On the 31st May 1918 the Renault FT was used in action for the first time at Ploissy-Chazelle, southwest of Soissons.
The 501st Regiment d’Artillery Speciale used 31 tanks to support a counter-attack against German forces advancing towards the Forest of Villers-Cotterets.
The ‘Charge at Chaudun’ was a great success for the crews of the new tank. They had caused panic in the German ranks and crippled two German Divisions at the cost of just 5 vehicles. This was in spite of unfavourable conditions and inadequate infantry support. Similar actions over the next few weeks convincingly proved the new tank’s worth.
The FT that debuted that day introduced new elements to tank warfare, both conceptually and in design terms. It would go on to become the most produced tank of the First World War and afterwards the first tank to be sold worldwide.
However it had to overcome political opposition and mechanical problems to make it to the battlefield.
The FT was a radically different design to previous British and French tanks. Rather than a large, heavy vehicle, the concept behind it was for a small and light tank that would be more manoeuvrable, harder to hit and could be fielded in large numbers. The tanks would be used in swarms to overwhelm German defences with mobility and mass.
General Jean Baptiste Estienne, commander of the French tank force, the Artillerie Speciale, was the leading advocate of this concept. It also appealed to industrialist Louis Renault, and after a meeting between the two in July 1916 the Renault company began work on a tank, producing a wooden mock-up by October.
Incidentally, the tank’s name has no particular meaning. FT was simply the next designation available in the internal Renault naming system. The vehicle’s other common name, FT-17, appears to have originated after the war.
The new tank faced immediate obstacles. After the prototype was demonstrated on the 30th December 1916 objections were raised by both politicians and military officers. The tank was considered too small to be useful on the battlefield. There were also concerns around manufacturing the numbers required, with a shortage of armour plate being a particular issue, along with questions over the relative priority of FTs and other vehicles.
These objections were overcome, and February 1917 the original order for 100 tanks was increased to 150. Trials took place in April and May, and as a result the order was increased by 1000, then by a further 2500 in September for a total of 3650. Orders increased still further until by October 1918 7820 had been ordered for the French Army alone (although the war ended before most of these were built, with total production by the Armistice reaching 3177).
Even once production was underway bureaucracy and the complicated civil-military relationships within French military procurement caused a great deal of friction, especially in the supply of spare parts and the organisation of training programmes.
Problems and Shortages
The FT’s problems followed it into production and service with the Army. As feared, the sheer size of the order stretched the capacity of the available factories, and only 114 had been built by October 1917. Manufacturing standards on the early tanks were inadequate, with the majority requiring rework at the factory, and as late as the beginning of April 1918 only 10% of the 453 tanks delivered to the Army by then were combat ready.
Problems and delays continued even after the first deliveries. Spare parts were in short supply, and in particular poor quality fuel filters and fan belts affected availability throughout the war. The first FT unit, the 1st Battalion des chars légers, was formed on the 18th February 1918. It was scaled for 75 tanks, but didn’t receive them until the 21st March. Even then, they arrived without armament. Both delays and availability of spares did improve over the course of the war.
Layout and Armament
Often considered the first modern tank, the layout of the FT was revolutionary and has been used on almost every tank since. The driver was in the front of the hull, the engine in the rear and a 360 degree rotating turret with the rest of the crew (in this case just 1 man) on top.
Originally armed with an 8mm M1914 Hotchkiss machine gun, after the April 1917 trials the idea of fitting some with the 37mm SA18 Puteaux gun instead was adopted. Of the original 1150, 650 were ordered with this weapon and named char canon, MG armed tanks being chars mitrailleurs.
To ease production an omnibus turret that could be adapted to take either weapon was developed by the Girod company. Actual production was split around 2:1 in favour of chars mitrailleurs.
As it became available in greater numbers during the summer of 1918 the FT played an increasingly important role, especially in the open warfare of the Hundred Days. Swarms of FTs were a key part of the French Army’s offensive tactics and one the Germans were never able to devise an effective counter to.