a side view of the large World War One tank named Mephisto in the gallery at Queensland Museum

Mephisto: The sole surviving WW1 tank

Mephisto is the sole surviving German A7V Sturmpanzerwagen tank in the world, but did you know these facts about the rarest items in our collection? Tune in to the Museum Revealed podcast to hear Nick Hadnutt, Curator of Archaeology reveal how the tank ended up in Brisbane.

Let’s meet our guest: Nick Hadnutt

I am the archaeology curator in the Cultures and Histories Program, responsible for researching, curating and sharing the Queensland Museum’s archaeology collections. I joined the museum’s Cultures and Histories program as a volunteer and became a full time assistant collection manager in 2008, after completing a Bachelor of Arts (Archaeology double major) with the University of Queensland. After completing my honours degree, I worked for a number of years as the collection manager before joining the archaeology program as a curator in 2015.

Read Nick’s profile

What is Mephisto?

In late 1917 the German Army produced 20 A7V Sturmpanzerwagen’s which were deployed in combat the following year. Crewed with 18 men, the cumbersome war machines clambered into action in April 1918. The German tanks were engaged in actions at such places as Villers-Bretonneux, a small French village that was recaptured by Australian soldiers at the cost of 1,200 lives. The A7V’s were involved in the first tank versus tank action.

Named Mephisto by its crew, this 30-tonne tank was part of an advance towards the French town of Amiens, resulting in the capture of Villers- Bretonneux and the temporary retreat of Allied forces. During the battle, Mephisto became stuck in a shell crater and was abandoned by its crew. It remained on the battlefield for months before troops of the 26th Battalion AIF, composed mainly of Queenslanders, regained lost ground and retrieved it, dragging the tank behind Australian lines under cover of darkness.

It was sent to Australia as a war trophy, arriving at Norman Wharf in June 1919 where it was towed by two Brisbane City Council steamrollers to Queensland Museum, then located in Fortitude Valley. It remains the sole surviving A7V tank in the world.

Read more about Mephisto

In case you prefer to read

RB: Welcome to the Museum Revealed podcast brought to you by the Queensland Museum. Join me, Dr Rob Bell (RB), as we chat to the people that make museums so fascinating, from curators to scientists and researchers. We take a deep dive with conversations with these storytellers that inspire us to be curious about the past, make sense of the present, and, of course, consider our future. I’m joined right now by Nick Hadnutt (NH), who is a curator of archeology. And particularly we’re going to talk about one of the pieces in the Queensland Museum collection. Can you start maybe just by telling us archeology? What in particular does that sort of field span

NH: Yeah, sure. So archeology is obviously it’s the study of the human past through the material remains, the things that people have left behind. And so when we consider that kind of time period archeology spans from millions of years ago to, you know, pre humans right through to today, I focus on historical archeology, which in an Australian context is really the time that foreigners started coming to Australia and visiting, interacting with Aboriginal people. So for many people, that would be the Captain Cook kind of period. But obviously, Dutch people came earlier than that. And we know Makassan and Southeast Asian traders came earlier than the Dutch as well. So we’re talking around 16th, 15th, 16th century for that context within Australia. But my focus is probably I focus, obviously, working for the Queensland Museum. So I’m looking at Queensland historical archeology. And so I’m interested in how Queensland developed post European colonization and all of the things that came with that.

RB: Okay. Excellent. I want to talk particularly about I wouldn’t say it’s the most iconic, but certainly one of the iconic pieces in the Queensland Museum, and that is Mephisto. Can you tell us what is Mephisto? And how did it end up in the collection?

NH: Sure. So Mephisto is a is a name given to a German tank. So it’s a First World War weapon of mass destruction, as it were. Mephisto short for Mephistopheles. It’s the name that the crew gave their tank. Mephistopheles is a character in a German play. He’s a devil and an evil spirit that interacts with a person. So that character, Mephisto, is painted on the front of the tank. The name of Mephisto painted on the tank. And Mephisto is a battle tank that was deployed by the Germans in late in the First World War.

