1917 - A crucial year for the tank

1917 was the first full year in which British tanks saw action. It was also a crucial year, when the very survival of the tank was being considered.

In April 1917 Mark I and Mark II tanks were used at The Battle of Arras. However, they made little impact and with new Mark IV tanks becoming available, it was hoped they would be more effective in upcoming battles.

Battle of Messines

The first of these was the Battle of Messines, in which 2nd Tank Brigade took part, using the new Mark IV tanks for the first time.

They were directed against the Wytschaete Ridge but were hardly needed as huge mines were exploded.

Although mechanically speaking the Mark IV was virtually the same as the old Mark I, it had other features, such as thicker armour, that made it a more practical design that meant it would dominate all the subsequent battles of 1917.


On 28 July 1917 The Heavy Branch, Machine-Gun Corps was renamed the Tank Corps and a new badge issued - a significant moment in Tank Corps history.

The Third Battle of Ypres began on 31 July 1917. Continual rain on muddy ground in low lying Flanders turned the land into a swamp, with J. F. C. Fuller, a Tank Corps staff officer, describing it as a study in how to move 30 tons of metal through a morass of mud and water.

Captain Clement Robinson

The Tank Corps gained its first Victoria Cross, posthumously, when Captain Clement Robertson led his tanks into action on foot on 4 October 1917 and was shot in the process.

Successes were limited though, with many commenting at the time that conditions on a battlefield were likely to be bad, and unless tanks could work in such conditions they were useless.

Battle of Cambrai

Enthusiasts continually argued that tanks deserved a chance on good ground to prove what they could do. On 20 November 1917 that chance came with virtually every tank in France launched on the Battle of Cambrai.

Captain Richard Wain

With the Tank Corps Commander Brigadier-General Hugh Elles leading the way, 474 tanks swept forward, advancing seven miles through an otherwise impenetrable mass of barbed wire, and breaking the deadlock of trench warfare. A second Victoria Cross was also won, again posthumously, by Captain Richard Wain, in a suicidal attack on German Infantry.

The Germans counterattacked, without tanks, and won most of the captured ground back. However, the devastating effectiveness of tanks had been proved.

Cambrai 100

Watch a series of 360 videos to learn how pioneering technology was used to devastating effect in the first large tank attack in history. 

Watch 360 videos

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