France, 1916-1918, Heavy tank prototype – 1 built
1916 was a massively important year in the history of armor development, for both France and the world at large. It was during this year that Britain’s Mark I tanks were first engaged in combat, and that two French tank designs, the Saint-Chamond and the Schneider CA1, were first ordered for mass-production. In the history of France’s armor development in particular, 1916 was also marked by the start of one of the most ambitious tank projects of the war, which would result in a wildly innovative design: the FCM 1A.
1916: Procurement chaos and lessons from the British
The First World War had, during the mere months after it broke out, turned from a mobile war of maneuver to a vastly more static war of position prompted by the considerable evolutions of the late 19th and early 20th century in artillery and small arms technology, which were not matched by advancements in transport and motorization. With both sides finding it impossible to achieve large breakthroughs, and France seeing some of the most industrial parts of its territory occupied by the Kaiser’s troops, there were massive incentives to find a solution to the problem caused by trench warfare; the idea of all-terrain armored vehicles is one which quickly appeared in the minds of engineers in both France and Great-Britain.
The first years of these armor developments, 1915 and 1916, were, in France, marked by a variety of vastly different proposals being put forward. However, this was largely without a formal structure being in place to evaluate them properly. Engineers and representatives would often collaborate to try and push their design to the forefront, as various figures tried to gain a hold on the procurement of armored vehicles by negotiating with the Under-Secretary of Armament Albert Thomas. The most famous of those figures is undoubtedly Colonel Jean Estienne. Col. Estienne had gained some considerable control upon the procurement of France’s armored vehicles, most notably after he was named director of the Artillerie Spéciale (special artillery, France’s tank force in WW1) in September of 1916. Nonetheless, while Estienne would be extremely influential late in the war (particularly for the adoption of the FT), in 1916, his control was still very incomplete.
A good example of this chaotic procurement process in 1916 was the procurement of the Schneider CA1 and Saint-Chamond tanks. Both were vehicles which shared a number of characteristics, such as a casemate-mounted 75 mm gun (a short Blockhaus-Schneider howitzer on the CA1, while the Saint-Chamond mounted a longer field gun, first of Saint-Chamond design but later the standard french 75mm mle 1897), and a short suspension that left much of the hull’s front forward, which proved detrimental to trench crossing. Both of those vehicles were designed in ignorance of the other, with no coordination over their performance or protection. Nonetheless, 400 of both vehicles were ordered within a short time of each other in 1916. While Estienne had been a major proponent of the CA1, he would only learn of the existence of a Saint-Chamond tank around the time the order for it was finalized.
The major proponent of the Saint-Chamond had been another military figure who played a key role in the birth of France’s tank force, General Léon-Augustin Mourret, who was the leader of the French’s Army automotive service. Gen. Mourret was a rival to Estienne, particularly in 1916, and Mourret was also to be at the origin of FCM’s heavy tank projects.
Gen. Mourret appeared to have been imagining the concept of a heavy tank for some time in the summer of 1916. In September, he took part in a bilateral meeting between the French and the British, which was held to reach the conclusions of the first operational use of British tanks at the Somme. Among the participants of this meeting was Lt. Colonel Albert Stern, leader of the Tank Supply Committee and previously part of the Landship Committee, and a key figure in Britain’s tank development during the war. Mourret traded views with Stern, and was introduced in more extensive detail to the British Mark I tank design. When comparing it to the French vehicles in development at that time, Mourret found the Mark I to be substantially more advanced. Mouret notably lauded that the naval engineers had had a major role in the vehicle’s development, and judged that they had done a superior job to the French Saint-Chamond and Schneider CA, which were mostly the result of artillery manufacturers. Notably, he found that the naval engineers had thought of vastly superior fire protection, air circulation, and habitability arrangements than Schneider and Saint-Chamond. He also found that the British design’s heavier weight (the Mark I weighed 27-28 tons, whereas the Saint-Chamond weighed 23 tonnes and the CA1 a mere 13.5 tonnes) was necessary to allow a better blend of protection, firepower, and mobility.
