Tracing Lodestar III's history
We have always known that Lodestar III is special
As one of it's oldest exhibits, the War Heritage Institute's Mark IV tank looks like it arrived straight from the battlefield still feauturing its original paint and markings. For a vehicle over a century old, this makes it an unique piece in the world. The tank has always been a popular exhibit, clearly shown by the many visitor inscriptions which have been appearing on the in & outside of the tank since the 1920's.
However, starting on this project working with this peculiar vehicle, we wondered what else there was to discover about Lodestar III. What horrors has this great landship faced before it arrived in the safety of the museum halls? Has it seen combat, or was it spared from the front, explaining the lack of any battle scars. These were the questions on which we thought, standing before the mastodont in our Great War hall.
As for all museums using Collection Management Software, our hunt for the truth starts by looking up our vehicle in our Collection Database, CollecPro. This tool is used for registering, managing and providing acces to our collection.
In our database we found the following useful information
- Object name: Mark IV male Tank 'Lodestar III'
- Production date: 1917
- Origin of the object: The tank was registered in the museum collection on the 27th of december 1919 as gifted by the British government.
- The reference to its registration in the museum's original catalogue.
Although there was only sparse information to be found in the database, we did find some interesting snippets of information to help us start searching, namely the origin of object and its entry in the museum catalogue. We start our untanglement of Lodestar III's history searching for its entry in the museum in the museum's registration catalogue of the year 1919.
It's entry teaches us some interesting facts:
- The tank was incorrectly registred as a "Mark III', while there are clear visual indications that this vehicle is of the Mark IV type.
- The 'Lodestar III' marking on the vehicle was original and not added after its introduction in the collection.
- The top rails and entrenching beam were on the vehicle as it arrived in the museum.
- The colours and number markings have not been changed.
Although this record is a testament to the authenticity of our vehicle's current state, it does not provide us any indication of Lodestar III's history or circumstances in which it arrived in the museum.
As a next step, the written correspondance of the museum in the year 1919 was analysed. In the years following the First world War, the museum contacted countless countries, organisations and people requesting for interesting objects regarding the past conflict to be included iin it's collection. Between the museum's countless letters, requesting new objects concerning the past war to be included in it's collection. In this large pile of letters, we hoped to find traces of the museums contact with the British government.
A letter was found adressed to the military attaché at the Belgian embassy in Paris and dated on the 22nd of november 1919. In this letter from the commander of the Tank Corps of the British Army in France, two British tanks (the museum's Mark IV and whippet tank) offered to the museum are mentioned. He requests that the necessary steps are taken to arrange transport of the two vehicles from France to Brussels.
One month later, another letter dated 24 december 1919 indicates that the tanks have arrived from France in Etterbeek (Brussels). The vehicled were handed over to the Service Provincial de Recuperation - Parc d'Etterbeek (SPRB).
The next month, a letter to the chief of the SPRB mentions the tanks still present at Etterbeek in a bad condition, after having been violated by 'marauders' who stole and broke several interesting pieces. According to the letter, this debacle could have been avoided had the train station staff not put the tanks outside in Etterbeek parc, instead of contacting the museum to collect the shipment.
Another letter to the SPRB dated three months later mentions the tanks still present at Etterbeek. Appareantly, the tank was found one morning with the sponson's doors open. A detailed inventory of the equipment inside the tank was never made, but it seemed like more interior pieces were stolen and human excrement was left inside the vehicle. A report from the SPRB night patrols is requested to prevent further calamities.
It was only on the 21st of october 1920 that the first of the two tanks, the 15 tons heavy Medium Mark A Whippet tank, was transported to the museum. The heavier Mark IV tank had to wait longer for transport to it's final resting place, so both vehicles arrived at seperate times in the museum.
This is where the paper trail in the museum correspondance runs cold.
Since the museum records have not been able to solve many of our remaining questions, it might be useful to have a look at specialised literature to see what has already been published on the museum's Mark IV, Lodestar III.
In 2007, Osprey Publishing featured the Mark IV tank as part of it's Vanguard series. In this publication the Bovington Tank Museum's inhouse historian and specialist on British armoured vehicles David Fletcher examines the Mark IV in detail.
While the publication does not zoom in on the histories of specific vehicles (which is not possible since war diaries and reports barely mentionindividual tank names and only a handfull vehicles are well documented), it does feature a nice drawing of Lodestar III's predecessor 'Lodestar' (Or maybe an incorrectly named Lodestar III, the last number of its serial number is hard to read).
