The tank made its fearsome debut at World War I’s Battle of the Somme 100 years ago. Mon Dieu, there’s a Stockton angle.
Fifty of the armored behemoths lurched across the artillery-pitted No Man’s Land, brushing aside bullets and barbed wire and scaring the living daylights out of the Germans.
It’s widely held Stockton folklore that Stockton inventor Benjamin Holt (1849-1920) invented the tank. A genius, Holt did boast 100 patents, and he is the father of the Caterpillar-type tractor.
But despite what you first learned on Stockton playgrounds, Holt did not invent the tank, said Tod Ruhstaller, director of The Haggin Museum. Ruhstaller gave a slide show called “Exploding the Tank Myth” Friday for a San Joaquin Delta College history series. His idea is to dispel the myth so we better appreciate Holt’s real contributions.
What Holt invented was the most commercially successful treaded tractor. The tread system was his solution to the problem of heavy combine harvesters sinking into spongy Delta soils.
The Allies, England, France, Russia and later America, bought hundreds of Holt tractors for towing heavy cannon and moving materiel around the sometimes soggy theaters of war.
Holt’s huge plant around Aurora and Church streets employed hundreds of workers round-the-clock to satisfy demand.
The Allies needed something to break the stalemate of trench warfare. So the British, seeing the value of Holt’s concept, developed their version and unleashed it at the Somme on Sept. 15, 1916.
The British dreadnoughts were oversized, tortoiselike at 3 mph, and 14 of them broke down or bogged down. But 36 of them advanced to terrify the Germans.
“It was only a partial success,” Ruhstaller said. “But it did scare the hell out of the Germans and it was a good morale boost for the British as well.”
The French company Renault actually devised the first of the modern tanks with a 360-degree rotating turret. But they did so on a platform — treads, wheels, suspension — cribbed from Holt.
The Germans got into the act with their own tank, the 1917 Sturmpanzer Kraftwagen, again indebted to Holt. The rest is history, as all major militaries developed tanks.
Ben Holt tried, but failed. He designed three models. One he tested with the U.S. military right here, using Mormon Slough as a stand-in for a European battlefield trench. It failed.
Another he tested down in Los Angeles. As military observers watched, the tank came out of a canal bed and did a somersault.
“Which you didn’t want to do,” Ruhstaller said, “unless you want to show off to the Germans.”
Even the Yanks used Renault tanks. Still, “Holt Manufacturing Co. made a big contribution to the Allies,” Ruhstaller said. Meaning a big contribution to winning World War I.
— Contact columnist Michael Fitzgerald at (209) 546-8270 or email@example.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/fitzgeraldblog and on Twitter@Stocktonopolis.