The Schneider CA.1 Char d'Assault was the first French tank, and made its combat debut in April 1917. The CA.1 was developed in response to an initiative by Colonel J. E. Estienne, who was inspired by trials of a Holt caterpillar tractor to begin development of an armoured fighting vehicle, which he called a 'cuirassé terreste' or 'land battleship'. General Joffre supported the idea, and work began on the first French tank.
This was produced by the Schneider works. It was a 13 ton vehicle, armed with one 75mm gun and two machine guns. The CA.1 was effectively an armoured box, with a pointed nose that doubled as a wire cutter. Access was via a pair of double doors on the back of the vehicle. It was armed with a short barrelled 75mm gun carried in a right-front sponson. It had vertical coil spring suspension, a significant advance over the rigid suspension of the British tanks. It used an extended version of the standard Holt suspension, giving it the length to cross trenches up to 5ft 10in wide.
400 Schneider CA.1s were ordered on 25 February 1916 and the first one was delivered in September 1916. During the production run larger and better fuel tanks were installed.
The Schneider was followed into service by the Saint Chamond tank, designed in parallel as a result of internal army politics. This was ten feet longer, two feet wider, ten tons heavier, and rather cumbersome in action.
In the meantime Colonel Estienne was promoted to Brigadier and given command of the new Assault Artillery. The tanks were formed into 'groupements' of Artillerie Spécialé, and by March 1917 there were thirteen Schneider groups and two Saint Chamond groups.
The CA.1 made its combat debut at Berry-au-Bac on 16 April 1917. Eight companies of Schneider tanks were committed to action on 16 April, with a total of 132 tanks. They were deployed to support the Fifth Army in its attack on the Chemin des Dames. Three companies were posted between the Craonne Plateau and the Miette and the other five between the Miette and the Aisne. The first three companies ran into artillery fire, but the other five made some progress. They were able to cross the German second line, but were unable to eliminate enemy machine gun fire, and the infantry was unable to follow up. At the end of the day 76 tanks were ditched or broken down near the front line.
On 5 May the tanks made another attack. This time two Schneider companies and two Saint Chamond companies took part in a successful attack at Laffaux hill, supporting infantry from the Sixth Army. The Schneider tanks performed best here, while only one of the sixteen Saint Chamond tanks were able to cross the German front line.
The next tank attack came on 23 October, at the battle of Malmaison (an attack west of the Chemin des Dames). Five tank companies were committed to the battle, and once again the Schneider company performed well but the Saint Chamond companies were unable to deal with the difficult ground.
In March 1918 both types were concentrated in the Third Army, where they took part in a series of local counter attacks in April and May. They then found themselves in the path of the fourth Ludendorff Offensives, the Noyon-Montdidier Offensive (9-13 June 1918). Four heavy tank battalions had been posted behind the French lines on this front, ready for further counter-attacks, but they quickly thrown into the defensive battle. This time the German attack ran out of steam very quickly, and on 11 June General Mangin committed 111 tanks of the two types to a major counterattack. By 13 June this had ended the German offensive.
This was the high point for both the Saint Chamond and Schneider tanks. Over the next few months their units began to receive Renault FT light tanks. By October 1918 only two mixed battalions still had the older types, and in that month they were replaced by British Mark V* tanks. During this period the Schneider continued to take part in the fighting, with small numbers being involved in most of the French offensives of July and August. Thirty two took part in the French attack west of Roye on 16-18 August and twelve in the Tenth Army attack between the Oise and Aisne on 20 August-3 September, fighting in the area north of Soissons. In September twenty four Schneider actions were recorded on the Fourth Army front.
During 1918 the French army recorded 473 individual tank engagements involved Schneider tanks (ahead of 375 for the Saint Chamond but a long way behind the 3,140 involving the Renault FT).
Two improved models of the Schneider were designed, but never entered production. The Schneider CA.2 was armed with a 47mm gun carried in a traversing turret built in the front of the roof. A prototype was built in 1917, but the type didn't enter production.
The Schneider CA.3 was a design for an improved version with two roof cupolas, a machine gun in the nose and a longer hull. Fifty were ordered, but none were built.
After the end of the First World War the surviving Schneider tanks were mothballed and later scrapped, leaving the Renault FT-17 to form the basis of the post-war French tank force.
Char d'Assault, Schneider CA.1
Hull Length: 19.8ft
Hull Width: 6.6ft
Weight: 13.5 tons
Engine: 55hp liquid cooled Schneider 4-cylinder gasoline engine
Max Speed: 3.7mph
Armament: 75mm main gun, two 8mm machine guns