Little Willie or the Lincoln Machine No.1 was the first prototype tank to be completed, but it was soon superseded by Mother, which became the prototype for most British tanks of the First World War.
After the start of trench warfare in 1914 a wide array of suggestions were made for ways to break the deadlock, including many different armoured vehicles. Some of these used caterpillar tracks, a technology that had been under development for some time, but that had only become commercially viable after 1900. The War Office had been involved in some pre-war experiments with tracked vehicles (to tow artillery), but had lost interest. Instead it was Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, who began serious work on developing some sort of armoured vehicle capable of crossing no-mans-land and the trenches. He ordered the formation of the Admiralty Landships Committee, which was to investigate the many suggestions and quietly get work started on prototypes.
The new Admiralty Landships Committee met for the first time on Monday 22 February 1915. Amongst its members were William Tritton, the head of Foster Engineering Works of Lincoln, Tennyson D’Eyncourt, the Director of Naval Construction, Hetherington and Colonel Wilfred Dumble, an engineer serving in the Naval Brigade with experience working in transport. At this early stage they had to decide between tracked vehicles of a rather bizarre ‘Big Wheel Machine’, which was to carry 4in guns on a structure mounted on three wheels with 40ft diameter. The committee soon placed orders for a variety of prototypes of machines. One of the first was for a wheeled trench crossing machine. The person chosen to build this was William Tritton, head of the Foster Engineering Works of Lincoln, who would go on to play a major roll in the development of the early tanks. A wooden mockup of a ‘big wheel’ machine was built, but the project was cancelled on 9 May. This was only one of a wide range of machines that were developed at the time, but it did bring Tritton to the attention of the committee.
On 22 July 1915 Fosters were given a contract to build a prototype of a tracked landship using an imported Bullock Commercial tracked unit. Exactly who can take the credit for the basic design of this vehicle is unclear, with Colonel Crompton, whose time with the Committee ended on 5 August, claiming the credit and Tritton denying it. Tritton was soon joined by Major Walter G. Wilson, a pre-war automobile engineer. His official role was as the Admiralty Overseer, but he and Tritton appear to have worked as colleagues.
The resulting design used the newly imported tracks and the 105hp Daimler/ Knight engine, two-speed gearbox and worm differential from a Foster-Daimler tractor, mounted in a boxy structure. It was given external steering wheels on a tail at the rear, with two 4ft 6in wheels controlled by cables from within the tank. Brakes were added to the differential drive shafts to provide an alternative method of steering. The hull was made from boiler plate.
Work on the new machine began on 11-12 August 1915 and it was ready to give its first public demonstration on 19 September. The biggest problem with the machine was the Bullock tracks. An earlier inspection of their factory in California had revealed rather crude assembly methods. The unmodified tracks had failed before the vehicle even left the factory, and had to be modified before the initial trails. During the trials it climbed a 2ft parapet, but the tracks then failed while attempting to cross a 4ft 6in wide trench.
After these first trials it was clear that the basic design of the No.1 Lincoln Machine wasn’t satisfactory. Luckily Wilson had already realised that back in August, and had come up with the basic design for what became Mother and then the Mark I Tank. The existing machine was no longer the main focus of attention, but it was a potentially useful research machine.
Although Little Willie was the first working tank to be completed, work on the design that would replace it got underway almost at the same time. On 17 August 1915 Wilson first suggested to Tritton having the tracks running all the way around the body of the vehicle, and in the following week development of the new vehicle was approved. It would be this vehicle, generally known as Big Willie or Mother, that would be the basis of the Tank Mark I.
Tritton and Wilson’s main problem was to find a replacement for the failed tracks. A number of alternatives were tested, including a mat of woven wires fitted with teeth and rubber and webbing Balata belting, but none of them were a success. Tritton then came up with the system that would be used on all later British First World War tanks. This used two parallel chains of steel links, which were riveted to cast steel plates. The track ran around a solid frame, which acted as a guide for the chains to stop the tracks sliding off. Each of the cast steel feet overlapped at one end with the next, to prevent muck getting into the track. The tracks were carried on a row of small road wheels at the base, and ran over return rails across the top. The original design had a spoked drive wheel at the rear and spoked idler wheel at the front. In practice the teeth on the idler wheel caused problems and a smooth idler wheel was used instead, but the basic design remained the same.
Work on the new tank couldn’t begin until 28 October, so in order to test the new tracks the No.1 Machine was used as a test bed. The dummy turret was removed, and it was given the new tracks designed for Mother. The first set of Tritton tracks was completed and bench tested on 22 November, and a set was installed on No.1 Machine on 3 December. In its new configuration the vehicle became known as Little Willie, the name it has retained ever since.
Hull Length: 26.5ft
Weight: 14 tons
Engine: 105hp Foster-Daimler tractor engine
Max Speed: 3.5mph