The French Tank Programme

‘chars Schneider’

Can anyone stand up to these machines? No, it’s absolutely impossible. So victory is certain! The end of the war! With tanks, why not? Can you stop a tank or kill it?

(Jules Ninet, 89th Infantry)

The timing of the Nivelle Offensive coincided with the first French tanks becoming available to commanders in the field. The French tank programme had been initiated under Joffre but had developed at a slower pace than its British counterpart. On taking command, it became increasingly obvious to Nivelle that by the spring of 1917 a potentially large number of tanks would be available to him. During the weeks that followed, he developed plans to factor the tanks into his attack plan. Unlike the British, Nivelle eventually planned to deploy as many tanks as he could. This would result in the largest tank attack of the war so far. Ultimately, the limitations of the French tanks meant that they did not materialise as the decisive weapon that was hoped for.

By 1915 warfare on the Western Front had ground to a standstill. For the remainder of the war commanders on both sides sought desperately to solve the deadlock. While it is easy to criticise First World War generals for their lack of success in these efforts, and the huge cost in lives, it is also true that they faced a tactical problem never before encountered on such a scale. As lines of trenches snaked from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border, there was no possibility of carrying out a flanking manoeuvre. Frontal assault seemed to be the only option. Over the next few years, commanders sought ways to gain an advantage that might finally allow one of these assaults to succeed.

Various attempts were made to try to break the deadlock. Initially, commanders sought to break their enemy’s lines by amassing larger and larger numbers of troops, often without adequate supporting firepower; such assaults were usually costly failures. The battles of 1915 are striking examples of this failure in tactics, especially in the case of Loos, the Second Battle of Ypres and the Champagne sector offensives of that year. Both sides also sought to deploy more artillery in the belief that devastating artillery barrages would destroy enemy defences and enable their own troops to advance. The vast artillery barrages of the battle of Verdun in 1916 – the initial German barrage expended over a million shells – also proved to be disappointingly indecisive and only chewed up the landscape, making an advance more difficult.

Technology was also deployed and by 1915 both sides had used chemical weapons. For the remainder of the war, various technologies and methods were used in the hope of breaking enemy lines – everything from flamethrowers to underground tunnelling operations.

Distilled down to its essence, the problem was deceptively simple. The initiative in warfare had shifted to the defensive. As defences and trench systems became more elaborate, a tactical stalemate ensued. Barbed wire, sophisticated trenches and an increase in defensive firepower effectively shut down major attacks. Attacking infantry had to cross no-man’s-land in the face of devastating rifle, machine-gun and artillery fire. Those who reached the enemy’s barbed fire then had to find a way to get through it; if successful in that enterprise, they then had to fight through the enemy trench systems in the hope of achieving a breakout.

It was in this context of tactical stalemate that the French tank programme was born. Indeed, in pre-war France artists and writers had speculated on the nature of the battlefield of the future and also on the use of armoured vehicles. The realities of trench warfare on the Western Front led some French officers and engineers to begin experiments in the development of armoured fighting vehicles. Both France and Britain began developing tanks in 1915 but France did not introduce them into battle until several months after the first British deployment of tanks on the Somme in September 1916. As France’s tank programme (or rather programmes) progressed, it was generally agreed that they would not be deployed until they could be amassed in large numbers. Their eventual debut was to come during the Nivelle Offensive in 1917, when more than 120 tanks were deployed in the first-ever mass tank attack. The French tank programmes evolved from a series of diverse influences, which eventually resulted in two major tank designs: the Schneider and the St Chamond.

The French army had been interested in armoured cars since the first one was displayed at the Salon de l’Automobile in Paris in 1902. By the outbreak of war in August 1914 the Ministry of War had already ordered an initial consignment of 136 armoured cars and by September these had been attached to French cavalry formations. These cars were largely confined to the roads and had no cross-country capability. As a result, the stalemate conditions that developed as 1914 progressed ended their usefulness on the battlefield. The armoured cars had, however, shown that they could withstand rifle and machine-gun fire and also shell splinters. The emphasis then turned to exploring the possibility of developing a tracked (rather than wheeled) armoured fighting vehicle.

