We’ve introduced before the American involvement in armored warfare in the last months of World War I. At the time we promised you a report on the battles, and a description of the hardware involved. This is the hardware post.
While American manufacturers, notably including Ford Motor Company, quickly pledged to build tanks, their industrial production had no material affect on the war; but a time tanks were coming off American production lines, the war was over. And the first American tanks were, or were intended to be, built on foreign patterns.
Renault FT17. This one is preserved at a Polish military museum, part of the global FT17 diaspora; this tank was a gift from Afghanistan to Poland for Polish support. The tank may have been used in the Russo-Polish War and captured by the Soviets, then given to Afghanistan; or it could just be a tank the Kingdom of Afghanistanw bought on the world market in the 1920s or 30s. It is the 37mm, 20-caliber variant. The US Army also used these tanks, and built a copy under license.
This was because America was fresh in the war, and largely unprepared; apart from our tiny professional military caste, most Americans hadn’t even been following it very closely. There was a vague understanding of things called “tanks,” but no grasp of their design details, let alone how to build them.
That should’ve been slightly embarrassing, because the concept of the tank came from arming and armoring the American-designed Holt tractor in the first place.
With no tanks in production, the US certainly had no tank tactics or operational art, and it set out to learn from the experienced nations that would provide the tanks: Great Britain and the Republic of France.
After over three years of war, the British and French were eager to share what they’d learned. You might think that they’d be reluctant to give up any share of their tank production to the war’s newcomer, but their problem was a mirror image of the Americans’: the Yanks had volunteers but no experience, training, or tanks, and the European Allies had too much experience, production lines producing more tanks than they could use, and a shortage of manpower after years of blind, wasteful attrition on the Western Front. Indeed, the French and especially the English hoped that the Americans would just provide them with warm bodies, to be expended as replacements in their own bled-out regiments, under the leadership of the same guys responsible for bleeding the regiments out. The US commander, General John Pershing, forcefully declined this offer every time it was made.
The Americans would fight in their own units, under their own leaders. Decision made.
Despite that one disagreement, coalition warfare went remarkably well. American tank units — once trained — worked with British Commonwealth and French units, and even incorporated, at one point, a French tank company in their task organization. At one point, this produced a moment of combat laughter when an American unit sent their valiant French interpreter to stop and redirect a supporting French tank — only to have the turret hatches clank open, and an American TC pop out — “What the hell do you want?”
This FT17 is on display in Compiègne, France. The card-suit markings were used by French and American tank units in WWI. The high-contrast camouflage was intended to break up the tank’s outline, especially versus aerial reconnaissance. The TC’s ingress and egress was through the double-door hatch in the back of the turret. Most photos in this post expand with a click.
Light Tanks from France
The confusion was obvious, because the American tankers were in a French Renault FT, the light tank America adopted from France. Attempts to build this simple, light (about 7 metric tons) two-man tank in the USA bore no immediate fruit. Ford first redrew every Renault drawing and redimensioned them in Imperial units, with the predictable result that none of the Ford parts fit the Renaults, and vice versa. Even the tracks didn’t match: the French tracks were 13″ wide, and the US copy 13 3/8″. The US-designed and built Mk VIII Liberty tank was in the style of the larger British tanks, but powered by the US Liberty engine (the engine was one of the few success stories in American war production in WWI, but the tank wasn’t). In any event, mere token numbers of the American tanks got to the American Expeditionary Force by the Armistice. The hundreds of tanks actually used were all made in France.
The other side of the Compiègne tank. Note the 8mm Hotchkiss armament.
The Renault FT light tank was a product of French doctrine, which emphasized small, maneuverable tanks that could act as mobile pillboxes for the infantry in the advance. France produced a couple thousand of the FT, which came in a single 8mm Hotchkiss MG version, or in a stubby 37mm L/20 cannon version (the gun barrel was only 720 mm, about 28″, long — shorter than a lot of duck guns). The USA used both versions, organized into Light Tank Companies and Light Tank Battalions, on the Western Front.
This FT was delivered to Switzerland for tests in 1921, in hopes of a sale. It is preserved today in Thun.
All these pictures make the size of the FT unclear — it looks pretty big. Actually, its nearest analogy might be a 1960s VW Beetle, although it’s taller. It would fit in the average garage. This maintenance photo, from tank expert Steven Zaloga’s photobucket, gives you a better idea of the sheer size, or lack of it, of the FT:
In Wilson, this image is identified as American crewmen receiving training on the FT17 at the 311th Tank Center at Bourg, France. The men are wearing American uniforms.
This period French manual illustration doesn’t help as the poilus inside are drawn rather small. It does show the layout of the tank, though. The FT is laid out much like WWII and modern tanks — armament in a turret, engine in the back:
There were quite a few variations of the FT17. For example, the British tank museum at Bovington preserves a prototype with a one-piece cast turret; versions exist with spoked steel idler wheels (the big wheels up front) and with built-up wooden idlers.
Cast armor was unusual in World War I. Most tanks were protected by face-hardened armor, which is obvious when you see the shattered plates of a destroyed one.
St. Chaumond Heavy Tank. The “prow” was for negotiating trenches, the main gun a French 75, the secondary armament 8mm Hotchkisses, fired by crouching soldiers who couldn’t stand up or sit down in the cramped tank.