The FCM project gets on its tracks
In October of 1916, Gen. Mourret, supported by the Undersecretary of State for Inventions Regarding Defence, Jules-Louis Breton (also deeply involved in the study of armored vehicles), managed to lobby the Undersecretary for Artillery and Military Equipment, Albert Thomas, to order a heavy tank prototype from a naval shipyard. Clearly, the goal was to emulate the British method and to try and develop a vehicle superior to the CA1 and St. Chamond. Thus, on the 20th of October 1916, an order for a prototype vehicle was placed with Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée (FCM ).
Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée (Eng: Forges and Shipyards of the Mediterranean), was a naval shipyard with its main facilities at La-Seyne-Sur-Mer, on the Mediterranean coast. The company enjoyed a stellar reputation in the 1900s and 1910s, being a major producer of civilian ships and warships alike. Upon receiving the order, FCM’s administrator, Frédérick Moritz, gave the task of designing and producing the vehicle to the company’s shipyard at La-Seyne-Sur-Mer. The shipyard’s director, Léonce Rimbaud, recruited the engineers Lucien Savatier and E.Jammy to lead the project. They quickly got to work and, by January 1917, had already produced a design of which they had made a large wooden mockup.
The council shall decide your fate: divisions at the CCAS
In the meantime, at the request of Undersecretary Jules-Louis Breton, Undersecretary Albert Thomas created the CCAS, or Comité Consultatif de l’Artillerie Spéciale (Eng: Advisory Committee of Special Artillery). Officially brought into existence on the 13th of December 1916, this committee grouped representatives of various ministries, the French Army high command, industrialists, and deputies who had been involved in armored vehicle design. This last category included Col. Estienne, and some in the committee who shared his views.
This FCM project, designed by FCM with help from Renault, was the subject of the very first discussions within CCAS on the 17th of December 1916. The second CCAS meeting, held on the 30th of December, had as main topic Renault’s light tank project (which would become the FT). At that second meeting the FCM design was also discussed, which by that point had become a fairly well established concept of a 38-tonne tank armed with a 105 mm howitzer, protected by 30 mm of armor and powered by a 200 hp engine. This set of characteristics was presented by FCM’s administrator Frédérick Moritz. The project’s development was therefore going in a direction quite opposite to what Estienne desired. Col. Estinne, known in France as the ‘father of the tank’, wanted the Artillerie Spéciale to focus on a very light and also a very heavy design. The FCM project was simply not being made large enough to fulfill this second category. He also preferred the idea of a higher-velocity 75 mm gun as the main armament of the heavy tank, opposed to the low velocity 105 mm howitzer planned.
The third meeting of the CCAS, on the 17th of January 1917, was dedicated almost entirely to the FCM project. Undersecretary Jules-Louis Breton had, days prior, on the 13th, visited FCM’s facilities at La-Seyne-Sur-Mer and been presented with the already solid design in the form of the complete, to-scale mockup, which made a massive impression on Breton. While Estienne was not present in this meeting, he too had been presented this project, and found it to be well-presented and satisfactory despite it not being the ‘very heavy design’ he had wanted. Estienne noted his preference for a 75 mm gun over the 105 mm howitzer and was overall satisfied enough that he requested the CCAS to approve the production of two prototypes, one with an electric and one with a mechanical transmission, though in the end the prototypes ordered would not be the same as what Estienne requested. Breton, on the other hand, wanted an order for 50 vehicles to be passed immediately, but he saw this being rejected by CCAS. The majoritarity vote by CCAS was to focus on material already in production and viewed the doctrine of heavy tank use as still being too ill-defined to warrant a production run.
While this meeting was viewed as disappointing by proponents of the FCM design, including Breton, on the 5th of February 1917, the Ministry of Armament ordered two additional prototypes from FCM, in addition to the first ordered in October 1916. While this first prototype would have a mechanical transmission, the two newly ordered vehicles would feature oil-electric and oil-hydraulic transmission designs. These two later prototypes would not actually end up being produced.
1917: Half a year wasted in delays
By early 1917, the first prototype was due to be completed and begin its trials in May. While development and production of the tank itself was done by FCM, the gearbox and engines were a product of Renault.
