The Saint Chamond was like a lot of things that seem like an extraordinary idea when they’re first concocted. Things like beer mixed with coffee, communism and the Cincinnati Bengals may look good on paper but just fail in execution. The Saint Chamond tank was just like that.
It was conceived with the idea of combining the firepower on the infamous French 75mm artillery gun with the protection of an armored vehicle. This idea would allow French armies to blast their way through the sausage-eaters’ machine gun nests, trenches and barbed wire without getting shot before ever crossing No Man’s Land.
That was the idea, anyway.
When France started building tanks during World War I, they needed the weapon to be able to bring significant firepower to bear, clear the way through the mud and trenches of Western Front battlefields, and do it all while protecting the eight-man crew inside.
The result was the Saint Chamond, literally an armored car with an artillery gun sticking out of its nose, which ironically met none of those criteria. The tank was literally built around the French 75mm model 1897 gun because it was designed by the man who helped design the French 75, Col. Emile Rimailho.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the French 75. There’s a reason there’s a cocktail named after this gun. Every army worth its salt worldwide used the gun for the next 30 years. It was the most powerful workhorse weapon of the Great War and a great place to start for the Saint Chamond.
When you absolutely positively need to kill every motherf**ker in a room 10,000 yards away, accept no substitutes.
The trouble for the Saint Chamond tank comes because the French 75 was pretty much the only good thing about the tank itself. It wasn’t the first tank prototype built by the French Army, but it was probably the most cumbersome and underpowered. It needed a large body to support its massive gun unit, along with a crew and the engine.
Its engine was trouble of its own. It sat in an open-air compartment in the middle of the vehicle, filling the tight, cramped Saint Chamond with noise as well as oil and gas fumes. Eight men had to walk around the engine as they fought for hours on end inside the vehicle.
The length of the tank became a problem when it was actually fielded. The tank ran on very thin and short treads, which, combined with the heavy weight and muddy terrain, made it sink into the ground, anchored to the soil until it dried. The bulk of the weight was in the forward section of the Saint Chamond, which meant every trench was a potential tank trap.
When it came to traversing uneven terrain and common battlefield features – like, say, trenches – its movement was limited and it almost always got stuck. Once it became mired in mud or a trench, it was nearly impossible to break free and pretty much became a bullet magnet. This was a terrible thing for the crew suddenly trapped inside.
To keep the tank from being so much heavier than it already was, the designers created flat, lighter armor on the sides of the vehicle, believing the two mounted machine guns could protect it from anyone who dared to shoot at it. Nope.
Col. Jean Baptiste Eugene Estienne, known today as the Father of French Tanks, decided to test its armor by firing his sidearm at the sides of the tank. The bullet from his pistol passed right through the armor and into the tank. Now imagine what a heavier round could do.
Still, the French Army ordered 400 of the Saint Chamond tanks. When the first saw real combat on May 5, 1917, three of the 16 Saint Chamonds were destroyed and the others ran aground on the battlefield, becoming stuck in various ways. So the Saint Chamond sucked as a tank, but it excelled at another role: a self-propelled gun.
The front-facing armor of the tank was reinforced and sloped, providing better protection than the armor on the sides. Remember how we mentioned that the French 75 was the best thing about the Saint Chamond? We weren’t the only ones who realized this. The French used the range of the big gun to protect gun crews while they fired at faraway targets.
France created a number of tanks during World War I. The Saint Chamond wasn’t the very first, but it was one that wasn’t sidelined when its operation defects became apparent. The Schneider CA1 was France’s first tank but it too was a bust. But where the Schnieder was relegated to an armored supply vehicle, the Saint Chamond at least got to pop a few artillery rounds at some distant huns.