The Renault FT was arguably the world’s first modem tank, most tanks that have graced the battlefields after WWII, have followed its basic 1917 design principles. After World War I, most tanks of that era all but disappeared. The little French FT, however, went on to be used by a number of countries across the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia.
The French Army’s predecessor to the FT tank was the Schneider CA1, but the design was flawed and following a long internal battle within the French defence forces, artillery General Jean-Baptiste Estienne finally won approval to create a batch of 150 FT tank prototypes based on his own designs with Renault at Billancourt building the tanks in February 1917. By October 1918 orders for French an US forces reached 7,820 units.
On around March 1918, the first French armoured battalions were created from 75 FT tanks. The tanks featured 37mm guns or 8mm Hotchkis machine guns and there were also 4 TSF radio tanks included within the battalions, but in a single day of operations, each battalion could loose half of its FT tanks due to mechanical problems and ditching.
In May 1918, the first FTs entered combat in the forests near Ploissy Chazelle, supported by Moroccan infantry. The forest was traversed by small tracks and the tanks proved themselves valuable immediately thanks to their small size and rotating turrets. Conversely the larger British rhomboids and French medium tanks were unable to operate in that environment. The FT had proven itself as technically self-sufficient and was able to perform in sustained operations with less support than expected.
Having tanks fighting alongside them also gave a huge moral boost to infantry by shielding them from and overcoming enemy machine gun positions.
At the Allied offensive near Soissons, 245 FTs led the vanguard of the attack supported by 100 of the larger Saint Chamonds and 123 Schneiders. Despite making successful penetrations into enemy territory the tanks were not co-ordinating well with infantry and often had to wait for support. Training between tank and infantry units for such manoeuvres was also non-existent within the French Army because tanks were hoarded for combat use and there was no chance for the infantry to train with them.
Germans tried to develop better antitank positions, but the Renaults were too numerous for them to have significant affect. Anti-tank rifles also had limited success on the tanks at close range with the FTs polygon turrets being more resilient than the round girod turrets. Overall, 440 Renaults were destroyed by field artillery in the war and 13 by improvised mines, however, the Renaults never encountered a German tank during combat.
Technical problems put the most amount of Renaults temporarily out of action with US units saying they would go through at least one fan belt everyday, but by August 1918 over 2,000 Renaults had been successfully delivered to front line units.
The final tank offensive of The Great War took place on September 26th, 1918, with nine Renault FT tank battalions committed to the battles in Flanders and Champagne regions. The attacks used French troops and those from the US Expeditionary Force and while the Americans suffered large numbers of casualties due to their lack of experience and training, through determination and weight of numbers, they achieved major breakthroughs.
The offensive eventually broke the Germans will and the Armistice of November 11,1918 ended hostilities.
Despite the terrible attrition rate of the Renault tanks and their limited effectiveness as an individual fighting platform, much credit can be given to the FT for boosting the morale of the broken French Army. At the time of the FTs introduction, the French were a broken and mutinous force following years of terrible losses and poor leadership, but the tanks provided a huge moral boost to the troops, often shielding them from the dreaded machine guns of the Germans.
After the war, the FT was exported widely to other countries, it’s small size and simple construction making it easier to travel and operate in primitive conditions and as a consequence the FT tank saw more action than any other tank in the inter-war years. In WWII, newer tanks mostly replaced the Renaults for front line combat service, but many were still in operation. France used them mainly for airfield defence and defending static positions. In 1940, both the Polish and French armies using the aged FT were out gunned and out manoeuvred by opposing German units and the FT was quickly relegated to non-frontline use.
Germany captured many FT tanks, using them for the same purpose, in fact a great many FT 17s were used to defend Gentian airfields with some being dug into fixed defensive positions. FT tank turrets were reportedly used to defend the Atlantic Wall against D-Day landings.
In The Netherlands
The Netherlands purchased an FT tank directly from the French in 1927, costing the Dutch government 25,000 guilders, and was to be used as a training and demonstration vehicle. It was the first tank that the Dutch defence forces had ever used and at that time the Netherlands was neutral, and pacifism was strong within all of the political parties, therefore the Dutch services were not modernised at the same rate as other European militaries.
