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M1917 Renault FT-17 6 Ton Special Tractor

The US accepted an order to build 1,200 Renault FT-17 light tanks. The American-built 6 ½-ton M1917 light tank was a copy of the French Renault. The modern configuration of the tank is still used in tanks today; the driver sits in the front and the engine is in the rear. The design boasted the first tank with a full traverse 360-degree rotating turret. It is a light vehicle, which weighs approximately 7,000 pounds. A two-man crew - a driver and a gunner, operate the vehicle.

It had a maximum speed of 5.5 miles per hour and could travel 30 miles on its 30-gallon fuel capacity. The French Renault light tank and the British Mark VIII heavy tank used by the AEF Tank Corps and by the Experimental Mechanized Force contained severe technical limitations. With maximum speeds of less than 6 mph, these tanks were hardly able to keep up with the infantry when crossing a shell-holed battlefield. When separated from the infantry, the tanks were vulnerable to energy heavy weapons and could not communicate with supporting artillery. These technical limitations, as well as numerous mechanical problems, justifiably confined the tank to an infantry support role.

The M1917 Light Tank was the first official tank for the US Army. It was based on the French FT-17 Renault tank that the First Division used in September of 1918 at St. Mihiel. This American version never saw combat because of its late arrival in Europe, but the basic design of the Renault, positioning the engine in the rear with the driver forward and a 360 degree moveable turret with armament, would be used for all future US tanks. The tank was designed to accompany infantry units as they crossed “No Man’s Land.” The M1917 destroyed machine gun nests and barbed wire obstacles as infantrymen followed, taking advantage of newly opened breaches in enemy lines. It could cross a seven-foot trench and climb a three-foot vertical wall.

Few recognized during the Great War that the means for returning mobility and shock action to combat was already present in a device destined to revolutionize warfare on the ground and in the air. This was the internal combustion engine, which had made possible the development of the tank and eventually would lead to the mechanized forces that were to assume the old roles of horse cavalry and to loosen the grip of the machine gun on the battlefield.

Tank operations and training methods in the British and French sectors were studied carefully by United States observers, and their reports and conclusions prompted Maj. Gen. John J. Pershing, Commander in Chief, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), to request in September 1917 that 600 heavy and 1,200 light tanks be produced in the United States. The resulting American-produced heavy tank was the 43.5-ton Mark VIII, patterned after a British model. Armed with two 6-pounder and five .30-caliber machine guns, it was operated by an 11-man crew, had a maximum speed of 6.5 miles per hour, and a range of 50 miles.

The American-built 6 ½-ton M1917 light tank was a copy of the French Renault. It had a maximum speed of 5.5 miles per hour and could travel 30 miles on its 30-gallon fuel capacity. The U.S. War Department’s Ordnance Department is the object of embarrassing criticism for squandering the M1917 tank program, which resulted in no tanks delivered to American Army forces in Europe before the end of the Great War. So successful was the Renault FT that the newly formed American Tank Corps recommended its adoption and production within the United States. The manufacturer's drawings were given to the United States. Due to their metric design a virtual total redesign and redrawing to fit inch specifications was done. Modifications included steel idlers rather than reinforced wooden ones, incorporation of a bulkhead separating the engine and crew compartment, and substituting an American Buda engine for the Renault.

Called Six-Ton Special Tractors as a cover name, the initial order called for 1,200. Later the number was raised to 4,400, and three companies were given production contracts: Van Dorn Iron Works, Maxwell Motor Co., and the C.L. Best Tractor Co. By the Armistice only 64 had been built, of which 10 reportedly reached France. Some 950 were built before production ceased, and these remained the standard U.S. light tank until 1931.

The small tank is intended to follow after the large tank and to travel with and among the infantry, cleaning up trenches, dugouts, and machine-gun nests which have been over looked by the large tank. The large tank is intended to precede infantry by smashing down wire entanglements, breaking across trenches, and reducing areas of resistance. Both types of tanks are intended to break through the enemy's lines and act as cavalry when the occasion warrants, while other tactical uses were developed.

The separate US Tank Corps, created overseas by the necessity of trench warfare, returned from France and England in the spring of 1919 flush with victory and energized by the potential of the new weapon. With the Tank Corps assembled at Fort Meade the first business at hand was the demobilization of the troops who wished to be released and the deprocessing of 213 French-made Renault and 32 British-made Mark V heavy tanks, all used by US tank forces overseas and all recorded as in various conditions of unserviceability. 3 Next Rockenbach and his remaining tank cadre began the business of building back up. The newly manufactured American replacement light and heavy tanks, the M1917 and Mark VIII respectively, were accepted and processed as replacements to the French and British issued tanks. Two tank brigades were organized from the four that returned from overseas and a functioning tank center and school were established.

