Monday, September 12, 2016

Tanks: a regiment of monsters

British Mark 1 Tank
“Never since the dawn of time had there been such a perversion of knowledge to criminal purposes; never had science contributed such a deadly toll to the fanatic and criminal intentions of a war-crazed class.”
--Francis March, History of the World War, 1919 

On September 15, 1916, the British Army recorded the first use in battle of a newly developed weapon: the tank.  Originally known as a land battleship, the term tank was adopted to preserve secrecy during the development of the armored vehicles (factory workers had noted their resemblance to steel water tanks). 

Writing shortly after the war’s end in 1919, American historian Francis March explained, “Originally this was a caterpillar tractor invented in America and adopted in England.  At first these were of two varieties, the male, carrying heavy guns only, and the females, equipped with machine guns…. All the tanks were heavily armored and had as their motto the significant words “Treat ‘Em Rough” (217).

With the introduction of poison gas, gas masks, and heavy artillery shells that obliterated forests and churned the earth, the Western Front had already assumed the appearance of a nightmare. Tanks added another surreal beast to the landscape.  While serving with the French army at the Somme, Anglo-American nurse Mary Borden described the new “regiment of monsters.”

The Hill

From the top of the hill I looked down on the beautiful, the gorgeous, the super-human and monstrous landscape of the superb exulting war.
There were no trees anywhere, nor any grasses or green thickets, nor any birds singing, nor any whisper or flutter of any little busy creatures.
There was no shelter for field mice or rabbits, squirrels or men.
The earth was naked and on its naked body crawled things of iron.
It was evening. The long valley was bathed in blue shadow and through the shadow, as if swimming, I saw the iron armies moving.
And iron rivers poured through the wilderness that was peopled with a phantom iron host.
Lights gleamed down there, a thousand machine eyes winked.
The sun was setting, gilding the smooth crests of the surging hills. The red tents clustering on their naked yellow sides were like scarlet flowers burning in a shining desert of hills.
Against the sunset, along the sharp edge of a hill, a strange regiment was moving in single file, a regiment of monsters.
They moved slowly along on their stomachs,
Dragging themselves forward by their ears.
Their great encircling ears moved round and round like wheels.
They were big and very heavy and heavily armoured.
Obscene crabs, armoured toads, big as houses,
They moved slowly forward, crushing under their bellies whatever stood in their way.
A flock of aeroplanes was flying home, a flight of wild ducks with iron wings.
They passed over the monstrous regiment with a roar and disappeared.
I looked down, searching for a familiar thing, a leaf, a tuft of grass, a caterpillar; but the ground dropped away in darkness before my feet, that were planted on a heap of stones.
A path, the old deserted way of cattle, showed below beyond the gaping caverns of abandoned dug-outs, where men had once lived underground.  And along the path a German prisoner was stumbling, driven by a black man on a horse.
The black man wore a turban, and he drove the prisoner before him as one drives an animal to market.
These three—the prisoner, the black man and the horse—seemed to have wandered into the landscape by mistake. They were the only creatures of their kind anywhere.
Where had they come from and where were they going in that wilderness of iron with night falling?
The German stumbled on heavily beneath the nose of his captor’s horse. I could see the pallid disc of his face thrust forward, and the exhausted lurching of his clumsy body.
He did not look to the right or left, but watching him I saw him trip over a battered iron helmet and an old boot that lay in his way.
Two wooden crosses showed just ahead of him, sticking out of the rough ground.
The three passed in silence.
They passed like ghosts into the deepening shadow of the valley, where the panorama of invisible phantom armies moved, as if swimming.
And as I watched I heard the faint music of bagpipes, and thought that I heard the sound of invisible men marching.
The crests of the naked hills were still touched with gold.
Above the winking eyes of the prodigious war the fragile crescent of the moon floated serene in the perfect sky.
                        --Mary Borden

The scene Borden describes resembles one of the terrifying medieval visions painted by Hieronymus Bosch.  In Borden's poem, across the naked body of the earth crawl “things of iron.” The armored tanks are unnatural creatures that lurch forward like “obscene crabs” or “armoured toads, big as houses,” and they mercilessly crush “under their bellies” whatever stands in their path.

Hieronymous Bosch, Hell
from "The Garden of Earthly Delights
The machines appear more alive than the three living creatures, “the prisoner, the black man, and the horse,” who seem to have unwittingly stumbled into this unimaginable landscape of war. This solitary group passes “like ghosts” into the darkening twilight and joins the “invisible phantom armies,” the hosts of men who are marching forward to face death or who are returning from the front-line trenches numb and exhausted by the horrors they have witnessed.

Men are reduced to phantoms and natural life has disappeared: not a leaf, tuft of grass, or caterpillar remains on the battlefield, only heaps of stones and wooden crosses that mark the graves of the dead.

The industrialized war has taken on a mechanized life of its own, its terrors worse than anything science fiction could imagine.  It is a “superb, exulting war” in which airplanes soar like “wild ducks with iron wings,” and “a thousand machine eyes" wink as the tanks blankly rumble forward, emotionless and cruel. 

Mary Borden
Mary Borden’s poem “The Hill” appeared in her book of sketches and poems The Forbidden Zone.  In the preface to the book Borden wrote, “The sketches and poems were written between 1914 and 1918, during four years of hospital work with the French Army….I have dared to dedicate these pages to the Poilus who passed through our hands during the war, because I believe they would recognize the dimmed reality reflected in these pictures.  But the book is not meant for them.  They know, not only everything that is contained in it, but all the rest that can never be written.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Tom. I think Borden is perhaps the most under-appreciated poet of the war.

  2. So glad you included Mary Borden. I have read her book twice now and reread passages several times. It is beautifully written and a favorite of mine.

  3. I agree; I think Borden is one of the most under-appreciated writers of the war. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  4. Agree Borden should be much better known - my co-author Andrew Palmer and myself highlight her work in our recent book The Remembered Dead: Poetry, Memory and the First World War from CUP.

  5. Although perhaps the essence of industrial warfare , the WW1 tanks were rather ineffective in strategic terms. But I suppose the magazine fed modern rifle or the belt fed machine gun wouldn't so easily lend themselves to poetry - rifles rapid rattle etc notwithstanding

    1. And now you've set me on a hunt for machine gun poetry, Ian! ;)