The whole of 1917 was marked by tremendous delays from Renault which meant that, without its engine or gearbox, the prototype’s trials could not begin. The exact reason for those delays is not quite known, though Renault being overtasked and already vastly engaged in the FT light tank, notably, have been raised as potential explanations. In any case, by June, FCM was still awaiting Renault’s part of the deal. By August, when asking the firm about the whereabouts of those elements, Breton received an answer saying that the engine and gearbox would not be delivered for at least three weeks. Finally, on the 18th of October 1917, Moritz was able to place a date – around the 20th of November – for the FCM 1A’s trials to begin. In practice, they would begin a month later, on the 20th of December 1917, with the presence of the CCAS as well as a number of other officers, including an American and a British representative.
The FCM 1A: The hull and armor design
The hull designed for FCM’s heavy tank was rectangular, narrow, and elongated. The vehicle had an impressive length of 8.35 m, but, at 2.84m wide including the suspension, was only slightly larger than the much lighter Saint-Chamond. The hull was also quite tall, standing at 1.98 m, and had a ground clearance of 40 cm. To its front, it featured a single Hotchkiss mle 1914 8 mm machine-gun firing through a ball mount on the lower glacis. Two crewmen, the driver, and a machine-gunner, stood at the hull’s front, each having an openable vision port. Three crewmen stood further back in the hull, with two located behind the turret ring, tasked with handing the 105 mm shells from the hull racks to the turret. The third man was a mechanic tasked with operating and maintaining the engine and transmission. The hull, without the suspension, engine, and radiator, had a weight of 17,500 kg (including 5,500 kg of armor). Those elements (suspension, engine, and radiator) had a weight of 19,300 kg. A total of 122 105 mm rounds were carried within the hull, 18 in front of the turret ring, 8 to each side of it, and 44 on each side of the hull behind the turret.
The suspension of the FCM 1A featured a series of 4-wheel bogies, some placed on the inside and some on the outside of the track. Six small return rollers were present on the top of the suspension and it appears to have had a front drive sprocket and a rear idler. This layout may seem basic by modern standards, but a major innovation for French armored design was that the suspension was as long as the hull itself. On the CA1 and particularly the Saint-Chamond, the hull stuck out in front and behind the suspension, making the vehicle’s movement on irregular terrain – systematic in trench warfare – very hazardous. With its extremely long hull and equally long suspension, the FCM 1A was not at such a risk of becoming embedded in a bank or trench as it crossed this difficult terrain. Also helping the tank over rough and often saturated ground were the 60 cm wide tracks which gave the vehicle ground pressure of just 0.6 kg per cm² (58 KPa).
A particularly impressive feature of the FCM 1A was its armor layout. The vehicle offered 35 mm of armor on the front, 21 mm to the side and rear, and 15 mm on the bottom and top, on both the hull and turret. While this may not seem particularly impressive by WW2 standards, it was exceptional by the standards of WW1. For example, the 15 mm of belly or roof armor was heavier than the primary armor on the CA1, which had a maximum of 11.5 mm of armor or the Saint-Chamond with just 17 mm (and only on a small, up-armored area of the vehicle). Even in comparison with the British-American Mark VIII International Liberty heavy tank, this was heavy armor, as that vehicle did not feature more than 16 mm of armor. Only the German A7V could somewhat compete with the FCM 1A’s frontal 35 mm of armor with its 30 mm, but the German design was inadequate cross-country and was totally outclassed by FCM’s heavy tank.
The engine used on the FCM 1A was a 12-cylinder Renault petrol engine producing 220 hp at 1,200 rpm. This engine provided the FCM 1A with a respectable power-to-weight ratio of 5.3 hp/t. This was higher than the CA1 at 4.4 hp/t, Saint-Chamond at 3.9 hp/tn, British Mark IV Male at 3.75 hp/t, and the British Mark V at 5.2 hp/t. Of vehicles which had at least reached prototype stage by 1917, only the British Medium Mark A ‘Whippet’ outdid the FCM’s horsepower per ton at 6.4. The FCM 1A’s engine compartment also had quite considerable additional space available to allow for a larger, more powerful engine in the future and the proposed evolution of the design, the 45-tonne FCM 1B, which was to mount a 380 hp engine. Exhaust for the engine was featured on the top of the hull, behind the turret; the radiator was to the rear of the hull.
