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The Renault FT: The First Modern Tank

Updated on January 13, 2014
An FT covers the advance of French infantry on the Western Front
An FT covers the advance of French infantry on the Western Front | Source

A New Kind of Weapon

The first World War saw the large scale use of many new types of modern weapons. Aircraft, submarines, heavy artillery and machine guns had been used before but truly came into their own on the battlefields of the Western Front. The mass deployment of these weapons swept away the military methods of the nineteenth century and inaugurated the era of total warfare. The unanticipated demands of this new kind of battle led to the creation of entirely new kinds of weapons. Among these was the most recognizable symbol of modern military might, the tank.

The tanks of the Great War were huge and cumbersome beasts. Machines like the British Mark 4 or the German A7V were in essence massive steel boxes propelled on tracks. These monsters were originally known as 'landships'. These ungainly vehicles little resembled modern tanks, with the single exception of the French-built Renault FT.

Designed in 1916, the FT was the brainchild of the automobile designer Louis Renault, although the final plans were the work of one of his chief designers, Rodolphe Ernst Metzmaier. It was intended to be a lighter, more mobile companion unit to the heavier tanks in service with the Entente powers. Its configuration was a radical departure from the other types then in service. A fully rotating armored turret, the first to be used on a fighting vehicle, sat atop the body and housed the armament. The two man crew occupied the forward section with the engine situatued behind them. This basic layout proved so successful that nearly all tanks since have been built on this pattern.




Prototype FT with cast steel turret mounting a dummy weapon.
Prototype FT with cast steel turret mounting a dummy weapon. | Source

A Revolutionary Design

The 6-ton FT was a small vehicle, especially by modern standards. Five meters in length, 2.14m high including the turret, and 1.47m wide, it was no larger than a typical passenger sedan. Though it may have been considerably less intimidating in appearance than its 30-ton stablemates, the smaller tank was able to maneuver in areas where they would have difficulty, such as densely wooded areas or village streets. Being much lighter, it was also less prone to bogging down in mud, a problem which plagued the early tanks.

Power was supplied by a petrol-burning 4-cylinder Renault engine, developing 39 horsepower. This was sufficient for the tank to develop a cross-country speed of 7 km/hr (4.35 mph). Slightly higher speeds were possible when travelling on proper roads. This may seem slow, but it was considerably faster than the heavier tanks of the era. Fully fueled, the vehicle had a nominal range of 60 km, or 37 miles, although this was usually shorter under operational conditions. The steel-rimmed wooden idler wheels and the rigid frame for the suspension bogies made for a very rough ride for the crew.

The armament of the Renault was carried in a rotating armored turret. Armored turrets were of course nothing new, they had been in use on ships and fortresses for years. The FT was the first armored vehicle so equipped. The early production models were fitted with a circular cast steel turret, but the majority of the FTs were fitted with the hexagonal Berliet 'Omnibus' model constructed of riveted steel plates. Many later production models used a rounded type manufactured by the Girod works of Ugine. The turret rested on ball bearings set within a groove, and was traversed by hand by the tank commander. A mechanical brake, also manually set, served to lock the turret into position. Due to the lack of an overhead hatch, the commander could not stick his head out of the vehicle to see the battlefield. His only view was through a number of slits around the circumference of the turret.

The FT turret could be fitted with one of two weapons. The so-called 'male' char canon used the 37mm Puteaux SA18 gun, a low-velocity weapon firing high explosive shells. It was effective against blockhouses and machine gun nests but lacked the power to penetrate armor. The 'female' version, the char mitralleuse, was fitted with an 8mm Hotchkiss machine gun. The idea was for the two types to operate as a team, the 'males' knocking out strongpoints enabling the 'females' to sweep in and clean out the positions.

This cutaway view shows the cramped conditions inside the FT.  The fuel tank directly behind the gunner/commander's back must have been particularly worrisome.
This cutaway view shows the cramped conditions inside the FT. The fuel tank directly behind the gunner/commander's back must have been particularly worrisome. | Source

Conditions within the FT were no doubt unpleasant, in large part due to the lack of a partition between the crew space and the engine and petrol tank. Ventilation was less than perfect, so heat and fumes from fuel, engine exhaust and weapons fire, along with a tremendous amount of noise, were constant irritants.

