Renault FT: Origin of the Modern Tank

By Peter Suciu
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Renault FT: Origin of the Modern Tank

March 23rd, 2024

12 minute read

The French-made Renault FT light tank wasn’t the first armored vehicle to see service in the First World War, and it wasn’t even the first true “tank”. However, it was the first to employ features that were to become standard in tank design — notably a rotatable turret that was mounted directly onto the hull. Perhaps even more importantly, the FT proved that tanks didn’t need to be the massive, hulking behemoths that were akin to miniature rolling fortresses.

Polish FT-17 tank in Katowice
A Polish-crewed Renault FT tank on patrol in Katowice two days after the ending of the Polish-Soviet War on March 18, 1921. The tanks were provided to Poland as part of its alliance with France.

Developed with little thought for maintenance, many FTs broke down before they could reach the enemy lines, but they still played a significant role in the Allied victory in 1918.

Birth of the Tank

It was in September 1916 that the British Army first employed its Mark I tanks in combat during the Battle of the Somme on the Western Front. The often-repeated story is that the sight of the tanks caused panic in the German lines, and while only a third of the tanks managed to make it across no-man’s-land — with the others broken down or stuck in the mud — the vehicle’s success was essentially proven.

American troops taking French-made Renault FT tanks into battel at Argonne Forest
American troops head toward combat on the first day of the Meuse–Argonne offensive. These tanks were French-built Renault FT tanks and not the American-made Model 1917. Image: NARA

However, it was also clear that better tactics needed to be employed, while some designers also considered how to improve the tank.

Finnish Renault FT tank in the Winter War
While much smaller than the British Mark VII tank, the 6-ton tank was still intimidating when looking up at it from a trench. This one is armed with the M1916 37mm cannon. Image: SA-kuva

The heavy tank changed the character of the conflict more and more, and the vehicles proved to offer a decisive advantage. Yet, military planners also quickly realized if the tank could break through the lines, ending the days of static warfare that defined much of the war, mobility was to become of paramount importance once more.

The Origin of the Light Tank

Today, teams of engineers, designers and countless others contribute to the design of our modern weapons. This certainly wasn’t always the case, and Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Estienne is now considered by some in his homeland to be the Père des Chars (Father of the Tank) for his contributions to tank design, as well as tactics.

Polish Army with Renault FT 17 tanks
A Polish army unit with its FT 17 tanks during the Polish-Soviet War. Image: Polish National Digital Archives

It could be argued that he had the unique combination of being a forward thinker with the training and skills to actually bring forth the changes he envisioned.

Renault FT 17 with 37mm Puteaux cannon in Finland
The Finnish army used the Renault FT 17 in the Winter War against the Soviet Union. The Red Army employed the more modern T-26 tanks when they invaded Finland. Image: SA-kuva

Estienne received his education at the École Polytechnique (the French Military Academy), where he won first prize in a national mathematics competition. Though his first passion was Greek Antiquity, he proved to be well-versed in mathematical and philosophical problems. As an artillery officer in the French Army, he went on to present works on indirect fire, but also helped development methods in aircraft spotting for artillery — becoming a founder of French military aviation.

Renault tanks on winter maneuvers in Helsinki Finland 1931
A Renault tank regiment moves through the center of Helsinki, Finland enroute to winter maneuvers outside the city in 1931. Image: SA-kuva

During the First World War, he offered some proposals for tank design and development. As noted, at the time, most of the heavy vehicles fielded were massive with crews of a dozen or more men. Estienne envisioned a smaller and more mobile platform. Yet, as so often impacted France’s military programs of the era, personalities and politics came into play. There was resentment from some of Estienne’s colleagues and it wasn’t until a meeting with Louis Renault that Estienne became involved in the effort to build what would become the FT.

Enter the FT

The Renault-built tank weighed just under seven tonnes, and unlike the heavy tanks it required only a crew of two — a commander/gunner and a driver. It was armed with either a single Hotchkiss machine gun or a short-barreled Puteaux 37mm cannon in the turret, which offered a 360-degree traverse.

hatches on Renault FT tank
Northwest of Verdun in 1918, these American tankers sit in their Renault FT tank with the hatches open to allow for airflow. Image: NARA

The tank’s weight was kept down by doing away with a conventional chassis, while the major components were attached directly to the armored body. It employed a monocoque construction principal that was later applied for virtually all passenger cars and light vehicles.

The FT’s tracks also featured an exaggerated idler wheel at the front to increase the track rise and improve the tank’s climbing ability. Being only 16 feet, 6 inches long, it couldn’t cross a trench more than six-feet wide, but a frame tail was also employed to aid in crossing some obstacles.

Polish Renault FT tank on city street in 1921
A Polish-crewed Renault FT tank is parked on a city street in early 1921. Image: Polish National Digital Archives

Its design clearly influenced most tanks to come — as it was a narrow box of riveted steel. The driver sat at the front, while the engine and transmission were located at the rear of the tank. One of the most significant advantages of the Renault FT was that its small size enabled it to be transported by truck to the front lines, whereas the larger tanks had to be moved by rail and then proceed to the front under their own power.

