevation record for tanks. Western Union claimed that it also set a distance record for continuous distance travelled and penetrated the farthest into the snow than any other vehicle had ever done at that time of year – battling snow drifts up to 20 feet tall. While the US-built M1917 was never tested in battle the drive up the mountain proved it was a capable, hardy vehicle – demonstrating the tank’s abilities.

Bibliography:

Various photos and contemporary footage taken from the US National Archives (source)

Additional photos held by the The Manitou Springs Historical Society (source)

‘Army’s Tank Assault on Pikes Peak Was About More Than Being Macho’, The Gazette, M.L. Cavanaugh, (source)

U.S. Economy in World War I, Economic History Association, (source)


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US M1917 Light Tank

Continuing our series looking at US tanks of World War One, in which we have already taken a look at the Ford M1918 3-Ton Tank, in this video/article we will take a look at the M1917 Light Tank. 

The US Army entered the Great War with no tanks or experience in armoured warfare. When the American Expeditionary Force’s Tank Corps was formed in early 1918, it was equipped with French and British tanks. With plans to rapidly expand the US Tank Corps with battalions training in the US, France and Britain, a large number of tanks would be needed. The corps trained with the French Renault FT light tank and the British MkV but with French production stretched to capacity they could not hope to provide the US with the tanks it was expected to need for operations during 1919.

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Renault FT on the Western Front (US National Archives)

As a result the US negotiated with France for a license to produce the FT in the US, commissioned a smaller 3-ton light tank from Ford and entered into an agreement with Britain to build a new heavy tank – the MkVIII. The American-made FTs were designated the Model 1917 6-ton light tank. 4,400 were ordered, with deliveries to begin in April 1918. The Ordnance Department finalised the M1917s design and contracted a number of private companies to build the tanks.

Delays in production, however, meant that the first American tanks were completed in October 1918, and none of the M1917s reached the Western Front before the war ended. As a result, the primary US tank of the war was the original French Renault FT, revolutionary for its turret which could rotate 360-degrees and its rear-mounted engine. It was cheaper to manufacture than the heavier British tanks and could be transported by lorries behind the lines. The FT equipped the 1st Provisional Tank Brigade, what would become the 304th Tank Brigade, commanded by Lt. Colonel George S. Patton. The American FT’s saw action for the in September 1918, at the Battle of St. Mihiel.

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US-operated Renault FTs on the Western Front (US National Archives)

144 US FT’s took part in the battle and both the tanks and crews performed well. The Five of Hearts, a 37mm-armed FT with the 344th Tank Battalion took part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive and while making an isolated attack on German positions in support of bogged down US Infantry, the tank was immobilised and its gun mantle jammed by enemy small arms fire. The tank’s commander Sergeant Arthur Snyder recalled:

“My wounded driver kept filling pistol clips and I produced as much fire as possible with our pistols and the crippled 37mm. I paid more attention to the volume of fire than its accuracy for I fear the enemy would close in if the volume diminished. Three machine guns were set up at very close range, but just out of range of our piece with its limited elevation. The fragmentation of our shells did afford some protection but I could not train this fire on the German field piece. The constant hammering of these machine guns at close range was terrific. The hinges on the doors could not stand up under it for long, but it was the mushroom ventilator on top of the turret that gave way. I was hit in the back of my head with fragments of it and bullet splinters.”

Luckily for Snyder the German infantry made no attempt to rush the tank, content to pepper it from a distance, and they quickly retreated when infantry from the 16th Infantry arrived.

In terms of protection Snyder felt that “the armor plate on those old French Renaults was good, but when you came to close quarters the splinters from bullets hitting around the vision slits did considerable damage.” Two of Snyder’s drivers were badly wounded one by bullet splash splinters and the other in the throat.

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A newly completed M1917 at the Van Dorn Iron Works, 1919 (US National Archives)

The M1917 was manufactured by the Van Dorn Iron Works, the Maxwell Motor Co., and the C.L. Best Co. Of the original wartime order for over 4,000 tanks, in total just 952 M1917s were produced. 375 of these are believed to have been equipped with 37mm M1916 cannons, while 526 armed with Marlin M1917 tank machine guns. The remaining 50 were outfitted as unarmed signal tanks.

The M1917 has a number of small differences from the FT. Its exhaust is located on left rather than right side of the tank. A new US-designed gun mount and mantlet was used. Solid steel idler wheels at the front of the tank rather than the spoked type used by the French. Additional vision slits for the driver were added and a bulkhead sectioned off the engine from the cab. Like their French cousins the M1917 was manned by a two-man crew, the driver and the commander who also acted as loader and gunner.

