Could you imagine a military without tanks? Probably not. Virtually all militaries around the world have their own tank units of some sort. Regardless of whether it was the T-14 Armata, Challenger 2, M1 Abrams, and even those strange ones like the Antonov A-40 Krylya and praying mantis, these tanks could be traced back to their sole ancestor: Little Willie. We often hear it being credited as the very first tank that was built in 1915 by Britain. This was only partially true.
Lincoln No. 1 Machine
Little Willie was indeed the world’s oldest tank. What others don’t normally mention was that this first tank was not a combat vehicle but rather a prototype as a proof of concept that was crucial in the later creation of the rhomboid tanks that saw the trenches of World War I.
Even before World War I broke out, the idea of a tracked armored vehicle had been floating around the minds of different militaries from different countries, but none really took the initiative to create one. In 1915, Britain finally made the first move when it established the Landship Committee. During that time, the best source of knowledge and experience about tracked armored vehicles was the Royal Navy, which makes sense when you think of it. A warship back then was an armored box that contained a powerplant, weapons and a crew. That is what a tank does too. That was why most of the committee assigned were naval officers. At the same time, the agricultural machinery William Foster & Co. was contracted by the committee to design a vehicle.
The company initially bought a pre-built track unit from the Bullock Creeping Grip Tractor Company in the United States to assemble what would be known as the Lincoln No. 1 Machine. Its production started in August 1915 and was finished and ready for testing by the next month.
The results of the test were not impressive. One of the major reasons why the vehicle was designed was related to the particular circumstances of the fighting in WWI. Unlike the evolution of the tank into a fast, mobile artillery platform that it became in WWII, in 1915 what was needed was a way to cross trenches, or better yet a vehicle that could sit astride a trench and pour machinegun fire down on the exposed troops in the trenches themselves. When they tested Lincoln No. 1 for that purpose, the lower section of its track would sag and cause the track to slide off its path, causing it to either jam the drivetrain or just be thrown off, making it completely useless. The Bullock tracks didn’t work for this specific purpose either.
By the end of that same month, they designed a vehicle with a better track type with a flange in the track links that ran along the frame of the tank preventing them from sagging when moving over a trench. The main issue with this version was that the vehicle had no suspension, so the crew inside felt every jarring bump in the terrain it passed over. Out of a crew of five or six, two of them were drivers: the first was assigned to control the steering wheel, clutch, primary gearbox, and throttle, and the second one was solely for the hand-operated brakes.
Lincoln No.1 Machine was not armored and instead had a boilerplate in place of armor plating that was riveted to an iron-angle frame. Even so, the vehicle was 18 tons, putting quite the strain on the Daimler 6 cylinder, 105 hp engine, and its transmissions. At speed, she could manage about 3.5 mph. There was also a non-rotatable turret in the prototype on top of the hull that was supposed to house a Vicker 2-pounder Maxim gun and some machine guns but was later removed completely, probably because of the added weight.
Lincoln No. 1 Machine was in the process of being completed in terms of design requirements when the engineers thought they could still improve its design. So they began their work on a new vehicle with a rhomboid-shaped track running around the sides of the vehicle up to the top. The turrets were replaced with side sponsons mounted inside the track path, which enabled the crew to shoot down into the trenches while the vehicle drove over them, which was basically a double kill for the enemies. This design would be the second prototype built by the British, which was Lincoln No. 1 version 2.0 if you could call it that.
After prototype number 2, the OG Lincoln No. 1 Machine was instead called Little Willie as an insult to the German Imperial Crown Prince Wilhelm. Version two was then called Big Willie, in reference to the Crown Prince’s father, Emperor Wilhelm II. Big Willie would, later on, be renamed, Mother.
Mother would eventually be another in the sense that its design would be used to expand upon future tanks. It was also during this period that the name “tank” would be used to refer to armored vehicles. The revolutionary invention was kept a secret by the British concealed them by referring to the vehicles as “water carriers.” No one was really sure how they were called “tanks,” but the theory was that the terms “water carriers” and “water tanks” were used interchangeably until the “water tanks” were shortened to just “tanks.”
Today, Little Willie (or maybe Grandpa Willie) could be seen in the Tank Museum, Bovington, serving as a reminder of how progress and innovation could start with something as crude but crucial as he is.