The Upside Down Under
Modern day tank


 The modern day tank is described as a tracked fighting vehicle and was originally proposed in 1912 by Australian engineer Lancelot E de Mole.

The earliest practical design of the tank was designed by Lancelot E de Mole and was proposed to the British War Office however the idea was rejected. The model (shown below) is held in the Australian War Memorial's collection.

Original design for the Tank
The original model for the tank by Lancelot E de Mole.

Lancelot Eldin de Mole (1880-1950), engineer and inventor, was born on 13 March 1880 in Adelaide, son of William Frederick de Mole, architect and surveyor, and his wife Emily, née Moulden. He was reputedly a great-grandson of Henry Maudslay (1771-1831), the noted British engineer and inventor. When he was 7 the family moved to Victoria where Lancelot attended Melbourne Church of England Grammar School until 1891 and completed his education at Berwick Grammar School. He became a draftsman and before World War I worked on mining, surveying and engineering projects in several States.

Lancelot Eldin de Mole - Service number 7478
Lancelot Eldin de Mole - Service number 7478

While surveying in difficult country near Geraldton, Western Australia, in 1911, de Mole hit upon an idea for a tracked armoured vehicle and next year sent sketches of his design to the British War Office. He described the principle of his vehicle as follows:

It can be steered to the right or left, when proceeding forwards, by altering the direction that the chain-rail is laid in by screwing the front portions to one side or the other …; or steered, when proceeding backwards, by pressing the bogie nearest the rear end of the tank to one side by means of the screw gear … or a hydraulic ram controlled by the steersman, thereby causing the body of the vehicle to be thrown to the right or left as required so that, as the vehicle proceeds, the links of the chain will be laid to the right or left of the line that the vehicle has been proceeding on and so form a curve, which as the vehicle proceeds will alter the direction of travel.

He was notified in June 1913 that his idea had been rejected, though only some of his drawings were returned. He resisted urging from friends to sell the design to the German consul in Perth.

A Western Australian invention?

An article by  E. Dwyer Gray of Sydney offers the following...

It is, of course, fairly well known that the war tank was really a Western Australian invention. Those who would like to know the details of the occurrences in connection with Corporal Lancelot E. de Mole’s travelling caterpillar fort, will find them set out in the current issue of the “Australian Motor Owner,” which gives the whole story. The magazine does not, however, print the text of a certain striking letter from Perth, addressed to the British Minister for War on September 19, 1914. This not only informed the British Minister for War that the archives of its own department contained the plans for a perfect war tank, but foretold what tanks could do, exactly two years before the inferior Somme tanks appeared so belatedly on the battlefields. This letter is now made available for publication for the first time, and reads as follows:

“The question of armaments being of paramount importance to armies engaged in this great war, may I suggest your placing the plans, specifications, and model, submitted by Mr. Lancelot de Mole in 1912, before a committee of experts, with a view to the adoption of travelling forts against the German forces In my humble opinion no deadlier or more efficient war engine could be used than de Mole’s caterpillar fort, which can travel over broken ground, climb embankments., span canals, streams and trenches with the greatest of ease, and which, if armoured and manned with small quick-firing guns and maxims, will quickly turn the most stubborn of armies, even if they be most strongly entrenched.

A line of moving fortresses – no dreamer’s fancy, but an idea which can be actually materialised – adequately support- ed by artillery, will carry everything before it, and save the infantry. I sincerely trust that you will appreciate the value of my suggestion. Should you require the services of Mr. L. de Mole kindly request the Western Australian Government to communicate with Mr. H. J. Anketell, resident engineer, Department of Public Works, Perth – Yours, etc., G. W. D. Breadon.”

Mr. Breadon was a civil engineer by profession. He was a man of repute and capacity, and shortly after writing this remarkable letter he became a Commissioner for Munitions in India. The letter had no effect whatever. Apparently it went into the same sort of pigeonhole as de Mole’s plans in 1912. Today it accuses the British Minister for War in 1914, or his agents, and the accusation, though it has a particular application to 1914, goes back to 1912.

Artist's impression of de Mole's tank
Artist's impression of de Mole's tank

In 1919 de Mole lodged claims with the British royal commission on awards to inventors, but the judgment handed down in November was unfavourable. The credit of designing the tanks actually used was attributed to two British inventors and while the commission noted that de Mole 'had made and reduced to practical shape, as far back as the year 1912, a brilliant invention which anticipated, and in some respects surpassed, that actually put into use in the year 1916' it found that

'a claimant must show a causal connection between the making of his invention and the user of any similar invention by the Government'.

The commission considered that the designs which the War Office had kept since 1912 had in no way been employed. De Mole was, however, awarded £965 for expenses and made an honorary corporal; in 1920 he was appointed C.B.E.

de Mole's awarded honours were...

  • Knight/Dame Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG/DCMG)
  • Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)
  • 1914–1915 Star
  • British War Medal
  • Victory Medal
Lancelot E de Mole's military record
Lancelot E de Mole's military record

Other inventions attributed to de Mole were:

  • a shell which would erect a fence or screen of suspended wires as a defence against enemy aircraft. The shell, which could be fired from the ground or from an aircraft, would release an encased charge on a steel wire 500-1000 ft (152-305 m) long attached to a parachute to slow its descent.
  • an automatic telephone, designed three years before a similar type was introduced into the United States of America, which the Australian Postal Department declined to test.

De Mole died, after a long illness, at the Liverpool State Hospital, Sydney, on 6 May 1950. He was cremated with Presbyterian forms. A model of his tank is on display at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Sources: -Tale of the Tanks


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