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Schneider CA1

From Academic Kids

The Schneider CA1 was the first French tank. It was inspired by the need to overcome the horrors of the trench warfare of the " Great War".

The Schneider Company was a large arms manufacturer in France. Having been given the order to develop heavy artillery tractors, in January 1915 the company sent out its chief designer, Eugène Brillié, to investigate tracked tractors from the American Holt Company, at that time participating in a test programme in England. On his return Brillié, who had earlier been involved in designing armoured cars for Spain, convinced the company management to initiate studies on the development of a Tracteur blindé et armé (armoured and armed tractor), based on the Baby Holt chassis, two of which were ordered. In July 1915 this private programme was combined with an official one for the development of a barbed wire cutter by engineer Jean-Louis Bréton.

On December 9, 1915 the first chassis was demonstrated to the French Army. One of the onlookers was colonel Jean-Baptiste Eugène Estienne (1860-1936), a man held in very high regard throughout the army for his unmatched technological and tactical expertise. For Estienne the vehicle shown embodied vague concepts about AFV's already growing in his mind. On December 12 he presented to the High Command a plan to form an armoured force, equipped with tracked vehicles. This plan met with approbation and a production order of 400 was affirmed on February 25, 1916. The first vehicle of the production series was delivered on September 5. Meanwhile, production had shifted to the SOMUA company.

The name of the tank was Schneider CA. The meaning of "CA" is uncertain. Later it was usually understood to mean Char d'Assaut (literally "chariot" and today the full word for "tank"). For several reasons this interpretation is dubious. Firstly, the designation predates by some months the first known usage of char as "tank". Secondly, word order would be unusual: in French the normal order is Char d'Assaut Schneider. Thirdly at the time the letter codes at the end were normally used to indicate consequent prototypes. We know the first Schneider prototype was called the Tracteur A, the second the Tracteur B and that the type as produced was again different from that second prototype. So it's plausible the code means "third type" (C) in its first (A) production version.

To the modern eye, the tank is hardly recognizable as such. It has no turret, and only with some difficulty can we discover the location of its main armament, a 75 mm petard, placed in a sponson in the right front corner. Two 7.92 mm Hotchkiss machine guns, projecting from both flanks in ballmounts, complement the small gun. Another awkward feature is the overhang of the frontal part of the chassis, causing the tank to ditch itself whenever the smallest bump was met. The fighting compartment is extremely cramped: the crew of six was mostly flat on its belly in a 90 cm space between the roof and the 60 hp (45 kW) engine. Luckily, top speed was only 8 km/h. All this was protected by 11 mm steel plate, later improved by a spaced armour of 5.5 mm, raising the weight to 13.5 tons.

As their production numbers were more ambitious the French lagged behind the British somewhat - it simply takes more time to build larger factories - deploying their tanks for the first time on April 16, 1917 at Berry-au-Bac during the infamous Nivelle Offensive. Their first use was a complete disaster, many of the about 130 tanks were shred to pieces by German artillery. Twenty units with Schneider tanks were formed, named Artillerie Spéciale 1-20, under the overall command of the now brigadier Estienne. In 1918 these "old" tanks were gradually phased out in favour of the new Renault FT-17, but production only ended in August 1918, when exactly 400 had been built including the prototype.

After the war, the tanks were rebuilt as recovery vehicles and tank transporters. Six were sold to Spain in 1922, later taking part in the Spanish civil war near Toledo on the side of the Republicans. One vehicle survives, in running condition, at the Tank Museum in Saumur.

There were several projects for the production of more Schneiders with turrets and/or better guns: the CA2, 3 and 4. Only prototypes were made of the CA2 and CA3. The CA4 remained largely a paper project. Because of the project designations, later books would name the original tank CA1. The heavy St. Chamond tank was developed from the Tracteur A prototype of the Schneider, leading to much confusion among later historians.

See also

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