Tanks first appeared on the battlefields of Europe on 15th September 1916 at Flers Courcelette, during a British attack on German trenches. Whilst their use was by no means decisive, they showed that not only did the concept of a tracked armored vehicle work but that they had significant tactical potential. The success at that battle, no matter how small or temporary, was received with glee by a war-weary population in the UK and garnered substantial media attention domestically and abroad. Keen to capitalize on the lack of official photos of the tank at a time when what these weapons even looked like was not known, the firm of Holt, which was known to be supplying tracked vehicles to the British, took action. Even though the US was not yet in the war, Holt was keen to take credit for ‘tanks’ even if his vehicles had little to do with their actual development. The result was that, within just a couple of weeks of their first use, Holt had prepared one of their 75 hp tractors with a ‘tank’ body. The vehicle was used through October 1916 in parades in Peoria, Illinois and, at some point, was painted with the slogan ‘America First’.
‘America First’ the name
It is perhaps odd that the name of this vehicle, at a time of a worldwide war in which the United States was not even involved, would be ‘America First’, a campaign slogan for non-interventionism and isolationism. Whether the motives of promoting this slogan on the vehicle were to try and promote isolationism or to promote the vehicle as the first in the world is unclear. It was certainly a slogan known and used politically at the time and would later gain more prominence. However, in 1916, in this context, the phrase might be considered as one or both of those variants. An image of the vehicle from 16th October 1916 shows no such slogan on the side but, by the end of the month, the slogan had appeared.
The design of the vehicle was relatively simple, consisting of 4 parts making up a large slug-shaped body. The first part was the nose of the vehicle, which curved sharply down from the top of the roof to a rounded point at the front. It was made from 12 large curved pieces, in the center of which was a large opening through which a ‘cannon’ poked through. The gun was presumably a fake one, as the weight of a real gun had no obvious means of support, as well as the fact that it would sit directly over the radiator and engine, making serving the gun as difficult, awkward, and impractical as could be imagined. Alongside this ‘cannon’, in the front, were a pair of narrower tubes sticking out of the nose to simulate some kind of guns or flame projectors. No vision slots or holes were provided in the front for the driver.
The center section of the vehicle was effectively a large rounded boiler made from 5 curved pieces running circumferentially around the vehicle to encapsulate the tractor underneath. Each of those curved pieces was made from a single piece running up to the level just above the ‘guns’ on the front, at which point it was joined to another section. Assuming that the top section went all the way around the top of the vehicle to the same height on the opposite side, it would mean that the ‘boiler’ body was made from a total of 15 pieces. On both sides, pierced through each of the pieces making up the side apart from the very first one, were simple circular holes. No covering for the holes appears to have been provided and they had the appearance of a loophole from which soldiers would be able to fire or provide observations. The holes were right at the top corner of the pieces, slightly above the level of the guns.
The third section was the rear. Once more, this had two narrow ‘tubes’ sticking out of the back, roughly in line with the two smaller ones on the front and once more presumably to simulate weapons. The shape of the rear was roughly the same as the nose as well, as it curved sharply down from the roofline down to the rear and covered the back of the tractor. Unusually, a side view of the vehicle showed that the rearmost section entirely projected past the rear of the tractor underneath, making the vehicle about a third longer than it needed to have been. Two other features identifiable on the rear are the US flag flown near to the top. Below this, a small tube was sticking out of the rear. This is presumed to be an extension for the engine exhaust to carry it backward. Although this normally went vertically, there does not appear to be anything sticking out of the front of the roof of the body, above where the engine went.
The final section of the vehicle was the turret. Made from a simple low cylinder with either a flat roof or just open, at least two more ‘guns’ are seen poking out. It is unclear if the turret was purely decorative or if someone could work in that space, as this would need some form of platform made underneath.
The minimum number of people needed to operate the vehicle was two. At least one person had to sit in the tractor under that body to control the steering and propulsion. With no windows to look out of and being sat just behind the midline, inside the hull, he would have no way of seeing outside. Thus, a second person would be needed, located either in the front or in the turret, to act as a guide to direct it in motion. This second person may also have acted as the commander. This was an awful arrangement for controlling a vehicle and alone should have precluded ideas of it being useful in combat as a successful weapon.
Assuming the other ‘weapons’ were operational, then more than 2 men would be inside. Three weapons pointed forwards each would require at least one man and the same at the back for those other two. The small turret could house perhaps two men at most and there is no indication of whether a few more could be housed inside to fire out of the circular loopholes in the side. Even ignoring those loopholes, that would be at least 9 men (2 drivers, 7 gunners). Despite the large crew complement, there is no indication as to how they could get in or out of the vehicle, as no hatches are shown. This leaves the only obvious means of access being to dip under the outer edge of the body and to climb in from ground level. This was perhaps acceptable for a display machine operating in parades, but was both utterly impractical and potentially deadly if there was ever an idea that this vehicle might serve as a template for a combat-viable vehicle. After all, if, operating on slightly soft ground, the vehicle caught fire, none of the men would be able to get out.
