Bullock Creeping Grip: World War I Training Vehicle

The modern tank got its cues from early tracked, armored vehicles like the Bullock Creeping Grip.

Tank Prototype

Little Willie, a tank prototype developed during World War I and later used as a tank driver training vehicle, remains on display at the Tank Museum of the Royal Armoured Corps at Bovington, Dorset, England.

Photo Courtesy Sam Moore

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Early in World War I, motor vehicle enthusiasts and forward thinkers in most of the involved armies pushed their ideas for armored and armed vehicles. General staffs, however, were mired in the common tradition of always preparing to fight the last war and, as they were made up of extremely conservative officers who were experienced in outdated tactics, the wild schemes of the younger officers were usually quashed.

Nowhere was this more so than in the British army, whose top leadership were mostly old cavalrymen who considered men on horses to be the ultimate mobile shock force. The Royal Navy, under the leadership of the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, was more receptive and the Naval Air Service used armored cars to protect naval airstrips in Belgium early in the war. After fighting became bogged down in trench warfare, it became more urgent to come up with some way to break through the enemy machine guns and barbed wire.

Lt. Col. Ernest Swinton observed the slaughter of the British infantry and wrote a memo proposing an armored, tracked vehicle and forwarded it through army channels, where it got nowhere. Somehow it landed on Churchill’s desk, where it found fertile ground and he formed a “landship” committee to explore the possibilities of such vehicles, which were called “tanks” as a means to deceive enemy spies as to their real purpose.

The Brits considered three tracked agricultural machines. The British Pedrail proved too heavy and the American-made three-tracked Killen-Strait was too light. A couple of Bullock Creeping Grip machines were tried next and demonstrated that the tracked and armored vehicle concept was on the right lines, although the Bullock tracks weren’t satisfactory.

One of the main requirements for a tank was that it be able to cross enemy trenches and the Bullock hadn’t been designed for such work. When the tracks spanned an open ditch, they sagged down and when again forced upward by the solid ground on the other side, as often as not the track guides failed to reseat properly and the tracks jammed or came clear off.

William Tritton, who worked for famous British steam engine manufacturer Foster & Co., lengthened and modified the Bullock tracks and they were used on the first running tank prototype, named “Little Willie,” a derogatory nickname given by the British to the German leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

 “Little Willie” never entered combat but, with its Bullock Creeping Grip-inspired tracks, it proved that the concept of tracked combat vehicles would work and it was used as a training vehicle for the first tank drivers. FC

Read more in Rare 1917 Bullock Creeping Grip Crawler.