by: Mario Krajinovic [ ]
While during the Great War the British had success on the armored projects, France started developing armored vehicles several months later. Their first designs (St-Chamond and Schneider CA) turned out as failures costing them both time and lives. A radical man with an even better idea, general Jean Baptiste Estienne arrived and proposed that instead of the large landships they try out a small vehicle that would attack in a “swarm”, and with mobility and speed dominate the cumbersome german tanks. Thus the Renault FT was born, the most used tank of the World War I and a forefather to tanks of today. This book tells us the story of these grand designs that marked the French Armored Corps of WWI.
About the book
The book “French tanks of World War I” is one of the late last year issues published in the New Vanguard series by Osprey (#173) and is signed by author Steven J. Zaloga and illustrator Tony Bryan. Published in December 2010, it’s a soft-cover edition spreading over 48 pages with 39 black and white photographs, single color photo (reenactment) and 7 full page color illustrations that include an exploding cutaway diagram of the Renault FT. Also provided are three black and white 3-way diagrams of various tank designs. The illustrations are very beautiful and besides the regular profile with nice details featuring names and “nose-art” they also provide a context to the action these vehicle faced. Every illustration is fully captioned and gives a brief history of the tank depicted. Again, the photographs are crisp, some are kind of small, but almost everyone can be used as inspiration for modeling purposes.
The book is comprised of the following chapters:
• The tactical challenge
• Into combat
• An elephant on the legs of a gazelle
• The light tank idea
• Bureaucratic delays
• Pétain's reforms
• Renault unit organization
• Facing the challenge
• The final offensive
• Plan 1919
• Further reading
Introduction is a short story about failed projects, the St-Chamond and Schneider CA, and a entirely new concept of a small, light and mobile tank that evolved into Renault FT.
Tactical challenges that had to be overcome so that the tank would be as effective as it could get were trenches, barbed wire and defensive firepower. Even today these concepts are still the fundaments of armored warfare; mobility, protection and firepower. The early armored vehicles proved to be inefficient in every of these concepts, so by the start of 1915, a number of tank designs emerged. General Estienne was the first to realize the potential of the Holt tractors and proposed a design based on the very same tractor. Collaborating with the British on their own landships, and seeing them in battle prompted the French to improve the Schneider design.
Into combat lets the reader learn about the hardships of the first French tank battle at Champlieu, December 26th 1916. A Schneider assault group supported by infantry attacked at dawn with the end result of over 120 000 casualties. After the biggest tragedy since Verdun, the tank design underwent serious modifications but was soon abandoned to an even bigger tank.
An elephant on the legs of a gazelle was the name for the St-Chamond. Bigger, better armored and with more firepower, the St-Chamond’s biggest flaw was that it was designed by people with no regard for trench warfare. Complicated, heavy, underpowered was more realistic description of this juggernaut. Even though it had minor battlefield success, the presence of the tanks was a tremendous morale booster for the ground troops.
The light tank idea was again one of necessity. The state of the industry was such that only a light tank could be produced en masse, so by the end of 1916 a wooden mockup of Renault’s FT was presented to the Committee of Assault Artillery.
Bureaucratic delays plagued the FT all the way to 1917. It seems everyone had a criticism or a better idea how to build a tank than the original designer. With some political dirty play, everything was solved and final production began.
Facing the challenges of combat occurred in 1918. With the German Ludendorff campaign more than 200 tanks went into action. Due to the small size and rotating turrets, they proved themselves immediately, so by mid 1918, the number of tanks rose to more than 500. The Soissons engagement saw over 400 French tanks in action, with the Renault FT leading the way.
The final offensive and the end of Renault FT came in 1980(!) in Afghanistan where they were employed as static pillboxes and roadblocks.