The WWI Tank Bank: As Successful at Home as on the Battlefield

The successful use of tanks at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, was relayed with great enthusiasm by the press and piqued public interest in this new ‘wonder weapon’. Later that month, two Mark IV tanks rolled through the City of London making their first public appearance in the Lord Mayor’s Show. On seeing the reaction of the crowds, the National War Savings Committee spotted a new fundraising opportunity, and the idea of the Tank Bank was born.

Mark Ivs in London.
Two tanks taking part in the Lord Mayor’s Show 1917

From 1917, the government had begun to appeal to the public’s sense of duty to help raise money to finance the war. One advertising slogan implored “if you cannot fight, you can help your country by investing all you can in five per cent Exchequer Bonds…unlike the soldiers, the investor runs no risk”. War Bonds ranged from £5-500 and War Savings Certificates at 15 shillings and 6 pence. Poorer households were encouraged to purchase coupons at 6 pence, which after 31 stamps could be exchanged for a War Savings Certificate.

War Bonds poster.
A poster from the era, aiming to motivate British citizens to contribute to the war.

However, the public was war weary. The enormous death toll continued to rise, and rations decreased against the constant background call to contribute to the war effort. A new strategy was needed. Seeing the excitement and pride evoked by the appearance of the tanks in the Lord Mayor’s Show, The National War Savings Committee spotted the opportunity to harness the public relations benefit of the tank.

They decided to recover a tank from the battlefield and put it on display in Trafalgar Square, London. The battle-scarred Mark IV Tank number 141 ‘Egbert’ was duly recovered from the battlefield at Cambrai and arrived in Trafalgar Square on the 26th of November 1917. Two ladies from the Bank of England, seated inside the tank, stamped the bonds and certificates with a special ‘Tank Stamp’ through the tank door. Their first customer was the wounded Lieutenant McArthur of the Royal Field Artillery.

War Bond tank in London.
Lieutenant McArthur of the Royal Field Artillery purchases the first War Bond from Egbert in Trafalgar Square, London.

Egbert was a huge success and sales of War Bonds soared as crowds thronged Trafalgar Square. The National War Savings Committee decided to capitalise on this success and launched ‘Tank Week’. Following the recovery of five more tanks from the battlefields (Julian 113, Ole Bill 119, Nelson 130, Drake 137 and Iron Ration 142), Tank Weeks were scheduled for all the major cities. A league table initiated to record the amount raised by each city was displayed as an incentive at each location and the results were published in the newspapers. The city that raised the most per capita, would win Egbert as their reward. Competition and rivalry between cities was intense, finally, there was something for the public to be excited about, and the boost to morale was evident. It was said that the soldiers in the trenches followed the results with the same rivalry.

Egbert the tank.
Egbert the tank.

Posters and even pamphlets dropped from planes announced the impending arrival of the tank in each location. The tanks were greeted by welcoming ceremonies with a carnival atmosphere. After a demonstration of the tank’s prowess, it was over to the local War Savings Associations to begin their daily programme of events for the week. This usually included speeches and shows given on top of the tank by political and church figures, celebrities, actors and musicians and not least local war heroes.

An air-dropped pamphlet.
One of the pamphlets air-dropped before Julian’s arrival.

During the visit of Tank 130 ‘Nelson’ to Trafalgar Square in March 1918, the famous music hall entertainers ‘Beattie and Babs’ invested £1300 and gave a performance from the top of the tank.

The crowds in Trafalgar Square during Nelson’s visit in March 1918.
The crowds in Trafalgar Square during Nelson’s visit in March 1918.

A day-by-day account of Tank Week in Aberystwyth was printed in the Cambrian News and Welsh Farmers Gazette on the 19th of July 1918. The week was hailed a great success and named ‘Aberystwyth’s Great Financial Effort’, which the mayor attributed to individual effort. The article mentions several donors including ‘one farmer persuaded to part with a large sum in notes, and a motor car was sent to fetch them.’