 

1915 CUIRASSE AUBRIOT-GABET

In 1915 early experiments began in developing such a tracked armoured vehicle. Some of these experiments proved to be less than promising. The French army’s Section Technique du Genie (STG) built ten armoured tractors based on the Filtz agricultural tractor system. It was hoped that these could cut through barbed wire while also serving as mobile machine-gun platforms. Combat trials in the Verdun sector in late 1915 proved to be disappointing. Further efforts were made to develop an armoured wheeled tractor based on the Archer system, and also a wheeled, wire-cutting tractor known as the Breton-Prétot machine. In 1915 there were also trials of an armoured steamroller. All these designs were limited by the lack of performance and unsuitability of the civilian tractor designs upon which they were based; agricultural and construction tractor designs were difficult to reconfigure for military use. This problem would in fact hamper the future projects of both French and British designers.

1915 FROT LAFFLY LANDSHIP, AN EARLY TANK

The French also experimented with remote-control tracked vehicles. These were the Aubriot-Gabet and Schneider-Crocodile land torpedoes or chariots lance-bombes (‘bomb-throwing vehicles’). These small vehicles used electric engines and it was intended that they would be driven into the enemy wire carrying explosive charges that would then be detonated to create a breach. Neither proved effective. Similarly the two devices designed by Louis Boirault to breach enemy wire – the Diplodocus militaris (‘Military Dinosaur’) and the Appareil Boirault No. 2 – both proved over-elaborate and vulnerable in trials.

1915 BOIRAULT MACHINE

The development of the first remotely practical French armoured fighting vehicle took place at the armaments firm of M.M. Schneider & Cie. The chief engineer at Schneider’s Creusot plant, Eugène Brillié, visited England in January 1915 with another Schneider engineer to view trials of tracked vehicles. As a result of this visit, the Schneider company bought two Holt caterpillar tractors with the aim of developing them as artillery tractors. These tractors were tested at the Creusot works in May 1915 and the idea developed of using the lighter of the tractors, the 45hp Baby Holt, as the basis for an armoured fighting vehicle. Brillié proposed adding an armoured superstructure with machine-gun positions in order to create a tracked vehicle for the cavalry that was capable of operating off-road. By July the design process was well advanced and by August the Creusot engineers had developed a set of plans that basically envisioned a lengthening and widening of the Baby Holt chassis in order to allow for the development of a more practical fighting vehicle.

At this point the project stalled, due to the opposition and interference of Jules-Louis Breton, a government official who served as undersecretary of state for inventions. Breton’s opposition was not entirely objective. Apart from his official role in the Ministry for Inventions, he was an engineer and inventor himself and had developed the Breton-Prétot wire-cutting tractor mentioned earlier. Breton’s design incorporated a mechanical wire-cutter mounted on an agricultural tractor, and trials in August had been well received. The basis for Breton’s design was, however, the Bajac wheeled tractor, which proved inadequate for the task. Through his position within the Ministry for Inventions, Breton convinced officials at the Ministry of War to place an order at the Schneider plant for ten of his devices using the available Holt caterpillar tractor units. This design would ultimately prove unsuccessful but trials were undertaken between December 1915 and February 1916. The time and effort spent trying to develop mobile wire-cutters was shown to be utterly futile but it was found that the tracked tractor units were capable of crashing through barbed wire entanglements on their own.

At this point the development of France’s first tank design gained momentum, largely due to the timely intervention of Colonel Jean-Baptiste Eugène Estienne. An artillery officer in General Pétain’s Sixth Division, Estienne had already established a reputation as a military innovator. Born in 1860, he was commissioned into the French army in 1883 as a second lieutenant in the artillery. He was one of a new generation of inquiring, scientific officers and in 1880 he presented a treatise on ballistics to the French Académie des Sciences. This ground-breaking work served to stimulate further debate on the development of indirect fire methods. Estienne rose quickly and by 1907 he had been appointed as commandant at the artillery school in Grenoble. He was an advocate of early telephone systems, realising that these would allow artillery batteries to coordinate with forward observers. This would facilitate changing targets and could also make indirect fire and creeping barrages more effective. In 1909, with promotion to lieutenant-colonel, he was appointed to command the Fifth Aviation Group at Lyon. Military aviation was at this time still in its infancy but one of its primary roles was seen as artillery-spotting and Estienne, as a progressive artillery officer, was seen as a logical choice for command of this new unit.

