On 20 October 1916 Brigadier General Frederick Gore – Anley DSO, was appointed as the Administrative Commander of the Tank Training Centre at Bovington. He was an interesting choice to take over from Ernest Swinton. Anley had no experience of tanks and, apparently, little faith in them and so his appointment did not go down well with the true believers on the tank staff. Lieutenant-Colonel J F C Fuller described Anley as
a pleasant little man, the problem was in inverse ratio to his size. He may have been a good infantry Brigadier but he knew nothing about tanks. On one occasion I heard him say, “Little Anley is like a small china pot, floating among a lot of big iron ones; little Anley is not going to get cracked”.
On 27 October the Elveden training centre began its move to Bovington, having outgrown its Suffolk location. Bovington was one of 2 locations suggested; the other was Corhampton in Hampshire.
In Oct 1916 Bovington had none of the luxuries that those who trained there more recently will remember.
In August 1916 Swinton wrote some Tank Tips based on the lessons learned from their time training at Elveden.
- Remember your orders
- Shoot quick
- Shoot low. A miss which throws dust in the enemy’s eyes is better than one which whistles in his ear.
- Shoot cunning.
- Shoot the enemy while they are rubbing their eyes.
- Economise ammunition and don’t kill a man three times.
- Remember that trenches are curly and dugouts deep – look round the corners
- Watch the progress of the fight and your neighbouring tanks
- Watch your infantry whom you are helping
- Remember the position of your own line
- Smell the enemy’s machine guns and other small guns and kill them first with your 6-pounders.
- You must ferret out where the MGs are, judging by the following signs:
- A shadow in a parapet
- A hole in a wall, haystack, rubbish heap, wood stack or pile of bricks
- Machine guns will usually be placed to fire slantways across the front and to shoot along the wire. One 6-pounder shell that hits the loophole of a machine gun emplacement will do it in.
- Use the 6-pounder with care; shoot to hit and not to make a noise
- Never have any gun, even when unloaded, pointing at your own infantry, or a 6-pounder pointed at another Tank.
- It is the unloaded gun that kills the fool’s friend.
- Never mind the heat
- Never mind the noise
- Never mind the dust
- Think of your pals in the infantry
- Thank God you are bullet-proof and can help the infantry, who are not
- Have your masks always ready
On 26 July 1916 the officers and men training at Elveden were warned of a short-notice visit due later that day by a Russian General. It was a lie; the Russian General was in fact His Majesty The King.
The demo put on for His Majesty was smaller than the one the previous week, only 5 tanks took part, but his brief visit included a ride in a tank driven by Gunner Robert Tate.
This entry is brief and only covers a few of the more senior first Tankies and it is thus somewhat invidious. In writing it I make no attempt to ignore the soldiers who did the hard physical graft and who all too often don’t get a personal mention in history. In this case a great many of them do get a mention in the very excellent book The First Tank Crews by Stephen Pope. We strongly recommend it to you, along with Stephen’s website http://www.firsttankcrews.com
As already mentioned, the original tankies formed up in Bisley but they moved to Elveden at the start of June 1916. The Heavy Section HQ was at Bernersfield Farm (which still exists and can be found 2km NNE of Icklingham). C Company joined the HQ at Bernersfield while D Company set up camp at the nearby Canada Farm.
C Company was commanded by Major Allen Holford-Walker, an Argyll & Sutherland Highlander, who was 26 years old. D Company were led by Major Frank Summers who was 44 and had seen action in France, Belgium and at Gallipoli during the first 2 years of the Great War.
The officers that would command the sections and the tanks came from all over the UK, as did the soldiers. The latter included the son of Joseph Rowntree (the chocolate manufacturer). He originally followed the family’s Quaker tradition and had served as a volunteer in the Friends Ambulance Unit prior to joining the Heavy Section. There were immigrants, including SQMS Harry Jacobs whose father was Russian and his mother Polish, and LCpl Charles Jung whose father was a Silesian brick maker.
In case you were worried that the officers had to slum it by living at the farms, do not worry. They set up their mess at Elvedon Hall albeit in the stables rather than the main house. Soldiers were billeted in a tobacco shed.
While Bisley met some of the requirements of the Heavy Section, it was neither big enough nor far enough away from prying eyes and so a search was made for s suitable alternative. The answer lay in Suffolk (not a phrase you hear that often today), at the home of Lord Iveagh, a member of the Guinness dynasty; Elveden estate.
Elveden was requisitioned in May 1916 and in early June a large detachment of Royal Engineers was sent there to create an exact replica of the German trenches and defensive positions in France.
Security was tight and two Battalions of the Royal Defence Corps reinforced by the Royal Hampshire Regiment (and briefly by Indian cavalry) were employed to keep people out of the are which was cunningly called the Elveden Explosives Area. A special pass was required to enter and signs warning of a deadly peril, posted around the perimeter, kept the locals out.
The Royal Engineers did an outstanding job creating a replica battlefield that was over one and a half miles wide, and in depth it contained the British support and front lines, no man’s land, and the German first, support, second and third lines. It included breastworks, wire, wooden barriers (abates), craters, machine gun emplacements, communication trenches. Massive craters were explosively created and some of the farm buildings were fortified to replicate German redoubts. In total some 3000 men spent six weeks creating the training area.