Not the FT-17

There has been much confusion over the designation “FT” with some early post-war sources suggesting it was for the French terms faible tonnage (low tonnage), faible taille (small size), or even franchisseur de tranchées (trench crosser). Rather, the designation was derived from the two-letter production code that all new Renault projects were given for internal use, and in this case the one available was “FT.”

Finnish Defense Forces with Renault FT tanks in 1920
Finland’s first tanks, the Renault FT, at the 1920 anniversary parade of the Defense Forces in Helsinki. Image: Ivan Timiriasew/SA-kuva

Though some sources describe it as an “FT-17,” it was never designated as such by the French military.

“Like ‘Jeep’, there are lots of stories about what ‘FT’ means or stands for, but FT was simply a Renault production code assigned to this specific project. The factory manual of April 1918 is titled RENAULT CHAR D’ASSAUT 18 HP,“explained military vehicles historian John Adams-Graf, editor of the Military Vehicle Preservation Society’s History in Motion.

From Prototype to Combat

The very first prototype of the FT was introduced in 1917 and officials within the French military were impressed enough that an order was soon placed for 3,500 vehicles. That was larger than Renault could handle and as a result, other companies were brought in to aid in the program.

American troops using Renault FT tank in France
American troops with their Renault FT tank in France during 1918. The tank is dragging an extra supply of fuel on a platform behind it. Image: NARA

The Allies later increased the target goal for the number of tanks expected for an early 1919 offensive, and it was set at 12,260 FTs — with 7,820 produced in France and another 4,440 to be built in the United States. As the war ended in the fall of 1918, far fewer were actually produced, with only around 3,000 built in total. The Renault light tanks still played a significant role in the final months of the war, and were even dubbed the “Victory Tank.”

testing the Renault FT tank
The Renault FT tank was a departure from the lumbering pillboxes developed by others. It profoundly influenced tank development throughout the 20th century. Image: Polish National Digital Archives

The FT had its baptism of fire on May 31, 1918 near the Forest of Retz, during the Third Battle of Aisne. Around 30 of the tanks successfully stopped a German advance. The FT proved to provide far greater mobility than the larger heavy tanks of the era.

Polish women in a shooting class pose for a photo with the FT-17 tank
With the Soviet Union as a real threat, these Polish women complete an instructor course of the Rifle Association. Their class photo was with a FT-17 tank. Image: Polish National Digital Archives

In addition to his contribution to the design of the light tank, Estienne also was a pioneer in tank tactics. He envisioned that tanks should be employed in mass assaults on enemy positions, attacking ahead of the infantry. After crossing the initial trench lines, one half of the tank force would be employed to keep down the defenders to open holes in the enemy defenses.

Renault FT tank converted to create smoke screens
This 1926 photo shows a Renault FT-17 tank that was converted to a smoke generator. The two cylinders were filled with chemicals which created smoke screens. Image: Polish National Digital Archives

Such a strategy required complete surprise, which was often lost due to the slow speed of the larger heavier tanks. However, it was one that would be employed in the latter stages of the war with the FT, and was certainly revisited in the conflicts to come.

Post-War Service

Many FTs were exported in the 1920s, and in many cases, they were the first armored vehicles adopted by some armies. The demand became so high at one point that the French Army had to stop exporting the tank for fear it would be left with no light tanks of its own!

The FT also remained in service with the French military and many were rearmed with the new 0.75mm Hotchkiss machinegun — which according to some sources was redesignated as the FT-31.

Renault FT tank in Spanish Civil War
Nationalist soldiers use a captured Renault FT 17 tank on the Madrid Front during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Image: Polish National Digital Archives

There were a significant number still in service in 1939 when the Second World War broke out. Around 1,600 saw use with the French Army, and many were captured by the German military after the defeat of France in the spring of 1940.

Nazi Germany Renault FT tank in World War II
The World War I-era tank was used by Germany in the Second World War. This one was damaged in the Italian Campaign, 1944-45. Image: Polish National Digital Archives

Those were employed by the Germans as the PzKpfw 18R 730(f) — and used mainly for an internal security role, including for guarding airfields and factories. Some had their turrets removed, with the turrets installed as coastal defenses.

M3 Stuart
The M3 Stuart light tank was more than a match for the Renault tanks. This M3 Stuart was photographed outside of Naples, Italy. Image: NARA

Vichy France used a handful of its Renault FTs against Allied invasion forces during Operation Torch in Morocco and Algeria. They proved hopelessly outgunned by the American M3 Stuart and even more so by the M4 Sherman — and it would be one of the few occasions where the U.S. tanks of the era were truly the big dog in a tank vs. tank engagement in Europe.

Finnish Renault tank in the Continuation War
In the 1940s, Finland used the Renault tanks during the Winter War and the Continuation War. Image: SA-kuva

The French Army also employed FTs during the Japanese invasion of French Indochina in 1940, when a section defended the Hue fortress, while the FT was last used in combat in the 1980s during the Soviet–Afghan War, when some FTs were used as pillboxes or roadblocks.

