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The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces

Tank Corps Insignia





Presented the Great War Society


Dale E. Wilson

The Second World War saw Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton, Jr. accomplish their greatest deeds as soldiers and achieve lasting fame for the role they played in bringing about the defeat of Nazi Germany. Less well known is their service in the First World War, when both men were involved in the birth of a new form of warfare destined to revolutionize the battlefield and change the way wars were fought. As officers in the United States Army's fledging Tank Corps, they helped develop the technology of tracked armored fighting vehicles as well as the doctrine that would later govern their use; and, in so doing, they also helped lay the groundwork for future victories in a conflict where the tank would come into its own as a weapon of decisions. What follows is an overview of their involvement in the Tank Corps., both during the war and in its immediate aftermath.

Just four months prior to the Armistice, in July 1918, Patton was in France as the commander of the Tank Corps' 1st Tank Brigade. It was an assignment he had gotten in a roundabout manner. In October 1917, with service as General John J. Pershing's aide-de-camp during the 1916 Punitive Expedition in Mexico working in his favor, he wangled an appointment to AEF headquarters in Chaumont, France, as post adjutant and commander of the headquarters company. He wasn't there for long, however. He wanted to see action and, after some wavering while he contemplated seeking command of an infantry battalion, Patton became convinced that the army's nascent Tank Corps offered him the best way of achieving this goal. His subsequent application to Pershing for a transfer to tanks was granted on November 10, 1917 when he was ordered to report to the commandant of the army schools at Langres to establish a light tank school for the US First Army. Patton, then a captain, thus became the first soldier in the US Army assigned to work with tanks.

George S. Patton, First Tanker of the US Army

Soon thereafter, Patton acquired a mentor in the person of Samuel D. Rockenbach, a cavalry colonel who had previously served as quartermaster in charge of port operations at St. Nazaire. There he had caught the eye of Pershing, who needed someone with experience in supply operations and logistics to get the AEF Tank Corps up and running. Rockenbach fit the bill, and was accordingly appointed to command the corps on December 22, 1917. But it was Patton and the other younger officers under Rockenbach's command who proved to be the real brains of the Tank Corps, creating the training programs and formulating the doctrine for using the tanks in battle in cooperation with their French and British allies.

In February 1918, Patton established the AEF's Light Tank School at Bourg, located five miles from Langres on the road to Dijon. Lacking tanks at the outset, Patton and his men were forced to make do with plywood mockups complete with a turret armed with a Hotchkiss 8mm machine gun. the entire contraption was mounted on a rocking device used to simulate movement over rough terrain while a trainee fired at a fixed target. It wasn't until March 23 that the unit received its first shipment of ten 7.4-ton Renault light tanks, with another fifteen following in May.

At Bourg, Patton demonstrated that he was a hands-on commander who liked to take part in all the training exercises with his men. He was quite strict when it came to saluting and drill, and he insisted that procedures which he formulated for maneuvering tanks in tactical formations be followed to the letter.

The 1st Light Tank Battalion was organized at Bourg on April 28, 1918, with Patton in command. By the first week of June, however, officers and men had been assigned to him in sufficient numbers to organize a second battalion. At about the same time, the two battalions were redesignated the 326th and 327th Tank Battalions, and command was given to Captains Joseph W. Viner and Sereno E. Brett, respectively. But at the end of August -- just prior to the St. Mihiel offensive, when the Tank Corps received its baptism of fire -- Viner was made director of the tank center and school, a move which resulted in Brett assuming command of the 326th and Captain Ranulf Compton taking over the 327th.

Brett was a former infantry officer who was especially skilled in the use of the 37mm cannon which armed one variant of the Renault tank (a second was armed with an 8mm Hotchkiss machine gun), and had instructed Patton's men in the use of this weapon before assuming battalion command. Patton thought a great deal of him, but not so Compton, whom he regarded as an incompetent fool and disliked accordingly.

