Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Weapons of War: The First French Tank—the Schneider CA-1

A Schneider on Display at the French Tank Memorial, Berry Au Bac

Perhaps the most recognizable tanks of the war were the British Mark-series tanks—the Schneider CA1 was France’s version of the tank. The Schneider’s main purpose was to create channels through no man’s land through which thousands of infantry troops would pour, towards German lines and into their trenches. To achieve this purpose, the Schneider had a peculiar boat-like prow. This pointed front served two purposes. The first was to push down and aside barbed wire obstacles that littered the battlefield so that the wire would be out of the way for dismounted infantry. It was also hoped that the prow shape would assist the Schneider in getting across trenches, as the front end tended to make contact with trench walls and get stuck. Built atop the double tractor design of California's Holt Tractor Company, the CA-1 was the first operational French tank and the second in the world after the British Mark-I.

Since the beginning of hostilities Colonel Jean-Baptiste Eugène Estienne was fascinated with the idea of armored transports that could bring infantry safely up to the enemy trenches. After observing frontline action the first weeks of the war, on the 25 August he declared in front of his staff and officers "Gentlemen, victory will be owned by the one of any belligerents that could place a 75mm gun on a car able to move on all terrains". He learned during the summer of 1915 that Eugene Brillié was already working on an armored prototype able to cross barbed wire, based on a Holt tractor. After gaining the approval of General Joffre for 400 orders, he gathered a small team in early February to produce the prototype of the CA-1 on the basis of the Schneider chassis, which was ready within two weeks. After relatively successful tests, Schneider began building the infrastructure for mass-producing the CA-1. This process was quite long. The first units were ready in September. At the same time Estienne was named at the head of the newly formed "Special Artillery" corp. The first unit was ready for combat in April 1917, in time for the Nivelle Offensive.

The strange tank's armament was irregularly placed. A single 75mm cannon was on the Schneider's right forward corner and had only a limited traverse. Its location inside the tank necessitated a very compact design, which resulted in a very short barrel. The short barrel length had an adverse effect on both projectile velocity and accuracy.

By period artillery standards, the Schneider had to be virtually on top of German lines before it could score chance hits at maximum range, a little over 2,000 meters or a bit above one mile. Aiming was coordinated by both the gunner and the driver, as the Schneider had to face enemy trenches at an oblique angle for the gun to face the right direction. In addition to the single 75 millimeter gun, two machine guns were mounted internally.

Amazingly, a crew of six were expected to fit inside the Schneider: two machine gunners, a driver/commander, a 75mm cannon gunner, a loader for the cannon, and one mechanic/machine gun loader. Ventilation in the terribly cramped space was achieved through ventilation slits in the roof, which were intended to suck hot air and shooting fumes outside the vehicle. Though significantly more capable than preceding tank designs, the Schneider CA-1 had several design flaws that hindered its usefulness. Externally carried fuel tanks were prone to catching fire when hit. Moreover, in order to increase range, additional fuel was sometimes carried inside and was very likely to explode if enemy artillery penetrated the Schneider's armor.

Schneider CA-1s Attacking at the Chemin des Dames, April 1917

The first batches of CA-1s were ready for action on 16 April 1917, just in time to be sent into action during the Nivelle Offensive at Berry-au-Bac. A hundred and thirty-two tanks, almost all models then available, were engaged. But the result was a disaster. Many found the rough terrain was too much for their tracks, and their forward rail acted to overhang the hull, prone to ditch itself in any solid obstacle. The engine was not powerful enough, and many broke down at the very beginning. The others advanced in broad daylight and the Germans deployed a lethal artillery barrage using field guns at short range in direct fire, firing on flat trajectories against tanks which were designed to only sustain machine gun and infantry fire. Eventually, the Germans learned to target the exposed forward gasoline reserve and many burst into flames, earning it the infamous nickname of "mobile crematoriums." A total of 57 CA-1s were lost that day. Forty-four broke down at the start and the remainder managed to reach their objectives, breaking through German first and second lines. However poor coordination meant that the infantry failed to support them and retreated. Only 56 survived. The entire, futile offensive, was a disaster and Nivelle was sacked. Later on, in 1918, available Schneider CAs were reorganized into 20 Artillerie Spéciale units and given to then-general Estienne. They participated in some minor offensives including the American capture of Cantigny.

Sources:; The National Interest


  1. The Schneider at the memorial is a replica installed in 2018. To see the last of the originals, do yourself a favor and visit the Musée des Blindés in Saumur. Not only is the museum an outstanding site, but Saumur and the Loire Valley are worth a lengthy stay.

  2. The original at Samour was the one that was at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. It was given back to the French in the late 1980s by then president Bush at the French presidents request since they didn't have one.

  3. I’m trying to find out if anyone knows what type of symbols were used on the message flap on the rear of the roof