The war that was meant to end by Christmas 1914 soon became a stalemate , with thousands of men dying daily in 450 miles of fortified trenches running from the Northern Coast of Belgium down to the Italian Alps.

The ability for either side to advance and fight had been all but lost and whichever side was first to breach the wire and cross the trenches would break the dead lock and perhaps even win the war.

In early 1915 David Lloyd George could already see how the outcome of this war would be decided when he said ‘this is in engineers war’

When confronted with images of the hell on earth that was the Western Front it was inevitable that inventive minds would begin to consider alternatives and in England a small group of men began to have the glimmering of a remarkable idea.

It was an idea that would lead to a small agricultural engineering company in Lincoln creating what can be considered the greatest fighting machine invented..................................

The Tank

The small Lincoln based company had been founded by Potterhanworth born William Foster in 1846. as a flourmill on Waterside North. In the early 1850s Foster transferred all the machinery in the mill from water to steam power. He was so impressed that in 1856 he started an engineering foundry instead of his established milling business

The gamble paid off and the ‘Wellington Foundry’ flourished. Fosters were soon producing threshing machines and portable engines.

Foster died of TB in 1860 and was buried in Eastgate churchyard

The company continued after their founder’s death and continued to produce a range of high quality agricultural machines for the world market, moving into their new premises on Firth Road in 1899.

However, by 1905, the modest company’s future looked bleak, but the challenge to recover it to its former glory was taken on by William TRITTON

In 1915 the Factory was awarded the contract to develop designs for various trench crossing machines .

The factory may be long gone but Fosters water hydrant, that bears his name can still be seen outside St Peter at Gowts church and three Fosters lamp standards survive, on Steep Hill, Westgate and in the grounds of Lincoln Cathedral.

Two small pieces of the original factory wall are the only surviving remains of the foundry.

Tritton started out as an agricultural engineer and would have happily continued if it had not been for the war. Born in Islington in 1876, his father was a stockbroker and determined that William should get a first class education. He attended Christs College Finchley and Kings College London, before going onto an apprenticeship at Gwynnes Pumps in Hammersmith. He showed a flair for design, and after leaving Gwynnes he spent the last few years of the 19th century moving though an impressive list of some of England’s finest companies, until he was head hunted in 1905 by Fosters Chairman W T Page.

He was renowned for working closely with his drawing and design team and was personally responsible for the redesign of many of Fosters existing machines.

Tritton and Walter Wilson were recognised by a Royal Commission in 1919 which had convened to decide if anyone in particular was deserving of special mention or financial reward for the creation of the Tank. They were given £15,000 to share between them. Tritton however felt that a Knighthood he had received in 1917 and the profits he had made from War Office contracts was sufficient and so gave most of his share to his employees. This was not the only act of kindness he showed to his staff. In 1918 he had bought houses in streets close to the factory to house workers as well as Bracebridge Hall on Newark Road which was re christened the William Foster and Co Ltd Residential Club for Homeless Munition Workers’

He died in 1946, aged 71 years old and is buried at Wilford Hill cemetery in Nottingham

William Rigby was a gifted draughtsman with a keen grasp of engineering principles and a knack of being able to push the available technology to its limits.

He was educated in Lincoln and in 1904 he became an apprentice at Fosters, quickly rising through the ranks until he gone from drawing room apprentice to become the company’s chief draughtsman.

His talent was that of producing highly detailed engineering drawings in an incredibly short time and he was directly responsible for the creating the first drawings from which the Tanks were built.

He continued to work at Fosters until 1963, and gave lectures on tank production among other subjects up to his death in January 1982

Born in 1874, Walter Wilson was educated as a naval cadet at Dartmouth before moving on to Kings College Cambridge. When he left he had a first class honours degree and a fertile mind full of ideas.

He designed and built his own cars, completely redesigned the sail boat and even dabbled in early aircraft. All the machines he worked on were incredibly technologically advanced and of the highest quality. In 1906 he designed a combined armoured car and gun tractor for Armstrong Whitworth but it was way ahead of its time and they couldn’t persuade anyone to but it!

He was a freelance engineer from 1908 until the outbreak of war, when he joined the newly formed Royal Navy Armoured Car Service. This led eventually to his involvement with the Admiralties Landships Committee. In 1915 he was seconded to William Fosters Factory in Lincoln to co-operate with Tritton and oversee the work on behalf of the Committee.

The combination of Trittons experience, tenaciaous character and technical knowledge combined with Wilsons design and engineering genius made them a formidable team. Track laying technology was still very much in its infancy in 1915, but despite this, track laying vehicles were still seen as the only option and by this time several designs were vying for the chance to break the dead lock in the trenches. They were vetted by the newly formed Admiralty Landships Committee headed by the first Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.

