Water Carriers for Mesopotamia.

Lincoln's Connection with the Tank.



In the history of combat, few things can have had more dramatic effect than the invention of the Tank. Lincoln was at the forefront of that invention and this leaflet recalls the part the City played in the development of the fighting machine which changed the face of warfare.


In the "Great War" of 1914-1918, the opposing forces quickly became bogged down on the battlefields of France. Infantry and cavalry were useless against the mud and the enemy machine guns and casualties were running at horrific levels. There was no sign of a break through. This was the problem put before the Admiralty Landships Committee - the group charged with developing an armoured fighting vehicle which could cross the trenches and barbed wire and deliver an attack capable of breaking the stalemate and seeing the allies through to victory. To help them solve this considerable problem the committee turned to a Lincoln company—William Foster & Co. Ltd.


William Foster were a Lincoln engineering company specialising in agricultural machinery, and before the war they built tractors, threshing machines and other steam engines. They had even experimented with a caterpillar tracked vehicle for difficult terrain. With the outbreak of war, Foster’s heavy Daimler tractors were used to haul massive howitzer guns and heavy equipment, so their engineering pedigree was well known to the Landships Committee.


Foster’s factory was already heavily involved in the war effort but the development of this new fighting vehicle was likely to have such a devastating effect on the conflict that an element of secrecy was required. The workforce were told that they were working on "Watercarriers for Mesopotamia" (modern day Iraq). From this somewhat awkward title the workers came up with their own, more simple name.—"THE TANK".


Foster’s managing director was a man named William Tritton, a dynamic man who had re-vitalised Foster’s trading position in the pre-war years and who quickly adapted to the new opportunities that wartime threw up. He was assisted by his chief draughtsman William Rigby who had joined Fosters as an apprentice in 1903 and went on to live in Lincoln until his death in 1982 at the age of 93.

The other vital member of the team was Walter Wilson a Naval Lieutenant whose skill and engineering flair had been born out of flirtations with the early motor cars and flying machines.

The innovation and design skills of these men was coupled to the expertise and loyalty of the Foster’s workforce. Some 350 in number in 1914, this rose to 2000 at the height of wartime production. The vast majority women, trained in all the engineering skills and regularly working 12 hour shifts at the company’s Wellington Foundry in Waterloo Street, Lincoln.


Little WillieTritton and Wilson took just 37 days to produce the first prototype tank and it was tested on waste ground near the factory on 19th September 1915. Known as "Little Willie" it was a simple 15 ton armoured box on top of American caterpillar tracks which had the unfortunate habit of coming off whenever a manoeuvre was carried out.
The men persevered with different designs and finally came up with a track which went all the way around the tank body. This 28 - ton version was known initially as "Big Willie" but later as "Mother".


The "Mother" tank took just 141 days from the inception to testing and proved much more reliable than its predecessor. Fosters went into full-scale production and the tank saw its first action at Flers in France seven months after the first order had been placed. It immediately changed the pattern of the war causing panic in the enemy ranks and greatly uplifting the spirits of the allied troops. Tritton did not rest there though. He made further improvements through to the end of the war, including "Whippet" which had a top speed of 9 miles per Hour and "Hornet" which had an all round field of fire.


Flirt IIFlirt was a Mark IV Tank made at Fosters in 1917. It saw valiant action in the Battle of Cambrai but then saw dereliction after the war. In the early 1980’s the Bovington Tank Museum released Flirt on permanent loan to Lincoln City Council on condition it be restored. This painstaking restoration was undertaken by enthusiastic apprentices and trainees from Lincoln’s largest present day employers Ruston Gas Turbines. (Now known as Alstom.) It was completed over a period of two years

Flirt is now a marvellous reminder of the part Lincoln played in the birth of the tank and its telling contribution to history. Following a period of display at the British Museum it returned to Lincoln to form a lasting reminder of the achievements of William Tritton, Fosters and the people of Lincoln.


Having been instrumental in bringing the war to a speedier and satisfying conclusion Fosters returned to being a successful engineering company after the war. Regrettably they have since ceased to exist and their Waterloo Street Foundry has now been demolished.

The achievements of Tritton and his workforce in bringing the war to an early conclusion are greatly regarded in Lincoln and the road which now passes through the old testing site is named "Tritton Road" in his honour. There is still a Tank Room at the White Hart Hotel where Tritton used to meet representatives of the Landships Committee. Enthusiasts have also formed the Lincoln Tank Group to preserve and promote Lincoln’s heritage. They have the excellent "Tank Papers" which relate Lincoln’s story as the as the birthplace of the tank in detail. What is undoubtedly Lincoln’s most tangible memorial of the Great War is its restored Tank. FLIRT II.


My grandmother worked on the first tanks during the 1914 -1918 war and when the FLIRT II. TANK came back to Lincoln one of the people who helped to restore it was her great grandson, Nathan Fairweather. He made the dummy Lewis heavy machine guns for each side.


Further information on the City of Lincoln, free colour leaflets and assistance with accommodation enquiries contact the City Tourist Information Centre at 9, Castle Hill, Lincoln.

Flirt II can be seen in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life at the Old Barracks, Burton Road, Lincoln (less than 1/2 mile from Lincoln Castle).


Uncovering of Great War Tank
Cambrai Battlefield, November 1998

Mark IV female tank found at Cambrai, France.

This is from an article on the Hellfire Corner Great War Battlefield and memorial site.

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