The Design Was Not Passed On
by Ken Wright
By early 1915, the fighting on the Western Front had stalemated into static
trench warfare. The death toll had reached such epic proportions that neither
the British, French or Germans could keep up the insane tactics of mass charges
by their troops across no-mans land only to be slaughtered in vast numbers by
machine gun fire, artillery barrages or die entangled in barbed wire or drown
in mud. Static warfare was not how the generals of the time wanted the war
conducted and Allied General Headquarters in France began demanding a solution
to the trench warfare be found.
An accomplished writer for the British Army, Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Swinton,
observed first hand the early battles and reported to his superiors in his
opinion, a petrol tractor on the caterpillar principal, with hardened steel
plates, would be able to counter the effects of the machine gunner. His
proposal the British Army build such a vehicle was rejected by General Sir John
French and his scientific advisers. Fortunately Swinton's report had been read
by Winston Churchill, the First Sea Lord who had a little more imagination than
his colleagues. He liked the idea and set up in February 1915, a Landship
Committee to look into the possibility of developing the new war machine
Swinton had proposed. The committee commissioned Lieutenant W.E.Wilson of the
Naval Air Service and William Tritton of William Foster and Company of Lincoln
to construct a small landship. The work was carried out in great secrecy and
the new war machine was code-named 'water tank' based on the size and shape of
the fresh water tanks on the battle field. The name was to be eventually
shortened to 'tank' by the troops.
The first prototype was demonstrated to the Landship Committee on September 11
1915, but its performance was disappointing as it couldn't cross broad
trenches. Wilson and Tritton immediately went back to work to design a better
model. It was Wilson who came up with the idea of taking the tracks right round
a body of rhomboid shape, pointed at the top and sloping down at the back. All
work was concentrated on Wilson's design. After much trial and error, the first
crude British tanks were shipped to the Western front and spearheaded the
attack on the Somme on 15 September 1916. Historical records vary but of the
approximately 47 tanks that were brought up for the attack, only 11 actually
went into battle. The long hoped for decisive victory was not achieved despite
the surprise and terror the new weapon caused the Germans. The tanks were
underpowered, unreliable and too few in number. It is only conjecture, but the
outcome of that particular battle and many more in the future may have been
different if the ideas of an Australian inventor had been used when offered.
Lancelot Eldin DeMole
was born in Kent-town South Australia on the 13 March 1880 and by 1908 was a
draughtsman and inventor working on surveying and mining projects in several
Australian states. One of his early inventions was an automatic telephone
system designed three years before a similar type was introduced into the
United States. A typical example of the failure to exploit a potentially good
idea was that the Australian Postal Department declined to even test it.
DeMole, while working in the very rugged countryside of Western Australia had
the idea for a chain rail system of traction for use in heavy haulage. This
idea led him to work on a design for a chain rail armoured vehicle. He sent his
sketches to the British War Office in 1912.
The principal operation of his vehicle was that his machine could be steered to
the right or left when proceeding forwards by altering the direction that the
chain rail could be laid. By screwing the front portions to one side or the
other side or steered when proceeding backwards by pressing the bogie nearest
the rear end of the vehicle to one side by means of a screw gear or a hydraulic
ram controlled by the steersman. This causes the body of the vehicle to be
thrown to the right or left as required so that as the machine proceeds, the
links of the chain rail will be laid to the right or left of the line that the
vehicle has been proceeding on. This forms a curve which as the vehicle
proceeds, will alter the direction of travel. Perhaps it was all too
complicated for the British War Office as they returned some of his sketches in
1913 with a letter rejecting his idea and the comment that they were no longer
experimenting with chain rails.
DeMoles friends urged him to try and sell his idea to the German consul in
Western Australia but he declined with the comment that they may one day be an
enemy. The outbreak of WW1 in August 1914 proved him right With Britain at war,
Australia, as part of the British Commonwealth also declared war on Germany.
DeMole, like so many of his fellow countrymen, answered the call to war with
patriotic fervour. His initial attempt to enlist in the Australian Imperial
Forces was unsuccessful as the Army rejected him as too tall and delicate.
As the war progressed, the Land ship Committee and the development of the tank
were of course unknown to DeMole. The new secret weapon only became common
knowledge after the Somme battle. Personal papers and official documents differ
slightly as to the exact date, but it is generally accepted that DeMole
re-submitted his plans based on the original ones from 1912 to the British
Munitions Inventions Office around July or August 1915 or possibly in early
1916. In any case, the British authorities failed to pass on his design to the
Landship committee. One can only speculate why the plans were not made
available to the people who were working on the tank. It's possible the
Munitions Inventions Office knew nothing of the Landship Committee because of
great secrecy that surrounded what they were doing or perhaps there was some
form of inter-departmental rivalry. What ever the reason, an opportunity to
explore a new idea was wasted.
