When speaking about French armor and military in general, especially around the time of Second World War, the word "excellent" is rarely used. However, it is one of the great ironies of history that the glorious French military is now remembered for its defeat by German Wehrmacht in 1940 and considered to be "poor" when nothing could be further from the truth. It was the French army that spawned the way tanks look even now, 90 years later, by perfecting the first mass-produced modern tank design, the Renault FT.
To search for the roots of the French success, we need to go back to the hell of trench warfare in World War One. The story of how a tank came to be is well enough known, but the idea of putting a gun on a tracked chassis is in fact older than the Great War. The French were experimenting with tracked vehicles long before that: perhaps the first French tracked vehicle project to feature a gun was the Levavasseur self-propelled gun from 1903. Back then, however, the military was not very interested and real development was sadly only jumpstarted by the massive losses of French manpower a decade later.
The origins of French armored vehicles are undeniably linked to General Jean Baptiste Eugène Estienne, often called the "father" of French tanks. Seeing the pointless loss of life, he insisted on creating an armored tracked vehicle equipped with a 75mm cannon. At first his ideas were ignored, but he persevered and eventually, in 1915, arranged the building of the first French tanks, the Schneider CA 1 and later the Saint-Chamond.
Just like their British and German counterparts, the early French tanks were little more than metal boxes on tracked chassis (mostly copied from the American Holt tractors), offering basic protection against rifle fire, machinegun fire and shell fragments, but little else. They were equipped with 75mm guns (either the short Blockhaus 75mm or a version of the famous Canon de 75 modèle 1897, one of the best artillery pieces ever developed). Both, however, had one thing in common: their general design was poor - especially the suspension - and they were completely unsuitable for the muddy conditions of WW1 battlefields, their short tracks and massive overhanging hull causing them to get stuck on even the smallest of obstacles. Despite all the problems, around 800 vehicles of both types were eventually built and some were used well into the thirties – but it was clear that this type of design would not lead anywhere.
One of the main issues these early tanks had was their armor. While sufficient against bullets and shrapnel, General Estienne and the armor designers quickly discovered that the value of armor was very relative – it was certainly possible to add more protection to the existing tanks but the slow, large vehicles would be vulnerable to the standard German 77mm field gun no matter how much additional plating was added. There was no realistic way of protecting the French armor against that kind of firepower and so it was decided that instead of going bigger and heavier they should actually go smaller and the idea of swarms of small, light tanks was born.
The company Renault presented its prototype for such a vehicle in late 1917. It had several designations but the most common was the later "Renault FT". At the time of its creation the designers had no idea that this was a vehicle that would change mechanized warfare forever.
Unlike its predecessors, the FT was small and light, weighing around 6.5 tons. It had sufficient armor to protect its 2-man crew from small arms fire and featured a revolutionary element - a rotating turret armed either with a machinegun or with a 37mm Puteaux short recoil gun. It was also really fast for its time – its maximum speed of 20 km/h is not that impressive today but when production started, it was 5 times faster than its predecessor (the Schneider CA 1). General Estienne created a tactic for these vehicles called a "swarm" – massive numbers of small, lighter tanks were to overwhelm enemy forces. This tactic was used rather successfully in 1918 when the first FT tanks reached the frontlines.
Renault FT became the most successful tank of WW1. Around 4000 vehicles of this type were produced and many were used by more than two dozen countries. Practically every country that had its own tank development started at one point or another from the Renault FT. In this sense, French armor design lives on in every tank currently in existence and only now with the onset of crew capsule hulls and unmanned turrets are the old design elements from the FT starting to change.