The chariots of steel

By @Alex_Hazell
The chariots of steel

The tank in The Great War proved to be a formidable weapon, but these great machines were extremely unreliable and dangerous. This is the incredible (partially) true story of a British tank crew who survived and held through all odds in 1917.

Chapter 1

Cambrai

It’s fall 1917. The extraordinary invention of the tank has proved extremely effective on all sides. 

In November, British forces plan a major assault on the town of Cambrai, and with the tank, victory seems inevitable.

But one flaw with these great machines stills stand, they are not reliable.

I look out to what once was the beautiful fields of Ribecourt, I used to play on these fields when I was a child, now I can’t even bear a glance at the grey dirt and broken down trees. Maybe all this would end, and my children can play on these grassy fields that I once called home. I enlisted in the war effort to join a tank crew, I just didn’t know what position I was playing.

“Holmes? Matthew Holmes?” I answered, and shook hands with a corporal.

“You signed up for the tank regiment?” He questioned again, holding a clipboard,

“Um yes, yes I did, sir” I had no idea what I was going for with this. I heard stories of these mechanical beasts in papers and rumours, but I never thought I’d actually witness one.

“Follow me, sir” I walked past the aid tents, the artillery posts, and the horse stables, and I finally saw them. Four huge vehicles lined up, with men all around doing maintenance. The corporal showed me to the last tank, which had four men standing around and tending to it.

“Commander Roberts. We have a new crew member, Oscar Holmes” The men stopped and turned their attention,

“Ah, welcome lad, get those would ya?” Corporal Roberts warmly greeted me. I picked up two fuel canisters and walked over to the tank. It was incredible. It bared two huge tracks which was bigger than its actual body, which in itself was monstrous. It had two sponsons on each side, accompanied with long guns. Its front had two small windows, presumably for drivers. A man covered in oil and burn marks on his leather jacket walked up to me,

“Definitely a piece eh?”

“Sure is” I replied, examining a sponson,

“Nash” He greeted.

“Holmes” I shook his oily palm, and wiped it on my trousers, Nash snickered,

“Mind the oil” I smiled back.

“Anyway, lets give you a tour. This is-“

“Bloody hell Nash, maybe warn me of the faulty pipes next time I screw around with em” A man suddenly shouted at Nash from inside the tank, Nash finished and pointed his hand towards the man,

“O’Donnel, or, err, Don” Nash unenthusiastically said. The man climbed out,

“Ah, you must be the new and improved gunner” He also shook my hand. Gunner? I didn’t know I was going to work a gun! But if you enlist, you have no clue what you’ll be getting into. Nash showed me around some more.

“Alright?” Smiled Edwards, fiddling around with some tools. 

“G’day” Greeted Beckett. I peered inside, and already the stench of oil startled me. The interior looked cramped and small, barely enough to fit 4 men inside it. There were some small open ***** scattered around, and big stationed guns lined each side. The strangely oversized engine over-cramped the interior, along with big gears at the back.

“Form! Officer approaching!” I lined up with the rest of the soldiers,

“Evening lads” The officer walked over to us,

“This is the big one, the one that we have all been waiting for. We have orders to infiltrate German lines, in the small town of Cambrai” The officer announced.

“We leave in about 2-3 hours. Dismissed gentlemen” Only 20 minutes in to the army and already I’m going to be in a battlefield.

“Beer boy, lets go” Roberts tapped me on the shoulder, and I entered the tank.

We jumped in, and with six men, it was extremely cramped. The commander and Nash sat in seats right next to each other at the front, they both drove. Don and Beckett also entered similar positions, but they ran the gears and engine. Edwards pointed me to my position, where a huge gun was stationed, and Edwards manned the gun the other side. I had about 4 months gunner training, but not to this magnitude at all!

“Welcome to the jolly ‘ol crew” Edwards laughed,

“Just the six of us” 

“Where’s the rest of the crew? If I’m not mistaken, isn’t there supposed to be eight?” I naively questioned. Suddenly the tank went silent,

“We lost two boys last week, on a dispatch mission” Nash replied.

“What happened?”

“The bloody Fritz bombed us to hell and back” He stayed peering into his window.

“Ever worked a gun before?” Roberts asked me, fidgeting with the control levers on the ground and ceiling.

“No, not to this degree anyway” I firmly gripped the handles of the gun. We all had to pitch in to start the engine, which required four of us to pull a big handle to get it started. Then, we were on the move.

