History Wars World War I

One British tank at the Battle of Amiens wreaked havoc for nine hours behind enemy lines

battle of amiens british tanks
British Mark V tank (B56, 9003) of the 2 Battalion, Tank Corps traversing a ditch at the side of a road at Lamotte-en-Santerre.

When an enemy gets in behind friendly lines, the result can be devastating. Supplies, reserve troops, and any surprises a force may have had could suddenly (and literally) go up in smoke in a matter of moments. The German Army in France discovered how dangerous this could be during the Battle of Amiens in World War I.

It was a particularly dangerous situation for the Germans, because the enemy cutting a path of destruction behind the front lines was a new weapon in World War I, a tank. And the German Army didn’t have any way of penetrating its armor or even stopping it in its tracks. In the end, it was luck, persistence and flaming gasoline that forced the crew to abandon their land ship. 

The Medium Mark A Whippet tank was an innovation in the Great War, designed to augment heavier tanks with speed and mobility on the battlefield, exploiting the gaps in lines that the slower, heavy tanks could make. Known as the Whippet for short, the three-man tank was made for fast assaults, using four 7.7mm machine guns to be used by the gunner and commander.

The Whippet came late in the war, arriving in continental Europe in March 1918, at a time when the Germans were on the offensive and the British Army was reeling. Germany made its best advances since the start of the war, but it cost them. Covering the British retreat were the fast-moving Whippet tanks, which would make sure the British lived to fight another day. 

And they did. Despite German gains, the Allies turned around and launched an offensive of their own, one that would push the Germans all the way back to their March 1918 positions, collapse the Hindenburg Line, and lead to the end of the war. Whippet tanks were devastating to the offensive. In one encounter, seven Whippets destroyed two full battalions of German infantry.

battle of amiens troops
8 August 1918 by Will Longstaff, showing German prisoners of war being led towards Amiens.

At the Battle of Amiens in August 1918, the first battle of the final Allied offensive of the war, the Allies advanced 11 kilometers, the single longest advance of the war. This was partially due to the battle being one of the first major armored combat actions in warfare. At Amiens, Whippet tanks broke through the German lines and destroyed its frontline artillery support. Without it, German hopes of stopping the offensive were nil. 

As the Whippets returned to friendly lines, one of them, called “Musical Box,” was cut off from the rest. It had advanced so far behind the lines that it couldn’t return home. Instead of fighting its way back, it decided to wreak havoc. For nine hours, “Musical Box” roamed the countryside in a bloody rampage. 

Within that time period, it managed to destroy an infantry staging area, an artillery battery, and even shot down an observation balloon. It also crushed an infantry campsite and the transport column for the German 225th Infantry Division. During its brutal joyride, German troops tried to stop it, but small arms were useless against the armor. 

What the Germans did manage to do was puncture the gas cans carried on top of the tank, leaking fuel into the Tank’s crew compartment. It was no big deal at first, the British tank crew just put on their gas masks. Finally, German artillery managed to disable the Whippet with a shell. When the crew abandoned the tank, one of them was shot by the angry Germans. The other two were taken prisoner.

Although “Musical Box” was also captured by the Germans, it was retaken later during the Allied offensive and survived the war, which ended three months after the Battle of Amiens.