As it hurtled down the field, the roar of its four hundred horsepower motor rose to a crescendo. Ten thousand explosions to the minute tripped and crowded upon each other through the throbbing exhaust pipes to crash on the air like the demoniac scream of some charging saurian.
Nor was the bestial allusion lessened as the thing drew nearer. A sirocco of sand swirling up from its racing caterpillars all but hid the low green hull and malignant machine guns. While the great wheels supporting the tracks jerked and kicked with the spasmodic abandon of reptilian legs. Now and again, some fold in the ground would cause it to leap clear and sail through the air in fifteen foot leaps while the racing motor howled in ecstasy.
Lurching, bounding, and roaring, it sped past us to the tune of forty miles an hour. Nor could we who watched it hold our ground. The rush of this metal monster touched some hidden cord of race memory. We recoiled from it as did our skin-clad ancestors before the rush of the saber-tooth tiger or the squealing charge of the woolly rhino. Blind instinct had her will of us.
The cross country performance of this Christie armored car now tentatively adopted by our Cavalry is equaled or surpassed by its performance on wheels. Soon the tracks were removed and, handling like a fire engine, it dashed along the highway at seventy miles an hour.
Were it not for the backing we receive from the emotionless evidence of the official stop watches, we should scarcely dare to print the record of such speeds attained by an armored car - it seems too fantastic.
The tests were over, the records set, and still we stood wondering while memories crowded thick upon us. It was evening. As darkness fell, a new sound insinuated itself onto the already tortured air. From the scattered clumps of trees, from the muddy depths of ravines came hoarse splutterings, muffled explosions, then the drone of motors, and finally, a cadenced clucking -- the tanks were moving.
First in long company columns, then in groups of five. When the platoons separated, the mud-soiled monsters filed through the dripping woods. In front of them, like fire flies, gleamed ever and again the shielded cigarettes of officers with which they guided their squeaking charges along the road to destiny.
Here and there, in depressing and ever increasing numbers, a machine gurgles and dies while its frantic crew, sobbing curses like apoplectic mule skinners, wiggle and sweat to replace some refractory magneto or erring fan belt. Presently, an officer arrives to lend his muffled profanity to the task of rekindling the defunct spirit of the motor. Nothing avails until at last the overworked company mechanic, with his gang of grimy helpers, splashes up; at the touch of their magic pliers, the sleeping beast awakes coughingly and splutters forward on three cylinders. Elsewhere, a line of moving guns bars progress, or the sacred command wires entangle themselves in the tracks and are ruthlessly cut.
Such are the tragedies of the approach march - will the ever get there? Despite appearances, they do: well before dawn the last tank is in its departure position; the motors silenced and the exhausted crews are lying beside them manfully snoring in the mud.
The respite is brief, half an hour before "H" hour they are shaken into profane wakefulness and amid wistfully whispered inquiries of, "When do we eat," perform the last rites to their machines and then climb aboard to fidget, race the motor, and wiggle the breech block until the hour strikes when, following the signal of the officers, they, "Slip her into first" -- the show is on.
In the enemy lines, all is tension. Men huddle in the dugouts or crouch along the fire step while the night reels and vomits in the long agony of the opening barrage.
Here and there a flare squirts up to pierce the gloom, but to no avail; its light is quenched in the mist like a match in a bathtub - the mist hides everything. Suddenly, a string which seemingly has bound each throbbing brain snaps -- the suspense is over. In the comparative quiet, men look at each other wonderingly. What is it? The barrage has lifted to the supports -- the doughboys are coming.
The wet gray blanket of the all engulfing fog begins to palpitate. A sound half guessed at first, because menacingly apparent. To right - to left - in front; the sound eddies. Tock-tock-squeak-grind-tock-tock-tock -- it is all pervading.
"Look Fritz, what moves there by the old trench?"
"Mine Gott, it's a tank -- there's another."
"Don't shoot, you fool, or they will see us."
"Lieber Gott, what a war!"
Where they are peering a greenish-gray thing, filthy with mud and glossy with rain, slithers down the bank. There is a grinding roar as the excited driver changes gears. Then up, slowly, up until she tops the parapet. Exposing six feet of slimy belly, she teeters for a moment until, with the grace of a baby hippo, she plunges forward. Curtsying, she then wobbles on again for all the world like some huge Galapagos turtle -- swaying the gun proboscis of its turret head from side to side in search of prey.
Suddenly, the watching men see a white faced officer materialize from the murk. He taps furiously on the creature's back to attract its attention and then points with his stick in their direction. Slowly, jerkily, the questing snout comes around. There is a syncopated sparkling. Pop, pop, pop - pop, pop, pop, come the reports. Fritz collapses. Another wooden cross has been awarded. At fifty feet, machine guns are dangerous.
