KANSAS CITY — The gunner could barely make out the driver’s shout. He couldn’t see much ahead, either.
The noise of the FT17’s engine a foot behind him, the clanking of the treads just outside their “boite de sardines” and, oh yes, the hellish shelling by the Germans on the French infantry following the tank made hearing nearly impossible.
And now a rattle upon his turret’s steel plate. The sergeant swiveled the turret desperately looking for the machine gun’s flashes amid the smoke. He ripped off his chain-mail mask with slitted goggles. To hell with bullet splash, he had to see!
A blaze of muzzle fire to the right! The mitrailleuse! He screamed for the driver to brake so he could get a stable shot at the machine gun. “Arrete le char!”
But the tank still crept forward. Stop the tank, he shouted again, just as the artillery diminished — the poilu scrambling through the wire were too close to the German trenches now. Accompanied by a kick in the driver’s back, he got the message through. The tank shuddered to a stop, and the sergeant turned the turret more to the right, trying to find the machine gun nest again.
“Il, il, il!” He had found them, but the tank was settling, sliding on the muddy decline of a shell hole. He frantically worked the elevation of his stubby cannon, waited for a blast of smoke to pass, then saw le Bosch, now trying to pull back their hot-barreled weapon.
He jerked the trigger to his 37 mm gun. The explosion of his shot rang the little steel box protecting his upper body like a malevolent bell.
Before the sergeant could get his eye back to his tube sight, another explosion, much louder, engulfed the French tank, and it died, sliding still into its half-opened grave.
Code name ‘tank’
Of the many hundreds of reasons to visit the National World War I Museum, the best might be the Renault FT17, with its mortal wound. Readers or viewers may imagine their own versions of its last combat, as this writer has done. Now that the centennial of the beginning of the war is about to roll over us, it’s time to take a closer look.
Doran Cart, senior curator of the museum, believes this is the only example of the French-built machines in the United States, noting that there are only three battle-damaged FT17s known to exist.
The little French tank was not the first of its breed, but it’s surely the most direct ancestor of the armored monsters that have left their tracks across battlefields for 98 years. It also is linked to many of the famous American names of the next great war: George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. And, of course, a British one, Winston Churchill.
Of World War I’s many innovations meant to kill one’s fellow man, such as the airplane, the machine gun and the submarine, the tank probably was the most original concept — excepting a 1487 drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of a circular, cannoned war machine and a dismissed British idea for a steam-powered land ram, with guns and scythes, that came up in 1855, late in the Crimean War.
The Brits revisited the idea when the fighting on the Western Front settled into stalemated trench warfare, in which waves of soldiers were ordered to throw themselves across no man’s land through barbed wire and massed artillery fire only to be met by Maxims, Mausers and “potato-masher” grenades. In their 1916 attack near the Somme River, for horrible example, the British lost 20,000 on the first day, plus 60 percent of their officers.
Although first thought of as “land ships,” the term “tank” has stuck from the days of early and secret development by the British navy. To confuse German spies, the machines were referred to as “mobile water tanks.”
Why the navy? By 1915, Churchill was first lord of the admiralty and a member of the Committee of Imperial Defense. It heard a proposal for a massive, tractor-pushed roller behind which troops might advance. The concept went nowhere with the army, but Churchill thought there was something to the idea of a machine that could break through the trenches or at least carry attacking troops through the hail of fire. It was completely out of his bailiwick of battleships and submarines, of course, but that was Churchill.
Continuous-tracked machines, already invented, clearly worked better than wheeled vehicles in the conditions of no man’s land.
The British built their machines about 26 feet long with a rhomboid shape to crawl over trenches; it took four men just to drive the thing. After trials, the government ordered 150 of the Mark I monsters, nicknamed “Mother.”
No wonder the Germans were caught unaware.
The machines were shipped to France in two versions: “Male,” equipped with long 6-pound naval cannon sticking out of each side (which had a tendency to ram into the mud) plus three machine guns, and “Female,” with five machine guns.
The first 49 rolled out, often at 1 mph, on Sept. 15, 1916, late in the nearly five-month Somme Offensive. Their particular action, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, showed they weren’t battle-ready. Many broke down, and only nine reached the German trenches.
