Did you know that? The tank is an innovation of the First World War

Click on the stereoscopic views to display them on the Stereo Library with their instructions and sometimes their anaglyph (red and blue).

Column of tanks Saint-Chamond towards Missy-aux-Bois, 1917-1918, Collection Dezarnaud, DEZ103 – Photographer unknown

The annual commemoration of the armistice of 1918 is an opportunity to look at a new remarkable example of the photographic documentation preserved within the Stereo library: the Cestas, Dezarnaulds and Valletta view collections include eight remarkable and rare views that allow us to highlight the three models of the first tanks designed by French engineers, a privileged opportunity to recall the revolutionary appearance of this modern means of "making war", even if one can only deplore, of course, the deployment of so much human ingenuity for an invention with effects that can be dramatic.

During this first world war, in 1916, the Allied General Staff sought new means to try to get out of the war of position and finally take a decisive advantage over the enemy.

The first tank was British

Just a few months after the outbreak of the First World War, in October 1914, a British Army tactician, Colonel Swinton, returned from a visit to the front convinced that the combination of trench warfare and machine gun warfare required an armed, armoured and tracked vehicle. After some procrastination, this project landed on the desk of Winston Churchill who understood the interest and formed a committee for the study of prototypes called "lands chips". Swinton renamed them "tanks" to make it appear that the United Kingdom was producing self-propelled water tanks destined for Mesopotamia…

Within the British Army, General Haig was particularly eager to gain ground during the Battle of the Somme. He wanted to have the first 50 machines available.

These were the Mark I tanks with their rhomboid shape, designed to cross a trench almost 4 m wide and an obstacle more than 1 m high. However, once they crossed the trench, they had to turn and walk along the trench to strafe it laterally, hence the arrangement of the machine guns on the sides of the body.

It was 8 m long and 4 m wide, weighed nearly 30 tons; his top speed was barely higher than that of a man in step.

View 1 – 1st appearance of the British Mark I tank on the Battle of the Somme on September 25, 1916. (Photo by Ernest Brooks /Wikipedia)

The crew consisted of eight men, two of whom were responsible for maneuvering each track. Its range did not exceed 40 km and the tracks had to be replaced almost every 80 km!

On September 15, 1916, when these tanks appeared on the front near Flers, they caused general surprise in the German ranks and a little dread. Yet, during this battle, they did not bring anything decisive about the outcome of the fighting, and their disappointing performance only increased the contempt of the conservative officers.

Swinton was dismissed as head of british armoured units. After the Somme, the Ministry of War tried to cancel an order for 1,000 new tanks, and when some of them silted up in the Passchendaele marshes (northeast of Ypres in Belgium), production was reduced from 4,000 to 1,300 tanks. "Instead of questioning its own judgment," commented British military historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart, "the British General Staff gradually lost all confidence in the tanks.»

During this war, it is not only the armaments that evolve strongly: public opinion is eager for information and the newspapers regularly inform them. Thus, the weekly L'Illustration devotes each week most of its delivery to news from the front and military innovations: very quickly, the news spread from the commitment to the front of this spectacular innovation. Fifteen days after the first appearance of this machine both diabolical and revolutionary, the publication had planned to provide its readers with a first "engraving" of the machine.

View 2 – First authorized photograph of the British tank, The Illustration of December 2, 1916

However, the weekly is prevented from doing so by military censorship; He explains this in his issue of October 30, 1916: "The photograph of the tanks cannot be published for some time: at present, it would interest German military engineers even more than the British or French public.Instead, she published an excerpt from a chapter by English science fiction author H.G. Wells, who a few years earlier had described with disturbing anticipation what he called "earth battleships."

It was not until December 2, 1916, two and a half months after the first engagements of the infernal machine, that the Illustration was authorized to publish a first photo (flattering and impressive) of the craft.

