I was recently honored as the guest speaker at the annual meeting of the World War One Historical Association San Francisco Bay Area chapter's annual commemoration of the end of the Great War (11/11/1918). I presented my talk on "LArtillerie D'Assault" covering the evolution of the tank arm of the French Army from 1916-18. This is a fascinating subject that I have investigated since childhood, as the French Army of the Great War was a major technical innovator in many fields, including the creation of the direct lineal ancestor of the modern battle tank, the Char Legere Renault FT17:
Lt. Colonel George S. Patton, Jr.
and a Renault FT-17, circa 1918.
Patton first experienced combat
in a tank inside the turret of the
FT-17 during the Meuse-Argonne
Offensive of 1918. The FT-17 is
the first tank to be designed with a
revolving gun turret as the sole
means of mounting the vehicle's
armament. All modern battle tanks
since have followed the layout of
the FT-17. (source: National Archives)
I was very graciously received by an extremely knowledgeable group of historical enthusiasts whose own base of knowledge was more than a little formidable to say the least. I must say that this was without a doubt one of the most pleasant speaking engagements I've had to date, and I must thank Association President Sal Compagno for his hospitality, Ms. Diane Rooney for her professional organizing skills of the first order, and Mr. Dana Lombardy for arranging the invitation.
Many of the good people in attendance had many a question that due to the time constraints I was unable to answer during the authoring. As a minor compensation, I offer up now a recommended reading list drawn from my own personal library concerning both the Great War 1914-18 in general, the French Army's experience during that conflict, and the development of the subject of my presentation on Saturday, L'Artillerie D'Assault:
Trench Warfare and the Western Front:
Bull, Dr. Stephen (2002). World War I Trench Warfare (1) 1914-16. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Bull, Dr. Stephen (2002). World War I Trench Warfare (2) 1916-18. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Drury, David (1995). German Stormtrooper 1914-1918. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Martin, William (2001). Verdun 1916: ‘They Shall Not Pass.’ Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
The French Army of the Great War 1914-18:
Jouineau, Andre' (2008). The French Army 1914: August-December. Paris, France: Histoire & Collections.
Jouineau, Andre' (2009). The French Army 1918: 1915 to Victory. Paris, France: Histoire & Collections.
Sumner, Ian (2009). French Poilu 1914-18. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Sumner, Ian (1995). The French Army 1914-18. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Windrow, Martin (2010). The French Foreign Legion 1872-1914. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Windrow, Martin (1999). The French Foreign Legion 1914-1945. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Armored Warfare, it's Evolution and the French Experience:
Perrett, Bryan (1995). Iron Fist: Classic Armoured Warfare. London, U.K.: Cassell & Company.
Vaulvillier, Francois (2014). The Encyclopedia of French Tanks and Armored Vehicles 1914-1940. Paris, France: Histoire & Collections.
Zaloga, Steven J. (2008). Armored Trains. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Zaloga, Steven J. (2010). French Tanks of World War I. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Aviation History during the Great War 1914-18:
Chant, Christopher (2002). Austro-Hungarian Aces of World War 1. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Franks, Norman (2000). Albatros Aces of World War 1. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Franks, Norman and VanWyngarden, Greg (2001). Fokker Dr I Aces of World War 1. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Franks, Norman (2000). Nieuport Aces of World War 1. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Guttman, Jon (2005). Balloon-Busting Aces of World War 1. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Guttman, Jon (2007). Bristol F 2 Fighter Aces of World War 1. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Guttman, Jon (2001). SPAD VII Aces of World War 1. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Guttman, Jon (2002). SPAD XIII Aces of World War 1. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Ketley, Barry (1999). French Aces of World War 2. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Kulikov, Victor (2013). Russian Aces of World War 1. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Shores, Christopher (2001). British and Empire Aces of World War 1. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
VanWyngarden, Greg (2006). Pfalz Scout Aces of World War 1. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
The list above is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive, however I highly recommend the monographs from Osprey Publishing as a good source of easy to read primers on specific topics. Relatively recently Osprey added a new series of comparative technology monographs, the Duel series. Among those are a growing number of comparative studies of specific antagonists from the aerial warfare of the period, focusing on significant combatants such as the FE 2B/D pusher and the Albatross D-series of fighter aircraft. Each volume takes the reader through the inception and development of the two machines under comparison, the training of the crews and the opposing tactical doctrines each employed against the other. Each book concludes with one or more combat narratives constructed from primary sources to present a case for the relative effectiveness (or lack thereof!) of either of the antagonists, and provide perspective on the circumstances and factors that produced the tactical, operational, and strategic outcomes that in fact resulted.
To date the Great War topics available in this series are:
Guttman, Jon (2014). Nieuport 11/16 Bebe' vs Fokker Eindekker: Western Front 1916. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Guttman, Jon (2009). SE 5a vs Albatros D V: Western Front 1917-18. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Guttman, Jon (2008). Sopwith Camel vs Fokker Dr I: Western Front 1917-18. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Guttman, Jon (2011). SPAD VII vs Albatros D III: 1917-18. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Guttman, Jon (2009). SPAD XIII vs Fokker D VII: Western Front 1918. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Miller, James F. (2012). DH2 vs Albatros D I/D II: Western Front 1916. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
Miller, James F. (2014). FE 2B/D vs Albatros Scouts: Western Front 1916-17. Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, Ltd.