Ike at Camp Meade After the War

While Patton was setting up the armor training program at Langres and Bourg. Captain Dwight Eisenhower was similarly engaged in the United States. Eisenhower had gone to Camp Meade, Maryland, in February 1918 with the 65th Engineer Regiment, which had been activated to provide the organizational basis for the creation of the army's first heavy tank battalion. In mid-March the 1st Battalion, Heavy Tank Service (as it was then known) was ordered to prepare for movement overseas, and Eisenhower went to New York with the advance party to work out the details of embarkation and shipment with port authorities. The battalion shipped out on the night of March 26, but Eisenhower did not go with it. He had performed so well as an administrator that, upon his return to Camp Meade, he was told he would be staying in the United States, where his talent for logistics would be put to good use in establishing the army's primary tank training center at Camp colt in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Like Patton, Eisenhower also had mentor -- Lt. Colonel Ira C. Wellborn, and infantry officer who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for service in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. On March 5, 1918, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker appointed Wellborn to serve as director of the Tank Corps in the United States. Throughout the war, the army maintained a Tank Corps, AEF, which was distinct from the Tank Corps, United States, resulting in a divided command structure with two men -- Rockenbach and Welborn -- separately directing the development of the American armored arm.

Eisenhower went to Camp Colt as a captain in command of eighty men, but by September 1918 he was a lieutenant colonel commanding ten thousand men and eight hundred officers. Initially, the training program he established there was severely hampered by a lack of tanks -- for a brief spell, he had but a single Renault which the AEF had sent from France so that his men could at least see what a tank looked like. Nevertheless, he accomplished a great deal with the meager resources at his disposal. For instance, he set up a telegraphy school, only to be told that the AEF did not need telegraphers; whereupon he had the men trained as tank crew-men. Ironically, the first overseas draft from Camp Colt was made up of sixty-four men whose telegraphy skills were sorely needed in France. In addition, Eisenhower and his subordinates, again making the most of what little they had, developed a program for training tank crewmen in the use of machine guns. The weapons were mounted on flatbed trucks, which were driven around the camp grounds at speed while the trainees fired at Little Round Top to get a feeling for shooting on the fly. A three-inch naval gun was used to familiarize crewmen with the larger caliber guns used in tanks.

The AEF Tank Corps was first committed to action in the offensive aimed at eliminating the Saint-Mihiel salient in September 1918. The operation was conducted by the US First Army, organized into the I, IV, and V Corps;. Patton, working with I Corps, attacked with two battalions of the 304th Tank Brigade, which was equipped with 144 Renaults obtained from the French. In support of the Americans were two groupments of Schneider and St. Chamond heavy tanks weighing 14.9 and 25.3 tons, respectively. These were manned by French crews. In all, the First Army deployed 419 tanks, a figure that includes three French-crewed battalion-sized formations of Renaults and two additional company-sized elements of heavy tanks used in support of IV Corps.

Schneider Heavy Tank Operated by French Troops
at St. Mihiel

Although the Americans accomplished their limited objective of eliminating the enemy salient, the offensive turned into a debacle for the Tank Corps, not so much because of anything the Germans did but rather because of mechanical failures and muddy conditions on the battlefield. By the time the fighting had run its course the battlefield was strewn with immobilized Renaults. Enemy action in the form of direct artillery hits claimed only three tanks; the rest, some forty in all, simply broke down or got stuck in the mud. The French quickly replaced the three knocked-out tanks and the others were quickly repaired, bringing the Tank Corps back up to full strength when the Meuse-Argonne campaign kicked off on September 26th.

In the St. Mihiel Offensive Patton learned that he couldn't count on army motorization to keep his armored units supplied with fuel. In the Meuse-Argonne campaign, therefore, he ordered his tank crews to strap two fifty-five gallon fuel drums to the back of their machines. This entailed the obvious risk that a drum might be hit by shells or shrapnel, causing a fiery explosion which would incinerate the crewmen inside. Patton was well aware of the potential for disaster and, quite characteristically, ignored it. He felt that the loss of a few tanks and their crews to shellfire was preferable to the loss of many to a lack of fuel. Even so, he ordered that the drums be loosely tied to the tanks with ropes, the idea being that a fire would burn through the ropes and cause the drums to fall to the ground before exploding.