RB: And tanks were these tanks. We knew they then. Davis was sort of a basically came about during the war.

NH: Yeah, it’s interesting. I was kind of I’ve been thinking about that in preparation for the podcasts and absolutely. Tanks as we know them today, steel armored boxes that are self-propelled that move across battlescapes and, you know, protect their occupants, but also enable them to deliver firepower against their enemy occurred in the First World War. But tanks themselves is a really broad concept of a mobile vehicle that is designed to protect the occupants whilst they attack. I would say the first tanks were probably chariots through over 5000 years ago. So the idea of tanks is not new either individually, but it even sketched actually right below it. So tanks were designed. You know, some of the thoughts were how do we breach how do we siege a walled city? We need to protect the people who are going to, you know, approach the war. Yeah, exactly. So how can we do that? Cover them, things like that. So, yeah, the idea of a tank, as we know today, was created very early in the First World War when it became apparent that the technology was available, that we had an ability to construct a tank. So cars or engines in vehicles that they had only been around for about 40 years.

Flight had just been discovered three years earlier. So you saw this coming together of technology, the ability to be able to forge steel, to have engines that were powerful enough to move 30, 35 tons, to have machine guns that were water cooled, that didn’t need replacing, that could be fired continuously. And the ability to move heavy, heavy firepower across a battlefield is the way we know tanks today.

RB: So I guess when people look at an officer in a way, they’re sort of looking at a prototype of tanks in a way, because. It’s when we first started discovering what these things might look like, what form they might take and how they would move across the landscape of the battlefield.

NH: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, Mephisto is one of the first German tanks made. They made them kind of in batches and it’s different to the other tanks that were made at the same time. So even that point of customisation was occurring as they were rolling them out and deploying them, some of those slightly different to the other tanks. That’s how you can identify them in the photographs. But one of the things that’s really fascinating is if you look at the ideas around tanks that were being designed by professional designers. And also the journalists who are trying to come up with ideas, their fantastical there are these amazing spaceship looking medieval thing. So, you know, some of them were three or four stories high that were role like these bimbette behemoths that were rolling across the battlefield with with giant spikes sticking out of them. It’s really fascinating. And I think some of that comes into the way that tanks were first conceived in a military concept, that they were part of the Navy, that this heavy armored kind of thing is something the Navy is very good at. So let’s get the Navy on board. And they created the land ship. And so imaginations spiraled out of control. How you could have these huge Dreadnought type machines that would roll across the battlefield and overcome the obstacles of trench warfare and annihilate the enemy. And then you had the exact opposite, where the French in particular created two person tanks. So a tiny, very fast machines just with a machine gun mounted that were they called. The British had a version called a whippet tank, which was designed to move very rapidly across the battlefield and machine gun. So, yes, that’s the idea is that these machines were being conceived at that time and they went from fantastical to effective.

RB: Yeah. Yeah. And the whole gamut of spectrum. So tell me then, how does a World War One tank end up in Brisbane, particularly given the base? Thirty-five tons. And I suppose I would have thought afterward all of that stuff would have been left to rust or destroyed.

NH: Yeah. So I think this comes back to a thing which is known as the trophy tradition. It’s a matter of taking something from the enemies of or take it home. Yeah, exactly. And so within a year of the First World War breaking out, Australia had created an entire unit or department within the Army that that sole focus was collecting trophies and sending them back. And so that idea of the propaganda of being able to distribute something through Melbourne, Sydney public marches. This is what our boys are doing on the front lines. This is something that you can only read about or perhaps see a photograph at best. But more likely, you’ve seen an illustration of the front lines. This is a tangible thing from that place that’s on the other side of the world.