The American M1917

Adopted by the United States military, the FT was produced in America as the M1917. However, the program was beset with problems from the beginning. Though some sample Renault tanks, plans and various parts were sent to the United States for study — the design was only carried out by the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Department, under the job title “Six-ton Special Tractor,” while the actual orders for the vehicles were placed with private manufacturers.

6 ton special tractor Model 1917 tank
Taken from charts used by Intelligence School — Tank Corps of the U.S. Army, this is a drawing of the American Model 1917 tank. Image: NARA

One major issue was that the French specifications were metric and incompatible with American (imperial) machinery, while coordination between military departments, suppliers and manufacturers was poor. Coupled with bureaucratic inertia and an overall lack of cooperation from military departments, the result was significant delays.

new Model 1917 tank at factory
This is a freshly manufactured Model 1917 tank at the Van Dorn Iron Works Co. of Cleveland, Ohio. It is fully equipped with hand tools and tail piece. Image: NARA

As a result, France was forced to supply 144 Renault FTs to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), which were used to equip the U.S. Light Tank Brigade in the summer of 1918.

US Army Tank Corps
Shown here is a World War I recruiting poster for the U.S. Army Tank Corps. The art features cartoon versions of the British Mark VII or Mark VIII tanks. Image: NARA

Production on the M1917 only began in the autumn of that year, and the first two completed vehicles arrived in France on November 20, nine days after the end of hostilities. Eight more showed up in December — truly a case of too little and too late.

M1917 tank manufacturing at Van Dorn Iron Works
Workers assemble Model 1917 tank turrets at the Van Dorn Iron Works in Cleveland. Image: NARA

“While the tradition of the American tanker was borne out of WWI, these armored warriors did not roll into America’s first tank combat in American tanks,” added Adams-Graf. “Rather, when Colonel George S. Patton led the U.S. 326th and 327th Tank Battalions against German troops for the very first time on September 12-16, 1918, his newly baptized “tankers” were piloting 144 French-built Renaults.”

Gen Patton with Renault tank
Lt. Col. George S. Patton, Jr. defined U.S. Army tank tactics with the French Renault FT light tank during World War I. U.S.-made Model 1917 tanks would not arrive before the war ended. Image: U.S. Army

After the war, the Van Dorn Iron Works, the Maxwell Motor Co., and the C.L. Best Co. produced a total of 950 M1917s — 374 with cannons, while 526 were equipped with machine guns, and 50 were signal (wireless) tanks. Those vehicles were delivered to the Tank Corps, which complemented about 200 Renault FTs brought back from France. Those vehicles were never deployed in combat, but used domestically by the U.S. military to quell mobs during the Washington race riot of 1919 and the 1920 Lexington riot.

Model 1917 tank at Camp Colt PA
Capt. D. Eisenhower (left) and Lt. Owens photographed next to a Model 1917 at Camp Colt, Gettysburg, PA. Image: NARA

Five M1917 light tanks accompanied the U.S. Marine Expeditionary Force (the China Marines) to Tianjin in April 1927 under General Smedley Butler, There is no record of shots being fired, and the tanks were returned to the U.S. in late 1928.

In July 1932, six M1917s were deployed in Washington D.C. during the dispersal of the so-called “Bonus Army.” Period photos showed the tanks on Pennsylvania Avenue, but it is not believed that any shots were fired.

Victory Loan Model 1917 tank climbs Pikes Peak
These tanks were able to operate at high altitude as this one demonstrated during a dash up Pike’s Peak in 1919. It was part of a Victory Liberty loan drive to pay for war expenses. Image: NARA

The American-made tanks may have never fired their guns against an actual enemy, but a number of M1917s were used by U.S. filmmakers as a substitute for Renault FTs, to depict either American tank actions during World War I or Renaults in use by European armies during and after the First World War.

Surviving Examples

Though around 3,000 were produced, today there are only around 40 surviving FTs along with an additional 20 M1917s.

Renault FT tank in National WWI Museum
This Renault FT tank is on display at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, MO. Damage from a German cannon can be seen at the rear of the tank. Image: Author

There is a damaged FT in the collection of the National World War I Museum in Kansas City and an intact FT at the National Museum of the United States Army. In addition, there is an M1917 tank in the collection of the West Point Museum, as well as in the U.S. Army Armor & Cavalry Collection at Fort Benning, Georgia, and in the Fort Lee U.S. Army Ordnance Museum among other military vehicle museums.

French Renault FT tank in museum
An original French Renault FT at the Musée de l’Armée (Museum of the Army) in Paris. A Goliath tracked mine can also be seen in front of the FT. Image: Author

Two full-scale, working replicas of Renault FTs were built from scratch by the late Robert Tirczakowski — a military vehicle enthusiast and historian — for Jerzy Hoffman’s 2011 film Battle of Warsaw 1920.

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Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers military history and hardware for The National Interest and FoxNews. He has collected military small arms and headgear since he was 12 years old. His most recent book A Gallery of Military Headdress was released last year and is available from Amazon.com here.

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