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The History of Military Automotive Vehicles

Today, it would be unthinkable for a major military operation to occur without the use of trucks, armored personnel carriers, tanks, and other vehicles. Their ability to support troop movements, travel over difficult terrain, and haul tons of supplies makes them invaluable to any army, but it is only within the past 100 years that these vital pieces of machinery have been used during times of war. Until the early part of the 20th century, the main modes for transporting soldiers and goods from ports and depots were railways. Rail lines were so important that in the years before World War I, many nations planned their defensive and offensive strategies around train routes, with stations being used as major operating hubs. Outside of rail lines, the only way to move food, supplies, and artillery was by horse-drawn wagon, and soldiers were expected to travel on foot as much as possible to relieve the strain on pack animals.

The armored car was the first innovation in military vehicles. Most early armored cars were modified vehicles, with armor plating and weapons attached after manufacture. The first armored car was devised in 1899. The Simms Motor War Car did not see action in the Boer War it was built for, as the first prototype was not ready until 1902, but it did demonstrate the possibilities automobiles offered in warfare. In the years leading up to World War I, many nations experimented with retrofitted armored vehicles, with the Italians being the first to use armored vehicles in combat situations during the Italo-Turkish War.

The first nation to take full advantage of motorized vehicles for military purposes was Great Britain. When Britain entered World War I in 1914, it did so with more than 300 buses and 1,000 trucks requisitioned from civilians. More vehicles were manufactured in-country and ordered from the United States, including more than 10,000 GMC Model 15 trucks. These early military vehicles were inadequate to carry the food and supplies necessary to support troops on the front lines, and their solid-rubber tires were prone to getting stuck in the mud, as roads at the time outside of cities were still largely unpaved. Though these vehicles moved slowly in the muddy landscape, they had many advantages over traditional forms of transportation, the most important being that they did not require the tons of feed and water necessary to maintain healthy animals.

While World War I showed what automobiles could do in wartime, it was not until World War II that their true value became apparent. In the years between World War I and World War II, advances in technology and the spread of paved roads made using automobiles much more feasible for transporting soldiers and goods. At the beginning of World War II, Britain once again entered the conflict relying on automobiles as their main means of transporting supplies and troops to the front lines. Among the motorized vehicles used by the British in World War II was the Guy Armored Car, used primarily for forward reconnaissance and capable of a range of 210 miles. In contrast, Germany was still reliant on established railways and horse-drawn wagons for troop movement and support, with an estimated four-fifths of the army reliant on horses and wagons to move heavy artillery and equipment.

Like Britain, the United States understood the importance of using automobiles to facilitate troop movements. The desire to have a vehicle that could be effective on all terrains led to the creation of the Jeep. The lightweight vehicle saw action in every theater of the war, was extremely reliable on all terrain, and made it possible for the Allies to cover otherwise impassable ground and outmaneuver Axis forces. When Jeeps were insufficient, the Allies turned to large trucks like the GMC 6x6, capable of transporting dozens of men and tons of supplies.

Jeeps, trucks, and armored cars weren't the only early military automotive innovations. Today's modern tanks can trace their origins to World War I, when they were developed independently by Britain and France as a means of breaking through the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front. First used at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the British army's Mark I tank proved instrumental in breaking through the German front lines and was responsible for helping to push the Germans back more than six miles. It was so effective that between World War I and World War II, many countries began building their own tanks and using them in smaller conflicts. These vehicles had a wide range of armor types. Lighter, more maneuverable tanks were often used as scout vehicles, while heavy tanks were used to push through enemy lines and bombard their positions.

A cross between a tank and a support truck, the armored personnel carrier, or APC, was originally designed and used during World War I by the British to transport troops while protecting them from small arms fire. At the time, tanks used by the Allies could break through enemy lines but left the infantrymen necessary to consolidate control of the area open to small arms and artillery fire. Britain's solution was the Mark IX, a heavily armored vehicle modeled after early tanks that could transport up to 30 soldiers, allowing them to bypass machine gun positions without taking fire. While the Mark IX saw no action during the conflict, its early success demonstrated the necessity and practicality of armored troop transports.

Another important military vehicle is the self-propelled gun. Though heavy artillery such as cannons had been mounted on horse-drawn wagons since the 17th century, it was during World War I that the concept of a self-contained, mobile artillery platform gained momentum. Removing pack animals from the transport process removed the need to travel with the feed and personnel necessary to maintain them. In addition, by mounting the weapons on their own transport, it also removed the need for artillery tractors. Once again, the British were at the forefront of these technologies, fielding the Gun Carrier Mark I in 1917.

Imperial War Museums

This article outlines the importance of railways, artillery, and mobility to the nations that fought during World War I. Learn more about the tactics and innovations that shaped this war and paved the way for the highly mechanized warfare of World War II.

The Early Days of Motorized Military Vehicles

Read about how the American military used trucks and other automobiles during World War I in this short but information-packed article.

The British Library

In concert with seven other libraries throughout Europe, the British Library's World War I Project is dedicated to commemorating the Great War. With information ranging from contemporary letters to strategic analysis of the tactics used, it is a great resource for anyone wishing to learn more.

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