While the British built and used the first tanks, it was the French who produced the tank design that would dominate the development of tanks until the present day. More remarkable still is the fact that it was a light tank, built small to fulfill a limited niche in the battlefields of World War One, but a generation later, tanks built to its pattern would fulfill most of the expectations of British theorist J.F.C. Fuller. The Renault FT-17 was an unassuming tank, but it was well-suited to its appointed task, and it was produced in numbers that allowed it to make a difference on the battlefield; above all, however, it is remembered as the first operational tank to mount its main weapon on a turret that could be rotated 360 degrees.
When the British first employed tanks in 1916, it was clear that they had a significant new weapon, but it was far from clear just how decisive this weapon could be. In France, the tank concept found an advocate in Colonel Estienne, who observed some early British tests and was swept up with enthusiasm for the concept. Like the British, he began with the idea of building a warship for land battles, and the result was a pair of behemoths, the Schneider and St. Chamond tanks. Both were unnecessarily long and heavy, with inadequate tracks and substantial gaps in their fields of fire. By June of 1917, battle performance had demonstrated the inadequacies of these early tanks, and they were relegated to support roles.
Col. Estienne had one more option available to him in the first half of 1917, however, and he was prepared to make the most of it. Louis Renault had created a light tank that answered the primary requirements of military planners. Gone was the landship concept, which presented a large armored body bristling with weapons; Renault’s tank was small, carrying just two men and a single weapon. It would, however, be able to carry that weapon across difficult terrain at speeds somewhat in excess of the infantry, protecting its crew from rifle and machine gun fire as it did so.
This new tank, called the Char Mitrailleuse Renault FT-17, was both small and light by the standards of the period. It weighed only six and a half tons, and at seven feet high at the top of the commander’s hatch, it was only slightly taller than a man. It was relatively cheap, and could be produced in large numbers; built for a crew of two, it could be deployed in large numbers with a relatively small cost in manpower, which was at least as significant in the last two years of the war. One reason why it could be effective with only a driver and a commander who also served as the gunner was the fact that it carried just one weapon; mounted on a rotating turret, this one weapon did the work of as many as seven weapons on the larger tanks.
The original FT-17s carried a Hotchkiss machine gun in its turret; in contrast, a “female” Mark IV British tank carried six machine guns mounted in its hull. The Mark IV might seem to have a substantially greater firepower, but only rarely could two of its machine guns train on a single target. The number of guns it carried was determined by its need to cover all sides of the vehicle. The FT-17 could accomplish the same task with just one machine gun, mounted in its turret. While the FT-17 would never be able to offer the kind of devastating firepower that a Mark IV firing all of its machine guns at once, at multiple targets, could deliver, it could still perform its primary task much more economically: it could deploy its main gun to a position in close range of the enemy, protecting its crew from enemy fire and being able to address threats from any side along the way.
The original armament of the FT-17 was a machine gun, but many were armed instead with a small gun. Indeed, the most common armament for the FT-17 during its career was a 37mm gun, while a few carried a short-barreled 75mm gun. Such guns would remain viable as standard armament for tanks even into the first few years of World War II.
Other features of the FT-17 included robust tracks and simplified construction. The front wheel is substantially larger than the rear wheel, giving the front end a larger section of track to assist in climbing over obstructions; this was especially desirable because the relatively small tracks of the heavier French tanks had suffered with a poor climbing ability, and so the larger tanks were often immobilized in the field. As for the FT-17’s construction, the tank had no separate chassis. Everything, including the wheels, was mounted directly to the exterior of the tank. This left no unarmored weak points. Finally, the engine was kept in the rear; in the absence of tank-to-tank battles based on maneuver, this was a relatively safe decision.
The FT-17 had its disadvantages. With speeds just under 5 mph, it was fast enough to keep pace with the infantry, or to exceed its pace slightly, but no more. Because the FT-17 was never intended to do anything else, this was never perceived as a problem, but as a result, it was never able to take on a new role, as the British tanks did at Cambrai. Indeed, some of the heavy tanks were faster than the light FT-17. It also suffered from poor range, being able to travel only about 22 miles from its supply sources. As with the issue of speed, this was not considered a major weakness, because it was always used with the infantry. Another limitation on its mobility was the fact that it was prone to breakdowns. An unrelated problem was the workload of the commander, who also served as the gunner.
Despite these limitations, the FT-17 was considered a good tank and demonstrated its effectiveness on the battlefield. The first 150 were ordered in March 1917, and the main order of one thousand was soon escalated to four thousand. Even so, it was not until 1918 that the tank was able to participate in combat. Its debut came on May 31, 1918, but it truly made its mark in July, in the fighting near Soissons. Overall, the French tank units were considered quite successful, but losses were largely among the heavy tanks, which performed poorly. These losses were largely made good with new FT-17 tanks, and so the heavy tank units became mixed units. As the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) grew in numbers and importance in 1918, it too was given FT-17s. Two battalions, the 344th and 345th, received the tanks, and the American FT-17 crews entered combat at St. Mihiel on September 12. Their commander was Lt. Col. George S. Patton.
After the war, the FT-17 enjoyed a long legacy, and one that it did not wholly deserve. Certainly, the French overestimated its value and kept it in service long after it was obsolete. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, the French still had eight battalions of these light tanks. Nor had French military doctrine for their use changed much in over twenty years; the FT-17 was still used as a supplement to the infantry, and some of the FT-17s were integrated into the linear defense structure of the Maginot Line. The Vichy government continued to use them, albeit more by necessity than by conscious choice, and the FT-17 saw action in North Africa.
The influence of the FT-17 in foreign countries was more commensurate with its merits. The British received a few, and they used them as command vehicles. The Americans, Italians and Russians had also received FT-17 tanks, and in these countries the FT-17 was used as a basis for future tank development. Ford Motor Company built an American version called the M1917 6 Ton Tank, making some innovation in the process. Among the changes was an increase in speed, with the Ford tank exceeding five and a half miles per hour. It was completed too late to participate in the war, however. In Russia, the Provisional Government had purchased 100 FT-17s, but it did not have long to use them. After the Bolshevik seizure of power, the Soviet government acquired some from the previous government, and others from the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. The Soviets built more of them under the name Krasnosormova (or KS), and soon undertook variants of their own, like the MS-2, which boasted both a 37 mm gun and a pair of machine guns.
The FT-17 was a machine with simple capabilities, and it was used in a way that failed to appreciate the potential of armored fighting vehicles, but it was a very important design nevertheless. It was used in a way that was fully consistent with its strengths, and in large numbers, and so it contributed materially to the Entente victory in World War I. Even more importantly, it set standards for tank design that would be preserved in far superior tanks for at least a century. In its humble way, it was as important as the British landship tanks that inaugurated the era of the tank.
Dougherty, Martin J. Tanks: From World War I to the Present Day. Sterling, 2008
Forty, George. Illustrated Guide to Tanks of the World. Bookmart, 2007
Hart, Stephen. Atlas of Tank Warfare: From 1916 to the Present Day. Amber Books, 2012
Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The World War One Source Book. Arms & Armour, 1996
Jackson, Robert. Tanks and Armored Fighting Vehicles. Book Sales, 2012
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