One such design was ’Hetherington’s Big Wheel’, which had been designed by Major Thomas Hetherington. It was a huge machine 48’ high, 80’ long and weighing over 300tons. Fosters were contracted to make create the proto type. Its 40’ wheels would have made crushing barbed wire and crossing trenches easy but its sheer mass would have consigned it straight to the bottom of the quagmire that was the Western Front.

Tritton and Rigby could see its potential though and altered it to become smaller and lighter – calling their design the Tritton Trench Tractor’. The new more compact version would be powered by a 105hp Daimler engine of the type used in Fosters heavy haulage tractors. However, as the wooden mock up took shape in Fosters yard, it soon became apparent that the new design would be too expensive to produce and too vulnerable to enemy fire. It was therefore scrapped.

Tritton was still enthusiastic about the basic principle of using tractors with large wheels rather than tracks, and in fact Fosters produced at least two fully working machines – The Tritton Trench Crosser and the forerunner of the true Tank – the Number 1 Lincoln Machine.

The Tritton Trench Crosser

From the rear this looked like a standard Daimler Foster 105hp tractor. From the front though it was a completely different animal.

The front wheel of the machine had been arranged so as to run in tandem, wooden extensions had been added to either side of the chassis and he drivers position had been moved from the rear of the machine to just in front of the box radiator. A pair of thin but sturdy long bridges were stowed along each side and a heavyweight winching chain had been added. Wood was used o for the chassis extensions to shift the centre of gravity towards the heavier rear end. Working with the tandem front ends this meant that when the tractor was driven straight at a trench the front wheels would easily span the obstacle whilst leaving the rear end on the other side. The bridges would then be deployed by hand and the rear wheels of the tractor would follow the nose over the trench. Once safely over the bridges would be winched back into place.
But – although it could cross trenches (slowly) it couldn’t manage rough ground and barbed wire. It was realised that any future designs would have to run on tracks. 

The Number 1 Lincoln Machine

Fosters had previously collaborated with Ruston and Hornsby of Grantham to produce the Yukon Tractor which had used Hornsby chain tracks instead of wheels. Fosters later produced a half track machine called the Centipede – this was a major reason for the Landships Committee to turn to Fosters in the quest to develop a track laying trench crossing machine in 1915.

In August 1915 Walter Wilson proposed that it would be more beneficial to have the tracks travel right round the machine, resulting in a massive wheel on each side. A week later Tritton was back in London for an interview with the Director of Naval Construction, Tennyson D’Eyncourt with the proposal of the new rhomboid design – which was approved immediately.

Work commenced straight away and the machine was subjected to trial runs on Lincoln’s South Common. However, the tracks used, American Bullock type, proved completely unsuitable, just as Wilson had foreseen – in fact at that time there were no suitable tracks being produced anywhere in the world at that time.

To work on what seemed to be an insurmountable problem without distractions, Wilson and Tritton had a temporary drawing office at the White Hart Hotel in Lincoln. This is where they worked for hours on end to solve the unsolvable. Unworkable ideas were burnt in the fireplace of the Yarborough Suite, better ideas sent down to the factory for testing, but one after another they failed.

At last Tritton had his epiphany and he created a simple chain link with pressed steel plates riveted along its length.

On 22 September 1915 he sent his famous telegram to the Admiralty.

New arrival by tritton out of pressed plate STOP
Light in weight but very strong STOP
All doing well Thank you STOP
Proud parents

Little Willie was born.

Tritton had gone back to engineering basics, and had come up with his new idea for the tracks, making them unsprung, therefore simple and hard wearing. There was no reason why they should not be lengthened to travel around the entire machine on future designs. The Number 1 Lincoln machine was given the new tracks and rechristened Little Willie

Little Willie, looked, to all intents and purposes like a box on tracks, but technically the model was perfect for open ground and for crossing trenches, but not as wide as the ones specified by the military or the ones now being dug by the Germans.

The drive from the engine, which was located at the rear, passed though a cone clutch, incorporated within the flywheel, into a two speed and reverse gearbox and from there into a massive differential casing from which the drive passed, via a series of sprockets and chains, to the track drive sprockets at the rear. Ahead of the differential was a narrow shelf with seats which accommodated the driver sitting on the right, and another crew member on his left, operating steering levers. These slowed down one track or the other, as required. Very little thought was given to the comfort of the crew, this was obviously not a priority at the time.

Tritton also suggested that it be steered by wheels that extended from the back, acting rather like the rudder on a boat.

Following trials, Little Willie had answered all the questions it had been built to – the way was now open for the production of the next stage – the worlds first fighting Tank – Mother.

To be continued.......................