At the outbreak of war he was appointed to command the 22nd Artillery Regiment, which formed part of Pétain’s division. At the Battle of Charleroi on 21 August 1914 Estienne’s artillery took a heavy toll of the advancing German formations. While the battle resulted in a German victory, Estienne laid down a devastating artillery fire, coordinating his guns with spotter planes. The impact of rifle and machine-gun fire on the infantry made a huge impression on him and he was one of the advocates of providing attacking infantry with some form of protective armoured shield. Some trials of primitive wheeled armoured devices were later carried out by the French army.

Estienne was alive to the possibilities of technology. In a prophetic remark, he stated to his officers, ‘Gentlemen, the victory in this war will belong to which of the two belligerents which will be the first to place a gun of 75mm on a vehicle able to be driven on all terrain.’ He is considered by many historians of the French army to be the Père des Chars (Father of the Tank).

During the summer of 1915 Estienne heard of the experiments being carried out by the Schneider company under Brillié and he sent a series of letters to General Joffre, who was then still commander-in-chief. Despite Estienne’s reputation, these letters initially did not get beyond Joffre’s staff officers. In their defence, they were deluged with letters from officers, politicians and the general public suggesting ideas, many of them of a crackpot nature, on how the deadlock on the Western Front could be broken. Estienne’s idea was for the conversion of tracked tractors to produce ‘land battleships’ for tackling German machine-gun nests. Armed with 37mm guns and two machine guns, these vehicles would be capable of clearing barbed-wire entanglements, crossing trenches and also towing an armoured trailer holding twenty infantrymen. On 1 December 1915 Estienne wrote directly to Joffre and was subsequently granted an interview with General Maurice Janin, who was responsible for equipment on Joffre’s staff.

In the meantime, Estienne had attended the prototype trials at Souain on 9 December. Souain was a former battlefield and had surviving defences and trench systems. Here, a prototype tank design, based on the Baby Holt tractor and following the ‘armoured wire-cutter’ concept, was put through its paces. The vehicle performed reasonably well and was found to be able to clear shell holes and cross trenches of up to a metre wide. However, water obstacles and trenches wider than this proved to be beyond the vehicle’s capacity. The official report stated that ‘the machine can only cross through a cut-up terrain if some basic trench sustainment is prepared’. The relatively small size of the prototype meant that in any potential battlefield situation, it would have to be accompanied by infantry or engineers tasked with filling in sections of trench in order to allow the vehicle to cross. In essence, this negated the potential of the vehicle as a ‘breakthrough’ weapon.

Despite these limitations, Estienne was convinced that the prototype could be developed and following his meeting with Janin on 12 December 1915 he was granted permission to approach several arms manufacturers to discuss the possibility of taking the project further. On 20 December he met Louis Renault at his factory in Paris. Renault was simply overwhelmed with various war projects at this time and simply could not commit to another development idea. Later the same day Estienne met Eugène Brillié at the Schneider plant; almost immediately, he signed up to the idea of producing an armoured fighting vehicle. Brillié had, after all, been involved in Schneider’s earlier tests with the Baby Holt tractor. It proved to be a fortuitous partnership. Estienne had combat experience and knowledge of the challenges posed by the new battlefield. Brillié had the technical knowledge to design the new vehicle and also a connection to a major armaments firm.

Thereafter the programme gathered momentum. Brillié discussed the project with senior company officials at Schneider and was given the go-ahead to advance the project. On 27 December, a week after his initial meeting with Estienne, Brillié completed a preliminary design. The following day Estienne presented this design to Janin and also outlined plans for the construction of 300–400 machines. On 31 January 1916 Joffre sanctioned the plan and wrote to the undersecretary of state for war, requesting that 400 vehicles be built following the design developed by Estienne and Brillié.

The supply of these new vehicles rested with the Army Technical Services, but they did not look on this scheme with favour as it had not been initiated by them. However, on 26 February 1916 the Ministry of War confirmed an order with the Schneider company for the supply of 400 machines. Production was to take place at Schneider’s SOMUA facility (Société d’outillage méchanique et d’usinage artillerie) at St-Ouen on the outskirts of Paris.

While most people referred to such vehicles using the generic term ‘tank’, following the British example, in France these vehicles were initially given the cover name of ‘Tracteurs Estienne’. Estienne himself preferred the title ‘chars d’assaut’ – assault vehicles. They were also referred to as ‘chars Schneider’ or ‘Chars CA’ in official correspondence of the time. It is interesting to note that the French order for the Schneider was placed only two weeks later than the British government’s first order for tanks and involved four times as many tanks. Yet the production process in France was to prove to be very slow and the first tank was completed later than its British counterpart.

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