One of the most successful appeals for money to support the British war effort was inspired by the tank. Seen as a wonder weapon that could shorten the war, the cumbersome and ungainly vehicles became popular icons and were ultimately used not only to promote War Bonds, but as kiosks to sell them from.
A watercolour by Sir William Orpen illustrates clearly why the tank initially terrified German defenders. In the painting, a pair of tanks rear up, high above the ridge of the trench line. You can almost sense the next move, as the metal behemoths plunge down to destroy the unfortunate inhabitants of the defensive line.
Looming over an apocalyptic landscape of churned mud, charred trees. mutilated bodies and broken buildings, the tanks must have seemed like something conjured out of the furthest depths of H G Wells’s imagination. They are giant, alien and inhuman – so much so that many senior figures in the armies thought they could only have a role in the Great War. Afterwards, they would be consigned to history.
In a war characterised by steel, barbed wire, increasingly powerful guns and annihilation on an industrial scale, the tank was the mechanised epitome of the desperate push for a breakthrough. Ironically for something so fundamentally land based, its development was led by the Royal Navy and its ebulient First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.
Churchill oversaw the establishment of the Landships Committee in early 1915. It took years for the technology to develop and for manufacturers to overcome the myriad problems inherent in producing a fighting vehicle that could cope with the brutal conditions on the Western Front.
By early 1916 a prototype was adopted which would be the basis for the design of future tanks. Its name also had its origin in this period – the word ‘tank’ originated in British attempts to shroud their preparations in secrecy and pass the giant metal lumps off as water tanks.
The role and importance of tanks is still debated by military historians. They scored some impressive initial victories when the shock of their appearance caused German lines to crumble. The surprise soon wore off, however, and the German Army developed increasingly effective anti-tank strategies and weapons. These first tanks were unreliable in the best of conditions and the churned mess of the Western Front presented the most challenging conditions for any motorised vehicle.
One of the most surprising successes for the tank was its impact on morale, the home front and financing the war. By the end of 1916, the British population had become increasingly war weary. Numbed by the horrendous toll of dead and mutilated soldiers, facing decreasing rations and increasing demands to take part in the war effort, the civilian population craved a breakthrough almost as keenly as the military.
Tanks promised something new, something decisive and something, at the beginning at least, uniquely British. With the Royal Navy’s involvement, it was almost a way of Britannia projecting her naval superiority and might on the land battle.
The government sensed the public relations benefits of highlighting the role of the tank. One of the most vivid demonstrations of this was the Trafalgar Square Tank Bank. The Tank Bank had its origins in the curiously incongruous setting of the annual Lord Mayor’s Parade in the City of London. Not even the privations of war could stop this iconic pageant of civil pomp. In a nod to the conflict, two tanks were added to the parade.
There were a huge hit, prompting the National War Savings Committee to consider ways of capitalising on the evident pride and excitement the tanks created.
The settled on placing a tank in Trafalgar Square and opening it up as a place where people could come and buy War Bonds and War Saving Certificates. Soon, the square was heaving with people keen to catch a glimpse of the tank and to patriotically pledge their savings. And if London was so easily won, what about the rest of the country?
Soon enough, the tanks were on the road visiting towns and cities across the rest of the UK. The touring tanks would spend arrive, often with great civic pride and pagentry, uplifing speeches delivered by the mayor (often standing on top of the tank), demonstrations of the tank’s formidible capabilities and, most importantly, two pretty young ladies to sell war bonds from the hatches on each side of the tank.
In total, £300 million was raised – an enormous sum that is equal to approximately £11 billion in today’s money. Glasgow easily won the provincial race by almost £15 million (close to half a billion in today’s money), but vast sums were also raised in towns and cities across the country.