The second in the three part series on William Taylor Dawson examines his reminiscences of driving a tank in the First World War.
Battle of Flers
William Taylor Dawson deployed to France with C Company, Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps in late August 1916. Within two weeks, he would take part in the first ever tank assault. His post-war account of that day mentions a range of emotions including fear, excitement and an overriding sense of pride.
“We had experienced a most memorable day – the first tank attack ever made in a battle. We had started something which was eventually to have such a profound effect upon the enemy and the war. Our success was perhaps only limited due to the impossible ground and the fact that there were only 32 tanks spread over a front of about 7 miles.”
Battle of Cambrai
After this baptism of fire, William went on to serve in the major tank actions of 1917 including Arras, the Third Battle of Ypres and the largest tank battle of the war at Cambrai in November.
By this time he was serving as a driver and at Ypres received a commendation for ‘coolness and good driving’ from the commander of the Tank Corps, Brigadier Hugh Elles.
During this battle, William remembered that he had “been in the driving seat for 13 hours without moving out and of course nothing to eat or drink.”
At Cambrai he served in tank C46 Challenger and some of the scenes he witnessed during the bitter fighting remained etched in his memory.
“On the right of Flesquieres on top of a ridge were about a dozen or so of “E” Bn tanks knocked out. They presented a ghastly sight, some hit by four or five shells and smashed completely, tracks standing up in the air, and burnt out.
It was plain to see that, as they advanced in sections in the planned formation, they topped the ridge and, on the enemy side, came in sight of the German field guns. Before they could realise what was happening, they were almost blown to pieces.”
Driving the Whippet
William Taylor Dawson finished the war as a commissioned officer and in contrast to the slow, heavy Mark I tanks he had crewed in 1916 – by 1918, he was driving the new Whippets.
“It was a thrill taking over the first of the Whippets. To me as a driver they were just marvellous machines, giving what at that time seemed the phenomenal speed of about 8 or 9 miles an hour.”
At the time of writing, the museum has received a letter from William’s daughter Audrey Mitchell who expressed her wishes for a fine day on 15th September 2016, the 100th anniversary of the first tank attack in which her father fought – “Dad would have been so proud.”
For more on the first tank crews, have a look at our products below.