Given the propensity of the tanks for breaking down, maintenance was one of Patton's chief concerns. He was constantly after his men to keep their tanks in good running condition, a difficult task greatly hampered by a shortage of spare parts and the absence of repair facilities close to the battlefield. As it happened, it was neither Patton nor one of his officers, but rather a private soldier who came up with a solution to the problems. The private, whose name has long been forgotten, suggested that one tank in each company be converted into a sort of roving repair shop loaded with various spare parts (particularly fan belts) and equipped with towing apparatus to retrieve damaged, mired, or broken-down vehicles from the battlefield. Patton thought this an excellent idea and immediately saw to its implementation. This led to the creation of the first tank company maintenance team, which consisted of mechanics from battalion headquarters who were assigned to each tank company to operate the company's recovery vehicle. It was the beginning of a system that is still in use today in American armored units. And it is worth remembering that it was the brainchild of a private, which just goes to show how much Patton encouraged initiative in the ranks of the AEF Tank Corps.

US Tanks Advancing to the Front

Still, field maintenance was no easy proposition, in part because of the physical condition of the battlefield -- muddy ground was a constant, hampering repair and combat operations alike -- but also because the vehicles were breaking down in such large numbers. In the Meuse-Argonne campaign, which continued to the cessation of hostilities on November 11th, the Tank Corps's vehicle attrition rate reached 123 percent, with only twenty-seven tanks lost to enemy action, chiefly artillery fire or mines -- the rest were breakdowns. By the end of the Meuse-Argonne campaign the Tank Corps was down to less than fifty operating vehicles, a figure that can only begin to indicate the extent to which maintenance and logistics troops were kept busy trying to ensure that the AEF was able to field an armored force through to the end of the war.

[During the last months of the war, the Tank Corps, AEF also fielded a battalion of British-built heavy tanks which were deployed with the American 27th and 30th Division and fought in the old Somme Sector. The 301st Heavy Tank Battalion commanded by Ralph Sasse was equipped with the British Mark V and Mark V Star.]

Inter-tank communication also posed difficulties. As the tanks were not equipped with radios, unit commanders with orders to give and messages to deliver could do so only by leaving the safety of their own vehicles and making their way on foot to the other tanks. The Tank Corps tried to get around this problem by providing the crews with carrier pigeons, which were kept in bamboo cages on the floor of each tank behind the driver. The tank commander would stand on the cage, with predictable results: at some point during his machine's jolting passage over the broken ground of the typical Firs World War battlefield, he might inadvertently stomp down on the cage and crush its occupants. Finally, it was decided that junior officers would be delegated to walk alongside the tanks for the purpose of communicating orders and other information. Keeping up with the tanks was really no challenge, as the vehicles could manage a top speed of only four-and-a-half miles per hour under even the most optimal conditions. When the officers had instructions to impart they would simply rap on the hulls of the tanks until they got the attention of the men inside. The greatest problem leaders faced was, of course, exposure to enemy fire. Running messages back and forth between tanks, across open ground, in the thick of battle while the bullets were flying, required courage and devotion to duty -- virtues which resulted in the award of Distinguished Service Crosses to several of those engaged in this hazardous enterprise.

The Tank Corps produced two Medal of Honor winners. In both instances the medal was awarded to men of Patton's brigade who performed lifesaving acts. One of them, Corporal Donald M. Call, was the driver of a tank that was hit by a 77mm artillery shell as it advanced along a road on the first day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Call escaped from the burning vehicle through the driver's hatch and scrambled to the roadside. However, the tank's commander, 2nd Lieutenant John Castles, got stuck as he tried to climb out of the turret. Call ran back to the tank and plunged into the flames to rescue the trapped man. While doing so he was hit and badly wounded by machine-fire, yet was still able to drag Castles to the side of the road before the tank exploded.. He then carried Castles more than a mile to safety. In addition to the Medal of Honor, Call received a battlefield commision for his exploit. He eventually retired from the army as a full colonel.

Over the Top

The other Medal of Honor recipient was Corporal Harold W. Roberts, also a driver. On October 6th Roberts inadvertently drove his machine into a deep, water-filled ditch while trying to evade enemy fire. The tank overturned and began to sink. As it went down Roberts told his commander, "Well, on one of us can get out: out you go," and pushed the man through the turret hatch. The commander made it but Roberts did not; he drowned in his tank and was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his self-sacrificing deed.

