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French Tanks of the Great War: Development, Tactics, and Operations Review

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French Tanks of the Great War: Development, Tactics, and Operations by Time Gale is a highly authoritative, detailed, and complete history of the French tank corps - the Artillérie spéciale - during the Great War. It provides a history of the corps from its conception to its numerous battles during the war, its employment strategies, commanders, operations (both with a great number of well-described tactical engagement descriptions and linking them together to understand the broader operational impacts), the technical features of the equipment, and their development, making it into the best English-language book on French WW1 tanks, a superb nuts-and-bolts history.

General Estienne on the right with a cane, in 1923.

General Estienne on the right with a cane, in 1923.

Chapter 1, "The French Tank Force in the Great War - The Artillerie Spéciale," lays out the beginning of French armored development, when colonel Estienne proposed the creation of a fleet of tracked armored vehicles which could be used to break the bloody deadlock on the Western Front, ultimately approved of by French commander Joffre. Estienne had long been an innovator for artillery and aircraft, and an effective artillery commander, and after overcoming opposition from competing branches for motors for tanks and valuable NCOs for crewing them, Estienne's tank project went ahead, with the first French tank, built by Schneider-Creusot. It, and the other initial French tank, the Saint Chamond, had severe technical drawbacks as well as production problems, but nevertheless enabled the Artillérie spéciale to be formed in early 1916.

It is easy to see why French tanks initially ran into so many problems, with ungainly machines trying to negotiate such horrible terrain

It is easy to see why French tanks initially ran into so many problems, with ungainly machines trying to negotiate such horrible terrain

Chapter 2, "'Very bad conditions' - The Nivelle Offensive, 1917" charts the development of French tank tactics, and then the first deployment of French tanks in battle during the Nivelle Offensive. Tank numbers had been painstakingly built up to form a sufficiently large armored mass, but which lacked the doctrine and sophistication to be a great success, especially since the Germans had already encountered British tanks previously. In the midst of the general failure of the offensive, Nivelle attempted to rescue the reputation of the tanks to paint his failure in a better light, but it was clear that the tanks, which had struggled to traverse the nightmarish landscape, survive enemy direct anti-tank fire and artillery fire, and to adapt to the battle in their first deployment, had not been very successful.

The AS would attempt to remove this blemish on their reputation soon afterwards, as explained in chapter 3, "The Turnaround at Laffaux and the Aftermath of the Nivelle Offensive." Thankfully for the French tankers, one of their tank groups, groupement Lefebvre, had had its attack cancelled and wasn't thrown into the meat grinder of Chemin des Dames. This left it intact for an attack at Laffaux, with the benefit of having been training with an elite infantry battalion for a substantial period of time. Substantial changes were made to enable the tanks to have a less lengthy approach march, more precise objectives established, and better liaison arranged between tanks and the infantry. This time, despite some problems, results were significantly better and enough to give the AS a future, albeit one which would require significant improvements in training and technical design to the tanks, achieved through a number of modifications and variants. There were also significant questions about how the AS would be organized as it expanded.

Chapter 4, "'A Masterpiece of Tactics' - The Battle of Malmaison and the Tank Regulations," covers the reformation of the French army under Pétain, focusing on a more careful, material and firepower centric way of war, where tanks would have a shining role. This was shown in the Battle of Malmaison to attack the same place as the Nivelle Offensive, using massive artillery bombardment - a potential problem for tanks, since it would disrupt the terrain they would have to advance over. But nevertheless tanks were to be used as well, and despite these problems the tanks played an invaluable role in enabling the attack to succeed, and also allowed for further doctrine innovation.

Chapter 5, "Paris in Peril - The Battle of the Matz, 11 June 1918," shows French tanks being thrown into battle to halt the German 1918 offensive, and demonstrated that French tanks were exceptionally useful in a relatively fluid, ad hoc battle in providing shock and surprise, and once again enabling new lessons in artillery and infantry coordination to be devised.

A lengthy selection pictures is found in the middle of the book, about the tanks, development, and their battles.

Chapter 6 returns to technical developments with "Engine of Victory - The Renault Light Tank," showing the development of the Renault FT-17, a smaller, cheaper, and ultimately much more mobile and effective tank design which would revolutionize French tank operations. French plans called for massive production of the FT-17, and the AS busily set about developing doctrine and tactics for the new tank type. Initial FT-17 deployment at Chaudun proved highly effective, and tank rampages by the new FT-17s demonstrating their revolutionary impact.

