Tank Commander

Written by Ronald Welch
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

August, 1914. Second Lieutenant John Carey is twenty-one, and he’s crouched in a trench near Mons with shells exploding over his head. It’s his first taste of war. But, however terrified, he must do what he’s been trained to do: attack the enemy; look after his men and lead from the front.

I learnt a lot from this book. For example, I had no idea that soldiers, even officers, were so badly paid; I’d thought that reforms after the Crimean War had modernized the army. But, in 1914, it was reckoned that an officer needed a private income of at least four hundred pounds p.a. to survive. John was paid 5/6d (27½ pence) a day; a private got a shilling (5p).

There is little plot, as such, but the exciting action makes up for it. War changes everything, and there are opportunities for those who survive. John, a mechanically-minded young man, finds himself transferred to the newly formed First Tank Brigade and swiftly realizes their potential on the battlefield. Tanks can crush the German barbed wire entanglements and, if used properly, could shorten the war. He’s determined to make them a success.

Welch, who himself served in the Tank Corps in World War II, gets across how it feels to be in one of those early vehicles: fumes which make you sick, jolts and discomfort from the cramped space, and the danger of being burnt alive if anything goes wrong.

The authenticity of John’s experiences comes across with gut-churning realism. And Welch doesn’t pull his punches. John has to face his men being killed and horribly wounded; seeing one of his men executed for cowardice; not to mention the filth, mud, shortages of essential equipment and incompetent generals. But there are triumphs, too. Boys of 11 plus will love it.