DeMole did received a letter from the Munitions Inventions Office suggesting
that a working model must be provided to have any chance of consideration. Not
being the type to give up easily, DeMole tried to get the local South
Australian Inventions Board interested in his idea. The official in charge
could not understand the plans. The idea was rejected with the weak excuse that
there might be a hole and the vehicle might fall in it. DeMole was thinking of
a fleet of 500-1000 armoured vehicles with mounted guns that could be used to
attack the enemy in overwhelming force but the official lacked imagination and
could only think in terms of one. It was only when the bitter fighting in the
Somme was over and the secret of the tank became common knowledge, did DeMole
realised his design was superior and had been completely ignored by the British
In order to try and enlist again, he went on a special diet to improve his
health and was finally allowed to join in 1917 as a private in the 25th
Re-enforcements, 10th Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces. With financial
backing from a friend, Lieutenant Harold Boyce, [later to become Sir Harold
Boyce and Lord Mayor of London] DeMole had a metal model of one eighth scale
constructed by the mechanical and electrical engineering firm of Williams and
Benwell in Melbourne. They described the model as being remarkable from an
engineering point of view. Lieutenant Boyce managed to get Private DeMole
assigned to him and they departed from Melbourne on the troopship A60 [Blue
Funnel liner Aeneas] via the Suez Canal. Locked in the ships orderly room under
constant guard was the model tank. As soon as they arrived in the English port
of Plymouth, DeMole managed to get leave to take his model to the Munitions
Inventions Office. By now it was January 1918.
His model passed the first test and he was asked to demonstrate it to a second
committee. Just when it seemed he was actually getting somewhere, DeMole became
sick and was unable to follow up with the second demonstration. He returned in
March to the Munitions Inventions Office only to find his model had been left
in a basement and the letter from the first committee recommending his model to
the Tank Board had not been passed on to the second committee. Before he could
arrange a second demonstration the Germans launched their spring offensive at
9.40 am on March 21. After a five hour bombardment, the German army struck a
massive blow against the weak divisions of the British Third and Fifth Armies.
DeMole was called back to active duty with the 10th Battalion and fought at
Merris, Meteren and Villers-Bretonneux. He remained in France until the
armistice then returned to London to be demobilised. It was here that he heard
about a Royal Commission being established to reward inventors for their
contribution to the war effort. With regards to the area of tank development,
DeMole, along with a few others lodged his claim.
In November 1919, the Royal commission handed down their findings. The credit
for designing the tank actually used went to Wilson and Tritton and they were
jointly awarded 15,000 pounds. As to Lancelot Eldin DeMole's claim, the
commissioners considered he was entitled to the greatest credit for having made
and reduced to practical shape as far back as 1912, a brilliant invention which
anticipated, and in some respects, surpassed that which was actually put into
use in the year 1916. The commissioners went on to say that it was the
claimant's misfortune and not his fault that his invention was in advance of
its time and failed to be appreciated and was put aside because the occasion
for its use had not yet arisen. They regretted they were not able to recommend
any award to him. They explained that a claimant must show casual connection
between the making of his invention and the use of any similar invention by the
Government. DeMole was however, awarded 965 pounds for out of pocket expenses
by the British Government.
DeMole's tank was more manoeuvrable than early British variety. It incorporated
a piece of mechanism that simplified the handling of the tank and enabled it to
be steered in a comparatively sharp turn. It also had climbing face at both the
front and back which enabled the tank to back out of trouble, which the early
British tanks could not do. DeMole's invention looked good on paper and mapped
out what Wilson and Tritton had to work out the hard way. His plans did not
include an engine or any form of armaments as he was convinced those things
were better left up to the experts in those fields. Unfortunately for him and
history, his plans were never built and tested with a full scale vehicle so it
is only speculation how much if any, his contribution would have had on the
design and development of the early tanks. This lack of a test vehicle may
explain why many historians both past and present tend focus on Tritton and
Wilson's achievement and ignore DeMole altogether either out of ignorance or
being too selective in their writings about the early development of the tank.
As a result of this deplorable treatment, his name and what he tried to achieve
has been all but forgotten even in his own country.
After the war, the newly established Australian War Memorial in the Australian
capital of Canberra sent DeMole a letter asking him if he would be prepared to
donate his model to the museum. The displays would include trophies and relics
captured or acquired by Australian troops and would also include a tank section
and the model as a tribute to the inventive genius of Australians. On 28 July
1921, a grateful Australian Government placed him on the New Years Honour list
and awarded him with the C.B.E
After a long illness, Lancelot Eldin DeMole died in 1950. His model is
currently in the Australian War Memorials Treloar Centre for conservation.
Personal Papers; Stephanie Hart—Anthea Fleming. Melbourne, Australia.
DeMole Papers; Australian War Memorial Canberra.
Archives; Australian War Memorial Canberra.
Copyright © 2006 Ken Wright.
Written by Ken Wright. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Ken Wright at:
About the author:
Ken Wright lives in Melbourne Australia and served 5 years in the Australian army in an Armoured Recon Unit.
He has worked as a book sales rep and correctional officer.
He is married with two children, three dogs, and two cats.
He retired early and began writing 4 years ago and has written numerous published articles published for
military magazines in Australia, the UK and the US.
Published online: 07/08/2006.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.