World War I: Renault FT (FT-17) Tank

US forces with FT tanks
Renault FT Tanks. Public Domain

The Renault FT, often referred to as the FT-17, was a ground-breaking tank design which entered service in 1918. A French light tank, the FT was the first tank to incorporate many design aspects which are now considered standard such as a fully-rotating turret and rear engine compartment. Small by World War I standards, the FT was intended to swarm through the enemy's lines and overwhelm defenders. Used by French and American forces on the Western Front, the design was produced in large numbers and retained by many nations until the early days of World War II.

Development

The origins of the Renault FT may be traced to an early meeting between Louis Renault and Colonel Jean-Baptiste Eugène Estienne in 1915. Overseeing the fledgling French tank corps which had been created during the early years of World War I, Estienne hoped to have Renault design and build an armored vehicle based on the Holt tractor. Operating with the backing of General Joseph Joffre, he was seeking firms to moved the project forward.

Though intrigued, Renault declined citing a lack of experience with tracked vehicles and commenting that his factories were already operating at capacity. Not to be demurred, Estienne took his project to Schneider-Creusot which created the French Army's first tank, the Schneider CA1. Though he had declined the initial tank project, Renault commenced developing a design for a light tank that would be relatively simple to produce. Assessing the landscape of the time, he concluded that existing engines lacked the necessary power-to-weight ratio to allow armored vehicles to successfully clear trenches, shell holes, and other obstacles.

As a result, Renault sought to limit his design to 7 tons. As he continued to refine his thoughts on a light tank design, he had another meeting with Estienne in July 1916. Increasingly interested in smaller, lighter tanks which he believed could overwhelm defenders in ways that larger, heavier tanks could not, Estienne encouraged Renault's work. While this support would proved critical, Renault struggled to gain acceptance of his design from Minister of Munitions Albert Thomas and the French high command. After extensive work, Renault received permission to build a single prototype.

Design

Working with his talented industrial designer Rodolphe Ernst-Metzmaier, Renault sought to bring his theories into reality. The resulting design set the pattern for all future tanks. Though fully-revolving turrets had been used on a variety of French armored cars, the FT was the first tank to incorporate this feature. This allowed the smaller tank to fully utilize a single weapon rather than needing multiple guns mounted in sponsons with limited fields of fire.

The FT also set the precedent for placing the driver in the front and the engine in the rear. The incorporation of these features made the FT a radical departure from previous French designs, such as the Schneider CA1 and the St. Chamond, which were little more than armored boxes. Operated by a crew of two, the FT mounted a rounded tail piece to aid in crossing trenches and included automatically tensioned tacks to help prevent derailments.

FT-17 Tank - Open Hatches
Crew positions in a Renault FT-17 tank. National Archives and Records Administration

To ensure that engine power would be maintained, the power plant was designed to operate effectively when slanted to allow the tank to traverse steep slopes. For crew comfort, ventilation was provided by the engine's radiator fan. Though in close proximity, no provision was made for crew communication during operations. As a result, gunners devised a system of kicking the driver in the shoulders, back, and head to transmit directions. Armament for the FT typically consisted of either a Puteaux SA 18 37 mm gun or a 7.92 mm Hotchkiss machine gun. 

Renault FT - Specifications

Dimensions

  • Length: 16.4 ft.
  • Width: 4.8 ft.
  • Height: 7 ft.
  • Weight: 7.2 tons

Armor & Armament

  • Armor: 0.86 in.
  • Armament: 37 mm Puteaux gun or a 7.92 mm Hotchkiss machine gun
  • Ammunition: 238 x 37mm projectiles or 4,200 x 7.62mm ammunition

Engine

  • Engine: 39 hp gasoline engine
  • Speed: 4.35 mph
  • Range: 40 miles
  • Suspension: Vertical Springs
  • Crew: 2

Production

Despite its advanced design, Renault continued to have difficulty getting approval for the FT. Ironically, its chief competition came from the heavy Char 2C which was also designed by Ernst-Metzmaier. With the relentless support Estienne, Renault was able to move the FT into production. Though he had Estienne's support, Renault competed for resources with the Char 2C for the remainder of the war. Development continued through the first half of 1917, as Renault and Ernst-Metzmaier sought to refine the design.

By the end of the year, only 84 FTs had been produced, however 2,613 were built in 1918, before the end of hostilities. All told, 3,694 were constructed by French factories with 3,177 going to the French Army, 514 to the US Army, and 3 to the Italians. The tank was also built under license in the US under the name Six Ton Tank M1917. While only 64 were finished before the armistice, 950 were eventually constructed. When the tank first entered production, it had a round cast turret, however this varied depending on the manufacturer. Other variants included an octagonal turret or one made from bent steel plate.

Renault FTs at Vaux
French Renault FTs advance through Vaux, 1918. Library of Congress

Combat Service

The FT first entered combat on May 31, 1918, at Foret de Retz, south-west of Soissons, and aided the 10th Army in slowing the German drive on Paris. In short order, the FT's small size increased its value as it was capable of traversing terrain, such as forests, that other heavy tanks were incapable of negotiating.

As the tide turned in the Allies favor, Estienne finally received large numbers of the tank, which allowed for effective counterattacks against German positions. The FT saw use at the Second Battle of the Marne as well as during the Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensives. Widely used by French and American forces, the FT ultimately participated in 4,356 engagements with 746 being lost to enemy action.

Postwar

Following the war, the FT formed the armored backbone for many nations, including the United States. The tank saw subsequent action in the Russian Civil War, Polish-Soviet War, Chinese Civil War, and Spanish Civil War. In addition it remained in the reserve forces for several countries. During the early days of World War II, the French still had 534 operating in various capacities. In 1940, following the German drive to the Channel which isolated many of France's best armored units, the entire French reserve force was committed, including 575 FTs.

With the fall of France, the Wehrmacht captured 1,704 FTs. These were redeployed across Europe for airbase defense and occupation duty. In Britain and the United States, the FT was retained for use as a training vehicle. Additional FTs were retained by Vichy French forces in North Africa. These were encountered by American and British forces during the Operation Torch landings in late 1942 and were easily defeated by the Allies' modern M3 Stuart and M4 Sherman tanks.