With all the attention recently on the 100th anniversary of the first tanks used in battle by the British in 1916, it may seem easy to forget that the French also had a tank program during the First World War. While much ink has been spilled describing the British First World War tank program, comparatively little has been written about the French tank program in English. Fortunately, French Tanks of the Great War: Development, Tactics and Operations by Tim Gale fills that void, presenting a detailed history of efforts by the French to develop tanks as well as describing the major actions where early French tanks saw combat.
This book is a 260 page hardcover volume. While containing a few pages of photos and maps, this book will not be of much interest to modelers, at least as far as providing specific details of particular tank types. However, it will be of great interest to those interested in the history of tank and AFV development of the First World War. Important battles are described, including first-hand accounts from French tank crews. Quite a bit of detail is included in these battle descriptions, often times reporting on the activities of specific tanks. Battles described include the Nivelle Offensive, the Battles of Malmaison, The Matz, St Mihiel, Soissons and Champagne. Also described are the actions of the French tanks operating with the US Army.
The first chapter deals with the development of the first French tanks, describing the individuals and governmental departments involved. The figure of Jean Baptiste Eugene Estienne stands out in this section, a figure of great importance. While most readers will be familiar with his name, this book makes it clear that Estienne was a figure of central importance of early French tank design, far more important than any single individual in the development of British WWI armor.
The following chapters are broken up by battle. Each battle is well explained, combining an overview of the strategic situation followed by a description of the actual combat. Tactics are explained, each battle being in some ways an experiment for the French forces, testing out tactical ideas for the deployment of their “Artillerie Speciale.” The limitations of these early machines come sharply into focus for the reader in the battle descriptions. It is not an exaggeration to say that the primary cause of tank causalities in these engagements is not enemy action but rather mechanical breakdown and getting bogged down in crater holes. When enemy action is noted as destroying French tanks, the most common culprit seems to be German 77mm field guns moved into forward positions. The short operating range of these early vehicles becomes quite apparent from the battle descriptions, as do the issues of lack of tank to tank communications and communications with supporting infantry.
While the British beat the French in introducing the first tanks to the battlefield, the importance of the French contribution to early armor development, both technical and doctrinal, should not be forgotten. In particular, the contributions of Estienne should probably be given more emphasis in English language accounts then they generally receive. In terms of technical achievements, the French FT-17 is likely the most important tank design of the war, heralding the transition from sponson carrying armored boxes to the more modern turreted tank concept. Of course, all this is known to French tank enthusiasts who have French language histories of their armored vehicle heritage. Up to now, early French tank history has been covered in English in smaller works such as the Osprey New Vanguard volume on French Tanks of World War I or within books covering a wider topic. Now, English reading audiences finally have an in-depth account of French World War I tank history thanks to the efforts of Tim Gale.