The M1917 was the United States’ first mass-produced tank, entering production shortly before the end of World War I. It was a license-built near-copy of the French Renault FT, and was intended to arm the American Expeditionary Forces in France, but American manufacturers failed to produce any in time to take part in the War. Of the 4,440 ordered, about 950 were eventually completed. They remained in service throughout the 1920s but did not take part in any combat, and were phased out during the 1930s.
The United States entered World War I on the side of the Entente Powers in April, 1917, without any tanks of its own. The following month, in the light of a report into British and French tank theories and operations, the American Expeditionary Forces’ commander-in-chief, Gen. John Pershing, decided that both light and heavy tanks were essential for the conduct of the war and should be acquired as soon as possible. A joint Anglo-American program was set up to develop a new type of heavy tank similar to those then in use by the British. It was, though, expected that sizable quantities would not be available until April of the following year. Because of the wartime demands on French industry, the Inter-Allied Tank Commission decided that the quickest way to supply the American forces with sufficient armor was to manufacture the Renault FT light tank in the US.
A requirement of 1,200 was decided, later increased to 4,400, and some sample Renault tanks, plans, and various parts were sent to the US for study. The design was to be carried out by the Ordnance Department, under the job title “Six-ton Special Tractor,” and orders for the vehicles placed with private manufacturers. However, the project was beset by problems: the French specifications were metric and incompatible with American (imperial) machinery; coordination between military departments, suppliers, and manufacturers was poor; bureaucratic inertia, lack of cooperation from military departments, and possible vested interests delayed progress.
The M1917 featured angular armor to help assist in deflection of incoming enemy projectiles (mostly small arms fire) and artillery “spray”. The tracks straddled the slim inline hull design though this made for a higher profile and thus a larger battlefield target. The driver maintained a position directly at center of the hull with the engine behind him. The gunner/commander occupied the cramped turret and managed the armament. The single machine gun was fitted within a traversing turret with an entry/exit hatch was affixed to the top. The turret sat above the superstructure that also featured angled front facing though straight-faced slab sides. Length was listed at just over 16 feet with a width nearing 6 feet. Height was 7.5 feet. Approximate weight was in the vicinity of 7.3 US Short tons.
The Army in France was expecting the first 100 M1917s by April 1918, and 600 per month thereafter. In the event, production did not begin until the autumn, and the first completed vehicles emerged only in October. Two tanks arrived in France on November 20, nine days after the end of hostilities, and a further eight in December. In the summer of 1918, with no sign of the M1917s and US troops desperately needed at the Front, France supplied 144 Renault FTs, which were used to equip the US Light Tank Brigade.
After the war, the Van Dorn Iron Works, the Maxwell Motor Co., and the C.L. Best Co. built 950 M1917s. 374 had cannons, 526 had machine guns, and 50 were signal (wireless) tanks. These were delivered to the Tank Corps, to complement about 200 Renault FTs brought back from France.
The American Heritage Museum’s M1917 tank is one of very few that remain and is on display in the WWI Trench Experience.