The vehicle was the responsibility of first Lieutenants N.J. Jelgersma ND F.G. Durst Britt and was housed at the Ripperdakazeme (Ripper barracks) in Haarlem just west of Amsterdam.
From an article in the Dutch Army’s news bulletin, the Leger Kourier, the Dutch described the FT they were going to receive as the ‘best model that came out of the First World War’, however, when the tank arrived, the expectations of the Dutch were somewhat lessened, with the tank looking worn out!
The FTs short range disappointed the Dutch defence commission’s expectations for negotiating their test terrain. The sharp bladed edges of the tracks also severely damaged the roads so a transport vehicle for the tank was therefore necessary, however, a heavy lorry such as those used in France was not available so a trailer towed behind a tractor was used instead. The tank was also delivered without armament, so the Dutch installed a Schwarzlose machine gun.
The tank was put through four different evaluations that investigated the effect of small arms and machine gun projectiles on the vehicle, the effectiveness of machine gun fire from the tank’s machine gun, the effectiveness of different kinds of tank barriers against the FT and finally the effect of mud on the tanks movement.
The results revealed that the FT exceeded expectations for its armour to defeat small arms fire and it was not possible to damage the tank severely with rifle and machine gun projectiles. However, paper was hung on the inside of the tank, which showed significant damage from metal fragments bursting off the interior under impact from the bullets and this showed the Dutch that infantry fire could still have an affect (morale) on the tank crew.
The firing test of the Schwarzlose machine gun proved a failure with the gunner being severely hampered by gases from the weapon and the ejected cartridge cases and holding a target in the machine gun’s sight was impossible when the tank moved over the testing terrain.
The obstacle courses did provide the Dutch with some surprises though. Brick walls, small trees, trenches, wire obstacles and some shell holes were no problem for the tank to travel over or through, but the Dutch wanted to see how it performed in softer ground, simulating the ground around their Water Line defence network, so in 1928, the Dutch FT was taken to an area called het Kleine Loo near The Hague known for its marshy ground, where the tank proved immobile and sank quickly in the mud.
Due to the FTs age and limitations at that time, the Dutch decided to hold off on any major purchases. They instead decided that tank technology was going to improve rapidly and wanted to invest in a newer model when necessary.
The FT 17 tank that currently has a home in the Dutch Army (Leger Museum) museum’s storage depot at Soesterberg, is a tank that was captured by the Germans in 1940 and brought to the Netherlands for guard duty. The whereabouts of the first tank that was purchased by the Dutch for training and testing is now unknown.
Another FT tank in the Netherlands that was captured by the Germans and used for special duties in the Netherlands has a home in the war museum Liberty Park at Overloon in the East of the country. The museum’s curator Erik van den Dungen said ‘What we know about this tank is it was made in early 1918, based on the chassis number, it also probably saw combat during WWI. Later, it was captured by the Germans, somewhere in France in 1940. More of them were combined into new divisions for guarding purposes. ‘
This one was sent to the Volkel airstrip (nearby the town of Uden), which was built by the Germans during WWII and when the war was over, the tank stayed there for another few years, at least until 1947. In the aftermath of WWII, the Dutch Marines used the tank for training again, during which time, it remained at the Volkel air force base and then in the early 1960’s the FT was handed over to the museum.
Putting the Renault FT 17 into perspective, the FT paved the way for modem tank production in that it was designed for mass production and was cheap light and simple. The FTs record of use in the Russian Civil War, Polish-Soviet War, Chinese Civil War, Spanish Civil War and Estonian war of Independence, are proof enough that it was also a commercial success for Renault in the inter war period.
The fact that the ruthlessly efficient German army of 1940 also decided to use this 1917 tank for defending its airfield is also testament to the value of this little yet old tank of World War One. It also cannot be forgotten that the icons and pioneers of the US forces in the World War Two, such as General George Patten and Dwight Eisenhower, used this tank in training and combat in World War One. The FT tank was the mainstay of the US Expeditionary Force in WWI and many US soldiers owed their lives to Renault for saving them from the German machine guns, however, the US were unable to manufacture their own version in time to stop German offensives and had to rely on their French allies to come to the party.