Before the tank made its debut in France, the Mark I had to undergo trials and approval stages in Britain. These took place at Hatfield Park.
Popularly known as Mother or Big Willie, but officially His Majesty’s Land Ship Centipede, (from which we still have the original brass name plate) the prototype Mark I was built in Lincoln in December 1915. It moved for the first time under its own power on 13 January 1916 and did its initial driving, obstacle crossing and firing trials in Burton Park, Lincoln before being shipped by rail to Hatfield station on the 28th. It was transported by rail and driven through the night from the station to Hatfield Park, which had been chosen on account of its security and proximity to London for its first official demonstration.
There is a very good account in the book EYEWITNESS by Major General Sir Ernest Swinton (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1932).
There were three days of demonstrations at Hatfield Park, the first, a ‘preliminary canter’ Swinton called it, was on Saturday 29th January 1916. It was for those, Civilian, Military and Naval, who had played a part in the invention and development of Landships.
One Naval officer told anyone who would listen that we ought to have 3,000 of them, inspiring one Army officer to enquire: “Who is this damned naval man saying we will want three thousand tanks? He talks like Napoleon.”
Damned Naval Man
This ‘damned naval man’ was Commodore Murray Sueter, head of the Admiralty Air Department, who had conversed with Winston Churchill on the subject back in January 1915 and had even designed his own Landship, one of the first people ever to do so.
Colonel Crompton, whose blueprints were used to design the first tanks, was at Hatfield on that day and, as might be expected, was grudging in his praise. The best anyone heard him say was “not bad”. Crompton didn’t think much of Mother; he called her ‘The Slug’.
Over the next week Mother would be shown to a variety of dignitaries including, Lord Kitchener, David Lloyd George and King George V.
The main event over the same course took place on 2nd February 1916. This was the event at which Kitchener made his ‘pretty mechanical toy’ comment. Another demonstration for the King took place over the same course on 8th February 1916. The programme for the main show gives the length of Mother as 31ft 3ins and the weight as 28 tons 8cwt. This would of course include the tail wheel assembly.
Following the successful trials of Mother an order was placed for 150 tanks, which would first see action in September 1916.
After this event it seems that the guns were lifted out of Mother and the tank was relegated to driver training, possibly at Elveden in Suffolk. Sometime around December 1916 Mother was modified to a petrol-electric drive system using Daimler (of Coventry) components. It was part of an attempt to make tank driving easier although in this case it failed. When the tank turned up at Bovington after the war this equipment had been stripped out and all that remained was the hull, without roof. The tracks had been removed, as had the weapon sponsons so it was little more than an empty shell. This probably explains why it was ultimately scrapped although its predecessor, Little Willie was retained and is still on display at The Tank Museum.
Find out more about tank development and First World War tanks in the books below.