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Book Review: French Tanks of the Great War

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Having recently finished guiding a WW1 battlefield tour in France and Belgium, I found myself curious to learn more about the details of French tank development and service. We are used to seeing and hearing about the British tanks, but it was actually the French Renault FT-17 light tank that would set the future of modern tank development. The book I found was Tim Gale’s “French Tanks in the Great War”; a history of both the development and combat use of the three models that saw French service (the Schneider, the St. Chamond, and the FT-17). The developmental story is not really technical in this book – it is focused instead on the logistic and organizational development of the tank service (the “Special Artillery”). The technical development is covered, but not in much detail.

Where the book is loaded with detail is in the combat history of the tanks. From the Nivelle Offensive in 1917 through the end of the war, Gale describes the actions of the tank units deployed to each major unit. This information comes form the original after-action reports of the French military archives, and is loaded with details, often down to the actions of individual tanks. What we see from this is a very interesting evolution of French tank doctrine, from a shaky start when no-one had any experience in the employment of tanks (and when a poor performance could have jeopardized their whole existence) to the fall or 1918 when the art of tank employment (which was really the art of combined arms operation, including infantry, tanks, aircraft, and artillery together) was really coalescing as a proven doctrine.

The ties to small arms are  a bit slim, but the book does discuss German anti-tank weaponry and tactics, including the deployment in 1918 of the tankgewehr AT rifles. In my opinion, the understanding of tanks is essential to a proper well-rounded understanding of the First World War, but this is definitely not a book heavy on small arms information. For the price, though (around $20 on Amazon at the time of this writing), it is a wealth of information and I would definitely recommend it.

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