The tank was one of the most important weapons of World War II. However, the first tanks were built during World War I (1914 – 1918) and tended to be very heavy and clumsy.
The concept of a military tank was not particularly new in 1916. However, the ability to move troops safely through combat territories with a vehicle felt like an incredibly important innovation during the First World War. Tanks took advantage of combustion engines, armor plating, and a continuous track. They first entered warfare on September 15, 1916, at the Battle of the Somme. From there, they expanded to be a crucial part of wars for the next several decades, and remain in regular use today.
A generation of young men volunteered in 1914 for the First World War, believing the propaganda that they would be home by Christmas. By the end of the year, however, it was evident the war was at a stalemate.
Neither side had made any meaningful gains from their original positions. Any attempts at going “over the top” and rushing the enemy trenches resulted in the decimation of the forces of the attacking army. A solution was required.
Cavalry charges were discussed but never implemented. The tank seemed the best option. In great secret, the British completed and tested their design in 1916. They were then ready to enter the action by September.
Tanks could run over barbed wire, withstand machine gun fire, and cross gaps in the battlefield. Soldiers could find shelter from gunfire by staying close behind the tanks. They might make it to the other side to flush the Germans out of their trenches.
However, it was 1917 before conditions were right for the British tanks to push to victory. They were instrumental in the final year of the war, mainly because Germany did not have a tank of its own until 1918. By then their inability to manufacture meant production was impossible.
Jean-Baptiste Estienne, a French general, came up with the idea of a light tank that could help infantry attack defended positions. The Allies thought it was a good idea, and the new weapon was made by the French vehicle manufacturer Renault. It was called the Renault FT-117, and 3800 were built.
The real test of the Renault FT-117 was in battle. Thirty of them first saw action on 31st May 1918 at the Second Battle of the Marne, in Northern France. The Marne was an important battle because the Germans attacked the Allies for the last time. After the Marne, the Allies began to turn the Germans back. The British used the Renault for communications, and the Americans used them for combat. The new tank effectively stopped the German attack. In fact, the Americans were so impressed by the Renault FT-117 that they copied the design and made tanks of their own.
After the success of the Renault at the Battle of the Marne, more of them were built, and they were used with older Schneider CA1 and Saint-Chamond tanks. The Renault FT-117 was effective because it was quick and light. It could be transported to the front by trucks and trailers, rather than having to rely on trains.
They were so effective that the Germans decided to build their own tanks. The Allies were anxious that the Germans shouldn’t have more than they did, and so they planned to build 12,260 Renaults (including 4,400 American Renaults) before 1920. But in November 1918 the war was over.
In World War II the Renault FT-117 saw some service, in France, Poland, and Yugoslavia. The French had 534 and used them in 1940 when Germany invaded. But by this time there were far more effective tanks about.
In this short film David Fletcher, a historian of the Tank Museum, Bovington, United Kingdom, talks about some of the Renaults in the Museum.