Tanks drive Dagenham author’s journey of discovery

Mike Foley (photo: Arnaud Stephenson)

Mike Foley (photo: Arnaud Stephenson) - Credit: photo: Arnaud Stephenson

A new book by an old Eastbrook lad who loved history looks at the role of tanks in the First World War, from protecting soldiers against gunfire to ploughing across muddy battlefields. Anna Silverman talks to Mike Foley

A 'tank bank' collecting money to pay for the war (all historic pictures courtesy of Mike Foley)

A 'tank bank' collecting money to pay for the war (all historic pictures courtesy of Mike Foley) - Credit: Archant

“Britain could have lost the First World War if tanks hadn’t been invented when they were.

A British tank

A British tank - Credit: Archant

“The British army were backwards and reluctant to try anything new.”

The book cover for Rise of the Tank: Armoured Vehicles And Their Use In The First World War

The book cover for Rise of the Tank: Armoured Vehicles And Their Use In The First World War - Credit: Archant

Dagenham-born author Mike Foley believes the Great War could have lasted a lot longer if tanks hadn’t come into play when they did.

A British tank captured by Germans

A British tank captured by Germans - Credit: Archant

Their crucial role is explored in his new book, Rise of the Tank: Armoured Vehicles and Their Use in the First World War.

A french light tank

A french light tank - Credit: Archant

Mike, 59, of Gorseway, Dagenham, spent nine months researching at the Imperial War Museum and using the national archive facilities.

A wrecked tank

A wrecked tank - Credit: Archant

He learnt how, despite Britain being the first in the world to use the tank, army commanders deemed them a waste of time.

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“They were still wanting to use the cavalry,” he said.

“Germans were just slaughtering them all with machine guns. Our commanders thought if they had loads of men out there they would win.”

However, Winston Churchill and the navy were keen on the tank – with the navy even developing the vehicle for the army as they were “more in tune to new ideas”.

But by the end of the war the Germans had caught on and acquired about 50. It was their weapon of choice by the Second World War.

Tanks were used to break down barbed wire and let infantry through. They provided protection from machine guns and were handy crossing muddy battlefields.

The first time they were used was at the battle of Somme in 1916. Armoured cars had already been in use but “tanks were good for the caterpillar trick – they could go across any terrain,” Mike explained.

“After the war there was a royal commission to give awards for the inventor of the tank.

“There were about 13 serious contenders who all claimed to have invented it and a number of others who were a bit mad.

“The commission decided a Major Swinton was mainly responsible.

“In 1940 H G Wells was charged with libel for saying Swinton stole the idea from him as he wrote about the idea of a tank in a story before the war. He had to pay Swinton £400.”

Rise of the Tank is Mike’s 22nd book. He writes mainly about the military and said history was always his favourite subject when he studied at Eastbrook School in Dagenham.

“I’ve been interested in local history ever since I found out there were a lot of soldiers based in the area,” he said. “I did lots of research and found there were barracks around here, too, in Colchester, Warley and Perfleet.

“The reason I focused on tanks for this book, though, and the reason they fascinated me so much, was they were a new form of warfare but were so difficult to get off the ground.

“It was amazing seeing how they developed because the people in charge were so reluctant to use anything new. It’s hard to understand their thinking.

“It was such a good idea but they wanted to send thousands of men in to do a job one tank could instead.”

Mike’s book is available on Amazon and in bookstores. You can visit his website at michael-foley-history-writer.co.uk