The Armoured Cars in the First World War

E6 of Collected Articles

The contribution of the armoured car to the fighting in the First World War. Was it used in a significant role on the Western Front, or elsewhere, during the War?

The purpose of this examination

For understandable reasons, the many examinations of the fighting on the Western Front have focused on trench warfare and the experiences of the soldiers fighting within the trenches. And at the strategic level, studies of the operations and tactics have concentrated on how units of troops performed in attempting to achieve the objectives set by their commanders.

In relation to the new mechanical technologies available during the First World War, the traditional focus by military historians has been on the tank and the aeroplane. Again this is understandable for tanks had a profound effect upon the psychology of trench warfare especially after the battle of Cambrai in 1917. And the pilots fighting for air supremacy above the trenches seemed to be a continuation of the knights of old fighting single combats or jousting in opposing teams.

Nevertheless, by the start of that war, the petrol-driven motor car had been in existence for some 30 years. Early motoring was exciting. The first real car race, of over 732 miles from Paris to Bordeaux and back, was won in June 1895 at an average speed of 15 m.p.h.1 During the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, both on the Continent and in Britain, spectacular races took place over ordinary roads where petrol-driven cars averaged high speeds up to distances of over 1,000 miles. In the final French Grand Prix before war was declared, the German Mercedes car’s winning average speed over 466 miles was 65.3 m.p.h.2 These exploits showed petrol-engined cars were capable of consistently high levels of reliability.

In the decade before the outbreak of the First World War, those exploiting the new technologies started to examine how petrol-driven vehicles could be used advantageously in military conflicts. This essay will examine the history of the development of British armoured cars – vehicles shod with tyres rather than with tracks. It will seek answers as to what use was made of armoured cars and what contribution they made in the various theatres of war. There will be an attempt to demonstrate that, under favourable conditions, they did make a significant contribution. It will also examine if the military obsession with the horse held back the development of such a vehicle as a battle-winning machine in some of the many theatres in which the British armies fought.

Immediately the fact has to be faced that Great Britain’s use of armoured cars has been largely ignored by military historians. However it is significant that it was not the British Army but the Admiralty which pioneered their use on the battlefield. Understandably, although this is not necessarily commendable, the military commanders, and their official historians, may have been unwilling to recognise the value of a weapon they had largely overlooked.

For the purpose of this essay, the description of an armoured car has been broadened, where appropriate, to include heavy-duty vehicles that had chassis (the mechanised platform on which the vehicle’s coach-body is built) originally designed to be the mechanisms for lorries and buses. The common feature is that all, regardless of size, were armoured and moved on wheels normally shod with rubber tyres.

Armouring – protecting the warrior and his ‘mount’

The purpose of armouring is to reduce injuries when weapons strike. The earliest warriors used leather and wood to protect themselves; in later periods, metals such as iron increased the protection. The supreme examples were the armoured knights of the Middle Ages whose bodies and those of their horses were clad in intricately shaped and patterned sheets of steel. Unfortunately the arrival of gunpowder lead to bullets capable of penetrating the armour. From the 16th to the 20th century, although some horsemen continued to protect parts of their body with armour, military tactics had to evolve to exploit manoeuvrability before and on the battlefield to reduce the impact of musket fire and cannon-fire.

The Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War demonstrated the greatly increasing explosive power of shell and bullet. The Russians recognised that if the military potential of the motor vehicle was to be exploited, armouring merited an experiment. Without protection, the soldiers being carried would be too vulnerable to machine-gun or rifle fire. Thus they ordered and received some armoured cars from France and Britain (the Armstrong Whitworth) in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. Unfortunately, in early 1914, the British General Staff chose to ignore both the British and Continental developments in armoured cars.3

The first months of the War gave opportunities for motor vehicles to be used for reconnaissance patrols, alongside the cavalry. On the Eastern Front, in Solzhenitsyn’s ‘August 1914′, there is an amusing description of the Russian hero, Colonel Vorotyntsev, on horseback, meeting by chance the German commander, General von Francois, using a motor car for his reconnaissance.4 And during the ‘Race to the Sea’, wealthy British officers used their own vehicles from which to observe the enemy’s movements.

