On loan to the Louisiana National Guard Museum, from the Louisiana State Museum – a Renault Tank.
It was nearly 100 years ago that the first engagement of tanks in battle were utilized when the British deployed the Mark I tank during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in World War I. Inspired by British successes with the tank, the French designed the lightweight, highly mobile Renault light tank to serve as infantry support.
Under production in 1917, it did not see battle until May of 1918. General John J. Pershing, commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force, arrived in France in June of 1917 and immediately appointed several committees to study tank warfare. While the British favored heavy tanks to clear the way for the infantry, the French argued that the Renault light tanks were superior for their ability to advance when the infantry bogged down. After studying both options, Pershing’s officers recommended production of 600 British Mark VI heavy tanks and 1,200 French Renault light tanks for the new American Tank Department. In addition, 300 six-ton trucks with trailers, 90 three-ton trucks with kitchen trailers, 90 Ford automobiles, 180 motorcycles and 14,827 soldiers would be required.
Growing American interest in tanks caught the attention of the young cavalry captain.
To secure his tank assignment, Patton highlighted his mechanical ability, French language proficiency and aggressive spirit as evidenced by his successful attack by motor vehicle against Pancho Villa’s men during the 1916 Mexican Border Expedition. After two weeks of study at the French tank training center and the Renault production plant, Patton produced a 58 page report that served as the foundation for American tank development. His recommendation that tanks be organized into platoons of five, three platoons to a company and three companies to a battalion remained the core of American tank organization to the 1980s. His report also cited the advantages of the Renault as an ability to operate on all terrains, while providing maximum crew protection and ready firepower.
The Renault could also be easily produced in large numbers, had a favorable power to weight ratio and was transportable by truck rather than the rail needed for heavy tanks. Its small size (16’5” length by 5’8” wide and 7’6” tall) made it difficult to spot yet highly maneuverable on the battlefield. An eighteen-horsepower, four-cylinder motor allowed a maximum speed of seven mph and the manually rotated turret allowed for a 360 degree field of fire with either a 3” gun or 8mm machine gun. Patton viewed the Renault as a “heavily armored infantry soldier” whose main purpose was to assist infantry in breaking through enemy lines by clearing wire obstacles and then, like pursuit cavalry, “ride the enemy to death.” The biggest fault he could find was that once “buttoned up” the driver’s visibility was limited to a small slit in the armor and the gunner’s view was not much better.
In January of 1918, Patton was put in charge of establishing the first American Light Tank School at Langres, France and had to make do with communications and weapons training until the French made the promised delivery of the first ten Renaults on March 23rd (another 15 were delivered in May). Driving and maneuver instruction then began in earnest on newly established training grounds in nearby Bourg. Tank commanders stood in the turret to man the weapon and transmitted commands to the drivers by kicking them as the Renault had no radio and was too noisy for verbal communication. A kick to the back meant “forward”, each shoulder was a left or right turn. A tap to the head meant stop and multiple head taps meant backup. Driving was relatively simple – clutch on left, accelerator in center and parking brake on right. A hand crank at the back of the gunner’s compartment started the engine. Speed was controlled by the accelerator or a hand throttle on the right. Pulling back on the large steering lever on the left slowed the left track and turn the vehicle left, right lever slowed the right track and both pulled simultaneously stopped the tank.
Nine weeks of training for the new tankers culminated with tactical practice under “battle conditions.” Light tanks followed 100 meters behind the obstruction clearing heavy tanks and in advance of the infantry skirmishers. They would stay in formation and in constant contact with their infantry unless needed to advance and reduce a German position or to take advantage of a break in the line. The Renaults were prone to breakdowns resulting in no more than 10 of the 25 trainers operational at any time even with mechanics working 24 hrs a day.
The American tank brigades went into action with their Renaults at St. Mihiel on September 12, 1918. In order to facilitate battlefield command and control Patton had all his tanks marked “hearts,” “diamonds,” “spades,” or “clubs” to represent each platoon over a white shape (squares, circles etc.) to represent the company. Battlefield communication, rough terrain and mechanical failure proved to be problematic. Tank brigade leaders often had to disembark and lead their tanks on foot. Each tank also carried a wicker basket with two homing pigeons for sending messages back to command but these were soon trampled in the chaos of battle conditions and limited space inside the tank. Nevertheless, the presence of the tanks boosted infantry moral and terrorized the Germans.
Following the successes at St. Mihiel, in October the tankers were positioned to attack as part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the largest commitment of frontline U.S. troops in the war. The fighting was more intense but the tankers proved themselves highly effective in eliminating German machine-gun positions and supporting infantry. German gunners soon learned to hit the tank’s eye slits and use tank piercing ammunition resulting in a 43% officers and 21% enlisted casualty rate for the tankers. A total of 18 of the 141 Renaults fielded by 1st Brigade were destroyed by German fire although at one time or another during the 46 day battle all of the tanks broke down or were bogged down. It was only the heroic efforts of the tank recovery and maintenance units that keep the Renaults rolling.
When the war ended in November of 1918 a total of 1,235 officers and 18,977 enlisted men made up the American Tank Corps. Americans however had grown war weary and by 1920 Congress made drastic cuts to the military. Contrary to the tactical ideas for the independent operations of a Tank Corps proposed by Patton and others, the Tank Corps was reduced to 154 officers and 2,598 enlisted men and placed under the Infantry Branch. Patton transferred back to Cavalry were he continued to defend the tactical use of the horse while also advocating use of machines. While serving as an umpire during the Louisiana Maneuvers at Camp Beauregard in 1940 he saw an ad hoc armored division easily take out a Cavalry Division inspiring him to seek a command in the developing Armored Force and lead to his fame during WW II.
Although the U.S. ignored tank development in the 1920s and 30s, England, German and France continued to develop new models and tactics inspiring a new generation of American officers who built upon the lessons learned with the American Tank Corps and the little Renaults of WWI.
The Renault light tank on display at the Jackson Barracks Museum was received in 1920 by the State Museum of Louisiana as a gift from the Republic of France. Heavily damaged during Hurricane Katrina is has been restored and re-painted by the staff and volunteers of the Museum of the American GI in Texas and is thought to be one of only four remaining examples of the Renault in North America.
You can find out more about the Renault and the US Tank Corps by reading Dale Wilson’s (1990) Treat ‘em Rough! The Birth of American Armor, at the Louisiana National Guard Museum’s Library.