World War I still featured a lot of trench warfare due do a lack of mobility that placed an advantage upon the defender. When the British managed to invent the first tank, that seemed like an important advance in warfare:

The British developed the tank in response to the trench warfare of World War I.

By 1916, this armored vehicle was deemed ready for battle and made its debut at the First Battle of the Somme near Courcelette, France, on September 15 of that year.

However, the Germans seem to have reacted quite slow to this change:

Following the appearance of the first British tanks on the Western Front, in September 1916, the German War Ministry formed a committee (..)

The first pre-production A7V was produced in September 1917, followed by the first production model in October 1917. The tanks were given to Assault Tank Units 1 and 2, founded on 20 September 1917.

Indeed the British tank did not reach the maturity until 1917, but there is still about 1 year gap between the first used tank by British and Germans.

Question: Why did it take so long for the Germans to develop the first tank model in World War I?

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    Because they focussed on stuff that actually worked?
    – Tomas By
    Sep 20, 2020 at 9:31
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    @TomasBy: LOL. Yes,that's the thing really. It was another year or so before tanks really proved their worth on the battlefield, and even then tactical understanding wasn't immediately capable of taking advantage. Sep 20, 2020 at 12:09
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    @PieterGeerkens even that is an exaggeration. It took decades for `tactical understanding to take advantage.'
    – Tomas By
    Sep 20, 2020 at 12:30
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    An answer to this is a frame challenge and answer also this: 'Why didn't the Central Powers use the tanks they had ready & patented by 1912 in warfare?' Sep 20, 2020 at 15:12
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    " that seemed like an important advance in warfare:" You can only make that claim because you're looking back after 100 years. It wasn't so obvious an advance in the moment. Sep 22, 2020 at 15:02

3 Answers 3


While the Germans knew in principle that tanks could be built, they still needed to design a tank, develop a prototype, work out the problems, put it into mass production, develop tactics, and train crews to use it. All of these aspects inevitably took a lot of time for both sides - the Germans were just starting later.

Knowing that tanks could work would speed some of this up - you would not need to spend as much time developing tactics if you've seen them used, for example - but it would not really help with practical engineering issues, which would take up a lot of the development time.

The timeline in the UK was approximately:

In Germany, the timeline was approximately:

  • Sep 1916 - proposals for armoured vehicles first discussed
  • Dec 1916 - draft plans developed
  • May 1917 - first prototype A7V complete
  • Sep 1917 - first production A7V completed and issued to units
  • Mar 1918 - first A7V used in combat

In both cases, the gap between "a decision to build tanks" and the first prototype of a combat tank was about eight months, and another ten months between the first prototype and the first time they were used in combat. So the Germans were not noticeably slower than the British.

(In principle, looking at these timelines, it seems likely the Germans were actually a bit faster - they had tanks issued to units in September 1917 and if they took as long to train and prepare as the British did, they might have been ready for service by January. However, there was no major German offensive until the "Spring Offensive" at the end of March - so even if the tanks were ready for service, there would be no occasion to use them at that point.)

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    This is seriously incorrect 'First idea – first battle ~8 months'? Eg a Mr Burstyn had the idea in 1903 and demonstrated his prototype in 1911 to German and Austrian officials: tracks, big gun, turret, armour, all in line with Renault FT and arguably even better than any later British tanks in most aspects. There are more earlier examples to consider. This is personal speculation built on very incomplete data, and the result is 'not good'. nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burstyn-Motorgesch%C3%BCtz Sep 20, 2020 at 15:09
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    You would of course expect the second mover to get to production quicker than the first, as they already know it can be done, and some details about how it can work.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 20, 2020 at 15:43
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    @LangLangC I've changed this to "the decision to build tanks", which I think is a better way to say it than "idea" - I am aware there were many previous suggestions and prototypes, but there's no indication I can see that they played any role in the development on either the British or German side, so I don't think they're really relevant to the timeline. Sep 20, 2020 at 15:52
  • Then we disagree. An armoured offroad-capable vehicle deployed at an Austrian maneuver in 1906 in front of the emperor running 160 miles, a truck like that deployed in war in 1907… We see a lot of recalcitrant superiors on all sides deciding always 'not worth it' and effectually forcing a re-invention of the wheel (well tracks?) when needed later. Even in war the simple grunt may have been shocked at the first sight of these. But the German high command was still 'not impressed – let's build a bigger rifle to deal with those stupid contraptions' … Sep 20, 2020 at 16:30
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    The Germans did employ captured tanks, though.
    – Davidw
    Sep 21, 2020 at 0:11

There are surely multiple factors. One of them is how the two sides approached a common problem differently. The common problem was the stagnation of movement (i.e. trench warfare). No side was able to effectively break the others side line.

