Only remaining German WWI tank marks 100 years in Australian hands

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The story of how the only remaining German tank from the Great War got into Australian hands has been commemorated in Brisbane.

A book on the daring capture of a German WWI tank by Australian soldiers in France has been released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of one of the conflict’s most legendary exploits.

Ranking among Australia’s most precious trophies from the Great War, the German A7V Sturmpanzer still affectionately known by its battlefield name Mephisto, was seized from no man's land under the nose of the enemy.

Mephisto - named after the devil Mephistopheles, after being captured in World War 1.
Mephisto - named after the devil Mephistopheles, after being captured in World War 1.
AAP

It is set to go on permanent display at the Queensland Museum in November to coincide with the centenary of the Armistice.

“It’s unique, it’s the only one of it’s kind in the world, but it also speaks to the war and the people who were involved in the war,” said Geraldine Mate, Queensland Museum's curator.

“I don’t think you can put a value on it. It’s a pivotal moment for the gallery because Mephisto has spent 98 of its 100 years in Queensland.”

Tanks were hailed as game changers toward the end of Great War. The Germans managed to get only 20 tanks into battle before the end of the war, all of them A7Vs.

Mephisto - named after the devil Mephistopheles, being unloaded at the Norman wharf in Brisbane
Mephisto - named after the devil Mephistopheles, being unloaded at the Norman wharf in Brisbane.
AAP

The story of Mephisto has become legend, but its demise was mundane.

Weighing 33-tonnes, the awkward and lumbering Mephisto suffered the fate of many tanks on the battlefields of France when it became bogged in the mud of Villiers-Bretoneaux in July 2018.

What happened to the crew remains unknown but once abandoned, Queensland soldiers from the 26th Battalion snatched it from no man’s land.

“Under fire from Germans, who then engaged them in small arms, machine gun fire, artillery and poison gas, they hooked up the Mephisto to two British tanks to tow it back out into friendly territory,” said lieutenant-colonel Peter Monks, of the Australian Army’s 7th Brigade, to which 26th Battalion belonged.

“It’s not a story of generals seeking glory, it’s not a story of militarism and glory that’s going to resonate through the ages, it’s a story of ordinary Australians conducting a remarkable feat and action that the members of the brigade draw inspiration from today.”

Once captured, it became a star on the other side of the trenches and trophy photos were the order of the day. 

“Very much so. It was definitely the selfie from 100 years ago, that was definitely the story to tell your mates,” said lieutenant-colonel Monks.

The tank's story and how it ended up in Brisbane in 1919 is told in a book just published to coincide with the anniversary, titled 'Mephisto: Technology, War and Remembrance'.

“Mephisto, because it was captured by a Queensland raised battalion, it was seen to be a Queensland prize,” said co-author Jeff Hopkins-Weise.

“It was very important for even the morale purposes on the home front, that their soldiers from Queensland were involved in the capture of this really special armoured vehicle.”

For decades Mephisto was a Brisbane landmark as it languished in the outdoors at the Old Museum before being relocated to the Queensland Museum on Southbank in the 1990s.

Once again covered in mud in the 2011 Brisbane floods, this world famous tank was carefully restored, displayed at the Australian War Memorial but has now come home again for good.

“In previous decades the Germans would very much like it back, of course, a lot of people would love to have it, I’d love to have it,” Mr Hopkins-Weise said.

Considered priceless, the public will be able to once again see this unique piece of Australian and German war history in November.

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