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Marlin M1917 Tank Machine Gun (US National Archives)

A different, American-made, engine – a water-cooled 4 cylinder engine built by the Buda Engine company was used. Developing 42 horsepower, it had more torque than its French counterpart but was no faster, with a top speed of between just 6 – 8 miles per hour. The tank weighed just over 7 US tons and was 16.5 feet long and 7ft 7” tall. Its armour was 0.25″ to 0.6″ (6.35mm to 15.25mm) thick – slightly thinner than its French counterpart. The majority of the tanks were armed with machine guns, using the .30 calibre M1917 Marlin tank machine gun, rather than the French Hotchkiss. The ‘male’ or cannon armed tanks had a 37mm gun and carried more than 230 shells for the gun. The Marlin was later supplanted by the early iteration of the M1919 Browning tank machine gun. 50 command and signals tanks were also built, these unarmed tanks were similar to the French TSF (télégraphie sans fil) and fitted with a wireless radio.

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An M1917 climbing Pikes Peak, April 1919 (US National Archives)

Perhaps the M1917s most impressive feat stemmed from a publicity stunt in April 1919, when a M1917 climbed Pikes Peak, a mountain in Colorado. At the time the road up Pikes Peak was said to be the ‘World’s Highest Motor Drive’, a single tank was driven up the mountain as part of fund raising efforts for the fifth, and final, round of Liberty Bond sales, which hoped to raise $4.5 billion from the sale of government bonds. We’ll have a separate looking at this exploit at a later date!

None of the M1917s reached the frontline but many were used a props for selling war bonds – in this photo dated April 1918, a platoon of M1917s is seen after they arrived at Camp Meritt by train, they are about to be painted up in camouflage for a Victory Loan parade in New York.

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US M1917s exercising with infantry, at Camp Meade, 1920 (US National Archives)

After the war the M1917, along with just over 200 French-made FTs brought back from France, formed the backbone of the US Tank Corps. In these photos we can see several tanks taking part in a mock-battle with supporting infantry at Camp Meade in May 1919. This photo show men learning to service their vehicles at Camp Meade, in December 1919.

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Obsolete M1917s arriving in Canada in 1941 (Library & Archives Canada)

But by 1921, the Corps had lost its independence and been all but disbanded with the Infantry given control of America’s tank force. A handful of the M1917s were deployed briefly overseas with the USMC, during the 1920s, but the M1917 was resigned to training as it became increasingly obsolete. They were finally removed from service in the mid-1930s. When World War Two broke out the remaining M1917s were sold to Canada and were reportedly used to help train the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps before many of them were finally scrapped.


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Bibliography:

Footage courtesy of the US National Archives (source)
Camp Colt to Desert Storm: The History of U.S. Armored Forces
, G.F. Hofmann & D.A. Starry (1999)
Tanks: 100 Years of Evolution, R. Ogorkiewicz (2015)
Light Tank M1917, Tank Encylopedia, C. Moore, (source)
The Saga of the Five of Hearts, Armor, July-Aug. 1988, Maj. Gen. W.R. Kraft Jr. (source)

Vickers Gun Disassembly

The Vickers Gun is an iconic weapon, developed from the Maxim and adopted by the British in 1912. It served for over 50 years in conflicts all around the world. In this video, we’re lucky enough to have Richard Fisher of the Vickers Machine Gun Collection and Research Association shows us how to disassemble a the gun and talk us through its internals.

Big thank you to Rich for taking the time to help with this video and provide the voice over explaining the process! We’ll have more videos on the Vickers Gun in the future! Check out Richard’s work over on the Vickers Machine Gun Collection and Research Association’s site here.

I’ll let Rich explain the disassembly process in real time in the video but here are a couple of photographs of the gun disassembled:

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The Vickers gun field stripped (Matthew Moss)

This is the gun in its fully field stripped condition, with lock still assembled, but with its fusee spring and cover off and its barrel and action removed. Just below the barrel is the feed block.

Here’s the Vickers Gun’s lock disassembled into its 14 component parts:

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The gun’s disassembled lock (Matthew Moss)

This photo gives us a good look inside the receiver with the barrel, action and side plates removed, The spade grip assembly simply folds down to allow the action and barrel to be slide out of the gun.

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Once the action and barrel is removed you can look straight through the receiver and down through the water jacket (Matthew Moss)

Finally, here’s the gun reassembled and ready for action.

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The gun fully reassembled (Matthew Moss)

Thanks again to Richard for his help with this video, it was great to collaborate and hopefully we’ll have more videos with Rich in the future.  Please check out the Vickers Machine Gun Collection & Research Association’s site to find out more about what they do. They have some wonderful resources, including a comprehensive collection of manuals, for not just the Vickers but also the wider British Army from the past 100 years. You can also order copies of the brilliant instructional posters which were featured in the video over on the the associations website too!

