The modern tank was invented as a direct answer to the trench dilemma and as an attempt to apply naval warfare tactics and means on land. It is not a coincidence that research on the “land dreadnoughts” began in the United Kingdom in 1915, on the initiative of the then First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill.
In September 1916 the first tanks (so called because their code name during development was “water tanks”) were used on the Western Front. The caterpillar, inspired by agricultural tractors, was supposed to let it ignore both mud and barbed wire. Its elongated shape was supposed to let it overcome craters and trenches. Its armor should have repelled the enemy fire and given cover to the advancing infantry.
The first model, the Mark I, failed in all these objectives. Extremely slow (less than 5 km/h) and with scarce fuel autonomy, it frequently broke down and, once bogged down in no man’s land, became an easy target for artillery fire.
This did not discourage innovation and production. Before the end of the war the Mark doubled its speed and the French created and produced in large quantities a light tank with revolving turret that became the starting base for successive improvements.
The tank was not decisive in the First World War: its success was linked in the beginning to the surprise factor and later to their number, since Germany never seriously invested in the technology and produced few models. Its effect on the collective imagery was nonetheless deep. Two illustrations from the Scientific American and the Domenica del Corriere show, for example, how the tank was imagined by popular magazines in the months between its first use and the diffusion of its first photographs in the civilian world: land dreadnoughts, invulnerable to the enemy fire and able to trample everything in their path.
This fantasy was not completely abandoned once it was disproved by the reality of trench warfare: if tanks could not overwhelm the enemy surely bigger machines could...