Turret and firepower: monstrous explosive charge
The FCM 1A featured what appears to be a fully rotating turret. Whilst this vehicle by no means invented the concept, this was still a fairly uncommon feature for WW1 tanks, particularly on vehicles of this size.
The FCM 1A’s turret was mostly rounded in shape, housing two crew members. To the left sat a commander/gunner, and to the right, a loader which would also serve as machine-gunner. The vehicle had a large, initially square command cupola that stuck out on the left side, from which the commander could observe the battlefield.
The main gun featured in this turret was a Schneider 105 mm short howitzer. This gun was purposely designed for the FCM 1A and may have been loosely based on Schneider’s model 1913 105 mm field gun, albeit substantially shortened. The very short barrel of the gun only gave it a muzzle velocity of 240 m/s; however, the shells fired from the FCM 1A’s gun had a massive 4 kg explosive charge, heavier than the entire shells fired by most other tanks of the war, which generally had 57 mm guns, like the British and German tanks. By way of comparison, the explosive shells fired by the French Army’s standard 75 mm field gun, the model 1897, featured on the late model of the Saint-Chamond tank, contained just 0.695 kg of explosives. While the rate of fire of the FCM 1A’s 105 mm gun would have been very low, its destructive potential against trench systems and fortifications was great.
As secondary armament, the tank featured two Hotchkiss mle 1914 8 mm machine-gun, each in a ball mount; one to the right of the turret, the other on the hull’s lower plate. The standard issue machine-gun of the French Army from 1916-1917 onward, progressively replacing the older, more vulnerable to mud Saint-Etienne model 1907, the Hotchkiss machine-gun fired 8 x 50 mm rimmed Lebel ammunition from either 24 or 30-rounds rigid strips, or 249-rounds metal belts. It had a rate of fire of 400 to 500 rpm on average, and was appreciated for its high reliability and air-cooling, which made it reliable even in the mud of the trenches. There were also 5 openable firing ports from which the crew could fire either the CSRG Chauchat model 1915 machine-rifle firing the same 8 x 50 mm Lebel cartridge as the Hotchkiss from smaller 20-rounds magazine at a rate of fire of 250 rpm, or their side-arms (model 1873 or 1892 revolvers).
The turret had a weight of 4,600 kg, which included 1,300 kg of armor. The armour layout was similar to the hull, except the 35 mm thickness was apparently all around the turret. The complete vehicle had a weight of 41,400 kg, reaching a height of 3 m with the observation cupola, and 2.78 m without it.
Trials at La-Seyne-Sur-Mer: A Char to end all Chars
Trials of the FCM 1A began at FCM’s facilities at La-Seyne-Sur-Mer on the 20th of December 1917, in front of a large delegation. FCM had, by that point, made it clear that the FCM 1A prototype was mostly experimental, and was not intended for military adoption as it was presented.
The obstacle course which had been prepared for the FCM 1A included 3.50 m -wide trenches, 0.90 m-high walls, and artillery shell craters 6 meters in diameter and 4 meters in depth. The FCM 1A was easily able to overcome them. The vehicle was tested in some considerable slopes, and was able to climb up to a 65% slope. It also tried going through a forest of pines, going over a 35 cm-wide tree and shattering a 28 cm one. The tank could reach a maximum speed of 10 km/h, and cruised at 6 km/h on good terrain, well within the standards of WW1 tanks. This first series of trials concerned mobility only, and there were not yet any firing trials of the gun. They have however, been quite extensively documented, with an 18-minutes film being available on the internet.