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Among the speakers listed was Archdeacon Williams, who rallied the crowd with calls to “invest at the tank and keep the enemy from the shore”. Recalling his pre-war trip to the Cloth Hall and Cathedral at Ypres which were now laid flat by bombing, he warned that the same would happen here if the enemy were allowed to invade. Local war heroes visited tank ‘Julian’, including a group from the Red Cross Hospital who performed a carry-on show.

On seeing Private Thornley who had lost both arms in battle, the crowd erupted into a chorus of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’. On Saturday, the final day, Lieutenant Latch who had been awarded the DSO for gallantry at the Battle of Cambrai addressed the crowd from the top of the tank, telling them that the men in France could not fight unless money was found for food and munitions. Corporal J D Williams from Porthcawl, who had six sons serving in France, thanked the crowd for their help and support.

‘Beattie and Babs’ perform on top of Nelson
‘Beattie and Babs’ perform on top of Nelson.

When the final amount raised was announced, the crowd broke into wild cheering. They had far exceeded their target of £25,000 and raised a total of £682,448. Lieutenant Morgan, in charge of the tank, thanked the people of Abersywth for their generosity and the kindness shown to him and his crew, as they too had been presented with money and gifts of food. Finally, a congratulatory message from the Prime Minister, Mr Lloyd George was read out exclaiming that Aberystwyth’s success was ‘great proof of the loyalty and determination of the people to win this war.’

Aberystwyth Tank Week  and visiting tank ‘Julian’
Aberystwyth Tank Week and visiting tank ‘Julian’.

When the competition closed in January 1919, fourteen cities had raised more than two million pounds, amassing a total of £300,000,000. In today’s money, that would be equivalent to approximately £17 billion.
West Hartlepool was named the winner after raising £2,367,333. Egbert arrived there on the 29th of April 1919 where he put on a final show before being installed on Stranton Grath. In 1937, West Hartlepool Town Council took a vote on whether Egbert should remain as a ‘lesson of war’ or be scrapped as a ‘relic of barbarism. Egbert’s fate was sealed by 20 votes to 12 in favour of scrapping.

The prized tank Egbert arrives in West Hartlepool.
The prized tank Egbert arrives in West Hartlepool.

In 1919, the Treasury gave 264 redundant tanks to cities and towns in thanks for their fundraising efforts. The locations were decided by The National War Savings Committee who chose places with populations greater than 10,000 who had demonstrated ‘a good standard of patriotic achievement’. Aberystwyth was among those, and their presentation tank stood on the grounds of the castle, overlooking the promenade. The Warrington Guardian records the arrival of their presentation tank: “the tank slid round like a turtle and, with much grunting and coughing, waddled in the direction of Bank Quay Station.” 

At one-point flames, a yard long spat from the engines and the passengers (local dignitaries) were advised to get off!  Eventually, it was installed in the park, “leaving behind it ploughed up soil and turf.” Delivered by rail, most of the presentation tanks were sited in parks or commons where they were climbed over by enthusiastic children before becoming rusty and hazardous and removed for scrap in the 1920s and 1930s. The appeal for scrap metal during WW2 saw all but the last one, in Ashford Kent, disappear by 1939.

Mark IV in Ashford, Kent.
The Mark IV in Ashford, Kent. Image by Peter Trimming CC BY 2.0.

The Mark IV female tank numbered 245, still stands proudly in St George’s Square in Ashford and is now a grade II-listed war memorial. It owes its survival to being repurposed to house an electrical substation in-use between 1929 and 1968, though this was at the cost of the engine, gearbox, and fittings that were removed for scrap.

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In 1988 a canopy was built to protect it and the REME repainted the tank and made replica armaments to replace those that were missing. At the time of its centenary celebrations in 2019, the Ashford tank was thought to be only one of seven surviving from the 1,220 Mark IV tanks produced.