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WW1 2-Inch Trench Mortar

The British Army entered the First World War with very few mortars, and certainly none at the battalion level. As the stalemate of trench warfare set in and the effectiveness of enemy mortars became clear it was decided that trench mortars of various sizes would be needed.

Nicknamed ‘plum pudding’ or ‘toffee apple’ mortars after their projectile’s characteristic shape, the 2 inch Medium Mortar or 2 inch Trench Howitzer, was one of Britain’s first effective light trench mortars to be introduced.

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Right-side view of the 2in Trench Mortar (Matthew Moss)

Trench mortars were the army’s most forward artillery, right up on the front line. These short range weapons were able to throw large, high explosive projectiles, short distances across No Man’s Land at the enemy trench system opposite. The 2 inch mortar was considered accurate out to 350 yards with a maximum effective range out to just under 600 yards.

Introduced in 1915, the 2 inch mortar was originally crewed by men taken from the battalion it was stationed with, along with some specialists from the Royal Artillery. However, with the introduction of the 3 inch Stokes mortar which was operated by the infantry themselves the 2 inch mortars became the sole responsibility of the Royal Field Artillery.

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A young gunner loads a 2in spigot mortar bomb into his mortar (Imperial War Museum)

Mortar positions were often in secondary trenches just behind the infantry’s frontline. This was to help protect the infantry from potential counter-battery fire. The trench mortars were often deployed to sectors to provide counter battery fire against German minenwerfers or in the run up to an offensive or local action. A British Army report on artillery use, drawn up in February 1917, noted that “Owing to their liability to be destroyed by hostile artillery fire it may often be advisable to defer opening fire with these mortars till the last day of bombardment.” The mortars were also tasked with keeping gaps made in the wire clear and with supporting any feint attacks made by infantry during gaps in the bombardment running up to a larger offensive.

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, a captain with the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers and later a novelist, recalled in his war memoir:

“At night a trench mortar officer set his guns in a derelict trench about twenty yards behind the line and carried up his ammunition, heavy globes of iron with a little cylindrical projection like a broken handle. In the morning I moved the men from the bays between the trench mortars and their target, to lighten the risk of loss from retaliatory fire.”

Sometimes the width of No Man’s Land required saps to be cut extending out from the frontline so the mortar rounds didn’t fall short. The 50 lb lollipop-like projectile had a maximum effective range of 570 yards (depending on the size of cordite charge used), and could create a crater 5 feet deep and 14 feet wide. The ideal mortar position was a 6 feet wide by 9 feet deep sandbagged pit with the weapon’s heavy wooden bed at the bottom and room for the crew to load the mortar.

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A British 2in Mortar position in Mesopotamia, note the ignitor’s breech is open (Imperial War Museum)

Crews could manage to fire approximately once every two minutes. Much slower than the lighter 3 inch Stokes Mortar and but faster than the heavy 9.45 inch Heavy Mortar. The mortar comprising of just its tube, bed, stand and ignition system weighed 320 lbs (145kg), not including the accompanying tools and the Temple silencer system which could be fitted (which weighed 47 lbs or 21 kg alone).

Typically manned by a 5 man mortar crew comprising of an NCO, gunners, and ammunition bearers. To operate the 2 inch mortar a cordite charge was first placed down the tube, the projectile’s shaft was then inserted on top of the charge, the projectile’s fuse was set and checked and a new blank cartridge chambered in the ignition system. The crew then got clear of the weapon and pulled the lanyard to fire the mortar. To reload the crew ran a clearing stick down the tube and then repeated the loading process.

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The business end, a view down the length of the mortar (Matthew Moss)

Interestingly, the 2 inch Medium Mortar, like the larger 9.45 inch Heavy Mortar used a cut-down rifle, which screwed into the ‘breech’ end of the mortar tube. This particular mortar has an 1894-dated cut down Lee-Enfield MkI as its ignition system, the cutdown rifle has a wooden insert in its magazine well but it still has its rear volley sight attached. This reusable system replaced the T-tube Friction ignitor, which was in high demand by Britain’s bigger guns. The Lee-Enfield-based system enabled the cordite propellant charges to be ignited by a blank .303 round instead. The rifle’s trigger was pulled with a lanyard from nearby cover. These cutdown ignitor rifle are sometimes confused for Obrez-style Lee-Enfields.