At the same time, the French are also active on this concept

Quite independently, under the leadership of General Jean Baptiste Eugène Estienne,the French developed their own versions of an armored vehicle, the Schneider CA1 tank,tested in February 1916,then the Saint-Chamond tank.

At the beginning of 1916, the Schneider company and the Forges et Aciéries de la Marine et d'Homécourt (a military arsenal) were commissioned to develop together a common prototype. But Schneider's chief engineer rejected this prototype and favored a new plan, with a body that would make a lighter vehicle possible. Schneider refused to share the patent associated with this new design and the Forges de Saint-Chamond did not want to pay Schneider any rights. Thus, the two companies will work on two different vehicles.

On each side, when the ideal machine was finally developed, production began. The idea was to use these tanks en masse to provoke a military coup.

Thus, barely six months after the presentation of the first British tank during the Battle of the Somme, the French presented in April 1917 two fairly similar machines: the Schneider CA1 tank and the Saint-Chamond tank. The Saint-Chamond and Schneider companies each received an order from the French Army for four hundred copies.

The Schneider CA 1 tank:

Schneider tank paving the way for infantrymen, route de Craonnelle (Chemin des Dames) (from 16 April to 24 October 1917), Collection Valette, VAL115 – Photographer unknown

The large Schneider CA1 tank responded to the request of the French General Staff to open passages for infantry through barbed wire networks and to destroy the nests of enemy machine guns. Developed from January 1915 under the impetus of Colonel Estienne, the prototype, designed by the engineer Eugène Brillé, was presented to the President of the Republic Raymond Poincaré by the Schneider Company on June 16, 1915.

400 units were ordered from SOMUA, a subsidiary of Schneider, at the same time as an order of the same number of the competing armored vehicle developed by the Forges de Saint-Chamond. Its crew consists of a driver and five servants; it carries a short 75 mm BS (Schneider Blockhouse) gun mounted at the front right and two side Hotchkiss machine guns, protected by hemispherical shields. The front has a bow with a steel rail (clearly visible in the view above) that allows to shear and crush the barbed wire networks, and which can also facilitate the crossing of trenches.

These tanks were painfully brought to the site for the great offensive of the Chemin des Dames on April 16, 1917,where they fought for the first time. Craonnelle is one of the communes of the Aisne concerned by the battle, during the offensive launched by General Nivelle between April 16 and October 24, 1917. The VAL115 view above is therefore taken during this offensive, in the configuration corresponding to the specifications of the armored vehicle, namely to open the way to the infantrymen.

But the French had a painful experience: at the end of this first engagement, more than half of the tanks were destroyed by the opposing artillery. Of the 132 Schneider tanks engaged, 35 were burned and 17 immobilized by German artillery, 18 had mechanical or field failures. However, it was used continuously until the Armistice of 1918.

View 3 – Schneider CA1 tank engaged on April 16, 1917 (Wikipedia)

The impression they made on the enemy, however, could be enormous; On May 5, 1917, Spindler,a German journalist, noted in his diary what a German officer had said to one of his friends: "Tanks! Their appearance alone is already terrifying. Like antediluvian monsters, they crawl towards you; neither the barbed wire networks nor the trenches delay their course. But, it is especially at dawn, when they emerge from the fog, that they freeze you with terror…»

The habitability of the tank is very narrow for a crew of six men; its ventilation capabilities as well as the poor field of vision it offers to the crew make it painful to use. Finally, its initial side armor is too weak (vulnerable to German steel-core "K" bullets) and its fuel tank initially placed at the front makes it very vulnerable.

In subsequent versions, the fuel tank will be moved to the rear and its body will be equipped with a 5.5 mm overarbody. On the other hand, the Schneider engine, gearboxes and tracks are relatively reliable: as a result, the machine will remain in service after the First World War, especially in the Spanish army during the Rif War and until the siege of the Alcazar of Toledo where the last Spanish copies disappeared.