France had made heavy tanks too, the Schneider and the St. Chaumond. In fact, France had been developing tanks for about as long as Britain had, but seems to get short shrift in English-language sources. In any event, the large French tanks were little loved by the French, and were rejected by the Yanks:
Neither vehicle could be truly classified as a tank. Instead, they were nothing more than armored artillery carriers requiring infantry skirmishers to lead them into battle, carefully marking the routes that should follow. Underpowered and lightly armored, they did poorly traveling cross-country, and their crews suffered badly if they received direct hits from artillery fire.1
The French, by late 1917, had put their faith in the light tank; while they still operated the clumsy behemoths, their production was heavily weighted to the small FT, optimized for accompanying infantry in the assault.
The Americans turned instead to Britain for heavy tanks.
Heavy Tanks from Great Britain
Britain had a completely different concept of tank warfare than France – attempts to reconcile these differences had been unsuccessful, with each nation going its own way – and their vision was of the tank going out ahead of the infantry to make a breakthrough, which infantry would then exploit. Each British tank, then, was a sort of a landship, capable of fighting independently or in conjunction with other tanks. They normally employed a team with a cannon-and-MG-armed “male” tank “married up” with an MG-only “female.” (A tank that bore both cannon and MGs? “Hermaphrodite.” Heh.) As you might expect these landships were large and well-armored and armed for the day.
A rare operating survivor: Bovington’s Mark V.
British tank models were logically, if unimaginatively, numbered in sequence from the pioneering Mark I of 1915, and the two models the Americans acquired were the Mark V and the Mark V*, which Americans usually referred to in speech and even in writing as the Mark V Star. Readers familiar with British small arms of the period will recognize the * as a marker of a modification, but the Mark V* was quite a bit different from the ones which had no stars upon thars. (Apologies to Dr. Seuss. Couldn’t resist). It was longer, heavier, and improved in many small ways.
The Mark V is what you think of when you envision the classic, lozenge-shaped tank of World War I. Relatively few of these tanks survive; most of the survivors are in Ukraine, Russia or the other former Republics of the Soviet Union, and are remnants of UK/US intervention at Archangelsk, and Western support to the White Armies in the Russian Civil War. The Soviets preserved this history to a greater extent than the Americans or Britons did. For example, two Mark Vs were preserved in Luchansk, Ukraine. They were in bad shape, with battle damage, rust, e…generations of looting, more rust, and…
…covered in grafitti (whoever Artyom is, he’s an asshat), but the tanks were removed and restored:
…and replaced. (In he picture below, one of the restored tanks is in place, the restoration of the park is yet to get started).
One fascinating find during the restoration: a rifle cartridge case. But it doesn’t look like a Russian 7.62 x 54R to us; it looks like a rimless case. Could this tank have belonged to the American contingent at one time? The case looks too short to be a .30-06. The button appears to be a British Army one, too. A mystery!
Another fascinating find: what appears to be one of the same tanks during the Civil War, captured by the White-aligned “Don Army” of rebellious Cossacks:
Lugansk/Luhansk is in disputed territory in the Ukraine and was seized by Russian troops and Russian-controlled militia in 2014. It has been the scene of much fighting, and it’s unclear whether the monument tanks have survived. It’s the least of the many pities of that civil war, one supposes, but a pity nonetheless.
Returning to our American tankers of a century ago: as nearly as possible, American tankers tried to keep the Mark Vs and the different V*s sorted by assigning them to different Heavy Tank Companies, which were assigned to Heavy Tank Battalions.
All tanks of the period were very unreliable; for every one killed by enemy countermeasures (artillery, mines, and the Anti-Tank Rifle) literally dozens broke down or got bogged down. An important part of tank planning was the establishment of engineering organizations to recover, repair, and return to the combat force those abandoned tanks.
This artwork, The Tanks at Seicheprey by Harvey Thomas Dunn, is in the US Army collection. Dunn observed the attack depicted in this impressionistic illustration, the first day of the St. Mihiel offensive.
It’s reminiscent of this famous photo, which is often displayed divorced from the information about it. But this is actually a photo of an American tank in combat in the Great War — a very rare thing.
This photo was taken at Seicheprey. Compare the tank’s attitude to the background tank in Dunn’s illustration. But we know the unit, the 326/344th Light Tank Battalion2, and the driver, Corporal George Heesch.
All of the world’s tank types have their ancestry in these flimsy, brittle, unreliable machines.
Surviving WWI Tanks
Some tanks were produced in very low numbers, like the German A7V. Others were mass produced — there are images of production lines for the British tanks. All in all, thousands of tanks were produced, including nearly 2,000 Renault FTs and probably another 1,000 to 1,500, maybe more, of all other types combines. Yet, only a dozen or two tanks survived, not the war, but the century between then and now.
We know of two lists of surviving Great War tanks: Dave Maynard’s which comes up as disabled due to nonpayment, and an illustrated list found on sub-pages of the Surviving Panzers page: http://the.shadock.free.fr/Surviving_Panzers.html
That includes ….
…this list of non-FT-17 type WWI tanks surviving, including reproductions: http://the.shadock.free.fr/Surviving_WW1_Tanks.pdf
…this list of FT-17s: http://the.shadock.free.fr/Surviving_FT-17.pdf
…this list of US M1917 Six Ton Tanks: http://the.shadock.free.fr/Surviving_6ton_M1917.pdf
- Wilson, Dale E. Treat ‘Em Rough: The Birth of American Armor, 1917-20. p. 9.
- Wilson, pp. 116-117, note 53, explains that Patton’s battalions were renumbered by HQ on the eve of the St. Mihiel offensive. At the time this photo was taken, in September 1918, the unit was already the 344th but the old 326th was still the name everyone was using.