The extensive information in this volume teaches us some more interesting facts regarding the history of Lodestar III.
For starters, we can definitely be sure that the vehicle reached the front in France and was assigned a crew. The presence of an unditching beam on top of the tank (the beam is original and not added on later as is proven by the museum registration record) indicated that it passed by the Tank Corps Central workshops in France. This apparatus was not fabricated or installed in British factories, so the presence of unditching gear on vehicles indicates that the tank saw service (or was at least modified for service) in France. However, the position of the unditching beam on Lodestar III is controversial. While we will later describe this vehicle as having potentially served late in 1918, the current position of the beam on the vehicle roof was that of tanks serving before the summer of 1917. Before the summer of 1917, the unditching beam was stored on the position as displayed on Lodestar III and had to be fastened to the tracks by 2 crew members which had to climb on top of the vehicle, at great risk during battle. In the late summer of 1917, a new system was configured that involved stowing the beam lower down at the back of the tank. The crew still had to dismount the vehicle to chain the beam to the vehicle's tracks, but could now work from the ground with the tank providing at least some protection.
The fact that Lodestar's unditching beam is currently displayed on top of the vehicle raises questions about the previously mentioned information. Was its position incorrectly modified after its entry in the museum due to ease of use (can't fall of the back of the vehicle) or ignorance of its original posiition? A climb on top of the tank might reveal the answer to this question. Here we see the beam attached to the tracks as it would have been in action. Perhaps it was originally decided to display the tank as it would have roamed the battlefield, ready to cross a trench? Unfortunately, the lack of original photographs from when the vehicle entered the collection prevents us from verifying its original configuration.
The Osprey Publication mentions that two Tank Corps Battalions, the 7th and 12th, retained their Mark IV tanks right through untill the end of the war. The name of the vehicle which starts with an 'L' easily assigns this Vehicle to the 12th (L) battalion. After more and more German 'Beutepanzers', captured British tanks in German service, weren encountered, allied command decided to mark all British tanks with white/red/white recognition stripes, mostly on the front horns. After the summer of 1918, all friendly tanks were painted in this manner, including Lodestar III.
Lodestar III's serial number, 4093, indicates that the vehicle was build by Sir W.G. Armstrong Whitworth &Co. Ltd of Newcastle upon Tyne. Starting from december 1916 untill mid-october 1916, this company produced 100 male Mark IV tanks consecutively numbered 4001-4100. Armstrong Withworth was the last manufacturer to complete its order and it is recorded that tank 4097 was dispatched to France as late as 11 october 1918. Knowing this fact, we can assume that Lodestar III also probably arrived in France in mid 1918.
Another comprehensive publication on the Mark IV mentiones Lodestar III, namely the Haynes Great War Tank Mark IV manual which was created researched and written by Bovington Tank Museum's Richard Willey (curator) and David Fletcher (historian). Although no conclusive actions can be identifiefd in which the tank would have participated, they do consider Lodestar III as a war veteran due to the fact that it was present in a period in which the battalion faced a lot of action.
From the manual:
After 12th battalion arrived in France in january 1918, they were issued Mark IV tanks instead of the expected Mark V's or whippets which were in short supply. Their War diary mentions that the crews complained about the poor conditions these vehicles were in. After the German offensive in march and april 1918, these vehicles were handed in when told they would be converted to a Whippet Battalion. They went again into action at Moyenville on 21 august during the Battle of Bapaume, following the Battle of Amiens. For this campaign they again received 42 Mark IV's. The Mark IV's they acquired were not new and it was rumour had it that some of these had even taken part in the battle of Cambrai in 1917. The crews receiving "new" vehicles on two occasions might already account for the naming of a 'Lodestar I' and a 'Lodestar II'. From the summer of 1918 untill the end of October, the battalion was in more or less constant action. It seems very plausable that the surviving crew of Lodestar II, after losing their vehicle in action, would name their replacement tank Lodestar III.
Another unresolved fact seems to be the 'Lodestar III' marking itself. While standard procedure was to paint the vehicle name in white on the side. There are ofcourse many photographs left of tanks with different variations and more artfull displays, but these seem to be crew adaptations. Lodestar III's markings are in red, which also seems to deviate from standard procedure. Another big question remains, when were the vehicles named? One would assume this happens when the crew receives their vehicle to train and go into action. Following this assumption, we could speculate that Lodestar III was not a tank kept in storage untill the armistice, but was in use by its crew and potentially served in combat during the last months of the war.
Further research is necessary to prove beyond doubt that Lodestar III saw action at the front.
Why was the name painted in red?