If you have an interest in the First World War and wish to meet like-minded people who share a deep interest in the subject, or just wish to learn more about this global conflict that has had such a profound and continuing impact in shaping the world in which we live in even now, 100 years after the outbreak of the war, then I strongly recommend that you visit the Association website:
Again, my heartfelt thanks to Sal, Diane, Dana, and the wonderful members of the World War One Historical Association's San Francisco Bay Area Chapter for their hospitality and patience in allowing me to share with them some of my accumulated knowledge on one of the less well known chapters of the First World War.
A number of people in attendance asked me to explain the differences between the French Renault FT-17 and the license built copy produced here in the U.S. known as the M1917 Six Ton Tank.
As I explained during the talk, the French Renault machine was designed and tooled to metric measurements. France supplied us with a number of examples of the FT-17, as the plan was for American industry to take up production of this excellent little combat machine and produce them in numbers France's straining armaments industry simply couldn't hope to match, and do so in time for the planned massive Allied offensive set for 1919. The only problem with this sensible plan was that American industry was tooled for Standard measurements (i.e., inches and feet rather than millimeters and centimeters).
The American solution was to simply take apart some of the FT-17s sent by the French, and quite literally recopy the parts into Standard measurement plans from the ground up. Further technical issues arose with the French engines, so a U.S. built motor was selected for the U.S. copy, and the M1917 Six Ton Tank was born:
M1917 Six Ton Tank from the
private collection of the late Mr.
Jaques Littlefield in Portola Valley,
CA. (author's personal collection)
The most instantly recognizable feature of the M1917 is the protective gun shield and armored barrel cover on the turret. The French machines lacked this feature. Further, the French built FT-17s had their exhaust muffler located on the right side of the machine, while the M1917 muffler was located on the left side. It is these two features that differentiate the two machines at a glance, and tell the viewer if it is a genuine French built FT-17 char legere, or the U.S. copy.
While the Renault FT-17s saw considerable action during the course of two World Wars and a number of conflicts in between in the service of France and other foreign powers, the American made M1917 never fired a shot in anger. Although some were deployed with the U.S. Marine Corps reinforcements sent to China during the student uprisings of the 1920s, there is no record of a single M1917 ever seeing action against a foreign enemy. Many of these did infamously enough find themselves used against American Great War veterans when in 1932 the U.S. Army was sent in to disperse the Bonus Army protestors from their shantytown built across the Potomac River from the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
Led by General Douglas MacArthur, the Army used M1917s, infantry and cavalry to run the Bonus Army protestors out of their encampment, then burned the shantytown to the ground. This outraged the nation, and damaged then President Herbert Hoover's efforts for reelection even further, paving the way for the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt the same year. The final use of the M1917s came during WW2, when many of the remaining serviceable M1917s were sold to Canada at scrap metal prices for use as training tanks.
In contrast, the French FT-17s were turning up in combat as late as the end of WW2, as the German Army had incorporated several hundred FT-17s captured when France surrendered in 1940 into their inventory for use in rear area security details and anti-partisan work in the Balkans. American G.I. and paratroopers first encountered hostile FT-17s during Operation Torch in 1943, when Vichy French forces in North Africa used FT-17s in a desperate and futile bid to stop the Allied landings.
During the D-day landings American soldiers again encountered resistance from FT-17s, only these were in German service being used for airfield and rear area security. FT-17 turrets were also used to make bunkers in the Atlantic Wall, and some were also mount on flatbed rail cars to provide extra firepower for German military trains patrolling the critical railroad tracks in the Balkans and occupied Russia. Even by the end of WW2, the German Army was still listing a handful of FT-17s as part of their operational strength at the time of Germany's surrender. Even so, this was not the end of the saga of the FT-17.
During the fighting in Afghanistan in 2003, an American Special Forces officer discovered several FT-17s in an Afghan scrapyard. The tanks it turned out were originally built in France, then sent to Poland in 1919 to aid the Polish people with their war for independence against continued Russian rule. They were subsequently captured from the Poles during the fighting around 1920 by the Russians, who then wound up gifting the little tanks to an Afghani emir later on as the new Soviet government sought to solidify its hold over the old Tsarist Empire they'd co-opted. Several were recovered in restorable condition, and two examples were shipped to the Patton Museum here in the U.S., one to France's Ecole de Cavalrie at Saumur, and one to Poland, all for restoration and preservation.
The pedigree of the FT-17s as Polish service machines was established by the uncovering during restoration of modifications to the turret access hatches made by the Poles during their War of Independence to make them less susceptible to penetration. FT-17s were supplied during the Great War to the United States Army, and in the immediate aftermath supplied to or used by over 25 countries including Poland, Spain, Finland, Japan, China, Lithuania, Turkey, and Brazil. Over 3,800 of all variants of the char legere Renault FT-17 were built, making this not only the direct lineal ancestor of the modern battle tank, but also the most produced tank of the Great War, and one of the longest serving armored vehicle designs in history, with an operational career spanning nearly 25 years of continuous service.
Innovative, reliable by the standards of its day, and robustly built, the little FT-17 was one of many of France's groundbreaking technological contributions to modern warfare that was born out of the terrible, bloody stalemate of the Western Front. The FT-17 was the result of the combination of a veteran artilleryman's practicality and the stellar imagination that characterized France's Colonel Jean Baptiste Estienne, and the entrepreneurial talents and practical turn of mind of his acquaintance the industrialist Louis Renault. Together they created and unleashed upon the battlefields of the world the grandaddy of the modern battle tank, and in doing so changed warfare forever.