And so Mephisto, though, as a trophy is highly significant. It’s the first German tank that was captured by the Allies and it was captured by a group of men who were predominantly Queenslanders, that the battalion was some to some Tasmanian, some Queenslanders. And the architect of the idea of catching this trophy is Major Robinson, who’s a Queenslander. And so Mephisto was deployed in on 24th of April 1918 against an allied position. And it was a really interesting moment because that’s when the Germans really decided to deploy to first scan the battlefield.

So I guess I have to go back a little bit in that when tanks were first deployed, particularly by the British. They just felt they could send them across a battlefield and they would make it across there quite happily and then attack. But they can’t because of the size and the landscape. It was, you know, either incredibly muddy or pockmarked and incredibly difficult to walk over, let alone drive over. And so their early attempts of mass tank movement were failures and people just didn’t have the faith in them. They thought these things are extraordinarily expensive to make and effectively useless. Why? Why do we have? But then people were kind of thinking, well, hang on. If the conditions are right and we use them in the right way, then perhaps though they’ll work. And so the conditions, obviously, you need a flatter ground and mass tanks and all this kind of stuff. So the tactics of using tanks were being developed from 1914/15 right through the Germans on this particular movement in April. They deployed, I believe, it was nine tanks in three formations that were working together. And Mephisto was one of the three fought in one of the formations. And unfortunately, Mephisto got stuck, drove into a shell hole and was basically lost on the battlefield. And the reason Mephisto got stuck on the battlefield is because the driver and the commander of the vehicle set quite high in the tank there for five metres above the ground. But the way it’s built, there’s a huge black spot in front of us, something they can’t see. And also, when you think about it, it’s not a Sunday drive. You’re driving through a battlefield. There’s shell fire, there’s a machine gun, there’s smoke, gas and all kinds of crazy things are happening and you’re drive in an arcade machine, which effectively goes about walking pace. Okay, so you’re a really easy target. You’ve got to try and zigzag to avoid incoming fire across a battlefield.

So it’s understandable that you know these thing were lost regularly on the battlefield. And that’s the case with this one. Mephisto was in no man’s land. The Germans were to the south a couple of hundred meters, their main trench or less than that. And the Australian line was to the north within about 100 meters. And Mephisto sat there for all of June into July. And then it was observed. There’s fantastic aerial photographs taken by the French reconnaissance planes of the battlefield. And you can see this little tiny pixellated dot and that’s Mephisto sitting there. And then at some point in in early June 13th of June, there was a series of really significant actions by the Australians where they push the Germans back and they pushed them back enough that at one point Mephisto was behind them by about only 20 meters or so, very close. But they managed to get past Mephisto. And that’s when Robinson decided that, hey, this would be a great opportunity to try and capture a German tank and drag it off the battlefield. And so this incredible operation ensues. And they grabbed a tank. They’d get the tank away from the Germans.

And then at that point, this political drama involved unfolds of who owns the tank. So the Australians already had their trophy department ready to go. The English had their trophy department. This is the first tank captured and this is a big deal. And as soon as word got out that the Queenslander captured it, the person running the trophy department, for want of a better word for Australia, contacted a Queensland premier and said, you got you guys have captured a German tank. You should claim it. We should claim for Queensland because it’s such a big deal. And there was a few people got involved and eventually it was agreed that it would come to Queensland, but only temporarily, because there were so many trophies flooding into Australia from overseas that the Commonwealth decided we need an Australian War Memorial, we need a war museum to tell this incredible story of the First World War. And that is going to be in Canberra, which doesn’t exist. It’s not a place. So we’ll put it in Melbourne and then we’ll move it to Canberra. And then we intervened in the ship on the way down to Melbourne, it pulled into Brisbane, and it got unloaded on the docks and dragged around to the Queensland Museum almost a year to the day after it was captured.

RB: Wow, what an amazing story. Look, there’s a whole lot more to find out about this story, and we are going to find that out very shortly. So stay with us.