The ditch that claimed Roberts's life was known as a "water tank trap" and had been dug by the Germans for the purpose its name implied. The Germans were quick to develop other weapons and tactics for dealing with the Allied tanks. Anti tank gunners armed with .75 caliber rifles firing armor-piercing rounds learned to aim for the engine compartments, which were only lightly armored and therefore vulnerable to penetration by large, high velocity rifle bullets. The Germans also employed 77mm field guns in the antitank role. Technique was less critical, as a shell of that size, no matter what part of a tank it hit, could usually stop the vehicle literally in its tracks if not destroy it outright.

Interestingly, the Germans found a rather devious way to exploit the preponderance in Allied armor to their own advantage. They did this by building wood-and-metal mockups of Allied tanks and placing them well behind the frontline trace. Allied pilots flying over the battlefield would see what appeared to be real tanks and, the German hoped, assume that they stood at the farthest point of the Allied advance. Pilots who fell for this ruse thus left the area and sought German positions elsewhere.

When the war ended on November 11, 1918, the AEF Tank Corps and Tank Corps units in the United States had a combined total of some twenty thousand officers and men. But these numbers were drastically reduced in the months that followed as the army demobilized. For a brief period, however, both Patton and Eisenhower remained involved in developing the armored arm, which found a temporary home at Camp Meade under Rockenbach's command. In particular, the two men formulated theory and doctrine for the use of tanks in mass formations to achieve breakthroughs and carry out exploitation. They met vigorous opposition to their ideas from senior army officers who favored the use of armor in support of infantry and not as a separate arm conducting independent operations. Congress took this view as well, enacting legislation in June 1920 that dissolved the Tank Corps as a separate entity. Not incidentally, funding for tank research and development was also cut to a bare minimum. Patton, convinced there was no future in tanks, applied and received a transfer to the cavalry in September, 1920. Eisenhower got out tow years later, in January 1922, when he was assigned to the staff of an infantry brigade in Panama. Many other career-minded tank officers followed suit, and their defections dovetailed with further budgetary cuts and doctrinal conservatism which transformed the tank force to a shadow of the robust corps the AEF had deployed in the final weeks of the First World War. With few exceptions, the army's leadership virtually ignored the tank for the better part of the next two decades, until its ability to achieve decisive results on the battlefield was demonstrated by the Germans in the blitz operations of 1939-41.

In the Argonne Forest


I. Armor on World War I Tanks

The tanks had plate armor, and it varied in thickness from five-eighths of an inch to one and one-half inches, depending on the vehicle and the nation that manufactured it. The thickest armor was normally placed on the top and in front of the driver. The sides had three-quarter-inch or five-eighths inch plate. The thinnest armor was always in the rear and on the bottom.


II. About the Early Tactical Doctrine of the War's Participants

The French saw the tank as mobile artillery. So they used their light tanks to accompany the infantry, moving forward with the infantry in the assault artillery role, while the heavier vehicles provide fire support instead of going forward to bread the wire.

The British envisioned using the heavy tank alone, although, later they employed the Medium A Whippet, and J.F.C. Fuller began to think more and more about using the Medium D for breakthrough and penetration. The British idea was to send the heavy tanks forward in advance of the infantry to destroy the wire. The, with the infantry following through the gap they made, the tanks were to fan out behind enemy lines to exploit the breakthrough.

The Germans had similar ideas about the use of heavy tanks. They didn't think at all about light tanks.

The Americans planned to send the heavy tanks forward to break the wire while the light tanks accompanied the infantry and provided suppressive fires for taking out machine guns and other strongpoints. And that is how [the US Fist Army] tried to use the tanks in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives.

Sources and thanks: The text of this article is reproduced from A Weekend With the Great War: Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Great War Interconference Seminar, Lisle, Illinois, 16-18 September, 1994. The article is published here by the permission of the author and Cantigny First Division Foundation and Museum. Thanks to John Votaw, Director of the Cantigny First Division Museum, for his assistance. The entire book is available for purchase from Cantigny or the White Mane Publishing Company of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania who produced the volume in 1995 and 1996. Dale Wilson is also the author of Treat 'em Rough: The Story of the Birth of American Armor, Presidio Press, 1989. Regular contributors Ray Mentzer and Mike Iavarone provided the photos and the poster. MH

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