However it was the Royal Navy Air Service, not the British Expeditionary Force, which began to exploit the potential of armoured vehicles.5 Their pilots recognised the threat from the German Zeppelin airships and with the connivance of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, took their planes to Dunkirk to become what was later called the ‘Dunkirk Circus’.6

Their officers enjoyed driving fast cars so took them also. With weapons mounted, they drove around northern France and Belgium to find sites for airfields, and to recover their pilots even when crashed behind enemy lines. However a confrontation with a car full of Germans made them realise how vulnerable they were. Well understanding the necessity of armouring their ships, they began to improvise armour by attaching boilerplates to the vulnerable parts of these cars. The boilerplates gave moral rather than physical protection since thin armour plate was not then available.

Developing the classic armoured car – and the tank

As a result of this experiment in armouring, the mechanical problem soon experienced was the effect of the additional weight of the steel plates and the weaponry upon the suspension, the tyres, and the chassis. The engineering solutions were to strengthen the chassis, add stronger springs and fit twin rear wheels. The British car makers were already building fast touring cars. Soon Rolls-Royce, Clement-Talbot, Lanchester and Wolseley chassis, with Churchill’s approval, were being adapted for military use and fitted with 4 mm nickel chrome steel armour and Maxim machine-guns at the Royal Naval Dockyard, Sheerness. As soon as some were shipped to Northern France, in October 1914 they took part in the drive to relieve the Royal Marines fighting the Germans in Antwerp.7 Meanwhile the experimental developments continued; even German Mercedes lorries were mounted with 3-pounder guns or Maxim machine-guns to assess their potential. Although technically lacking sophistication, the overall performance of the makeshift armoured vehicles was considered good enough for the Admiralty to continue supporting the development of the armoured car.

Their experimentation continued despite the onset of trench warfare. The successful gunnery action at Westroosebeke, 2 miles north of Passchendaele, by a three-pounder mounted on a former B Type bus chassis lead to American Standard five-ton chassis, marketed in Britain as Seabrooks, being fitted with three-pounder guns and armour. At Neuve Chapelle in April 1915, after the end of the March battle, three Seabrook ‘self-propelled guns’ were used at night to drive up to and reverse into prepared gun positions, fire their shells, and then drive away before counter-battery firing began.8 The infantry in the trenches were not too pleased, a reaction later felt about the mortar units who withdrew to safety after completing their firing! Sadly one soldier killed by the German counter barrage was Anthony Wilding, the Wimbledon tennis champion. Despite this tragedy, the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French, was sufficiently impressed and a further twelve Seabrooks were shipped to France to continue exploiting their nuisance value.

Recognising that the machine-guns needed to be placed in turrets to protect the machine-gunners, the flat armoured plates were found to constrain their design. Beardmores, the renowned steelmakers, then discovered how to bend these plates without cracking them, so allowing the classic armoured car design to be achieved – first fitted on a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost chassis.9 Initially Maxim guns, later the Vickers machine-gun, were fitted into the turret.

One of the naval engineers responsible for the Seabrook development, Lieutenant Walter Gordon Wilson, also played a significant part in the invention of the tank. In the summer of 1915, the body of one of the early armoured cars was mounted on a Killen-Strait caterpillar tractor – and its successful demonstration led to the development of the experimental heavy tank, H.M.L.S (His Majesty’s Land Ship – author’s note) “Centipede”, also called “The Wilson Tank”, now popularly known as “Mother”10

With the fall of Churchill in 1915, his support for the continuing Admiralty control of the armoured cars was lost. In August 1915, they were taken over by the Army. Some were stripped of their armour to be made into staff cars – perhaps reflecting where the Army then gave its priority! Those not ‘vandalised’ joined the few Army armoured cars which had been improvised by officers with initiative. Yet oddly, the Admiralty retained control for testing and delivering the ‘landships’ for the rest of the War.

Attempts by the Army to use the Admiralty’s armoured cars on the Somme and during the Battle of Arras in 1917 were largely unsuccessful, although one Rolls-Royce armoured car was photographed at the notorious village of Guillemont in September 1916.11 However they were of use in March of 1917 following up the Germans as they retreated to the Hindenburg Line. But generally the mud of the churned-up battlefields needed the tracked ‘landships’, but even these were of little use at 3rd Ypres in the autumn of 1917. Sent to the Middle East, the armoured cars were not available for the Battle of Cambrai where the conditions after the break-in by the tanks favoured them. Instead the cavalry were used, but soon sent into hiding by German machine-guns. The dry, undamaged downland would have shown why the armoured cars were replacements for cavalry – but there was not a Churchill in GHQ to promote their value and with the determination to see them in action.