Like the raising of a curtain, the fog lifts. The vicious chatter of the machine guns breaks out on every side. Along the banks of the Aire, on the historic hills of Varennes, crawl the tanks, nearly two hundred of them. About them burst the shells, the glibbering bullets glancing from their sides leave honorable scars in streaks and starry splotches of nickel. In a field, a tank begins to spin around and around like a wounded rabbit, the blinded driver, unable in his agony, to control her. The views of another is momentarily obscure by a white puff changing to black. This fades and discloses a mass of twisted iron splotched with blood and brains. A shell has got home.
But, despite the crawling pace of some two or three miles an hour, such incidents are not numerous; by far, the greater number of stalled tanks, with which the fields are now dotted, are due to mechanical trouble.
The Baby Tank, as the French affectionately called the little Renault, was an infant in more respects than size. A true war baby, it had all the faults of adolescence; feeble, clumsy, and near-sighted, it only survived due to the indomitable will of the men who fought and tended it.
So vividly is this picture of the lumbering courage and tragic shortcomings of the earlier tanks etched in our memory by the withering alchemy of the shell burst that, on comparing it with the present vehicle, we had to pinch ourselves to see that we were really awake.
Truly, the machine has come of age. It resembles no more the wheezing fledglings of the late unpleasantness than does the trained race horse resemble the gangling foal.
The outstanding tactical advantages of the new care are two; 1) Speed, and 2) its ability to operate either on tracks or wheels.
To those of us who have experienced the soul-killing agony of entraining or entrucking the old machines, particularly when under fire, the road capacity of the new car is its outstanding achievement.
Due to this marching ability, it can accompany cavalry with ease and certainty. The importance of this accomplishment becomes most evident when we remember the adage that, "We march a thousand miles to every fight."
In the combat itself, the use of tracks permits it to move with certainty over many types of country and to be in a position to lend the horse soldier, not only its fire power, but also its steel-shod body in the mechanical charge.
The speed of the machine on tracks is almost of equal consequence. Throughout history there has been an endless strife between the projectile and armor. The projectile invariably wins. At sea this fact has been responsible for the production of the battle cruiser. Lightly armored and heavily gunned, she can bite deep. To avoid being bitten, she uses her speed to make her a more difficult target.
The same causes must produce the same effects on land. Guns can be made, and now exist, which can pierce any armor a machine can carry. The battle-life of the machine must therefore depend on avoidance rather than an absolute resistance. The speed and maneuverability of the new machine make it a true land battle cruiser. Its bite and run powers render it peculiarly apt to cooperate with cavalry.
However, its usefulness, in our opinion, does not stop here. While the added impost necessary to armor the machine as an infantry tank may slightly reduce its speed, it will still have a tremendous margin over any other known machine. As a light gun or anti-aircraft carrier it would, again in our opinion, possess great abilities particularly as an anti-tank weapon.
Before proceeding, we will attempt to clarify the question of armor. Due to the staggering cost involved, the nations of the world are loath to change major elements of military equipment, such as, for example, the types of machine guns and rifles. At the present time, most of this type of weapon have a caliber around .30 of an inch. It is fairly easy for a machine to carry armor-proof against these bullets even when they are special armor-piercing types. On the other hand, prevention of penetrations by artillery, or by .50 or .80 caliber machine guns, or automatic cannon, requires an armor of prohibitive weight. However, to obtain penetration, even such projectiles require almost normal (that is perpendicular) instance at reasonable ranges. Speed and maneuverability reduce the chances of such favorable conditions occurring. Again, these heavier caliber weapons are cumbersome. By forcing the enemy to use them, we reduce his mobility.
These facts make it clear that, for close combat, the infantry needs sufficiently heavy armor to require special weapons to meet it. While for the cavalry's armored car type we need only sufficient armor to shed non-armor-piercing .30 caliber bullets. For neither type can we build life insurance policy machines.
No matter how sanguine we may be as to the potency of this new weapon, it is folly to expect, from its adoption, to see violent changes in types of armies. The wrestling maxim that, "There is a block for every hold," applies equally to all forms of combat. The purpose of developing new arms and new holds, is to force the enemy to devise new counters for them - while at the same time adding to the versatility of our attack.
But, it must never be forgotten that all weapons and devices are only of secondary importance. Now, as ever, the fate of the nation depends on the heroic souls of its sons - not on the weapons they wield.
None the less, in order to justify ourselves in demanding of them the supreme sacrifice, we must, in honor, see to it that we give them every assistance which our wealth and ingenuity can provide.
Only when this is accomplished may we accept with a tranquil mind the arbitrament of battle confident that the justice of our cause and the valor of our sons shall bring us victory.
G.S. Patton, Jr.