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A close up look at the 2in Mortar’s SMLE ignitor (Matthew Moss)

The weight of the cordite charge used dictated the range while a variety of different fuses were used with the projectiles, these screwed into the nose of the bomb. The sphere was about 9.3 inches in diameter with a 2 inch thread for the fuse at its head and a cup for the 22 inch long, 2 inch thick solid cast iron stick or spigot at its base. The sphere was filled with high explosive (Amatol or Ammonal). The high explosive bombs were painted white with a green or pink stripe around their middle.

They were often deployed in batteries of four with three Royal Field Artillery medium mortar batteries attached to each division. The mortars were predominantly tasked with cutting enemy barbed wire and destroying enemy trenches and forward positions, such a machine gun nests.

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Men of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps playing cards on a dump of trench mortar ammunition during Battle of the Somme (Imperial War Museum)

Captain Griffith described a battery of 2 inch mortars opening fire on enemy lines:

“A pop, and then a black ball went soaring up, spinning round as it went through the air slowly; more pops and more queer birds against the sky. A stutter of terrific detonations seems to shake the air and the ground, sandbags and bits of timber sailed up slowly and then fell in a calm deliberate way. In the silence that followed the explosions, an angry voice called out in English across No Man’s Land, ‘YOU BLOODY WELSH MURDERERS.’

The 2 inch medium mortar entered service in spring 1915 and remained in use into 1917 with British and Empire troops. It was used on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia. Over 800 were ordered initially with 675,000 bombs, many of the mortars were made in railway and agricultural machinery workshops, allowing larger factories to focus on more complex weapons. The 2 inch mortar was superseded by the larger bore Newton 6 inch mortar later in the war. Some of the remaining 2 inch projectiles were re-purposed as makeshift anti-tank mines, buried in no man’s land in anticipation of possible German tank attacks.

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Specifications:

Barrel Length: 3 feet (90cm)
Overall Weight: ~340lbs (154kg)
Projectile Types: High explosive & smoke
Projectile Weight: 51lbs (23kg)
Effective Range: 100-570 yards (90-520m)


Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

Field Artillery Notes No.7, US Army War College, (1917) (source)

‘Artillery in Offensive Operations’ GHQ Artillery Notes No. 4 January/February 1917 (source)

‘History of the Ministry of Munitions’, Volume XI, Part I Trench Warfare Supplies (1922)

Up to Mametz, L.W. Griffith,  (1931)

Newsreels:

The Battle of the Somme, 1916, Imperial War Museum (source)

With the Forces in Mesopotamia, 1917, Imperial War Museum (source)

Secondary Sources:

British Artillery 1914-1919. Field Army Artillery, D. Clarke, (2004)

Tommy, R. Holmes, (2004)

Live Fire: Hotchkiss Portative

The Hotchkiss Portative was one of the earliest light machine guns to see general service. It was used in action by a number of countries during the First World War, the example we’re examining today is a British Mk1 Hotchkiss Portative light machine gun.

British Portative’s were chambered in .303, and were initially issued to cavalry regiments as a light machine gun before arming some of Britain’s early tanks during World War One.

The gun was also known as the Hotchkiss Model 1909 and saw service with France, chambered in 8mm Lebel and the US, chambered in .30-06, where it was known as the 1909 Benét–Mercié Machine Rifle.

To cock the weapon the charging handle at the rear of the gun is turned to the unlocked position, at 12 o’clock, and pulled to the rear. It is then returned forward and the gun can be put in either safe, semi and full automatic.

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Mk1 Hotchkiss Portative Light Machine Gun (Matthew Moss)

Weighing around 25 lbs or 12kg the Portative was extremely heavy for a light machine gun. It had a small, unergonomic pistol grip to which the stock attached. This makes it difficult to hold the pistol grip and the stock attachment jabs into the hand during firing. The low position of the Hotchkiss’s stock provides a chin weld at best.

The Portative feeds from a 30-round metallic feed strip. Rounds are placed in the metallic strips and loaded into the weapon with the cartridges facing down. If not seated properly in the strip, vibration from firing can loosen the rounds causing them to fall out or induce jams. The strips were so fragile a sizer, used to realign bent or misshapen strips, was standard issue. Once the strip is empty it is thrown out of the gun with some force.

The Portative’s tripod while small and highly adjustable is poorly designed, it is unsuited to use in the field. As the gun is already top heavy and unbalanced, due to feeding from a side-loading ammunition strip, the gun has a tendency to topple over if not held firmly by the operator. This also complicates clearing jams and stopages.

We will have a full video and blog exploring the design, development and history of the Hotchkiss Portative in the future. My thanks to Chuck Kramer of Gun Lab for letting me shoot his Hotchkiss and helping with filming, check out his blog here.


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