The German A7V: A Latecomer to The Great War
Tank Development Between 1915-1918
As it became apparent that the Great War was becoming a tremendous stalemate following the failure of the Schleiffen Plan, new tools and tactics had to be developed. Thousands – tens of thousands – of lives were being lost in single days of skirmishing, with the results often being the gain of a mile or two of ground, if there was gain at all. Thus the innovation of better aircraft, better guns, cannons, howitzers, and other artillery, and gas warfare were prominent. But perhaps no innovation would prove as important to this war, and to the future of warfare, as the introduction of the tank.
While it is a common stereotype that the Germans are the masters of innovation, they were late to the party when it came to tanks. The first British tanks were developed starting in 1915, and were first deployed the following year. The French were next, in 1917 – they had, by leaps and bounds, the most tanks, more than all other forces combined. The Germans captured many opponents’ tanks, and successfully used them in combat – but they would not produce their own armor until the end of the war.
Development of the German A7V
After the British tanks were deployed to the front in 1916, the Allgemeines Kriegsdepartement, Abteilung 7 Verkehrswesen (German Department of War, Section 7, Transportation) started working on their own plans. But due to the fact that their spies were unsuccessful in obtaining blueprints, they had to start from scratch. Joseph Vollmer was chosen to lead the effort. Vollmer began by outlining a basic set of criteria for what would become the A7V:
- The new tank had to be capable of crossing ditches and trenches at least 1.5 m (~5 ft) across.
- It had to be more heavily armed than its French and British counterparts.
- The maximum speed of the tank had to be, at minimum, 12 km/h.
- It had to utilize a universal chassis that could also underpin a troop carrier.
The Prototype & Production of the A7V
The prototype was rolled out by Daimler on 30 April 1917. Despite Vollmer’s initial desire to have both forward and backward-facing cannons, he had to settle on a single forward-facing 570mm Maxim gun. The sides and rear were outfitted with two 7.9mm machine guns each. And although Vollmer exceeded his benchmark for speed on a clear road, over the harsh ground of a battlefield it rarely exceeded 4 km/h. It was also prone to getting stuck in rough terrain. So while it outpaced the Allied tanks on clear ground, it was rubbish (propulsion-wise) on the battleground. Nevertheless, 100 chassis were ordered, and the tank went into production. 20 fully armored A7Vs were created, as well as 80 troop transports.
The first A7V to roll off the production lines was a “female” variant – it lacked a cannon, instead having two more machine guns facing forward. “Gretchen”, as it was called, was later retrofitted with a Maxim 570. The other 19 tanks were ready for battle by March of 1918 – where they proved a partial success. Manned by 18-25 soldiers at a time (which was cramped quarters, ever for a tank this large), the A7V was imposing. It had heavy armaments, and could cut down entire units rather rapidly. At the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux, it was thirteen A7Vs that broke the British lines. Wilfred Owen even mentioned them in his letters. But this was to be the highlight of the Germans’ short-lived experiments with armor.
The Failings of the A7V
While the A7V featured 20mm steel plating, which contributed towards its 30 ton weight, the steel wasn’t hardened. Because of this choice, meant to speed up production, large-calibre fire could penetrate the armor. Additionally, the driver’s cockpit (which would generally be shared with an officer) was not high enough. Thus the driver could not see anything within 10m of the windshield.
This last factor, combined with the poor balance of the A7V in general, led to disaster – as the tank was prone to getting stuck. Whether in trenches, in mud, or merely in the debris of No Man’s Land, these tanks were quickly halted. Additionally, the engineering was decidedly problematic. While 13 tanks broke the British lines at Villers-Bretons, 2 more had broken down on their way to the battle. Of 20 tanks manufactured during the war, only one’s destruction was due to enemy fire, at Iwuy. The remainder were either abandoned by their crews after breaking down or getting stuck, or surrendered to the Allies after the war. The Allies scrapped most of them in 1919, and today only one remains…
Chassis No. 506: “Mephisto”
Like many of the A7V tanks, Mephisto briefly had a distinguished career at the front – before being stuck in a shell-hole and abandoned by its crew on 24 April 1918. For three months, it lay in situ in No Man’s Land near Villers-Bretonneux. Continuous shelling had widened the crater, and Mephisto sunk down into the ground. Finally, an Australian unit – having pushed the line – removed the tank with a steel cable, and towed it to the British outpost at Vaux. There, the soldiers displayed the tank – and covered it with graffiti, including the Australian “Rising Sun” logo on one side, British Lion on the other:
This stereoview, part of SDV’s Series 27 (which is concerned with the Aisne), depicts the tank at Vaux. After Armistice, a discussion as to what should become of Mephisto was held. From this, the Allies allowed it to be transported to Australia, as its capture was deemed an Australian victory. In 1919, it was moved onto a steamship – a special crane was constructed just for this purpose. Mephisto is now on display at the Queensland Museum. This seems fitting – as the unit which recovered it from the shell-hole was mostly comprised of Queenslanders.
Chassis No. 542: “Elfriede”
After helping to break the British lines at Villers-Bretonneux, Elfriede was overturned in harsh terrian and abandoned by its crew. This happened on 24 April – the same day that Mephisto got stuck! A month later, a British unit managed to right the tank, which remarkably, was still in operational condition. After Armistice, Elfriede was put on display at the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Two stereoviews of Elfriede wound up in A.O. Fasser‘s collection – though he had returned to America by the time these were taken:
During its time on display, barricades were in place to prevent visitors from vandalizing Elfriede, taking souvenirs, etc. However, soon after, it was taken away and tested out. At this point it was covered in graffiti, as seen in a film taken by the French government to display the tank in motion. Its history between 1919 and 1940 is shaky – there is documentation in 1940 that mentions that it had been scrapped. But when was it scrapped? So far, no information on this is forthcoming. Most A7V tanks were scrapped in 1919 for their steel, and most historians believe that Elfriede was as well. But without documentation, it’s possible that the tank had some second life for another 21 years!