Ernest Swinton


Major-General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton, KBE, CB, DSO (21 October 1868 – 15 January 1951) was a British Army officer who played a part in the development and adoption of the tank during the First World War. He was also a war correspondent and author of several short stories on military themes. He is credited, along with fellow officer Lieutenant-Colonel Walter Dally Jones, with having initiated the use of the word "tank" as a code-name for the first tracked, armoured fighting vehicles.

Ernest Dunlop Swinton
E. D. Swinton op. p. 81.jpg
Ernest Dunlop Swinton
Born(1868-10-21)21 October 1868
Bangalore, India
Died15 January 1951(1951-01-15) (aged 82)
Oxford, Oxfordshire
AllegianceUnited Kingdom
Service/branchRoyal Engineers
Years of service1888–1919
RankMajor General
Battles/warsSecond Boer War
First World War
AwardsKnight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Companion of the Order of the Bath
Distinguished Service Order
Other workAir Ministry, Citroën, Chichele Professor of Military History at Oxford University, Colonel Commandant of the Royal Tank Corps

Early life and careerEdit

Swinton was born in Bangalore, India, in 1868. His father was a judge with the Madras Civil Service. The family returned to England in 1874, and Swinton was educated at University College School, Rugby School, Cheltenham College, Blackheath Proprietary School, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Corps of Royal Engineers on 17 February 1888. Serving in India, he was promoted to lieutenant on 17 February 1891, and to captain on 17 February 1899.[1]

He served as a captain during the Second Boer War (1899–1902), and returned home in September 1902, two months after the end of the war.[2] For his service, he received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in the September 1901 South African Honours list (the order was dated 29 November 1900).[3] Although principally concerned with railway construction, he took a keen interest in tactics, fortifications, and the effectiveness of modern weaponry, especially the recently introduced machine-gun. After the war, he wrote his book on small unit tactics, The Defence of Duffer's Drift, a military classic on minor tactics that has been used by the Canadian and British Armies to train their NCOs and officers, and by US military to train its officers.[4][5] In the years leading up to the First World War, he served as a staff officer and as an official historian of the Russo-Japanese War.

First World WarEdit

The War Minister, Lord Kitchener, appointed Swinton as the official British war correspondent on the Western Front. Journalists were not allowed at the front, and Swinton's reports were censored leading to an effectively uncontroversial although even-handed reporting.

Development of tanksEdit

Swinton recounts in his book Eyewitness how he first got the sudden idea to build a tank on 19 October 1914, while driving a car in France. It is known that in July 1914 he received a letter from a friend, a mining engineer named Hugh F. Marriott whom he had met while in South Africa. Marriott occasionally sent Swinton news of technical developments that might have a military application, and his letter described a machine he had seen in Antwerp, an American-made Holt Caterpillar Tractor. He suggested that the machine might be useful for transport, and Swinton passed the information on to several military and political figures who he thought might be interested. At the time, with no apparent prospect of war, the idea seemed to be a matter only of transport efficiency, and Swinton forgot about the matter. The idea of a caterpillar track as the basis for a fighting vehicle occurred to him only as he drove from St. Omer to Calais on the morning of 19 October.

In Britain, David Roberts of Richard Hornsby & Sons had attempted starting in 1911 to interest British military officials in a tracked vehicle, but failed. Benjamin Holt of the Holt Manufacturing Company bought the patents related to the "chain track" track-type tractor from Richard Hornsby & Sons in 1914[6] for £4,000. When World War I broke out, with the problem of trench warfare and the difficulty of transporting supplies to the front, the pulling power of crawling-type tractors drew the attention of the military. The British War Office conducted trials with Holt tractors at Aldershot but saw them only as suitable for towing heavy artillery. Major Swinton was sent to France as an army war correspondent. In November 1914 he suggested to Sir Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence, the construction of a bullet-proof, tracked vehicle that could destroy enemy machine guns.[7]

In July 1915, Swinton was given a prominent post in the War Office and became aware of the Landship Committee, which was entirely under the control of Admiralty; he formed a working friendship with its secretary, Albert Gerald Stern.[8] Swinton was able to persuade the prime minister to call an inter-departmental conference on 28 August 1915, which ensured the army's cooperation with the Landship Committee's work[9] and it was Swinton who drew up the specifications of the performance which the army would require.[10]

In 1916 Swinton was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given responsibility for training the first tank units. He created the first tactical instructions for armoured warfare. The Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors decided after the war that the inventors of the tank were Sir William Tritton, managing director of Fosters and Major Walter Gordon Wilson; however, Swinton was awarded £1,000 for his contribution.[11] By 1918, the War Office had received 2,100 Holt tractors.[12]

Swinton and Benjamin Holt in Stockton, California on 22 April 1918, with a Holt caterpillar tractor (right) and a model of a British tank (left).