The French, who were developing their own versions of these secret weapons, were appalled that the Brits hadn’t waited until more machines were available for greater shock value. The element of surprise was lost.
The British command, however, had thought it couldn’t hold anything back at a critical juncture when the Russians were making their own big attack on the Eastern Front.
Although the Somme was a bloody failure, Field Marshal Douglas Haig ordered a thousand more of the machines.
The French initially expended their energy arguing over the best design for an armored vehicle — some in the army wanted a bigger machine. But two longer contraptions were clearly failures in the spring 1917 Nivelle Offensive, beaten by long-range artillery or unable to cross the German trenches.
The British, meanwhile, improved Mother. The Mark IV needed only two men to drive, and the steel was thickened to foil armor-piercing bullets. They also came out with a faster medium tank called the Mark A, called the Whippet, with a static turret bristling with machine gun barrels.
But it is Renault’s FT, that little fellow sitting under Liberty Memorial, that most consider the first modern tank, primarily for its first 360-degree-rotating gun turret. The machine’s basic layout has gone unchanged y — until the late 1970s with the Israelis’ Merkava, which puts the engine in front to absorb the killing head-on round and increase crew survivability.
The Renault brothers churned out more than 3,500 FTs, many of which would be used by the Americans and even the British. They had fewer breakdowns, because the company dropped in truck engines with four speeds, Cart said. So the tanks came complete with speedometers that went up to 10 mph — the machines made only half that at best — and the gas tank took them 30 miles.
Some were equipped with machine guns, others the 37 mm gun. The crammed-in crew peered through camouflaged slits in the riveted steel or the telescope that sighted the guns. A little porthole in the turret allowed the commander to fire his revolver in case a foe climbed on the outside, Cart noted.
While the rest of the world adapted to the word “tank” from the Brits, the French call their machine “char” (from cart or chariot) to this day.
In World War II, German generals would become famous for blitzkrieg tactics with fast-moving armored columns and giant tanks such as the Panther and Tiger, but in the first world war they weren’t much interested until late in the game.
Back in 1911, in fact, a young Austo-Hungarian lieutenant had designed an armored, tracked vehicle with rotating, machine-gun-equipped turret, but he could not get anywhere with a hidebound army bureaucracy. Otherwise, Gunther Burstyn would be known today as the grandfather of armored forces.
No, the Germans spent more effort on anti-tank weapons, to considerable success. Even during the Allies’ decisive 1918 offensive of Amiens, nearly three-quarters of the attacking tanks were wiped out in the first four days.
While the Germans were happy to recycle and paint iron crosses on many captured French and English machines, only a handful of the German machines were built — the A7V, which looks like something Jabba the Hutt might drive in “Star Wars.”
Three A7V crews were surprised to find an equal number of British Mark IVs at Villers-Bretonneux, and the world was given its first tank battle on April 24, 1918. The Brits’ machines were hit and withdrew.
After May 31, 1918, Capitaine Aubert described the action near Hamel:
“We were subjected to heavy machine gun fire directed particularly against the slits and port holes. The hammer of bullets against the armor, accompanied by flash, showed us the general direction of the fire.
“Many bullets struck the gun shield and made traversing difficult. But we swung the turret and there was the machine gun, not more than 50 yards away. It took five rounds to put it out, and the tracks completed the work.”
In July 1918, the French amassed nearly 400 tanks for the Battles of Marne and Soissons, in which they recaptured most of the territory lost to recent German offensives. Once the American divisions began pouring off the troop ships, the generals on both sides knew the war would soon be over.
The museum’s tank, numbered 867, shows off its gaping scar left by a German 77 mm artillery shell, which left shrapnel balls and shards in the vehicle’s interior. The tank probably supported American doughboys during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the last weeks of the war. The fate of the crew is unknown, but researchers are still on the case.
Cart points out the damage to the rear of the tank. The “duck tail” of the vehicle, designed to help keep it from being stuck in trenches, was blown off. The tail one sees at the museum came from another machine.
Just yards away is a German 77 field gun, probably like what killed 867.
