World War 1 was a terrible, costly, industrial-scale war. No prior war saw such slaughter. This is attributed to the emerging industrial strength of many European countries at the end of the 19th century; this large industry produced massive numbers of weapons and sped up development and improvements to said weapons. Unfortunately, WW1 tactics did not support the rapid expanse of R&D for new weapons, so some good weapons were improperly employed. One such weapon was the tank.
The tank was an invention of necessity. In the static stalemate of trench warfare every yard taken in an offensive was costly, and gains were often unachievable. When ground was taken it was often insignificant or couldn’t be held against the inevitable counterattack. The allied countries of England and France paid dearly for assaults on German positions with intricate overlapping fields of fire covered by artillery and numerous machine guns. Interlocked, these weapons often ground (as in meat grinder) the advancing force to a halt. With such a high cost for ground assaults, Allied engineers needed a mobile “pillbox” to break gaps in the enemy line.
Our image of the tank is embedded in our brains as a large massive sloping armored vehicle with a huge single gun that can turn a full 360 degrees, but at the beginning of WW1 the thinking was more of a land-based battleship. Bristling with cannons and machine guns, the new tanks were slow and generally ineffective. When they were introduced in 1916 they were expected to overwhelm enemy positions, and be followed by infantry. At first it was a minor success; however the Germans quickly learned to counter these metal beasts with artillery and even concentrated machinegun fire. There just weren’t enough tanks to make a huge difference on the vast expanse that was the Western Front. With the high price tag and slow integration into any semblance of tactics, tanks were almost destined to be a scrapped concept.
Eventually, tanks were used exclusively in supporting roles. There were still a ton of problems—weight was and always has been a tank’s worse enemy. More armor equals more weight, a simple math problem that if not solved could cost the crew their lives and the potentially doom an offensive action. Tank weapons were another game ender—the first tanks did not have a rotating turret, and instead relied heavily on short traverse weaponry attempting to cover every angle of the tank. This proved cumbersome and inefficient as the driver had to turn the entire tank to employ some of its larger weapons. Additionally, the tank commander had to synch the entire crew with several weapons to ensure success on the battlefield. A daunting task to say the least.
Eventually, the French car manufacturing company Renault produced a light tank that in theory could break the lines and send the enemy retreating in a disorganized mob. The FT-17 was nothing special at the time, as armored cars had been outfitted with a 360 degree turret before the war. The difference was that this two man armored vehicle rocked tank treads to traverse the torn countryside of no man’s land. By itself it was not impressive:
The armor was underwhelming so as to not decrease speed which was –on a good day- a blistering 5 mph. HANG ON!
You had to practically be a contortionist to get in and out of the damn thing.
With a narrow tread it did get stuck in the worst places; say, in range of German artillery.
The short barreled 37mm cannon did little to break apart earth works and had little effect on intricate trench systems.
Here’s the good news:
It provided better protection than a wool uniform.
The tank commander was the loader and gunner and had the ability to shoot 360 degrees no matter where the tank was actually pointing.
The engine was in the rear—this may seem like a duh moment, but at the time most tank engines were open inside the vehicle, filling the compartments with irritating and often deadly fumes.
It was smaller and harder to hit than its behemoth cousins.
Its size and speed may have inadvertently led to a swarming tactic; being smaller and easier to produce, Renault was at one time kicking 1200 of these mean little bastards out a month.
You may be thinking, “Well that’s nice, but I don’t see why this tank is significant.” But two young officers named Patton and Rommel were very interested in these tanks, with the former commanding a small contingent in 1917. Both men saw the futility of giant armies being spread out to defend large tracts of territory. The FT-17 proved that a swarm of armor—coordinated with artillery and supporting infantry—could essentially break huge holes into enemy lines. Rommel used this tactic best during his rush to France through the Ardennes forest.
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Outnumbered and outgunned in some instances, Rommel’s best option was to use his armor like a giant spear point to break the enemy line causing confusion and indecision among enemy commanders. Patton furthered this with the Sherman tanks. Knowing full well that the Sherman was not a match for later German armor, he often circumvented and surrounded huge pockets of enemy, forcing them to surrender or be inevitably annihilated.
The FT-17 was not a remarkable tank but it did inspire tactics, change doctrine, and shape future employment of armor on the battlefield. It also hammered home the industrial capabilities when applied correctly to producing hundreds, sometimes thousands, of tanks during a time of war. The Americans and Russians applied this well, while the Germans ignored the “Keep It Simple Stupid” mantra, deciding instead to produce overcomplicated and often mechanically unsound war machines that could not be easily replaced or fixed.
Hats off to you FT-17, and Happy 100th Birthday!
Designed in 1916
Weight 6.5 tonnes
Crew of 2
Main Armament 37mm gun or Hotchkiss MG
5 HP Renault 4-cylinder engine
Range 37-40 miles
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