In 1925 the General Service Schools at Fort Leavenworth publishes The Employment of Tanks in Combat as an instructional text. In this work, breakthrough tanks preceded the infantry assault to clear obstacles, while a second wave of tanks accompanied the infantry, providing direct fire support. This concept reflected the intended use of American tanks in the Great War that was never realized before the armistice. In the postwar years, the Mark VIII served as the breakthrough tank, while M1917 light tanks constituted the accompanying tanks.

In February 1925 Captain Sereno Brett published an article entitled "Tank Combat Principles." Brett was commanding a light tank battalion, now at Fort Meade. The editor of The Infantry Journal duly noted him as an authority on tanks. The editor also noted on the bottom of the first page of Brett's article that Brett's article was "acceptable" in that: "His article on combat principles is based on the Training Regulations on the subject which have not yet appeared for issue to the service. These regulations were approved by the Chief of Infantry and forwarded to the Adjutant General of the Army in December 1924." Brett articulated the position that tanks were an infantry weapon whose mission was to assist the Infantry commander in support of the rifleman. The principles were clearly based upon the reality of the M1917 light tank.

When the much-anticipated Experimental Mechanized Force assembled at Fort Meade on 1 July 1928, it was the first truly combined arms mechanized force in the US Army. The core of the force consisted of the two infantry-tank battalions plus a separate company, the 4th Tank Company, of the 1st Tank Regiment. One battalion was still equipped with M1917 light tanks; the other, with Mark VIII heavy tanks. Both tank types were of 1919 vintage.

All the tanks of this period were characterized by their very low maximum speeds of from 4 to 6 mph, general mechanical unreliability, short operating life, noisy operation, and poor riding qualities. Although attaining some success as mechanical aids to infantry advance, consideration of the mechanical limitations of the vehicle, and of the increased effectiveness of antitank defense measures developed by the end of the war, indicated clearly that marked improvement in performance characteristics was essential if the tank was to develop into an important military weapon.

On June 29, 1929 the War Department published Training Regulations No. 420-270: Infantry: Tank Marksmanship. These regulations refined previous gunnery instruction for crews of the M1917 and Mark VIII tanks then in use. A more uniform method of training was provided that increased the emphasis given to accuracy, recording of individual skill development, the duties of training officers, and the derivation of a more scientific ballistic solution.

As Fiscal Year 1931 arrived, the year when all was to be in place for an effective start for the permanent Mechanized Force, the best laid plan had developed several significant problems. In seeking to upgrade the M1917 light tank, which was still the tank in the inventory, the Tank Board replaced the water cooled engines in a number of M1917 tanks with dir cooled Franklin engines. These up-graded engines allowed the tank to approach a speed of 9 mph. Although the Tank Board decided that it was not economical to upgrade all the M1917 tanks in the Army, as a stop gap measure seven improved M1917 light tanks were available for use in the Mechanized Force.

In 1940 over 300 were taken from storage and given to Canada under the Lend-Lease Act.

There are only four or five of these tanks left in existence. The Fort George G. Meade Museum is known for its extensive collection of World War I exhibits and artifacts. This is partly because the installation was founded as Camp Meade in 1917 during the height of the "war to end all wars." The museum's prized possession is a World War I Renault FT-17 battle tank nicknamed the "Five of Hearts." The tank was brought back from the war, restored completely and now sits in a place of honor inside the museum.

Remnants of other countries lie in ruins covering the Afghanistan landscape. Many countries have passed through this land in their efforts of domination, each leaving something behind. Many of the items are being used, while most litter the sides of the road and decorate various junkyards. There is one particular item of interest for the United States. It is a French Renault FT/17 tank, found in December 2002 by armor officer Maj. Robert Redding. Now that the tanks were found, they have to get to the states. The first step was getting permission from Afghanistan. Redding went to Afghanistan's Deputy Minister of Defense General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum was also the commander of northern Afghanistan. He was more than willing. He considered this as a gift for what the US has done for this country. Dostum allowed one of the two tanks to be taken out of Afghanistan. With the help of Delbarre and historians from the 326th Military History Detachment, a reserve unit from Columbus, Ohio, the best tank was chosen.

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Page last modified: 03-05-2019 18:42:59 ZULU