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Guy Martin interview for Guy Martin's WWI Tank

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For your new documentary, you decided to build a WWI tank. Why, and more specifically, why now?

On 20th November, it’ll be the 100th anniversary of the first time that tanks were actually successfully used in a battle. They’d been tried before, but they’d never really made a difference until the Battle of Cambrai. So it’s a hundred years this month. I’m a bit embarrassed about how little I know about the First World War, I didn’t even know that tanks were used in it. So I wanted to make this because I had such a gap in my knowledge, and I wanted to learn more, and also because of the 100th anniversary. And the boss of the production company, his great grandad was in the tanks in World War I, so that was a reason. And also I’m a Grimsby lad, and the tanks were created in the next town up from me, in Lincoln. That’s where it all started, and no-one knows that story. The whole reason it was called a tank was because when the first ones were being built at Fosters [William Foster & Co, the agricultural machinery company who were used to build the tanks] people would ask “What is it?” and they were told “It’s a water tank,” because it was top secret.

You’ve taken on some pretty big challenges in your time – where does this one rank?

As a challenge to build it, I’d say this is the biggest thing we’ve undertaken. There’s loads of stuff we’ve done – building push bikes to go at 100mph, converting transit vans to do 150mph, but this, I think, is the biggest one. It’s not that we’re restoring them, or modifying them – we’re building an exact replica of a Mark IV Tank, from scratch. When I first looked at this challenge, I thought “This is a big ask. We’re not going to see this happen.” It is a massive undertaking. JCB were the main reason this was able to happen. They built the main part of the tank, and then the lads at the Norfolk Tank Museum put all the engine together and everything. But JCB’s technology and knowhow was so important. It was a massive undertaking on all sides. And the TV company got everyone pulling together, all for the one goal. And they’ve done a bloody amazing job of it.

What were the most complex aspects of the build?

Trying to get it to look right. You think “It was designed and built 100 years ago – that should be easy to replicate with modern machine techniques and modern manufacturing techniques.” But obviously not! It took a bit of getting round all the issues involved. Originally it was all riveted together with 3,000 rivets, but that’s not the way that materials are fastened together nowadays. It’s either welded or fused or folded or some form like that. So all the rivets on our tank are fake rivets, but they’re all in exactly the right place. And you have to get the tracks looking just right. The track plates are replicas of the original, but underneath, that is a modern track system. But the chain and the sprocket system under that, that was specially made. It’s not something they nicked off a current machine.

It’s fair to say that, even using modern technology, this was an incredibly complex build. Did that give you even more of an appreciation of what they managed to do 100 years ago?

Bloody right it has! At the battle of Cambrai they had 375 tanks. It was a massive undertaking. The prototypes were built in Lincoln. Then production was subbed out all over the place – to the Black Country, mainly, all up and around there. It was a massive undertaking. And then they got them all out to Cambrai without anyone noticing. And they got 30,000 horses out there without anyone noticing as well. The plan was for the tanks to go in first, open the defensive line, and then the cavalry would go through. That was the idea of the tank, it isn’t used as a tank is used today. But how did they get them all there?

You travelled over to France, to the old battlefields. What was that experience like?

Yeah, we went to Cambrai – that was the first day of filming that we did. We went to the original battlefields. The tank was originally built to get through the barbed wire and over the trenches. To be honest, there’s nothing to see there now, there’s not much to give it away as an old battlefield. But we met an enthusiast over there who had managed to find and excavate a tank there called Deborah. Deborah now sits in his shed. That was bloody interesting.

Did making this programme give you any idea what it must have been like to serve in a tank?

It would have been bloody brutal. They had face guards that they were meant to wear, but they didn’t wear them very often. That was to stop you getting blinded – when the tank got shot, you got small shards of metal coming off the inside of the tank, so the crew used to wear chain mail veils to go over their eyes and mouth. And the exhaust was leaking in there. And you had eight blokes in there – it would have been bloody brutal. Rather them than me. Obviously war today isn’t like it was 100 years ago.

On that note, you also went out with the army in a Challenger II, which is what they use today. What was that like?

It was amazing. They were bloody good lads. It was 62 tonnes, 1200 horsepower, it was a massive, massive thing. I couldn’t believe how agile it was. And each one costs £4 million. And the crew are – what? – 20 years old? They’re going to upgrade it in a couple of years’ time, but they still say that is the safest tank to be in. The American one is faster, but you ask any of them what the best tank to be in is, and they’ll tell you the Challenger. It may not be the quickest, but it’s the safest.

What was it like, driving a Mark IV? How did it handle?

We didn’t get very far the first time – we might have got 100 yards – before it pulled its bearing out of the chassis. To try and get that back in again was a massive job. But you can’t have any mechanical sympathy with it – you’ve got to be brutal. You’re not going anywhere fast – nothing is happening in a hurry. It takes two of us to drive it – a throttleman, which is me, and a steersman, which is Stephen, who runs the Norfolk Tank Museum. It’s hot, it stinks, and you’re going nowhere fast. That’s all very well when you’re driving it around a car park in Norfolk, but with six more people in it, and you’re getting shot at, it’s a different matter. I’ve nothing but respect for those guys 100 years ago.

Guy Martin’s WWI Tank is on Sunday 19th November at 8pm on Channel 4

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