“He probably hit him as he was going by,” Cart said. “If it had been a high-explosive shell, we wouldn’t be here talking about it. It’d be gone.”
The FT17 or its copies ended up around the world; four recently were found in a Kabul, Afghanistan, scrapyard. The tanks were used in many conflicts, such as the Russian civil war, the Polish-Soviet conflict, the Chinese and Spanish civil wars.
Although the FT17 was horribly obsolete when the next world war with Germany began in 1940, France still had more than 500 on the line. And even the Nazi army used them as radio tanks, Cart said.
Americans come aboard
The American Expeditionary Force was equipped with the Renaults. One of its first commanders was a cavalry officer named George Patton.
Earlier, in 1916, the lieutenant led the first motorized attack in U.S. military history, taking a few men in Dodge Touring cars to a Mexican ranch where they found and gunned down three of Pancho Villa’s men. Villa was a wanted Mexican revolutionary.
Impressed by the young “bandit shooter,” Gen. John Pershing sent him to France in the advance party when America entered the conflict.
Setting up the first U.S. tank school, the fast-rising Lt. Col. Patton commanded a brigade of FTs at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in September 1918. Later that month, his machines supported U.S. forces in the Meuse-Argonne, where he was wounded in the leg.
Back in the States, another up-and-coming lieutenant colonel named Dwight Eisenhower was running Camp Colt, training tank crews on the old battlefields of Gettysburg, Pa., with a Renault. You can see their postage at the museum, one envelope showing a bristling black cat atop a machine, with the logo: “Treat ’Em Rough.”
The U.S. Army used the French design to build nearly a thousand exact copies, named the M1917. The American tankers got their orders to embark for Europe, but the armistice was signed the next month, so they saw no action.
After the war, Patton, who would write the Army manual for tank warfare, and Eisenhower became friends. The War Department decreed that tanks should support the infantry and not be an independent striking force, and both men left for less dead-end assignments.
The U.S. Army did not give up its cavalry, to which Patton eventually returned. Some believed as British Maj. Gen. Sir Louis Jackson did— he called the tank “a freak. The circumstances that called it into existence were exceptional and not likely to recur. If they did, they could be dealt with by other means.”
Others, like Army Chief Douglas MacArthur, noted that the mobility of the horse in war had not changed in a thousand years; the mechanized army was the future. Still, he used cavalry, led by an unhappy Patton, and six M1917s, to violently disburse the Bonus Marchers on Washington in 1932.
World War II, of course, saw massive formations of bigger and bigger tanks rolling across France, North Africa, Russia and France again. Today’s 60-ton-plus main battle behemoths can move 10 times as fast as the FT17, cover 10 times more ground, carry high-tech armor and throw shells to the horizon with laser accuracy. Whether the drone age will force new thinking about tanks on the battlefield is today’s question, however.
According to museum research, the French machine was recovered by the U.S. 2nd Battalion, Air Service Mechanics (who were being used to repair and salvage tanks instead of airplanes).
During the Meuse-Argonne battles, a company had been sent to Varennes to an improvised tank park. Because soldiers from the unit scratched their names on the inside of the driver compartment’s doors, we know that one was Jonathan Mulford Ashwell, who lived at 1627 Washington St. in Kansas City.
The reason the unusable tank was shipped to the United States was for a July 1919 bond drive. It was soon added to the vast collections of San Francisco’s M.H. de Young Museum, then displaying just about everything. The tank changed hands several times between western car museums and collectors until the Hayes Otoupalik Collection sold it to the Kansas City museum in 2007.
We can assume that at one stop the owners took off the tracks, because they’re on backward.
“We’re not taking them off to put them on right,” Cart said, noting that the tank, with its worn camouflage and slightly weary lean, is exactly as they got it, except for the authentic pick and shovel on the hulls.
Cart revealed a little secret. In examining their treasured relic, they found a chunk of mud, French soil, still stuck to the machine. “After all that time, all that movement, it’s still there.”
And in that mud was something the tank rolled over. A cartridge from those days when the ground shook and brave men fell in the wire.
C’est la guerre.