The British Mark I was the first tank in combat; the first operational tank in both the British army and the world. It first saw service against the Germans at the Battle of the Somme in September 1916, but in what could be called a major metal recycling program, both sides eventually used the Mark series of tanks.
Most people associate tanks with WWII, because men like George Patton studied and thought about the uses of tanks between the wars and were ready in the next war to use tanks to their best advantage. However, tanks were developed for the trenches and no-mans-land of WWI; something to defend the fighting man against the new and improved offensive weapons that had changed the nature of warfare.
The Mark I tank had a distinctive rhombus shape with tracks to get it across uneven land and trenches. It came in a “male” and “female” version, according to the the type and mounting of the guns. The general name of the weapon came from trying to keep the development program secret; because those who asked what was being built there were told the construction work was for some water tanks. The secrecy worked; the Germans were surprised and shocked by the first encounter, and the name “tank” stuck.
Early tanks did not have many of the features (such as a gun on a swiveling turret) we associate with their WWII descendants, but they didn’t have to; a large metal thing coming through the fog that bullets wouldn’t stop and which kept shooting at you was nighmarish enough to make frontline German troops break and run from the first attack. However, the Germans quickly saw the advantages of the tank, and captured later tank versions, painted the Iron Cross on them, and sent them back into action.
The Mark I tank t-shirt is available at the National WWI Museum gift shop.