The British approached that by building tanks. The Germans by developing special infantry tactics. They introduced "Storm Battalions" consisting of special trained infantry men ("storm troopers") and using mixed formations and weapons like, grenade launchers, flame throwers, light machine guns.

Each storm trooper was trained on all those weapons plus on enemy weapons. Tactics differed from the normal infantry. This was to wait for an artillery barrage and then storming the enemy lines in waves. Instead, storm battalions tried to reconnoiter weak spots in enemy lines and focus the attacks there to create a local overweight in fire power. Goal was not to take and hold trenches but to create a breakthrough.

The German armies back to to the Prussian army always had the focus on the "Auftragstaktik", roughly translated to "mission-type tactics" versus the strong hierarchy in the British or French Army. Those "mission-type tactics" where especially and strongly applied to the storm troopers compared to the regular infantry. Basically they were given the goal of the mission and completely in charge on how to achieve it. It actually included allowed subordination if the situation demanded it. This also supported the tactics of a specialized breakthrough force.

On the defense side the Germans focused on an asymmetric approach. Means, the solution for the stalled front lines where the storm battalions but the defense against the British solution for that problem ("tanks") was to use special weapons. This lead to the first development of anti tank weapons like the TAK 1918 or the "tank rifle".

All in all this was basically the foundation of what the Wehrmacht later further developed to their doctrines of "combined warfare" or "war of movement" in WW2. Or the approach to use tanks as breakthrough attack weapons and use anti tank cannons for defense against enemy tanks. They did not plan tank to tank warfare initially.

Thus the German high command did not focus on tanks by intention. They were convinced that introducing a flexible and powerful infantry force with focus on breakthrough tactics was better than using slow and inflexible machines that where just embedded into the same existing structure.

Like said, this was possibly only one reason. Another reason later in war was the lack of raw materials and currency. Germany was running out of steel and money. E.g. they had the slogan "gold for iron". German women should trade in all their gold jewelry for iron jewelry. So, when they traded in a golden ring they received an iron ring with the engravings "I gave gold for iron".

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    Welcome to [History.StackExchange](History.StackExchange.com). An impressive first answer - but completely lacking in citations to back up your claims: hint hint. Sep 21, 2020 at 11:36
  • Cambrai shows that in late 1917 both the British and the German approach to breaking the stalemate were equally effective on a tactical level. If anything, the British approach seemed weaker since they lacked an ability to follow up on the breakthrough that the tanks made. With hindsight, the use of the tanks is what history has emphasized, but the Germans at the time reasonably felt vindicated in their approach. Sep 21, 2020 at 20:56
  • @John Coleman, did not intend to rate both approaches. From what I read the german Storm Bataillons had some success but also obviously did not make a difference in the end and haven't had a real impact.
    – tomtom
    Sep 22, 2020 at 13:22
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    @tomtom No disagreement there, the point is that it is only in hindsight that the German failure to emphasize tanks was a mistake. It wasn't clear at the time and Cambrai could be read either way. Similar remarks hold for Zeppelin bombers vs. airplane bombers. It seems absurd to us now to send slow moving hydrogen filled airships against cities, but at the time the greater carrying capacity of Zeppelins and their ability to fly higher than early model fighters seemed to give them an advantage. Sep 22, 2020 at 13:34

There is often problems with militaries having trouble adopting new tech that has little to do with actually building new technology. The German high command thoughts on war didn't include tanks and the way their government was set up dissenting opinions did not have much of a chance.

From a technical standpoint, all the major countries should have had tanks at the start of the war. There was no major technical hurdle in the way. It was even pretty common in the sci-fi literature of the time. Large earth-moving equipment had already been invented.

Most countries' militaries botched it just like Germany. In Britain the idea didn't exactly get much traction. Ignored by most of the government and stuck in a committee with limited access to resources. With the war stuck in trenches with lots of depth they had to design tanks specifically for defeating those trenches which added time. Then the tanks had to prove themselves at Cambria before large scale production orders.

Look at the numbers of the tanks Germany built. Even when they had to, they were just plain reluctant. It wasn't a issue of steel for they only built 20 tanks. They built a lot more battleships than tanks. The allies built thousands of tanks and were really expanding production when the war ended.

Really, the development of the tank just shows how some ideas rejected out of hand need to be encouraged a little and given some resources. With a little time they may come back you with something that changes your opinion.

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