The FCM 1A left a major impression on the delegation. The vehicle offered some impressive cross-country capacities – far superior to the very mediocre ones featured on the previous Saint-Chamond and CA1. Its massive size was thought to potentially have a major morale effect on enemy forces if it was to enter service. The vehicle also featured many innovative design choices. The FCM 1A was not without flaws – notably, due to the length and narrowness of the vehicle, turning while stationary was almost impossible, although the track was not at any point at risk of going off. One of the impressive features of the FCM 1A, which may not appear obvious at first glance, was the considerable internal space allocated to the crew. With 7 crew members (lowered to 6 during the trials, when it was realized that a single crewman was enough to hand the shells from the hull to the turret), the FCM 1A had one of the smallest crews of non-light tanks of WW1. The 23-tonne Saint-Chamond, for example, had a crew of 9, the 29-tonne Mark V a crew of 8, and the 30 to 33 tonne A7V a crew of 20. At the same time as having relatively few crewmen, the large space inside made the FCM 1A quite impressive in terms of internal habitability, allowing the crew to operate in far better conditions than on most other vehicles of the era. The FCM 1A was also reported to be well-designed to counter fires, as a result of having been designed by a naval shipyard, and to have a good number of escape hatches should the crew have to evacuate the tank. There was no bulkhead separating the crew and engine compartments, though no crew member operated near the engine. However, due to the tank’s size, no vehicle in possession of the French Army of the time could realistically tow it. The solution was provided by attaching tow-points and a fairlead on the vehicle, meaning an FCM 1A could be used to tow and recover another one should the need arise, although how effectively it would do so is unknown, as just one prototype of the tank was ever built.
Soon after the trials began, the FCM 1A’s great performances provoked some considerable interest. The new Minister of Armament, Louis Loucheur, wrote to French Président du Conseil (a role mostly similar to a British Prime Minister in the French Third Republic) Georges Clémenceau, requesting an order for 100 vehicles to be placed. The request was for the first 15 to be delivered in July, and 80 more to be available by the end of the year. However, no order ended up being placed due mainly to follow-ups of the FCM 1A that FCM had, in the meantime, proposed.
18-minutes film of the FCM 1A’s trials at La-Seyne-Sur-Mer
A project doomed… by its own evolutionary potential
Indeed, around the same time as the FCM 1A began its trials in late 1917, FCM had brought forward three new tank designs, based on the experience collected by designing and manufacturing the 1A. The lightest was the FCM A, a 30-tonne, 6.92 m-long tank armed with a turret-mounted 75 mm howitzer. The middleweight was the FCM 1B which was the most directly derived from the 1A. The FCM 1B was to be 7.39 m long, featuring a long-barrelled 75 mm gun in a turret, be powered by a new 380 hp petrol engine, and with a final weight of 45 tonnes. Lastly, and heaviest of all was the FCM 2C project. By this time, the FCM 2C was a 9.31 m-long, 62-tonne tank project, which immediately got the attention of Estienne to fulfil the role of that ‘very heavy tank’ he wanted as a complement to the FT.
By the end of the December trials, the influential Col. Estienne remarked on the FCM 1A’s success, albeit noting that the trials had been performed on particularly dry ground, and that there was a risk of the tank’s rear end sinking in the mud due to most of the propulsion elements being located there. Estienne and the French Army’s GQG (Grand Quartier Général – ENG: Great Headquarters) ended up opting for the evolved FCM 2C design, which pushed the FCM 1A’s size and gigantism even further, in January 1918. Even being particularly optimistic, this FCM 2C could only enter service in 1919.
Continued trials on the FCM 1A
While it had been decided the French Army would adopt the FCM 1A’s heavier, 75 mm-armed cousin, the FCM 2C, trials and experimentations nonetheless continued on the prototype as it had already been manufactured. Firing trials of the 105 mm gun were performed on the 5th to the 7th of February 1918, which satisfactory results.
Later that year, the FCM 1A prototype did receive some considerable modifications, notably to the turret. The 105 mm howitzer was swapped out, replaced by a much longer gun. While a number of photos of the FCM 1A armed with this gun exist, it has yet to be identified, and even its caliber is unknown; both 47 and 75 mm have been suggested. In any case, this appears to be a much higher-velocity gun than the 105 mm – likely not as good in fortification and trench-busting, but more accurate at longer ranges, and perhaps able to pierce some armor. The vehicle’s cupola was also redesigned; from its original, square shape, it adopted a rounded one, featuring a stroboscope system: two round-shaped plates with holes pierced in them, able of quick rotating, allowing the commander to see out of the vehicle while offering some good protection against machine-gun fire.