Finding appropriate theatres of war after 1914

Whilst development work continued in 1915, the establishment of static trench warfare meant that few opportunities for using the armoured cars in action on the Western Front were available. However Churchill, appalled at the continuing inertia of the War Office, was still their strong supporter. Hence a squadron of Rolls-Royce armoured cars were sent to Southern Africa where they assisted in defeating the German forces. Two squadrons were sent to the Gallipoli peninsula and a photograph shows two of the four Rolls-Royces, taken ashore, protected in specially prepared dugouts on Cape Helles.12 They proved to be of little use when fitted with grapnels and reversed up to the Turkish barbed wire to tear it away. Eventually they were taken off the peninsula and with the rest shipped to Egypt.

The Middle East demonstrated the value of the armoured cars. From their base in Egypt, they took part in many successful actions against the Turks and their tribal allies. The American-built Model T Fords became the backbone of desert patrols for long-range raiding, going where the heavier Rolls-Royces would bog down – the forerunners of the famous long range patrols which harried the rear areas of the Afrika Corps and Italian Army in the Second World War.

T.E. Lawrence successfully used the Rolls-Royce armoured cars in Arabia and later wrote that ‘A Rolls in the desert was above rubies…’13 After the Third Gaza Battle in October 1917, the various armoured cars helped drive back the retreating Turkish army, their speed and reliability allowing them to outflank the enemy’s defence lines and create havoc behind them.

Once the Battle of Second Ypres (April to May, 1915) was over, King Albert of the Belgians decided to offer his armoured cars to the Russian Imperial Government. The Admiralty agreed to form the Russian Armoured Car Division equipped with some 36 Lanchester armoured cars and 3 Pierce-Arrow five-ton lorries mounting their three-pounder guns within turrets armoured with 9 mm steel. Shipped to Russia, they fought in many campaigns across the Russian steppes between January 1916 and late 1917.

The Russian Government as previously stated had for a decade recognised the potential military capabilities of armoured cars and purchased them from a number of manufacturers; at one stage they had over three hundred armoured cars nominally available. One interesting innovation on some were the twin turrets, each mounting a Maxim machine gun. Many early chassis supplied by Austin Motors were un-armoured and on reaching Russia were fitted with their armour at the Putilov Works in St Petersburg (this works, later renamed the Kirov Works, was valiantly defended and kept in operation throughout the three year long Siege of Leningrad, between 1941 and 194414). As none had the twin wheels arrangement common on other armoured cars, a few were converted into half-tracks15 – the origin of a concept so skilfully used by the Germans and Americans in the Second World War.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, twenty four of the Austins originally destined for Russia were shipped to Mesopotamia where they became part of the Dunsterforce sent through Persia to the oil town of Baku to foil the German attempt to capture the oil wells. The remaining sixteen ‘…were handed over to the Tank Corps, which issued them to the 17th Battalion.’16

The Austin armoured cars on the Western Front

The armoured cars ordered by the Russian Government from Austin Motors were built on the 30 h.p. Colonial chassis, which had a top speed of 35 m.p.h. When they became part of the 17th (Armoured Car) Battalion, the twin turrets, originally designed for Maxim machine guns, were instead fitted with Hotchkiss machine guns.

Recognising after the Battle of Cambrai that the slow Mark V and Mark V* tanks could break through the fortified German lines but not exploit the break-out (and perhaps noting how unsuccessful the cavalry had been on the Somme and at Arras), the War Office turned to the armoured car as a weapon to be used in this role, alongside the Whippet tanks. Once in France the 17th Battalion underwent training and on June 11th fought its first action at Courcelles, alongside the French.17 The armoured cars also carried out successful reconnaissance patrols with the French and American Armies in situations lethal to infantrymen.18

On August 8th, on the first day of the Battle of Amiens, sixteen armoured cars went into action as part of the 5th Australian Division. Colonel Carter had the inspired idea for three tanks each to tow two cars together through the trenches and shell holes of the front-lines.19 Once uncoupled the cars penetrated far behind the German lines and created havoc around Proyart and Framerville (where the German’s Corps HQ was located) without one shot being fired at them.20 Artillery limbers and lorries were destroyed, horses bolted across country pulling disintegrating wagons, many German troops were shot, a train shot up and stopped, and in honour of the Australian Division an Australian flag nailed to the German general’s front door. And of vital importance, a detailed plan of the Hindenburg Line was appropriated, to be put to good use a few weeks later.21 The impact was out of all proportion to the number of cars involved. Amiens finally demonstrated to the British GHQ the capabilities of the armoured car – sixteen cars being worth more than a cavalry division!

