This Week In History: April 23 – April 29 

While first used in combat in the Somme, in the ruined countryside of Northern France, the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918 pitted tank against tank for the first time in history. Three German A7Vs clashed with three British Mark IVs (an evolution of the Mark I). Photo by Dan Kb on Unsplash.

What is history but a record of all the firsts of the human race? Often the most notable historical events have no precedence; they miraculously happen, then leave a traceable and perhaps tangible impact. Take for instance the recent discovery of the remains of a fire from 800,000 years ago. Researchers tediously analyzed bones and flint remains to trace back one of the earliest uses of fire ever found. Can you imagine what it was like to see it burn all those years ago? Unfortunately, there is no date associated with the event so I cannot cover it, but thankfully many other historical firsts have happened this week, so let’s get right into it!  

Can we really grasp how terrifying wars are? Think of it this way: On the first day of the Battle of the Somme in World War I, 57,470 British soldiers became casualties in just a few hours. How could historians even keep track of all the names of those men? Is it not easy to lose the humanity of an individual death when it’s one in countless thousands? Wars — however fun to study — are brutal. Yet perhaps humans wouldn’t have to fight on foot much longer. On April 24, 1918, war would be changed forever as a new technology met head-to-head onto the battlefield.  

Now, if you were a field marshal during WWI, and your soldiers continuously threw themselves at machine guns only to end up as another name in the casualty reports, what could you do to break the stalemate? No force of men would be able to break through the rows of trenches and barbed wire, so it must be something more, right? How about a giant mass of metal, capable of simply driving across the trenches unscathed, a so-called landship? 

Experimentation began in Britain far before the war, but it commenced in earnest once the trenches became a slaughter for mere meters of land. The Landship Committee and early inventors didn’t have much to work with, but they did have engines, steel and obsolete naval guns; with some riveting and steelwork, surely they could make something. Among many prototypes, they designed a monstrous tracked vehicle called the Pedrail, as well as the quaint “Little Willie” — named after the German Kaiser, which can still be seen today. This was the start of what we now know as a tank. 

In fact, why do we call it a tank? Imagine once again that you’re a field marshal. The last thing you want is for your long thought-out key to victory to end up in the hands of your enemies. Thus, the British did a very British thing and named it after water tanks, to which landships looked quite similar. The Germans were bamboozled, and only slightly caught up to British tank production in 1918. 

After years of design, and the successful introduction of the British Mark I in the Battle of the Somme, the British and Germans settled on a rather simple design for their landships:; a diesel engine housed in the center was surrounded by riveted armor, and large caliber guns. To put it frankly, the tanks were death traps. With a crew of six to eight, and rivets that shot inwards like bullets when the tank was hit, the landships were not an immediate success. However, their presence and ability to block common rifle fire made them crucial to gaining an advantage in battle. 

While first used in combat in the Somme, in the ruined countryside of Northern France, the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918 pitted tank against tank for the first time in history. Three German A7Vs clashed with three British Mark IVs (an evolution of the Mark I).  

The battle was, perhaps, quite slow. After all, the tanks only moved up to about 4 mph. However, after some fierce fighting, two Mark IVs were knocked out, while the lead A7V was abandoned after sustaining damage. Both forces soon retreated to reorganize. Strategically, the British won the day, as light British Whippet tanks soon arrived with infantry to force the Germans out of the region. The battle still remains as an impressive first in human history. Mobile warfare was now at the forefront, setting the stage for the combined arms warfare of WWII. 

The next first in history shifts our focus to a much more light-hearted and perhaps less destructive innovation. While it’s becoming increasingly evident that the Earth is experiencing a remarkable change in climate, technology is seemingly posed to help establish sustainable, eco-friendly energy sources. However, the history of this pursuit is quite old, and goes back to at least the early 19th century. 

Now, it happens quite frequently that we observe something and don’t know how to explain it, right? Just think of it, how many times do you say “I don’t know” on a daily basis? I don’t know how many times I say the line every day, but for centuries scientists such as Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel saw something, and could not entirely explain it. What they were observing was the photovoltaic effect: the ability for light to transmit energy.  

As we’re historians in this column and not scientists, the simplest way to put it is that Barcquerel discovered the fundamental technology of a solar cell/panel, which would be unveiled to the public for the first time on April 25, 1954 at Bell Laboratories in New York. 

Researchers Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson were experimenting with various forms of a solar cell, taking the energy from an incoming photon and converting it into energy. The team had a breakthrough in 1953 after discovering the impact of silicon dipped in lithium, creating a p-n junction, or basically a merging of positive and negative ions. Through this, they were able to make the first ever efficient and useful solar cell.  

On April 25, they displayed their work to the public by showing the cell powering a ferris wheel and radio unit; the development was then used across the world in satellites, transmitter devices and countless other technologies. Their work gives humanity another avenue of energy production that may yet relieve the planet of the strain of human contributions to climate change. 

The last event for this week marks the creation of something both beautiful and mysterious: Ludwig Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.”  

On April 27, 1810, the nearly 40 year-old — and increasingly deaf — Beethoven composed a song with incredible melodies and motifs, standing out from his longer symphonic works of his “heroic” composing stage. Meaning “for Elise” and known as Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor — the term “bagatelle” meaning “of little importance” — some speculate that Beethoven sought to keep the piece private. 

“Fur Elise” was never published during Beethoven’s life, remaining hidden from public view until the music historian, Ludwig Nohl, found and published the manuscript in 1867. The beautiful piece remains as one of Beethoven’s most loved works, but it never graced the ears of anybody in his lifetime, thus raising many questions. 

Who is Elise? Some say it is Juliane Elisabet Barensfeld, a student of Therese Malfatti, a friend of Beethoven’s, while others say it is possibly Therese herself, who was occasionally known as Elise. The mystery of Elise remains one of the most interesting conundrums in music history, and if you would like to know more about it, I encourage you to check out, which covers each theory in detail! 

And with that, we conclude our look at all of these historical firsts! If you’d like more information, check out The Tank Museum online, or “The Great War” YouTube Channel! The final issue of This Week in History for the year will come out this Friday, so be on the lookout. See you then! 

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