British’s top secret weapon – the tank – was used for the first time at the Battle of Flers and readers of the September 26, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser, got a taste of its success through celebrity war correspondent Philip Gibbs.
The John Simpson of his day, Gibbs was embedded with the Army in France and his story about the deployment of this incredible invention in the Daily Chronicle was reproduced by the Advertiser editor.
It’s a remarkable story, not just for providing information about what many thought could be an early end to the war, but for the literary style he employs in telling the tale. It’s all there like an excerpt from a novel: dialogue, description, humour, pathos – a far cry from the normal news story format that calls a spade a spade.
The opening paragraph is fairly straight forward: “The feature of all the stories that reach this country about the way the British smashed the German third line at Flers, is the description of the wonderful travelling forts.”
Then Gibbs turns his account into an intimate dialogue with asides to his audience for comedic effect. It continues like this.
“Like prehistoric monsters. You know, the old Ichthyosaurus,” said the officer.
I told him he was pulling my leg.
“But it’s a fact, man!”
He breathed hard and laughed in a queer way at some enormous comicality.
“They cut up houses and put the refuse under their bellies. Walk right over ‘em!”
I knew this man was a truthful and simple soul, and yet could not believe.
“They knock down trees like match-sticks,” he said, staring at me with shining eyes. “They go clean through a wood.”
And anything else,” I asked, enjoying what I thought was a new sense of humour.
“Everything else,” he said, earnestly. “They take ditches like kangaroos. They simply love shell craters! Laugh at ‘em.”
Gibbs then switches to a more serious tone as he lists the attributes of these new-fangled machines: proof against rifle bullets, machine gun bullets, bombs, shell splinters – nothing but a direct hit from a fair-sized shell could do them any harm.
Gibbs then switches to the first person and declares: “They are real, and I have seen them, and walked round them, and got inside their bodies, and looked at their mysterious organs, and watched their monstrous movements.
“I came across a herd of them in a field and like the countryman who first saw a giraffe said ‘Hell…I don’t believe it’.
“Then I sat down on the grass and laughed until the tears came into my eyes. For they were monstrously comical, like toads of vast size emerging from the primeval slime in the twilight of the world’s dawn.”
To the soldiers in the field and the readers back home these remarkable weapons of mass destruction seem like the answer to that all important question: when will this conflict ever end?
As Gibbs concludes: “When our soldiers first saw these strange creatures lolloping along the roads and over the old battlefields, taking trenches on the way, they shouted and cheered loudly and laughed for a day afterwards.”
History tells us that tanks did play a significant part in the Allies eventually winning the war but it wasn’t quite the ‘saviour moment’ thought of by those living in September 1916.
- This column is published every Monday by John Dilley on the Newspapers and the Great War website and will continue until the 100th anniversary of the final armistice in November 2018.
- My fellow researcher and De Montfort University colleague David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.
- Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.