In 1917 Britain’s army looked increasingly to machines to win the war.
Britain developed new weapons. It found ways to make guns even more destructive. It taught closer teamwork between soldiers and the crews of guns, tanks and planes.
Yet new ways of fighting did not bring victory war on the Western Front became even more costly and destructive soldiers fought in landscapes devastated by shellfire. A massive British offensive around Ypres became bogged down in mud. It was called off with the capture of a village called Passchendaele.
Mark V tank
The British Mark V tank was introduced in 1918. This ‘male’ Mark V was armed with two 6-pounder guns and four machine guns. ‘Female’ tanks carried only machine guns. British tanks were terribly slow. The top speed of the Mark V was 5 mph. The crew consisted of a commander, a driver, who operated levers to change direction, and six gunners. Tanks were notorious for breaking down.
The day of the rifleman is done
The day of the rifleman is done …his day is over.
Lieutenant Colonel John Parker, US Army, 1917
New technology, inventions and tactics changed the way the war was fought. After three years of fighting, armies had learnt hard lessons from often bitter experience. British commanders were learning to exploit the deadly potential of tanks and aircraft.
Artillery could now locate and destroy hidden enemies and obliterate barbed wire defences. Soldiers could advance into battle behind a protective storm of steel and fire.
Why did these advances not win the war? All armies successfully used innovative tactics and technologies in 1917. At the Battles of Arras, Messines and Cambrai, British and Empire troops forced their way into enemy defences.
But it was difficult to bring artillery forward across the devastated battlefield. This always gave the defenders time to regroup. There was still no decisive breakthrough.
The British Vickers Gun could hit targets 2 miles away. From late 1915 all Vickers guns came under the control of the new Machine Gun Corps. They were now used as a form of artillery, to attack and not just to defend. From 1917 British soldiers became used to the rushing sound of machine gun barrages carefully plotted to arc over their heads and hit German positions.
The appearance of British tanks on the battlefield from 1916 terrified German soldiers. Tanks were a revolutionary British invention. They crushed barbed wire, crossed trenches and destroyed machine gun posts. By the end of the war 5,000 had been built.
British general Archibald Montgomery declared, ‘There is no doubt they are a great adjunct to an infantry attack, although they will not win the war by themselves’.
This photograph shows camouflaged British tanks after the 1917 Battle of Cambrai. The new weapon was the brainchild of Colonel Ernest Swinton, a Royal Engineers officer. Its development was kept top secret. A Landships Committee considered several codenames to disguise the project as a new water-carrier. The members considered ‘reservoir’ and ‘cistern’, but settled on the more memorable ‘tank’.
Signal flat, letter and postcard
In November 1917 378 British tanks scored a rapid victory at Cambrai. Second Lieutenant Gordon Hassell, a tank commander, used this signal flag to relay messages during the battle. His own tank was hit by artillery, but Hassell concealed his fear in this triumphant letter to his family. He included a postcard found behind German lines. But days later the Germans counterattacked and recovered the lost ground.
Anti-splinter mask and tank helmet
The inside of a tank in action was scorching, deafening and filled with poisonous engine fumes. Second Lieutenant Hassell wore this anti-splinter mask to protect his face from the showers of hot metal fragments caused by bullets striking the tank’s armour. Crew were also issued with a leather tank helmet. In the heat of battle, it was sometimes mistaken for a German helmet and crew abandoning their tanks risked friendly fire.
Germany manufactured few tanks and instead used tanks captured from the British. The British No.44 anti-tank grenade was designed to knock out these ‘looted tanks’. Fired from a rifle at close range, these grenades caused a massive explosion. The blast killed the tank’s crew. Though intimidating, tanks were vulnerable to armour-piercing bullets and any type of artillery.
Much of the technology and tactics used by British and Empire armies in 1917 had not even existed in 1914. Gunners could now pinpoint and destroy enemy guns by the sound and flash they made when fired.
Creeping artillery barrages rolled ahead of advancing soldiers, forcing German troops into cover. Highly sensitive fuzes tore barbed wire.
Light machine guns gave British infantrymen their own automatic firepower.
Communications were now more reliable and secure.
Fullerphone, pigeon message-book and dog collar
The Fullerphone prevented German listening posts picking up British phone conversations in front line trenches. Captain Algernon Fuller’s invention used an early form of signals scrambling device. Despite such new technologies, soldiers still needed animals to deliver messages. The message pad would be used by an officer to write down a note and attached to a carrier pigeon. The messenger dog collar was worn by ‘War Dog 180’.
Thousands of Allied soldiers attacking German lines met their deaths helplessly entangled in thickets of barbed wire. But the invention of the Fuze 106 meant that British artillery could finally blast away wire obstacles. Fuzes controlled how and when a shell exploded. The 106, used in large numbers from 1917, was so sensitive that the shell exploded the instant the nosecap struck, ripping the wire apart.
On 9 April 1917 40,000 Canadian troops stormed Vimy Ridge, near Arras. They advanced behind curtains of artillery and machine gun fire towards the Ridge, in Germans hands since 1914. This flag was carried at Vimy by 5th Canadian Infantry Battalion, raised in Saskatchewan, western Canada.