Chapter 7 examines their first full-scale deployment, in "'The Greatest Day Since the Marne' - The Battle of Soissons, 1918," where Renault FTs were deployed in the first major French counter-attack, at Soissons, where the tanks enabled the attack to be made without the need for large-scale artillery preparation. The impact of both the FTs and the older medium tanks was vital in enabling a decisive Franco-American victory that threw the Germans back onto the defense.

Chapter 8 continues this offensive war, in "With the Americans: From Cantigny to the Meuse-Argonne, 1918," shows the French role in supporting the American attack at Cantigny, with massive French armored and artillery forces assigned for assisting the Americans and ensuring victory. This was an easy victory, one where the AS played a vital role in silencing German machine guns and bunkers. Saint Michel and Meuse-Argonne started off well, but the relatively inexperienced nature of the Americans and coordination problems troubled the effectiveness of French tanks cooperating with the Americans.

Chapter 9, "Fourth Campagne - The Battle of Somme-Py, 28 September - 3 October 1918" showed a new tactical role for the French tanks, as first French artillery would breach the front and then the tanks would be used to continue the momentum of the attack as the artillery had to deploy forward to support continued attacks. Fighting was very heavy and resistance fierce, but the tank attacks were nevertheless successful and helped enable the advance. Light tank tactics continued to improve, to deal with proportionally higher personnel casualties, and the implementation of suppression fire against potential anti-tank gun sites.

Chapter 10, "The Final Battles of 1918 and the Armistice," displays a new side of war, with the relatively mobile battles of 1918 in the Hundred Days Offensive, noting the increasing ubiquitous nature of German anti-tank defenses, but which French tank tactics enabled to be overcome. French plans for 1919 envisioned continued increasing focus on tanks and aircraft, with massive increases in light tank production: the armistice put an end to this plan, and the Artillérie spéciale was dissolved and placed with the artillery; but the men and tanks of the AS had been a formidable force of iron which had played more than their share in winning the war for France.

Appendixes list orders of battle, quantitative data on operations, technical specs, and provide further technical drawings.

Analysis

Much of the book focuses on tactical battles that French tanks fought in, and this is the great selling point of the book, since it gives a very good and detailed description of all of the major engagements, starting from the Nivelle Offensive and continuing up to the end of the war, with a particularly good part on the role of French tanks in the crucial counter attack at Soissons that stopped the German Spring Offensive during the Second Battle of the Marne. Not only are the battlefield components excellently illustrated (in more ways than one - there are some excellent photos in the book) via battlefield descriptions and after-action reports of the tanks, their impact, and potential improvements, Gale does a great job analyzing these, such as the overly hagiographic reports by General Nivelle after the Chemin-des-Dames offensive, pointing out that Nivelle was attempting to salvage the reputation of the failed offensive. Just as useful is how tactical doctrine, training, and regulations were established, such as firing doctrine, group coordination, or coordination with the artillery and the types of artillery bombardments that were used with the tanks.

This consistent approach to battles, listing French operational objectives, planning, implementation, results, and then evaluation and doctrine changes, pays real dividends with a clear understanding of how operations were conducted and how the tank force continued to improve, and what its doctrine was. It is difficult to convey without drowning the reader of a book review like this in detail the thoroughness and excellent balance struck for the description of planning and the operations themselves.

The technical features and preoccupations of the French tanks matches this. The three French tanks of the war were the Schneider CA1, St. Chamond, and the FT-17 - the first a medium tank, the second a sort of medium-heavy-assault gun, and the third a light tank. The book does very good descriptions of these tanks, as well as various projects designed to improve them and the changes which were performed on them during the war in an effort to better combat performance, such as a sloping roof on the Schneider CA1 to deflect grenades. Proposed variants, such as a 47mm gun for the CA1 in an effort to improve accuracy, both show the interest of the tank corps, and shed valuable light on the development of the tanks. The FT-17 is a particularly crucial part of this, with the bet on a new light tank and the mass production of it, theorized as being like light, medium, and heavy ships. All of these technical aspects also show a good understanding of the internal dynamics of French bureaucratic and war economic politics, as different factions competed for resources and priority.

For an operational, tactical, technical, and doctrinal look at French tanks in WW1, this is an unrivalled work. Certainly, it is very specialized, and one needs other books to have a broader understanding of the German and British experiences alongside the French, and it is best to have at least some preliminary understanding of the French army for easily grasping the great number of acronyms, but this is a well researched and authoritative military history of French tank forces at its best.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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