The U.S. Enters World War One

When the United States entered World War One in April 1917, it had no tanks, no armored force, and just a few armored wheeled vehicles. The British and French both had started the development of “tanks” in 1914-1915 with increased urgency as trench warfare became stalemate on the Western Front. The French went for a lighter tank, mainly due to the geographic differences in their front. The British went for heavy tanks, to cross trenches and the mud flats in their area.

The United States, upon arriving in France in May 1917 assessed the situation and by September 1917 had stood up the Tank Corps, which would end up fighting in 1917 and 1918 with British Heavy tanks and French Light tanks. American industrial production never caught up with demand but was preparing for a massive offensive in 1919.

Anglo-American Commission

In December 1917 the British and American Armies set up the “Anglo-American Commission” for coordination and manufacturing of a new type of tank. The design was completed in cooperation and coordination by both Armies. The MARK VIII tank was a compromise between the two Armies, and a cross between a current British design (the MARK V), made larger, and added many American upgrades. As an example, a separate engine room in the rear of the tank, separating the soldiers otherwise in the middle of the fighting compartment British design. This production agreement was codified in January 1918. The “Agreement between the British and US Governments for the Production of Tanks”, laid out the responsibilities of the two parties.

A joint factory was to be built in France, with armor plate and structural steel shipped from Britain, and other parts to be shipped from the United States for final assembly. At this point France wanted portions of the planned MARK VIII production, however, it was only in a position to provide real estate and a rail access location, this was agreed to as part of the negotiations over plant location. The plant was constructed with Chinese labor battalions serving under France. China had declared war on Germany in August 1917, and while they did not provide combat troops, provided numerous labor battalions.

Of the 1,500 MARK VIII’s planned for 1918, the allocation of the first 600 was to be to the United States, the remainder to the British, and French.

Production Complications

Two complications to the mass production arose in 1918 that in and of themselves would have made reaching 1,500 an unlikely accomplishment. The United States had the responsibility for providing the Liberty Engine and had placed a higher priority on the use of the Liberty Engine for aviation over tanks. Aircraft remained the priority for the use of the 300-horsepower engine until October 1918.

The British, suffering from manpower losses from the last major German offensive in March 1918, were unable to provide the supervisory personnel for the plant in France. They were instead sent to the front lines to replace fallen British. The plant at Neuvy-Pailloux was nearing completion in late 1918 when the war ended on the 11th of November, 1918. After the war, this massive industrial plant became a
central repair location for the French Army, and storage of the French Railway Guns.

By the end of 1918, the British had produced perhaps as many as 24 hulls, at the North British Locomotive Company Limited, in Glasgow, Scotland. These were assembled but not fitted out, MARK VIII’s. One was shipped to the United States in June 1918 for completion, which was done by October 31, 1918, at the Locomobile Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

On the 31st of October, before an assembled group of visitors, which included the Secretary of the Army, the Chief of Ordnance, and several British Officers, the MARK VIII was put through its paces, in an area now the Bridgeport Connecticut Public Golf Course.

Mark VIII Assembly at Rock Island Arsenal

The complete assembled MARK VIII completed initial trials in early 1919. The US Army decided to complete 100 MARK VIII tanks, despite the end of the war. British parts were sent to the United States to the Rock Island Arsenal in Rock Island, Illinois. Parts from American Manufacturers were sent there as well for assembly.

In March 1919, Rock Island Arsenal started the assembly of the hundred. Due to budget issues, the hundred needed to be assembled prior to the end of the calendar year, or the money would run out. The Arsenal workforce rose to the occasion and completed the task by early December 1919.

Mark VIII Tank. Rock Island Arsenal. December 5, 1919.

One of the early assembled MARK VIII’s took part in the 4th of July, 1919 parade in downtown Rock Island. Per the Rock Island Argus, thousands were in attendance to see the parade, and the MARK VIII captured a good deal of attention, firing both guns as it came down the avenue. From there, it proceeded to the Courthouse Square, where the “huge Goliath from the Rock Island Arsenal, said to the be largest of its species in the world provided the demonstration”, by climbing over the remains of the older jail at the site while firing its guns.

In March 1920, most MARK VIII’s were railed to Fort Meade, Maryland where the Infantry Branch had its Tank School. At least one remained at Rock Island Arsenal for training of Army and Arsenal mechanics, and to provide a test bed for tank experiments carried out over the next decade.

Black and white photo of a group of approximately 50 men sitting on and standing in front of a Mark VIII Liberty Tank in 1920.

Rock Island Arsenal Apprentice School. Rock Island Arsenal. June 9, 1920.

The Mark VIII Comes Home

The MARK VIII remains one of the tanks with the longest gap-crossing capability of any tank; which was part of the reason it was designed – to cross trenches. While it was advanced for its time, improvements in weapons, engines, and armor, soon rendered it unusable on the battlefield.

The MARK VIII was declared obsolete in 1932 and was mothballed until they were sold for scrap.

There remain three known MARK VIII tanks. One in Britain, one at Fort Benning, Georgia, and now, one back home at the Rock Island Arsenal, where its journey began.

Mark VIII Tank being hoisted by 2 straps - suspending it in the air.

March 13, 2024. A refurbished Mark VIII Tank is installed at Rock Island Arsenal.


Written by, Bob Foster
RIA Museum Volunteer, RIAHS Board Member, Historian

Help Tell the Story of the Mark VIII Liberty tank!

The Rock Island Arsenal Historical Society is accepting donations to purchase interpretive signs for an outdoor exhibit at Rock Island Arsenal that will feature 1 of 3 remaining Mark VIII Tanks left in the world!

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