RB: Welcome back to the Museum Revealed podcast. We are chatting with Nick Hadnutt and we are talking all about the Mephisto World War One German tank. So it now resides in the Queensland Museum, but it’s traveled quite extensively, which for a 35-ton tank is probably not that easy. Can you give us a bit of an idea of where it’s gone and at what sort of times of its existence?

NH: So the tank obviously captured on the western front. It was then over a series of weeks transported by rail and then ship to believe into London and then loaded onto another ship and brought to Brisbane. And so just those little journeys themselves, you know, hundreds, thousands of kilometers, just the process of collecting the tank by the 26 battalion was difficult. They spent a couple of nights filling in all the shell holes behind the tank to make it a flat platform. Then the night of, they arranged to have aircraft through the night flying low reconnaissance to drown out the noise of their activities. They had intermittent shell fire again to try and mask the noise of what they were doing.

RB: So a lot of effort just to disguise where they were stealing a tank.

NH: And I guess the thing is that we think of a though as an old tank, but in 1918. This is cutting edge technology. It’s like us having the ability to take, you know, an American submarine or, you know, millions of dollars of investment have gone into creating this thing. How does it work? What did they do better than us? What can we know? So this is in espionage as well.

RB: Invaluable. I guess for the Allied forces back then.

NH: And they needed to get it in one piece. And so once they were ready to collect it, they organized with the British tank carrying company to bring up three heavy vehicles to tow it. And in that instance, when they were tying at the Mephisto itself, has grappling hooks on the front that are tow hooks. So they touch their cables to those hooks and also just pass them through the observation slots and dragged it. And just so happens, when they were doing that, the Germans, for whatever reason, picked that moment to bombard the entire area with gas. And so the 13 volunteers who volunteered to do this really dangerous work, knowing if the Germans were tipped off, they would direct all their shell fire to stopping this. They crept out, were gassed. All of them ended up in hospital as a result. So two of them were severely injured in the head and were shot. They all survived. And then it kind of it was dragged about five kilometers back from the frontlines and was hidden there under camouflage net to stop the German aerial observation. And at that point, it started to become graffiti. The troops walking past put their name on it and things like that started to happen.That’s where you see the first photographs of Mephisto.

And then there’s a couple of iconic images of it being lifted out of the hold of the ship onto the wharf down at Norman Wharf in Brisbane here. And those ones, they basically put the cables directly under the treads and just lifted the whole thing very easily, lifted it out, put it down on the road, and then dragged it on its own treads all the way up into the Gregory Terrace Museum and put it on display at the front of the museum. And then over time, it got moved a couple of times. Different structures were put over it. And then in the in the mid 70s, it was loaded on a low loader and brought into Brisbane here. Sorry, that would be in the 80s. It was brought to the Southbank Museum. And it was moved twice at Southbank as I guess as conservation standards were changed.

We realized we needed to protect it from humidity. And so it got put into an enclosure. And then in 2015, it was transported down to Canberra, which was an amazing journey of two days. We took two days to take the tank down because of the width of the tank. It’s far wider than normal load. We could only drive through daylight hours and we took it down in June. So the days are shorter. So we had to park on the side of the road with the iconic tank just past Coonabarabran on a truck stop. And we had security guards working the night to maintain the security of the tank. And then Monday morning, we drove into Canberra and we had to take a number of side roads and they had restrictions on when we could take a heavy vehicle into Canberra. So we had to liaise with all these local governments and all of this stuff had to happen and it went. They put it on display there, the world’s rarest tank. And then in 2018, 2019, the tank came back into Brisbane and we had to install it, shoehorn it effectively into the ANZAC Legacy Gallery, which is quite tricky because all the other lifts we had clear access above the tank, we were able to drop, you know, crane cables down and vertically, whereas to get into a room, we had to use this amazing technology, build ramps and then basically slide the tank on these really heavy duty, effectively gas lifters, these large pads that sit flat on the floor. And when you pump air through them, they lift like skates and they carry easily up to 10 tons each. And so we position them under and lifted it and then skated it. There were six of us and pushed the tank, in position and dropped it. Where we needed it up. That’s where the tank is today.

