The title came from the design layout: Being the first production tank to have its armaments housed in a fully rotating turret, having the crew (driver and commander/gunner) compartment in the front of the tank, and locating the engine in the rear of the tank.
This layout is still the standard in modern tanks. It doesn’t sound like the “modern tank” was asking for a lot, until you compare it to the tanks of the day which all looked like giant steel caterpillars that suffered a stroke and had to relearn to walk.
The guns of all of these iron monstrosities were jutting out the sides of their immobile walls, making it somewhere between difficult and impossible to aim at anything.
This honorable metal contraption, the FT, was designed mostly by Louis Renault, of the Renault Automobile Company that is still a major manufacturer of motor vehicles in France to this day, in 1916. The design project advanced so fast that some theorized Louis had been working on the idea of a mechanized death machine in his free time – especially since he had absolutely no experience with tracked vehicles.
More design advancements over the tanks of the time were:
- Tracks that were automatically kept under tension to prevent derailments which was a common issue.
- An engine that was designed to function normally at very steep angles so that the tank didn’t take naps while traversing the crater and trench ridden landscapes of World War I.
- A ventilation system that sucked clean war air from the front of the vehicle and shot it out the back. I don’t mean to understate the importance of this since tanks of WWI commonly reached temperatures of 90 degrees F (32.2 C), and the choking fumes of gun fire, cannon fire and engines usually lingered around in tanks like people who don’t know that their welcome has been spent.
- The butt, more formally known as the tailpiece, was rounded to keep the derpy little baby from falling into any trenches it happened to roll over.
The turret, originally meant only to house a Hotchkiss 8mm machine gun, was changed to accommodate either the machine gun or a 37mm Puteaux gun (a small cannon). These two configurations were affectionately termed male (cannon) and female (machine gun).
Our advanced little light tank wasn’t too speedy, but then again no tank was, topping at a speed of 5 mph (7.7 km/h); chugging behind the infantry it commonly supported.
The tactical term for how to use the Renault FT by Colonel J.B.E Estienne who commissioned the tank was “Swarm”. The idea was to build so many of these light tanks that the French army would effectively zerg rush the enemy defenses. And it worked! The manufacturing goal was to produce 12,260 Renault FT tanks (including 4,440 of the US version) by the end of 1919.
The world pulled a Fry meme and threw their money at the French to buy them. In all, the Renault FT was used by the armies of Afghanistan, Belgium, Brazil, the Republic of China, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Finland, France, Nazi Germany, Iran, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Philippine Commonwealth, Poland, Romania, the Russian White movement, the Soviet Union, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Although by the time of World War II (starting in September 1939) it was old and outdated, the Mister Miyagi of tanks didn’t quit. Granted the action it saw was primarily early World War II, street fights, airport defenses, and some battles where it was a, as Leia might put it, somebody’s only hope. Nonetheless, a tank designed in 1916 was still duking it out with tanks such as the M4 Sherman, Tiger II, and the T-34.
Oh right! Don’t forget to wish the French Legend a happy birthday, it is after all 100 years old and there are less than 50 left; you don’t want to miss your chance.