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World War I still featured a lot of trench warfare due do a lack of mobility that placed an advantage upon the defender. When the British managed to invent the first tank, that seemed like an important advance in warfare:
The British developed the tank in response to the trench warfare of World War I.
By 1916, this armored vehicle was deemed ready for battle and made its debut at the First Battle of the Somme near Courcelette, France, on September 15 of that year.
However, the Germans seem to have reacted quite slow to this change:
Following the appearance of the first British tanks on the Western Front, in September 1916, the German War Ministry formed a committee (… )
The first pre-production A7V was produced in September 1917, followed by the first production model in October 1917. The tanks were given to Assault Tank Units 1 and 2, founded on 20 September 1917.
Indeed the British tank did not reach the maturity until 1917, but there is still about 1 year gap between the first used tank by British and Germans.
Question: Why did it take so long for the Germans to develop the first tank model in World War I?
While the Germans knew in principle that tanks could be built, they still needed to design a tank, develop a prototype, work out the problems, put it into mass production, develop tactics, and train crews to use it. All of these aspects inevitably took a lot of time for both sides - the Germans were just starting later.
Knowing that tanks could work would speed some of this up - you would not need to spend as much time developing tactics if you've seen them used, for example - but it would not really help with practical engineering issues, which would take up a lot of the development time.
The timeline in the UK was approximately:
- Feb 1915 - proposals for armoured vehicles first discussed
- Jul 1915 - construction began on small experimental vehicle
- Sep 1915 - construction began on prototype Mark I
- Dec 1915 - first Mark I tank completed for tests
- Feb 1916 - first Mark I tanks go into production
- Jun 1916 - first production tanks issued to units
- Sep 1916 - a small number of Mark I are first used in combat
In Germany, the timeline was approximately:
- Sep 1916 - proposals for armoured vehicles first discussed
- Dec 1916 - draft plans developed
- May 1917 - first prototype A7V complete
- Sep 1917 - first production A7V completed and issued to units
- Mar 1918 - first A7V used in combat
In both cases, the gap between "a decision to build tanks" and the first prototype of a combat tank was about eight months, and another ten months between the first prototype and the first time they were used in combat. So the Germans were not noticeably slower than the British.
(In principle, looking at these timelines, it seems likely the Germans were actually a bit faster - they had tanks issued to units in September 1917 and if they took as long to train and prepare as the British did, they might have been ready for service by January. However, there was no major German offensive until the "Spring Offensive" at the end of March - so even if the tanks were ready for service, there would be no occasion to use them at that point.)
There are surely multiple factors. One of them is how the two sides approached a common problem differently. The common problem was the stagnation of movement (i.e. trench warfare). No side was able to effectively break the others side line.
The British approached that by building tanks. The Germans by developing special infantry tactics. They introduced "Storm Battalions" consisting of special trained infantry men ("storm troopers") and using mixed formations and weapons like, grenade launchers, flame throwers, light machine guns.
Each storm trooper was trained on all those weapons plus on enemy weapons. Tactics differed from the normal infantry. This was to wait for an artillery barrage and then storming the enemy lines in waves. Instead, storm battalions tried to reconnoiter weak spots in enemy lines and focus the attacks there to create a local overweight in fire power. Goal was not to take and hold trenches but to create a breakthrough.
The German armies back to to the Prussian army always had the focus on the "Auftragstaktik", roughly translated to "mission-type tactics" versus the strong hierarchy in the British or French Army. Those "mission-type tactics" where especially and strongly applied to the storm troopers compared to the regular infantry. Basically they were given the goal of the mission and completely in charge on how to achieve it. It actually included allowed subordination if the situation demanded it. This also supported the tactics of a specialized breakthrough force.
On the defense side the Germans focused on an asymmetric approach. Means, the solution for the stalled front lines where the storm battalions but the defense against the British solution for that problem ("tanks") was to use special weapons. This lead to the first development of anti tank weapons like the TAK 1918 or the "tank rifle".
All in all this was basically the foundation of what the Wehrmacht later further developed to their doctrines of "combined warfare" or "war of movement" in WW2. Or the approach to use tanks as breakthrough attack weapons and use anti tank cannons for defense against enemy tanks. They did not plan tank to tank warfare initially.
Thus the German high command did not focus on tanks by intention. They were convinced that introducing a flexible and powerful infantry force with focus on breakthrough tactics was better than using slow and inflexible machines that where just embedded into the same existing structure.
Like said, this was possibly only one reason. Another reason later in war was the lack of raw materials and currency. Germany was running out of steel and money. E.g. they had the slogan "gold for iron". German women should trade in all their gold jewelry for iron jewelry. So, when they traded in a golden ring they received an iron ring with the engravings "I gave gold for iron".
There is often problems with militaries having trouble adopting new tech that has little to do with actually building new technology. The German high command thoughts on war didn't include tanks and the way their government was set up dissenting opinions did not have much of a chance.
From a technical standpoint, all the major countries should have had tanks at the start of the war. There was no major technical hurdle in the way. It was even pretty common in the sci-fi literature of the time. Large earth-moving equipment had already been invented.
Most countries' militaries botched it just like Germany. In Britain the idea didn't exactly get much traction. Ignored by most of the government and stuck in a committee with limited access to resources. With the war stuck in trenches with lots of depth they had to design tanks specifically for defeating those trenches which added time. Then the tanks had to prove themselves at Cambria before large scale production orders.
Look at the numbers of the tanks Germany built. Even when they had to, they were just plain reluctant. It wasn't a issue of steel for they only built 20 tanks. They built a lot more battleships than tanks. The allies built thousands of tanks and were really expanding production when the war ended.
Really, the development of the tank just shows how some ideas rejected out of hand need to be encouraged a little and given some resources. With a little time they may come back you with something that changes your opinion.