The Saint-Chamond tank:

Saint-Chamond tanks in attack column at Missy-aux-Bois (Chemin des Dames, April 1917), Collection Dezarnauds, DEZ075 – Photographer unknown

The Compagnie des Forges et Aciéries de la Marine et d'Homécourt (FAMH) presents to the Ministry of War, in its factory in Saint-Chamond in the Loire, a prototype that is more efficient than the Schneider, because armed with a 75 mm gun and four machine guns. Relying on the relations of one of its technical directors, Colonel Emile Rimailho, co-inventor of the 75 mm gun, model 1897, the Forges de Saint-Chamond had the Ministry accept the assembly of such a gun on their tank. The result is a longer and heavier tank than the Schneider tank, with an elongated combat compartment, protruding the track train at both the front and rear. In addition to the 75 gun on the front, it was equipped with a rostrum to smash the frieze horses and four machine guns, one on each side (on the front, rear and both sides).

The first prototype of the Saint-Chamond tank was presented to the Army and approved in September 1916. The first factory exits date from April 1917. Four hundred copies will be produced and delivered to the Army.

View 4 – The Saint-Chamond tank in presentation to the General Staff (Plaquette FAMH)
View 5 – The tank assembly workshop at the Saint-Chamond plant (Loire) (Plaquette FAMH)

This tank is capable of a better top speed on flat ground, thanks to its more powerful Panhard and Levassor engine without valves and thanks to the use of an electric transmission "Crochat-Colardeau" (used before the war on railway railcars) which makes possible a relatively smooth and fast ride on flat ground. Unfortunately these technical advantages are only valid on the road and it proves to be quite ineffective on terrain upset by trenches and artillery impacts. But, the main weakness of the Saint-Chamond tank is its much too short track train, subject to frequent derailments.

During their first field trips, the silhouette of these machines frightened the enemy soldiers. But they proved to be ineffective on the offensive. However, in 1918, during the resumption of the war of movement in the open field, its 75 mm gun was used to attack the opposing field artillery from a distance. On May 26, 1917, L'Illustration was able to publish a first complete report, with many photos on the engagement of a column of these French tanks of commander Bossut's squadron on April 16; then, on June 2, a second report on the fight fought on May 5.

View 6 – Char Saint-Chamond – Illustration n°3874 of 02-06-1917

After the war, the French Army preferred to equip itself with renault light tanks that were much more maneuverable. The Saint-Chamond tanks will be disarmed fairly quickly. Only one copy has been kept in the tank museum of Saumur.

View 7 – Replica of the Saint-Chamond tank – Photo Association Mémoire de Poilus / La Vie de l'Auto

In 2017, the Association Mémoire de Poilus d'Avignon made the replica opposite, fully functional, which makes it possible to judge the size of this machine. It is currently on display at the Musée de la Grande Guerre in Meaux.

The terrible conditions of use of the tank for its crew:

A few photos allow us to imagine the appalling conditions that the poor servants of this Saint-Chamond tank had to endure inside these steel cages! These two views are primordial – and arguably rare – testimonies of the hell they had to endure.

Interior of a Saint-Chamond float, Collection Valette, VAL089 – Photographer unknown

The crew consisted of 9 people: a driver, a gunner, four machine gunners, a mechanic and two servants. In the foreground of the view above, on the left, we see the 90 horsepower Panhard and Levassor engine and, on the right, a side gunner; in the background, at the bottom, far right on the left view, the machine gunner from the front, then on the left the gunner and the lookout for his gun of 75 clearly visible, finally, on the far left, the driver, seated higher than his comrades.

Interior of the Saint-Chamond tank, Dezarnaulds Collection, DEZ062 – Photographer unknown

On this second view, the shot is reversed compared to the previous photo and reality, because the machine gun before was on the right and therefore the cockpit on the left. Despite the insufficient brightness of the shot, we see here on the right the Panhard engine, at the bottom right the driver, his eyes fixed on a aiming instrument, holding in his left hand a "rudder" and, in the middle, the gunner next to his 75 mm piece.