On the 21st of August, sixteen cars in A and B companies of the 17th Battalion left Bienvilliers and were helped by Whippet tanks of the 3rd Battalion to reach Achiet-le-Petit where they gave protection to the advancing infantry. Thereafter they often worked alongside these medium tanks, the cars chasing the Germans off the roads whereupon the Whippets then chased them across country! In co-operation they created havoc and did not suffer the vulnerability of the heavy tanks which were quickly and greatly reduced in number during the early stages of most attacks.22

After refitting, on August 24th, the armoured cars assisted the New Zealand Division. They patrolled around the north-western outskirts of Bapaume, destroying machine gun nests and mortar batteries. Except when hit by artillery fire, the cars were safe, being unscathed by machine-gun bullets. On September 29th, the cars were assisting the 3rd Australian Division before Bony although the heavy artillery fire prevented them and the Whippet tanks having much success. Even when damaged, many were repaired in the field by the Battalion’s Peerless lorries equipped as mobile workshops. Unless hit by artillery fire, their speed made them difficult targets for the anti-tank guns and field guns firing over open sights, which were destroying so many of the heavy tanks.

On October 9th, the armoured cars drove back the enemy resisting the advance of the South African Scottish beyond Maretz, destroying ten machine-guns and two trench mortars.23 Later that day, the cars assisted the cavalry to protect the railway bridge at Honnechy, the cars acting as mobile strongpoints until the infantry arrived. Next day the cars entered Le Cateau, the scene of Smith-Dorrien’s famous rearguard action on 26th August 1914.24 In action from November 4th, the cars were especially useful in dispersing enemy demolition parties trying to blow up bridges. Also they captured heavy guns, lorries, horse transport and three ammunition trains.

After the Armistice they were invaluable to bring order to the areas near the German border where German soldiers were streaming home and Allied prisoners-of-war heading west. In their battle actions between June 11th and Armistice Day five months later, they had gained such a good reputation that they were selected to lead the British Army into Germany on the 6th of December.

The armoured cars – a significant role yet an opportunity missed

Overall, during the final five months, the relatively few armoured cars had successfully exploited the opportunities to get behind the enemy’s front-lines and create havoc on many occasions. Although as vulnerable as the other armoured vehicles to artillery fire, nevertheless they were capable of withstanding machine-gun bullets so allowing them to deal with troublesome machine gun nests and mortar batteries. Taking into account the fact that they were originally ordered for the Russian front, the Austin armoured cars of the 17th Battalion in particular had played a significant role.

However it is regrettable that the order from the Russian government did not stimulate the British commanders and the government’s procurement department to place orders for the Western Front. But perhaps these people were too mesmerised by the ‘landships’ despite their mechanical unreliability and vulnerability to artillery fire. And too wedded to the supposed effectiveness of the cavalry in the modern battlefield – despite no successful actions on the Western Front during the whole of 1915. It is strange to record that, in view of the low esteem with which the Czarist Russians were held by the British, it was the Russians’ foresight which gave the British their chance of success with armoured cars on the Western Front in 1918.

Unfortunately the lack of British vision meant that armoured cars were not available in sufficient numbers to be used imaginatively during the high summer on the Somme, when they might have exploited the break-in from the Bazentin Ridge wasted by the cavalry. Their charge towards High Wood achieved nothing – and condemned the infantry to another four months of attrition. Again if they had been made available for the Battle of Cambrai in late 1917, their ability to create havoc by their speed and machine-gun fire might have disrupted the counter-attacks which neutralised the British heavy tank advances. Similarly their presence during the German Spring offensive of 1918 might have given the British commanders the opportunity to use them as mobile strongpoints in support of the infantry, moving from one ‘hotspot’ to the next, which the heavy tanks could not do because of their slow speed and mechanical unreliability.