In April 1918, while on a tour of the US, Swinton visited Stockton, California to publicly honour Benjamin Holt and the company for their contribution to the war effort and to relay Britain's gratitude to the inventor. Benjamin Holt was recognised by the General at a public meeting held in Stockton.[13]


In 1919 Swinton retired as a Major General. He subsequently served in the Civil Aviation department at the Air Ministry. He thereafter joined Citroën in 1922 as a director. He was Chichele Professor of Military History at the University of Oxford and a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, from 1925 to 1939; he was also a Colonel Commandant of the Royal Tank Corps from 1934 to 1938. In 1938, he edited Twenty Years After: the Battlefields of 1914–18: then and Now, a publication of George Newnes Limited. This was planned for issue in 20 parts but ultimately amounted to 42. The magazine-style publication contained wartime and present-day (ca. 1938) images of France.[14]

Family lifeEdit

Swinton married Grace Louise Clayton in 1897 and they had two sons and a daughter. His daughter died in a road accident during the Second World War.[15] Swinton died in Oxford on 15 January 1951.[15]

Honours and awardsEdit


  • Eyewitness : Being Personal Reminicsences of Certain Phases of the Great War, Including the Genesis of the Tank (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1932)

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Hart′s Army list, 1903
  2. ^ "The Army in South Africa - Troops returning Home". The Times. No. 36865. London. 5 September 1902. p. 6.
  3. ^ a b "No. 27359". The London Gazette. 27 September 1901. p. 6309.
  4. ^ "Duffer's Drift" (PDF).
  5. ^ Brown, Frederic J. (Lt. Gen. (retd)). "Imperatives for Tomorrow" (PDF). Military Review. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 June 2007. Retrieved 24 September 2021.
  6. ^ Hoffman, George (21 February 2007). "Hornsby Steam Crawler". British Columbia.
  7. ^ "Tanks for World War I". Retrieved 25 February 2010.
  8. ^ Smithers, A. J. (1987). A New Excalibur: The Development of the Tank 1909-1939. Leo Cooper Ltd. p. 29. ISBN 978-0436475207.
  9. ^ Smithers 1987, p. 38
  10. ^ Smithers 1987, p. 44
  11. ^ Smithers 1987, p. 253
  12. ^ "Holt Caterpillar". Archived from the original on 4 December 2009. Retrieved 27 February 2010.
  13. ^ "San Joaquin County Biographies: Benjamin Holt". California Genealogy & History Archives. Archived from the original on 22 April 2012.
  14. ^ Twenty Years After Archived 21 April 2013 at PartWorks – recycling classic collections
  15. ^ a b c d "Maj.-Gen. Sir Ernest Swinton." Times [London, England] 17 January 1951: 6. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 5 August 2012.
  16. ^ "No. 29938". The London Gazette. 12 February 1917. p. 1458.
  17. ^ "No. 32830". The London Gazette (Supplement). 2 June 1923. p. 3947.
  18. ^ "No. 29548". The London Gazette (Supplement). 14 April 1916. p. 3994.


  • Swinton, Ernest (under the pseudonym "Lieutenant Backsight Forethought"), The Defence of Duffer's Drift, Oxford: United Service Magazine, 1905; Originally published in April 1905 in "The British Infantry Journal", .
  • Swinton, Ernest (as editor), The Truth About Port Arthur, London: Murray, 1908
  • Swinton, Ernest (as editor), The Russian Army and the Japanese War, Vol. I, New York: Dutton, 1909
  • Swinton, Ernest (as editor), The Russian Army and the Japanese War, Vol. II, New York: Dutton, 1909
  • McClure's Magazine (two articles under the pseudonym "Ole Luk-Oie"), Link, 1910
  • Swinton, Ernest (under the pseudonym "Ole Luk-Oie"), The Green Curve, New York: Doubleday, 1914, and as an added bonus, his obituary.
  • Swinton, Ernest (under the pseudonym "Ole Luk-Oie"), The Great Tab Dope, Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1916
  • Swinton, Ernest, Tanks, 1918, reprinted from "The Strand Magazine".
  • The Study of War (1926)
  • Swinton, Major-General Sir Ernest D., Eyewitness, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1932 (includes the genesis of the tank)
  • Over My Shoulder (1951, posthumously)


  • (translation) An Eastern Odyssey: The Third Expedition of Haardt and Audion-Dubreuil (1935)

External linksEdit

  Media related to Ernest Dunlop Swinton at Wikimedia Commons

  • Internet Archive (Please create a free account to view the footnotes and references above), Link
  • The Defence of Duffer's Drift
  • Works by Ernest Dunlop Swinton at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Ernest Swinton at Internet Archive