The flag was kept by the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lorn Paulet Owen Tudor, an Englishman who emigrated to Canada before the war. Summary caption
New weapons had led to a revolution in tactics. In 1914, the basic infantry unit had been the company, about 200 men armed with rifles and bayonets. In 1917, the basic unit was now the platoon, around 40 men.
Each platoon had four specialist sections, grenade throwers - known as ‘bombers’ - rifle bombers, riflemen and Lewis light machine-gunners. Their roles were clearly set out and rehearsed in detail.
Rifle-grenades and grenade carrier
Grenades like these were fired by ‘rifle bombers’. One example here has a rod for insertion into the rifle barrel. The other was fired from a cup discharger like that on the Lee-Enfield rifle at the back of this showcase.
Rifle bombers showered enemy machine-gunners with grenades while expert ‘bombers,’ each with a cotton grenade carrier, worked their way to within grenade-throwing distance then blasted their way along enemy trenches.
Lewis gun and sign
The Lewis gun was a machine gun light enough to be carried by attacking troops. By late 1917 each platoon had two Lewis guns. The weapon’s rapid covering fire allowed the rest of the platoon to attack. It could fire over 500 rounds a minute.
The sign was put up to show Lewis gun teams where to collect filled magazines of small arms ammunition – ‘SAA’. Each circular drum magazine held 47 rounds.
Lee-Enfield and bayonet
The British Tommy’s Lee-Enfield rifle was still an essential weapon. Riflemen, lightly armed and mobile, protected bombers by keeping the enemy’s heads down and rushing in to kill defenders stunned by exploding grenades. Platoon commanders were instructed that, ‘the object is to come to close quarters with the enemy as quickly as possible so as to be able to use the bayonet’.
Lancashire Fusiliers cleaning a Lewis gun
The Sopwith Camel was one of a new generation of modern, fast fighters. Experienced pilots loved this ‘Hun Killer’ for its agility. Inexperienced pilots found it difficult to control, a ‘Cadet Killer’. On 11 August 1918, while flying this aircraft,18-year-old Flight Lieutenant Stuart Culley shot down the last German airship to be destroyed in the war. The importance of air power was recognised with the establishment of the Royal Air Force in April 1918.
For the first time in the history of warfare, the sky became a battlefield. Aircraft flew over the trenches, directing artillery fire, spotting and photographing targets.
Royal Flying Corps observers, usually sitting behind the pilot, were the eyes of the Army. They also acted as air gunners, warding off enemy fighter planes. Pilots and observers came under terrific strain, flying several patrols each day, often for weeks on end.
A camera fixed to a BE2c reconnaissance plane
An Intelligence officer using a viewer which gave a 3D effect.
The L-Type camera was a major advance in aerial photography. Its 18 glass plate negatives were held in a magazine which slid them automatically into place. The observer no longer had to lean over the side of a bumpy plane and change them himself. When reconnaissance planes landed, Intelligence officers then examined the photographs their crew had taken, identifying and marking targets for the artillery.
Fighter planes - ‘scouts’ - duelled in the air and attacked ground targets. In summer 1917 a new generation of British fighters such as the Camel meant that the Royal Flying Corps began to dominate the skies again after suffering terrible losses to superior German machines.
Fighter pilots became celebrities. But mechanical failure and the fear of being shot down in flames haunted even the toughest airmen. On average a British pilot lasted ten weeks before being shot down.
McCudden flying clothing and combat report
Major James McCudden was an ace, an airman who had shot down more than five enemy planes. His exploits made him a celebrity, something he accepted reluctantly. Shown here are items of McCudden’s flying clothing and a combat report detailing one his 57 ‘kills’, a German LVG reconnaissance plane.
His uniform tunic shows ribbons for the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest gallantry award, and other decorations.
These photographs relate to Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the war’s most famous airman. Known as the ‘Red Baron’ because of his red planes, he commanded the ‘Flying Circus’, a squadron of brightly painted aircraft. A brilliant tactician, cool-headed pilot and inspirational leader, von Richthofen was both feared and admired by Allied airmen. He shot down as many as 80 Allied aircraft, keeping serial numbers and engine parts from his ‘kills’ as trophies.
McCudden shattered windscreenand sketch
This shattered windscreen is from the SE5a fighter plane in which McCudden crashed to his death in July 1918 when his engine stalled shortly after take-off. A Royal Air Force driver made a sketch of the crash site. Formerly a Royal Flying Corps mechanic, McCudden’s success lay not in reckless bravery, but in professionalism and a thorough knowledge of his machine. But accidents claimed the lives of even the most experienced pilots.
Richthofen’s flying log-book and cloth fragment
On 21 April 1918 Manfred von Richthofen was killed, probably by ground fire from Australian troops, while pursuing a British fighter. Scottish air ace Captain John Gilmour recorded the event in his flying log-book. Allied soldiers flocked to the site of his death and took souvenirs, such as this cloth fragment from his red Fokker triplane. Von Richthofen was buried with full military honours by the Australian Flying Corps.
A studio portrait of Manfred von Richthofen
Trophies displayed in von Richthofen’s family home in Germany