The Holt tractors, sold under the name ‘Caterpillar’, were effective and reliable tracked tractors, but they were relatively slow and heavy. They were, after all, designed for hard work, ploughing fields, etcetera. There, power and pulling were more important than speed or comfort. Unarmored, the Holt 75 tractor normally weighed 10,432 kg (23,000 lbs.). With a 75 hp engine, this meant a power to weight ratio of just 7.2 hp/tonne. Any armor or armament on top of the vehicle’s base weight would only decrease performance further, as well as altering the center of gravity, making it less stable. To have armor of any value, such as for stopping bullets, such a vehicle would need at least 6 to 8 mm of steel. Covering such a large body in that shape would add several tonnes to the weight. Assuming the weight of any armor, crew, armament, ammunition, etcetera added to the Holt 75 to make it into a ‘tank’ could be kept to perhaps not more than 10 tonnes, then it would mean a vehicle of over 20 tonnes propelled by just the same 75 hp engine, with a power to weight ratio of 3.75 hp/tonne. Effectively, in order to carry enough armor to be useful, this vehicle would become stuck on anything other than an ideal hard surface, at which point it may as well have just been an armored car, the type of which were already in existence. The design, as presented, could never be a viable tank in that sense – it was a display vehicle only, and the ‘armor’ likely just sheet metal fastened over a wooden frame to keep weight down. The bigger problem for the design was the armor at the rear. Any vertical slope or step to climb would raise the front of the vehicle, pivoting over the track area, where the longitudinal center of gravity was, making it tip back. The projection would then dig into the ground and immobilize the vehicle, therefore seriously limiting the amount of climb possible.
In 1916, at the time the America First vehicle was being prepared, there were two plants owned by Holt producing the 75 Model. One was at Stockton in California, and the other at Peoria, in Illinois. Given that the parades taking place with the vehicle were in Peoria, it is virtually certain that the Holt 75 used was a Peoria-built example.
The tractor was powered by the Holt M-7 7 ½” (190 mm) bore, 8 inch (203 mm) stroke ‘valve-in-head’ engine delivering 75 hp. It had been in production since 1913, originally under the name Holt 60-75 (A-NVS), followed by the slightly improved Holt M-8 series engine. This was the standard engine and virtually unchanged until the end of production of the tractor in 1924.
This engine was a 4 cylinder water-cooled unit that ran on paraffin, with a capacity of 22.9 liters (1,400 cubic inches), delivering 75 hp at 550 rpm. This power was carried to the drive sprockets moving the tracks via a multiple disc clutch made from 5 plates made from bronze and cast iron, along with a simple reversing gearbox. The gearbox provided for 2 forward and a single reverse gear. Forward speed was limited to 2.13 mph (3.4 km/h) in first gear, 3.5 mph (5.6 km/h) in second (top) gear, and 2.13 mph (3.4 km/h) in reverse. The fuel tank held 53.5 Imperial gallons (243.2 liters) which, along with 5 Imperial Gallons (22.7 liters) of oil, and 67 Imperial gallons (304.6 liters) of water, provided the fluids required for the engine to operate.
The Holt tractor itself used cast iron wheels running on heat-treated axles on Hyatt roller bearings. The track was connected by case hardened steel pins linking pressed steel plates 24” wide (607 mm), although 30” (762 mm) wide tracks could be fitted. All of the links had pressed corrugations, 1.5” (38 mm) deep, acting as spuds for traction in soft ground. The load was carried on four double-coil helical springs springing the track along its 80” (2.03 m) ground contact length.
The steering was managed via a single wheel at the front, controlled via a long steering control shaft from the steering wheel and driver’s position. This was located roughly in line with the center of the track units. The steering wheel controlled a non-reversible worm and wheel gear.
A somewhat fanciful depiction of the America First tank in action appeared at the end of October 1916, a few days before any pictures of an actual tank were available. The artist made it seem like this giant slug of a vehicle was a viable weapon.
A close look at the image, however, provides some additional information on the structure. If it is correct in its representation of the vehicle, then the top of the hull was formed without a seam or joint along the top, meaning 5 large curved pieces made up the whole upper structure. Less believable are the three (or possibly four) large guns poking out of that small cylindrical turret leaving zero room inside for any crew, loading, or even a breach for the guns.
More interestingly, perhaps, than the fanciful depictions of these weapons in use, is that the front wheel of the tractor can clearly be seen to be suspended in thin air over the trench. This was not an error of art and was either good luck from the artist or an actual representation of something the tractor was often pictured doing – driving with the front wheel off the ground. This is because, despite the engine being towards the front of the vehicle, most of the weight was at the back, over the tracks. The result was that, when ascending or descending a slope or when crossing an obstacle, the front wheel was often seen off the ground. This looked very dramatic for images showing the capability of the vehicle, but was a serious problem if the vehicle needed to turn. That small wheel was the method of steering the vehicle and, when it was not in contact with the ground, this was a problem.
The first use of tanks was on 15th September 1916 and the first photos in print did not appear in the USA or anywhere else until the middle of October. This left a gap of around a month in which various drawings and pictures of tanks were published in the press based on descriptions, which were often rather laughably inaccurate. In this gap came the vehicle from Holt, which was not a serious design for use off-road and was clearly put together as quickly as possible to show off the contribution of Holt to the war. By the time photos became available in the US press, at the end of October (although not in the British press until November), showing what real tanks looked like, such a vehicle from Holt probably looked a little ridiculous, sharing no design features at all with the real thing. By November 1916, the vehicle appears to have disappeared from the parade scene, likely stripped of its body and simply reused as a tractor.
Alexander, J. (2015). Briefly Famous, The 1917 Caterpillar G-9 Tank and other American Tanks 1916-1918. Privately Published.
Corsicana Daily Sun, Texas 4th November 1916
Le Miroir, 29th April 1917
LeGros. (1918). Traction on Bad Roads. Reprinted 2021 FWD Publishing, USA
Harper’s Weekly 16th October 1916
The Ogden Standard, 21st October 1916, To the rescue in a land cruiser.
Specifications (Holt America First)
|Propulsion||Holt M-8 series paraffin engine delivering 75 hp|
|Speed (road)||<3.5 mph (5.6 km/h)|