Fate – A formidable photo background
Unlike many French prototypes of the 1910s and 1920s, the eventual fate of the FCM 1A is quite well-known. The impressive-looking prototype was, in the 1920s and 1930s, placed outside the Versailles tank school, as a ‘flower pot’. It slowly degraded in this state (with the tracks for example being removed at some point), while often being used as a photo background for studying officers due to its impressive look.
The FCM 1A prototype was still at Versailles when France fell to German armies in 1940. Long out of use and completely incapable of even running, the old prototype most likely met an unceremonious end at a scrapyard; the last known photo of it dates from 1940 and shows a German soldier standing on the aged beast.
Conclusion – An impressive tank, that was not to be.
Out of all the vehicles which reached prototype stage in WW1 France, the FCM 1A was without a doubt one of the most advanced and powerful. For a vehicle designed in 1916 and which had its prototype manufactured in 1917, FCM’s heavy tank indeed presents a variety of modern features; a rotating turret, sensible crew accommodations, and a very powerful main armament in the context of trench warfare, protected under one of the thickest armors of the era.
Despite these very modern features, the FCM 1A was hindered both by the massive delays caused by Renault in 1917, as well as Estienne’s opinion that a heavy tank design ought to be heavier. This contributed to the vehicle not being adopted, though this was not without some forms of regret – in October of 1918, in a letter to Clémenceau, the Minister of Armament once again reminded that the FCM 1A had a crucial advantage over the 2C – it had been built, and, while the 2C was still vastly on paper at that point, the 1A could quite realistically have entered service. Indeed, had it been adopted, it would not have been entirely unthinkable to see the 1A used in combat during the last weeks of WW1.
Nonetheless, even if this impressive WW1 prototype never reached serial production, it remains a fairly important vehicle in the history of French armored development; not only because of its own impressive merits, but also because it launched FCM into armored vehicle design. The shipyard would, in the 20s and 1930s, become a major producer of such, with the FCM 2C in the 1920s, but also the FCM 36 light infantry tank, and participation in the B1 program both with the 1920s FCM Char de Bataille and some considerable other experimentations, notably on the B1 Ter project. FCM would be active all the way up to the postwar years, when it still offered some designs such as the FCM 50T medium tanks, though it could not help being completely superseded by the state-owned AMX. This involvement of FCM in French armored vehicles design goes to show that naval shipyards indeed offered an alternative to artillery manufacturers in the beginning of tank production, with the enclosed, armored nature of tanks arguably making them more similar to warships, albeit much smaller, than to simple mobile artillery pieces.
Both illustrations created by Pavel ‘Carpaticus’ Alexe and funded by our Patreon campaign
FCM 1A specifications
|Dimensions (L x w x h)||8.35 m x 2.84 m x 3 m|
|Ground Clearance||0.40 m|
|Engine||12-cylinder Renault petrol producing 220hp at 1,200rpm|
|Maximum speed||10 km/h|
|Power-to-weight ratio (in hp/ton||5.3|
|Ground pressure||0.6 kg/cm² ( (58 KPa)|
|Maximum slope climbed||65%|
|Crew||7 men (driver, hull machine-gunner, commander/gunner, loader/turret machine-gunner, mechanician, two servants), later reduced to 6 by removing a servant|
|Main armament||1 turret-mounted 105 mm howitzer, later replaced by an higher-velocity gun of unknown caliber|
|Secondary armament||1 coaxial Hotchkiss mle 1914 8 mm machine-gun, 1 hull Hotchkiss mle 1914 8 mm machine-gun, 5 firing ports for CRSG Chauchat mle 1915 8 mm machine-rifle or revolvers|
|Armor||35 mm on the front of the hull and entire turret, 21 mm on the sides and rear of the hull, 15 mm on the roof and top|
GBM n°98 (October/November/December 2011), p 42-52 “Le char lourd FCM 1A ou le rêve immolé”
Tout les Blindés de l’Armée Française 1914-1940, François Vauvillier, Histoire & Collections éditions