The commander had a heavy workload, as he had to direct the driver by nudges with the knee and taps on the shoulders, communicate with other units (using signal flags) as well as locate threats and targets. To operate the weapon he had to traverse the turret, load the ammunition, set the turret brake, register the range, and fire; a laborious process. His very constricted field of vision was another handicap, which could be remedied only by opening the entry hatch. As this involved exposing most of the front of the tank, it was not terribly wise. These drawbacks were however common to the armored vehicles of the era. There were not so much of a problem on the battlefields of the Western Front, where the targets were mostly stationary or slow-moving. They proved disastrous when the aging FTs encountered the Germans once again in 1940.

Production and Variants

Production of the FT began in 1917, but only 84 were delivered in that year. The early series were troubled by radiator and cooling system problems. These difficulties were overcome and large numbers began to reach the front by mid-1918. Manufacture took place at the main Renault works at Boulogne-Billancourt near Paris. The large orders placed by the French government exceeded this facility's productive capacity, so production was undertaken by a number of other French firms as well, among them Berliet, SOMUA, and Delauncey-Belleville. The total production of this type for the year 1918 included 3,177 for the French army, 514 for the US forces, 24 for Great Britain, and a further 3 for Italy. After the war FTs were exported widely. For years afterwards they formed the backbone of the armored forces of many countries.

In addition to the char canon and char mitralleuse, a number of specialized variants of the FT were produced:

  • The FT TSF, a char signal or command and communication vehicle. 'TSF' stands for telegraphie sans fil (wireless telegraphy). This version was unarmed, equipped with radio, and carried a three man crew. Three hundred were ordered, 188 produced.
  • The FT 75 BS, an early self-propelled gun. The normal turret was removed and replaced with an armored mounting for a 75mm Blockhaus Schneider, a weapon used in fortifications and on the Schnieder CA1 heavy tank. Around forty were produced.
  • The char demineur, the first mineclearing tank, which mounted a pair of ploughshares to sweep mines out of its path.
  • The char projecteur, unarmed and mounting a powerful searchlight, used by the gendarmerie.
  • FT modifie 31 or FT31, an upgraded version using the 7.5mm Model 1931 Riebel machine gun. Most of the tanks still serving in metropolitan France received this upgrade.

A note on nomenclature: The FT is often referred to as the FT-17. This designation appears only after World War One. During the conflict the vehicle was referred to simply as the FT, or more completely as the Automitralleuse a chenilles Renault FT modele 1917. This translates roughly as Self-Propelled Machine Gun with Tracks, Renault FT model 1917. FT does not stand for anything, it is simply an internal designation used by the Renault complany.

The first Soviet-built tank, an FT named 'Freedom Fighter Lenin', on display with one of its larger descendants.
The first Soviet-built tank, an FT named 'Freedom Fighter Lenin', on display with one of its larger descendants. | Source

American and Soviet Models

It is the distinction of the Renault to have been the first tank produced by both of the eventual superpowers. France was hostile to the Soviet regime and supplied no FTs to the Red Army. However, a number were sent to the enemies of the Bolshevik regime. Fourteen of these were knocked out by the Soviets in battle, and rebuilt at the Krasnoye Sormove factory in Nizhny Novgorod in 1920. A single new copy was assembled as well, and christened 'Freedom Fighter Lenin'. These units were known as the 'Russkiy Renos', and were the first of a long, long line of tanks built by Soviet industry.

The Americans entered the Great War with no tanks of their own. The decision was made to equip American tank units with French FTs, but the demands of wartime production far outstripped the capacity of French industry to provide them. As a result, the solution was to produce the tank in American factories. The resulting unit, known officially as the Six-Ton Tank M1917, went into production at a number of American plants. It differed from the French original in having repositioned exhaust vents and vision slits, as well is including a partition between the crew and engine compartments. The M1917s also used American armament and engines.

The M1917 arrived too late to see action in the war. All American tank units which fought in the war were equipped with French-built models. In fact, the M1917 never saw action, with the dubious exception of six which were used in 1932 in dispersing the American WW1 veterans of the 'Bonus Army' protesting in Washington D.C.

A young Patton with one of the FTs used by American forces in France,
A young Patton with one of the FTs used by American forces in France, | Source

Operational History

World War One

FTs began to reach operational units in substantial numbers in the spring of 1918. The early series experienced some mechanical difficulties with the radiator and cooling system. However, these problems were overcome in time for the type to see its first large scale engagement in May during the Allied counterstroke to the German spring offensive during the Second Battle of the Marne. The tanks went into action near the town of Soissons and proved a success. As the war situation became more fluid during the summer and fall increasing numbers of Renaults went into battle. They performed admirably in their designed role, traversing no-man's land in the teeth of German fire, demolishing barbed wire obstacles and eliminating centers of resistance in cooperation with heavier tanks and artillery, clearing the way for the infantry.