This crew was installed in a total discomfort that must be imagined: the unbearable noise, heat and smell released by the engine without hood, protection or soundproofing, vibrations due to caterpillars, not to mention the impacts of enemy fire…. The men were dressed in thick leather jackets to try to protect them from possible shrapnel that could pierce the armor (not resistant to the heaviest ammunition) and the risk of fire.

Thus, on June 2, 1917, L'Illustration wrote: "During the fire, life is terrible inside a tank. The space is limited, as one might think. Machine gunners, gunners, outfitters, have just the necessary place for their service and just what they need from "looks" on the outside. They have an esprit de corps of their own, which they owe to the losses courageously suffered, to the dangers, to the certain effectiveness of their efforts…»

Renault FT tanks:

Renault FT tank in action (August 1917 – November 1918), Dezarnaulds Collection, DEZ060 – Photographer unknown

Delivered from August 1917, these light armored tanks (6.7 tons) will be more mobile and more effective than the Schneider or Saint-Chamond heavy tanks. Their crew is limited to two soldiers: a driver and a gunner. Equipped with a 360° swivel turret (a configuration then adopted by all tank builders), they were manufactured in 3,700 copies, some of which were licensed to other manufacturers such as Berliet.

The position of the tank above, crossing a fortification, is spectacular. At the rear, we can see a support piece that allowed it not to tilt from the rear. However, we can imagine the training it took for his crew not to panic during the dive after crossing the obstacle!

In the background, a Renault tank, stationary in the watch position, Collection Cestas, CES008 – Photographer unknown
View 8 – Renault tanks of an American unit in the Argonne forest, September 26, 1918 (Wikipedia).

The license was also granted to the United States, which did not have such devices and equipped their units on the European battlefields.

During its first major independent operation during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in September 1918,theUS Army engaged 144 tanks, all french-made, mainly Renault FT,under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel George Patton,who would later distinguish himself during the Second World War.

After the war, it was with this light tank that the French Army preferred to equip itself.

The tactical interest of the tank finally emerges at the end of the conflict of 14-18:

Since their introduction on the scene of the conflict by the French and the British, if they made a strong impression in the German ranks, the armored tanks did not have a really decisive effect on the resolution of most of the fighting.

It was only during the Battle of Cambrai (November-December 1917), prepared by J. F. C. Fuller, chief of operations of the British Tank Corps, that the latter en masse engaged Mark IV tanks with some success, which finally revealed the power of the tanks. Fuller would become one of the theorists of armored warfare,but it took another year for Allied generals to realize that tanks had definitively supplanted the weapons, principles, and tactics of yesteryear.

At the very end of the conflict, the Germans, after having seized a few copies in battle, tried to copy these materials, but it was a fiasco. They were very late in this area, and only in 1918 managed to build and engage 20 A7V tanks, "armored boxes" that could not be maneuvered.

With the concept of tanks now commonplace, many nations designed and built new models between the two wars. During the 1920s, British tanks were the most advanced. As a result of the war and the application of the Treaty of Versailles, France andWeimar Germany were still in a precarious economic state. The conditions of peace did not allow these two countries to embark on the development of effective tanks.

Christian Bernadat


History of the tank, Wikipedia

L'Illustration, articles of 30 October and 2 December 1916, 26 May, 2 June and 29 December 1917 (Collection CLEM/don Monboisset)

Char Schneider CA1, Wikipedia

The Battle of the Chemin des Dames, Wikipedia

Char Saint-Chamond, Wikipedia

Tank "Saint-Chamond", Model 1917,Center for Studies and Research of Industrial Heritage, Forges and Steelworks of the Navy and Homécourt (FAMH), (Brochure,3rd T 2014)

Renault FT tank, Wikipedia

La Vie de l'Auto n°1992, 7 October 2021

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