“What did you do back home?” Beckett shouted over the starting engine,

“I was an engineer, I built automobiles on an assembly line.” I replied, staring out at the landscape ahead in the small scope I had to look through.

“Lets hope your good at fixing tanks boy” Roberts exclaimed to me.

“Does she have a name?” I asked.

“Yea, junk” Don growled, twisting some sort of levers to get the tank to turn.

“I have a girl, back home, Lucille” I pulled out a photograph of my girlfriend from my jacket pocket, and gave it to Nash in front of me.

“She looks like a piece of fine work Holmes, you got ya self a keeper lad” Nash laughed.

“Lucille, yea, I like that” Said Edwards happily. The boys were humming in agreement.

“Watch it. We’re coming close” Roberts alerted the crew, and I peered out of my scope. The landscape turned grey, and fires were scattered around the fields. Up above, several observation balloons soared and swayed in the blistery winds.

“Ready men….we’re approaching allied trench” I gripped my trigger. We fell silent, the only sound being the roar of the engine as we stopped right behind our boy’s trench. The landscape looked scarred, with remains of what once stood buildings and homes. About five other of our tanks lined around. There was silence, until the whistle blew. As the men stormed out, so did we. The rumble of our engines and the shouting of our lions felt formidable, and we were. The tanks moved ahead of the men, and already explosions went off all around us. Our boys were being slaughtered, and thick clouds of smoke erupted from everywhere. We moved up, and I saw men running the same way, but they weren’t ours.

“Sweep the ground!” I quickly switched positions to a Lewis mounted in ball point, held my breath, and shot. Thousands of bullets flew out, and men fell. The Germans were retreating, but I kept shooting at them. Piles of corpses scattered the field, because I shot. Every time I killed, a sharp sting flowed through my chest. I saw this one German, while everyone else was frantically running, and while bombs erupted all around, he was walking, a lifeless being, unaware of his surroundings. I stopped, and sat under the gun. My ears were ringing, my heart pounding, time moving every slowly. I faintly heard a muffled yell coming at me,

“Holmes! Holmes! Get back on that Emma-Gee! Clear the-” Beckett’s yells were suddenly cut when a strong blast sent us off guard, and shook the tank. I covered my eyes, and when I looked at Beckett, his body was slouched under a leaking pipe, his head splattered along the walls. I quickly returned to the gun, and one of our tanks was right next to us. 

“We’re gonna make it!” Shouted Don, aiming into his 6 pounder. Suddenly, that same tank was blown to bits, sending shrapnel and flames across the field. Men on fire came frantically rushing out of the corpse of the machine

“One of ours got blown to bits! We’re just one fat target for that ****** field gun!” Edwards yelled, our tank quickly reverted and drove around the area. We cleared our path by crashing over rubble and broken houses. Our tank reached the field gun position, and I was aiming right at it.

“Holmes! You got a clear shot! Blow that blasted gun to smithereens!” A shell was loaded into my 6 pounder, so I shot, and hit, sending the field gun into flames. The crew cheered, I felt a sense of accomplishment, but the sting still lingered. Our men managed to push through to the edge of the city, and we followed. My head was ringing, and I felt pain all over. The town was completely decimated, and thick smoke lingered in the air.

“Easy boys, we’re entering an artillery post, keep on guard” Roberts steadily drove the tank through. 

“Oh **** Beckett, ****” Don looked as though he was about to break down.

“Jesus, his bloody head is splattered all over the armour, poor *******” Nash dragged the body to the corner,

“We’ll stop soon and bury him, the least we could do” The town looked beautiful now, its as if we entered a different land, no smoke, no fire, no rubble, but It was eerily quiet. Suddenly, the tank came to a halt.

“We got hit earlier, someone needs to check outside. Holmes, get out there” I grabbed tools and stepped outside. The air felt scorched by the flames and filled with ash, but among that a faint smell of flowers. The small stretch of the town almost looked new. I checked around the tank, and at the front was a small dent, just under the driver’s window.

“Holmes! Any damage?” Roberts questioned from his position,

“Nothing but a small dent. There seems to be a slight melt-” Suddenly, the sound of a roaring engine came from the other side of the town. 

“Holmes! What is it!” I looked around the empty streets, but the sound was approaching, and then a moving metal structure shakily revealed itself.

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