RB: Wow. That is quite amazing. And I mentioned when it was first. Which is a drag to the old museum site in Brisbane. A 35 ton tank probably wouldn’t be very kind to what the roads might have looked like back then, which wouldn’t have been suited to a 35 ton tank.

NH: No, no, absolutely not. The Brisbane City Council were involved in. They sent two steam rollers down to drag the tank. That’s how they needed to move it. Obviously, it’s still rolled on its tracks. It was only a year old. So in terms of its manufacture is quite young. So it was able to move. But when the tank was first captured, there was a lot of damage around the fuel tanks and the radiators. So it wasn’t the engine didn’t work. So they had to drag it out. And the newspaper at the time commented that once the steam roll was finished moving the tank into the new museum, they then patched that road, turned around and had to patch it on the way back into the wharf.

RB: Yeah. Amazing. And look, when you look at the tank these days in the museum, the first thing that I kind of noticed when I go in the front is all of, I guess, the marks from its time on the battlefield. You know, shell holes, bullet holes, all of the damage and all of that sort of thing. It must have been incredibly intense to be inside that tank. I imagine the noise, that sort of thing. Do you have any idea of what they went through, the people who crewed these things?

NH: Yeah. So I guess I guess there’s a few clues that give us an idea as to how horrific it was to be in an A7V German tank. The first clue is that the tank, the people who operated the tank always preferred to travel on the roof. So they always sat up on the roof. There’s no way they wanted to be inside the tank because that’s where the two heavy duty diesel engines are mounted with the radiator. So immediately you’ve got two engines that are driving 35 tonnes. So there’s a lot of heat, a lot of stink from the fuel and the noise of the day. You know, they had they did have exhaust systems, but they didn’t travel far out of the vehicle. And that’s just moving it from A to B. So you’re just driving it around. It’s horrible. The second thing is we know that the people selected to work in the tank were from different areas. Some of them were elite machine gunners. Some of them were artillery people to be able to operate the different. Some of them were just mechanics, but they were all basically conscripted. People didn’t volunteer to go into the tanks. Initially it was, ah, this is a great idea. We get hot food, we get a bed. We’re not stuck on the frontlines. How wonderful. But as soon as I started breaking down or being pinned down under shell fire, the destruction, a first shell direct hits the fuel tanks exploding or the munitions inside the tank exploding. The realization was it was hellish. And then, obviously, if you’re driving across a battlefield against a frontline crewed by thousands of people with small arms fire, they’re all directing their fire at you. So you’ve just got this continuous drumming of machine gun bullets, shells, grenades, all striking the outside of the tank, which would be deafening. You’ve got the motor plowing away behind you, directly under your feet. And then when those impacts are striking the armor of the tank, the inside of the armor spalls smallish shards of steel fly off the inside of armour. And, you know, people’s eyes are particularly vulnerable. But any part of their body that it’s exposed is now exposed to small amounts of steel being penetrated.

RB: So even the bullets, even though they couldn’t penetrate the steel as such, they would still get hit by stuff on the inside.

NH: That’s exactly right. Yeah. So.

RB: Yeah, that doesn’t sound very pleasant only. I’m going to cross tank operator off my jobs of the future list, particularly if it involves the World War One tank. Thanks so much for joining us. I've found out a lot and I'm sure you have as well. Thanks for joining us on the Museum Revealed podcast. What did you uncover in this episode? Are you interested in learning some more? Well, follow the Queensland Museum on social media @qldmuseum or head to our web qm.qld.gov.au And while you’re there, you can sign up for a news list so you can be up to date on everything. And don't forget, there are show notes that go along with these podcasts. You can find out even more about Mephisto. And until next time, stay curious.

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