How the Tank Got Its Name

Western Star newspaper
mid January 1918, Saturday

(By Colonel ED Swinton, CB)
"Why tanks?" Why should a fighting automobile have been so inappropriately named? The reply can be given in two words - for secrecy. In its experimental stage the machine was known as the "land cruiser" or "landship." But it is a military platitude that the "element of surprise" - as it has always been called in the text books - has immense value in a war; and it was naturally realised that the greatest results to be expected from the employment of this new weapon would be obtained if it could be launched unexpectedly, so that the enemy might be caught unprepared to meet it.

Various rumors about this machine was current among those who got wind of it. One is that they were intended for carrying water for the troops across the desert of Egypt and Mesopotamia. A second hinted at snow ploughs for use on the Russian front.

The machines were yet otherwise miscalled. During the summer of 1916 an enemy agent, trying to tap the wires in England, might have been mystified to pick up some such message as "Twelve Willies reach you today," or "Send tails for six females."

To help conceal the destination of the tanks at the stage when the allusion as to their purpose was precluded, they were painted with the inscription, "with care. To Petrograd" in large Russian characters. This of course was mere following up the line suggested by the snow plough fiction.

It is true that certain people who are not soldiers played a large and valuable part in the creating of the Tank. It is also true that others who are soldiers have not done so. But the first to appreciate the necessity for it, to urge its provision, and to insist upon the feasibility of its construction were, in fact, soldiers.

So far as the writer is aware, the first definite proposal for a fighting machine on the lines of the existing Tank are due to the appearance of the Horsnby-Ackroyd caterpillar tractor, which was tested for military traction purposes in England in 1906-1908. It was made by a military officer and was carried up to the stage of the preparation of sketch drawing, when the project died for want of support. Like Mr Wells, he was ahead of his time.

The tanks are divided into males and females. The male is par excellence the machine gun hunter and destroyer. He carries light quick firing guns capable of firing shell, and is intended to be the machine gun what the torpedo boat destroyer was designed to be torpedo boat, or the ladybird is supposed to be to the aphis. The female, which in accordance with the laws of nature, is the man killer, carries nothing but machine guns for employment against the enemy personnel. Her special role is to keep down hostile rifle fire.

The Tanks have supplied a touch of comic relief and excited the mirth of the British soldier, always blessed with a keen sense of ridiculousness. They acted as an antidote to the effect of the "Jack Johnsons," "Rum Jars," "Weary Willie," "Silent Susies," "Wizz Bangs," "Sausages," tear shells, and all the other frightfulness of the unspeakable Boche. They counteracted the weariness, the hunger and thirst, the dust, the mud, and all the squalor and filthy discomforts of the war.