Technically the Austin armoured car was based on the readily-available Colonial chassis which was relatively cheap to manufacture. The armoured superstructure was also straightforward to make. Once curved armour plate became available, a high degree of protection was provided by relatively light-weight steel. Taking into account modern military thinking on the relationship between cost and fighting effectiveness, it is probable that the armoured car gave considerably greater ‘value for money’ than the heavy tank, with the Whippet’s ‘value’ between the two. Because of the lack of foresight and investment by the British War Office, a major opportunity was missed.

However the armoured car would not have been able to cross the belts of barbed wire and deep trenches which dominated the Western Front for most of the War. Nevertheless, greater investment, perhaps at the expense of maintaining the large cavalry arm, should have been carefully considered. Besides the twin-turret variant, a one turret version mounting either the equivalent of a French 37 mm cannon25 or the British 57 mm/6-pounder gun would have been given great offensive capability once the heavy tanks had achieved the breakthrough. And the Russian’s development of the half-track was overlooked.

Armoured cars of the First World War – a deserved place in military history

In preparing for this essay, from his reading of the many histories of First World War campaigns, the author knew of scattered glimpses of armoured cars in action, but usually mentioned in passing. However David Fletcher’s War Cars and Tanks and Trenches, two important sources of information, were to reveal that their contribution has been underplayed. Other sources built up the picture of success in different battle theatres. Under the appropriate conditions, the armoured cars built on Austin, Rolls-Royce, Ford, Talbot, Lanchester and other makes of chassis were able to play a significant role and to achieve outstanding success even though very few in number.

After the First World War, the British armoured cars played an important part in policing the British Empire for the next twenty years. But it was Germany that best absorbed the lessons from its defeat. As technology advanced, especially in making tough balloon tyres and designing independent suspensions (these were pioneered on the formidable German racing cars, the Mercedes-Benz and the Auto-Unions, of the 1930s) so the armoured cars were developed into outstanding weapons capable of operating over many types of ground in addition to roads. The German vehicles of the Second World War such as the eight-wheeled Puma were superb fighting machines. It is an irony of history that they owed their success to the Russian pioneers and to Winston Churchill and his Royal Naval Air Service who had the vision to ally the concept of armoured protection to the awesome power of the internal combustion engine.

References and Notes

1. Laurence Pomeroy: The Grand Prix Car: Volume One (London, Temple Press,
1954), p. 17.
2. Pomeroy: Grand Prix Car, p. 37.
3. David Fletcher: War Cars: British Armoured Cars in the First World War
(London, Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1987), p. 12.
4. Alexander Solzhenitsyn: August 1914 Hermondsworth, Penguin Books, 1974),
pp. 379-83.
5. Fletcher: War Cars, p. 13.
6. J.P. Harris: ‘The Rise of Armour’ in Paddy Griffith (ed.): British Fighting
Methods In The Great War (London, Frank Cass, 1996), p. 114.
7. Fletcher: War Cars, p. 16.
8. Fletcher: War Cars, p. 24.
9. Fletcher: War Cars, p. 19.
10. Author’s name not given: A Short History of The Royal Tanks Corps,
Fifth Edition (Aldershot, Gale & Polden, 1938), p. 4.
11. Fletcher: War Cars, Front cover.
12. Fletcher: War Cars, p. 26.
13. T.E. Lawrence: Seven Pillars of Wisdom; quoted in Fletcher: War Cars, p. 42.
14. Alexander Werth: Leningrad ( London, Hamish Hamilton, 1944), pp. 106-122.
15. Fletcher: War Cars, p. 48.
16. David Fletcher (ed.): Tanks and Trenches: first hand account of tank warfare
in the First World War ( London, Grange Books, 1994), p. 200.
17. Short History of The Royal Tanks Corps, p. 56.
18. Fletcher: War Cars, p. 50.
19. Fletcher: War Cars, p. 50.
20. Fletcher: Tanks, p. 145.
21. Barry Pitt: 1918: The Last Act (London, Cassell, 1962), p. 187.
22. Short History of The Royal Tanks Corps, p. 69. During the first three days of
the Battle of Amiens, of 688 tanks used, 480 were handed over to salvage!
23. Fletcher: Tanks, p. 205.
24. Barbara M. Tuchman: August 1914 (London, Macmillan, 1980), pp. 347-9.
25. Fletcher: Tanks, p. 117.

Original presented to MA War Studies course ‘The First World War at KCL, 1998.