It's not every day you're invited to an event to see a replica WW1 tank trundle through the middle of London, rolling down kerbs, irritating taxis, and squeezing past broken down lorries while office workers lean out of windows to get a glimpse and a good photo - but yesterday was one such day. World of Tanks creators Wargaming have always done their best to give back to the community, and help preserve the history they base their games on - and with the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme just happening to take place on the 15th of September, and with three new, limited time WW1 events set to launch, each unique to one version of their World of Tanks game (PC, console, and Blitz) - the company decided that the best way to celebrate was to throw one heck of an event in London, to celebrate the very first tank ever to be used in battle - as without that tank, the company simply wouldn't exist today.
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So, first, let's take a look at these new modes.
PC - Convoy Event
Kicking things off on the PC version of World of Tanks is the Convoy special event. Running from 15th September to the 5th October, Convoy mode doesn't actually let you drive the WW1 tank itself - apparently, the studio were worried it'd be too boring, as with a top speed of 3.5mph, and Wargaming's commitment to realism, it literally trundles across the battlefield at best. Instead, you get to plonk yourself into a Lanchester armoured car, as one team struggles to protect the Mark 1 tank, as it slowly makes its way across an all new, WW1 themed battlefield, and the other team try to collect bombs, to put it out of action. Luckily, you can repair the tank if it gets too damage, by picking up and delivering a repair kit to it - but this promises to be a real war of attrition.
Complete with a specially themed garage that delivers something of a WW1 panorama, the update and mode are available now on PC - all you need to do is fire up World of Tanks to drop in.
Console - Trench Warfare
Console players aren't being left out either, though, as September sees a set of events to mark the Tank 100 anniversary, topped off by another time limited exclusive game mode. Called Trench Warfare, this pits two teams of slightly more arcade-y Mark 1 tanks against each other - only this time, they come with a secret weapon. Flamethrowers. On an all new map, Thiepval Ridge, which is littered with trenches, barbed wire and fortifications, two teams will battle it out in all out WW1 warfare.
Only available for two weekends, you'll be able to get stuck into Trench Warfare mode from the 15th - 19th September, and again next week, from the 23rd to the 26th. After that, it's gone for good!
Mobile players will be able to get in on the action too, albeit a little bit later. As of the 19th September, a WW1 Mark 1 tank will become playable in Blitz, which you can take into 7 v 7 battles against other Mark 1 tanks. Fun times abound.
So, that's how the games will be celebrating the creation of the tank - but the event Wargaming threw, together with Bovington Tank Museum was about much more than that. As with so many things they do, this was an event designed to bring history back to life, in more ways the one. To get some sort of context, it's probably best if we start from the beginning of the tank story, as Wargaming's resident historical and military expert, Richard Cutland explained.
"So, the Battle of the Somme has been raging for some time, it's a stalemate. Whenever people talk about WW1, you automatically think trench warfare - nothing was moving, nothing was going anywhere - [and the Battle of the Somme is the perfect example of that]." Some 57,000 British troops were lost on the first day of the conflict alone, such was the severity of the battle, and the conditions. Faced with a battle that been raging for months, with neither side really making any progress, the British army were in desperate need of a difference maker - something to turn the tide. And as it turned out, that thing was the tank.
"The idea of the tank was really, not so much [to deliver] the firepower, but to cross these obstacles - impenetrable obstacles to infantry, like barbed wire, the trench systems." With the backing of Winston Churchill, a man named Ernest Swinton got to work on a slightly crazy idea, to make an armoured vehicle that would run on caterpillar tracks. Under the guidance of a new branch of Government, known as the "landships committee", a crack team got to work on a project that would be developed entirely in secret. Even the name of the "tank" itself is a product of this secrecy - the story is that everyone, from those working on the tank all the way up to those almost at the very top, were convinced they were simply working on a movable water tank, to properly hydrate the troops.
"The whole thing was surrounded in secrecy, so nobody knew what was coming", Richard enthuses, "and from the enemy's perspective, seeing that coming on the horizon must have been absolute terrifying. I don't even know if I can put into words how it must have felt - like us seeing a space ship or something! It wasn't [phenomenally] successful, and it had some mechanical problems, but what it did do was demonstrate there was a need for something like this. And ever since that day, every army has seen the importance of having tanks on the battlefield."
The significance of the Mark 1 tank is that it managed to break through enemy lines. Where there was a stalemate, the tank was the difference maker that tipped the balance in the British Army's favour. As British Commander Douglas Haig remarked: "Wherever the tanks advanced, we took our objectives, and where they did not advance, we failed to take our objectives. Go back and make as many more tanks as you can." But why bring a tank to Trafalgar Square? It's just another way for Wargaming to bring history back to life.
In WW1, the British Government of the time saw how popular tanks were, and decided to take advantage of them. The public loved the tanks, and the Government needed money to buy new ones - so they started to sell war bonds, and held "tank bank" events up and down the country. The Mark 1 would be driven to towns and cities all across the UK, and people would donate, or buy these war bonds to help fund the war effort.
Of course, one such event was held in Trafalgar Square - and so by bringing a WW1 tank back to Trafalgar Square, Wargaming and the Tank Museum helped recreate a scene that hadn't been seen in the capital for some 99 years.
But as popular as the tanks may have been back in the day, they're still not the kind of thing you'd be eager to go to war in. "It is not a comfortable way to go into battle.", explained Richard Smith, Director of the Tank Museum in Bovington, "Inside, they've got a bus engine - it's deafeningly loud, the temperature goes up to somewhere between 120-150 Fahrenheit (48-60 C), so you're getting slightly cooked, and as it's a bus engine, it's releasing carbon monoxide into the crew compartment. While all this is going on, there's [also] nothing in the way of suspension, so you feel every single bump go all the way through you..."
Needless to say, the tank attracted quite the crowd, with tourists stopping by to take photos - and even more showing up when the tank started moving, trundling down London's streets. But why is it so important for Wargaming to help events like this come off?
"All of our games are based on vehicles of WW2, so we owe a large debt there to the museums that have conserved them, so we can use the blueprints to design them in the game." explains Tracy Spaight, Director of Special Projects at Wargaming, "A lot of us are either active or former military; historians or history buffs, and I think it shows in the things we do. We help shine a spotlight on what [the museums] do too, as our community who've been playing the game get really interested in the history of it, such that maybe they'll want to go to a museum. And I think that's a good thing, that people are inspired to explore their past, by playing ours games or interacting with our apps"
For Military Specialist Richard, though, the event takes on a slightly more poignant meaning, "Equally important for me, today is also about the people. My history is British Army, Royal Tank Regiment, so really, if my forefathers did this, they'd be in these vehicles." But if he went back a hundred years, could he serve in a WW1 tank as he served in the Army's most recent tank, the Challenger 2? "No! I like my home comforts too much! I'd miss the air conditioning, comfy seats..."
The 100 Years of the Tank events are currently available across PC and console, with the Mark 1 WW1 tank hitting mobiles on the 19th September. Make sure you check out our other article for more on Wargaming's AR Tank 100 app, where TV historian Dan Snow takes us through the concept behind it.