American tank units, organized and led by a young George S. Patton, also operated the FT, notably in the actions around St. Mihiel and as part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. FTs took part in all major offensives in the closing stages of the war on the Western Front. All told, the type fought 4356 engagements with 746 tanks lost in action.

Between the Wars

The FT was exported widely after the war and saw service in many of the conflicts of the interwar years.

  • During the period of foreign interventions against the Bolshevik revolutionary regime, a number of FTs were supplied to White Russian forces by the French. This was a part of the French policy of arming the enemies of the new Soviet state. FTs were also supplied to Poland, Estonia, and Finland for this reason. The tanks engaged the forces of the new Red Army during the confused fighting of the Russian Civil War.
  • Polish units equipped with the FT fought in most of the significant actions of the 1920 Russo-Polish War. At first the units were commanded by French officers, but during the latter part of the conflict these were replaced by Polish commanders. FT units took part in the actions near the towns of Lido, Grodno, and Rowne, fighting delaying actions against the Soviet onslaught, as well as in the culminating August battle near Warsaw. This conflict saw the use of damaged FTs loaded onto flatcars and incorporated into armored trains. Many operators of the FT would use them in this way.
  • During the 1920-29 Rif War, FT tanks of the Spanish Army operated in Morocco against the Berber forces led by Muhammad 'Abd al-Karim. Later FTs would fight on both sides of the Spanish Civil War.
  • On the other side of the Eurasian landmass the FT gained the distinction of being the first tank to be used in China, a handful being imported by the warlord Zhang Zhoulin for use in his army. The troops of Chaing Kai-Shek's Koumintang government also imported about thirty of the type. These operated along with the hodgepodge of imported armored vehicles in the Nationalist army against warlord forces and the Japanese.
  • The Japanese government also equipped some of its first tank units with the FT. In Japanese service it was known as the Ko-Gata Sensha. The tanks were assigned to the Kwantung Army and were used in combat in the operations following the Mukden Incident.
  • During the 1940 Finno-Soviet Winter War, the FTs of the Finnish Army were deployed in defensive positions on the Karelian Isthmus and north of Lake Ladoga. These were not used as mobile units, but rather were buried up to the turret and used as static fortifications. Nearly the entire force was abandoned by the Finns or destroyed by the Soviets.


An FT of the Imperial Japanese Army in Manchuria.
An FT of the Imperial Japanese Army in Manchuria. | Source

World War Two

Perhaps surprisingly many of these veteran units were still in front-line service with some European countries when the next general war broke out. During the 1939 campaign the Polish Army fielded its remaining FTs against the German onslaught, along with its other units. These aging tanks proved no match for the new generation of German panzers and aircraft. Along with the rest of the doomed Polish forces they fought bravely and with distinction in a lost cause.

France fielded some of the most advanced tanks in the world in 1940, many types superior to the German panzers. However, the economic troubles of the 1930s led to a shortage of funds for military procurement, a situation which was shared by all the western democracies. As a consequence when the storm broke in the west the French fielded a mixture of advanced and obsolete equipment. Among the armored forces, nine battalions in metropolitan France and four in the overseas colonies were still equipped with the FT. In addition, many were distributed among infantry units and other small special-purpose units detailed to guard rear-area facilities or to combat paratroop assaults. In all, 1297 FTs of all types were still on the French order of battle in 1940, 462 of these in front-line combat units.

Following the German breakthrough and the collapse of French resistance after the Battle of Sedan, the entire reserve was committed in a vain attempt to stop the German drive to the Channel. The FTs here saw their last regular combat service in Europe. Once again they proved no match for the Wehrmacht. Many of these FTs were captured and pressed into service with the German forces. These were redesignated PzKpfw 18R 730(f). The Germans used them in occupied France for internal security purposes and airfield defense. A number were supplied to the Luftwaffe to serve on airfields as snowplows. A small number of FTs continued in service with the Vichy French forces in the colonies, seeing action against Thai forces in 1940-41, and encountering the Allied 'Torch' landings in French North Africa.


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    • profile image

      Tom 4 years ago

      Very interesting. I didn't realize they had tanks in World War 1.

    • Vik Beluso profile image
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      Vik Beluso 4 years ago from Champaign, IL

      Thanks Tom!

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