The First Tanks in the US Army
The Tank Command of
George S. Patton Jr.
World War I
The 100th Anniversary of the US Army’s first use of tanks in battle in 1918
The proceeding web pages are a composite of books, periodicals and dissertations written directly or indirectly covering the 1st Tank Corps. There are many excerpts from papers of General George S. Patton Jr. and his involvement as America’s first tank commander as young officer. These files reside at the Library of Congress and were researched for this web page. Captain Patton rose rapidly to Colonel in less than a year and he earned every promotion and then some. These were war time promotions and would only stay in place until the war ended and then he would revert back to his permanent military rank of Captain in peacetime. The light tank brigade he commanded exceeded all expectations of the US Army in WWI. This was a combination of his leadership and the uncommon valor of his officer’s and men.
Much of the story has been truncated in the interest of space and will be skipped over with the challenge for the reader to venture into this fascinating study. The uncommon courage and valor associated with the 1st Tank Corps in extraordinary and well worth the time to read all you can. Their heroic efforts will not be in vain if what they did is not forgotten.
At the beginning of America’s involvement in WWI Captain Patton found himself in General Pershing’s American Expeditionary Forces headquarters as a staff officer assigned to make sure the offices and staff needs were well manned with paper, ink, desks, cars and that they were maintained in a highly efficient manor. In plan terms he was an office clerk. Here are a couple examples of what his staff duties entailed.
These papers, some in French are hardly the things that Captain Patton thought a combat trained West Point graduate would find any upward mobility or promotion any time in the offing.
There was much talk in headquarters about the new battle implement called a tank. Little was known about these armored tracked vehicles except they brought fear to the enemy and had some protection to the troops manning them. America had not one. Pershing had established a board of high ranking staff officers to gather information and they had concluded that they should proceed and pursue the use of them. The “tank board” concluded that the tank was destined to become an important element of war. General Pershing assigned Lt. Col. Leroy Eltinge to assemble all the information on the soon to be formed tank service. They would be looking into both heavy and light tanks and envisioned the manufacture and purchase of some 600 heavy tanks (British) and some 1200 light tanks (French). They wanted them to be built in the United States and shipped over. All of this was on paper and no real field knowledge was available on just how this could take place.
Captain Patton saw a chance to get involved in them from the ground floor but had some real fears. Should he get the assignment and fail his career would be over, at least in his mind.
This is just few of the hundreds of papers that Capt. Patton was assigned to handle in Pershing’s staff headquarters. Patton kept a copy of all that he did. These papers are but a few of the thousands located at the Library of Congress in the Patton Papers.
When asked if he was interested he thought long and hard and then took accessement of what he was doing…pushing papers. So he volunteered for the job and was assigned to “tanks” of which the US Army AEF had not one
The US Army’s first tank soldier.
Capt. George S. Patton, Jr. was officially assigned to develop a tank program in the US Army on November 10, 1917. This assignment made him the very first and for a little while the only tank soldier. His assignment was to study the French and British tank schools, examine the use of light tanks and come up with a plan of action to bring light tanks into the US Army as a fighting force. Shortly thereafter a young first lieutenant, assigned to the artillery branch, was transferred was assigned to help him. His name was Lt. Elgin Braine of Battery D. 6th Field Artillery. Neither of them knew anything about tanks and together they were ordered to the French Light Tank Training Center at Chamlieu near Paris, France. They visited the battlefields and studied both the French and British approaches to the use of these brand new weapons of war. After a little over a month of intense study, Captain Patton submitted a highly detailed 58 page double spaced report with several attachments and recommendations to Pershing’s staff, eventually to be read by Pershing himself. The report was extremely concise and went into every aspect of what it would take for the US Army to build a light tank corps capable of fighting on the battlefields in France, was covered. The report outlined the establishing of a tank school, use and maintenance of the Renault FT 17 tank and even the numbers of nuts bolts and tools needed to be on hand to keep them running in combat. His report, with input from Lt. Braine, was so comprehensive that it was accepted without revision and Capt Patton was ordered to make it happen.
This is the first page of the report titled “Light Tanks” and addressed to The Chief of the Tank Service.”
Shortly thereafter, Patton’s report was used to established the light tank corps (on paper). Additionally it was agreed to, at Pershing’s GHQ staff meetings, that the British heavy tanks should be part of the US Army TO&E and a suitable ranking officer should be placed over the entirety of the endeavor. Colonel Samuel D. Rockenbach was given the task and upon his arrival at the GHQ, AEF and a desk drawer was opened. He was handed all the paperwork and with it, “…this is all we have, get to it.”
So now there were Three … No tanks, no soldier’s school, no books to study on tank tactics, only a chance to build a fighting force out of a brand new weapon of war…the tank. It was a monumental task in its scope. They were starting from scratch to secure the land, get personnel assigned, get tanks built in America and get them ready for combat. The original plan was to have the tanks built in the United States by American manufactures. A Renault FT 17 was sent to the states for just such a purpose and a contract was made with the French to have their tank manufactured in the states and shipped over in large quantities.
It was soon determined that the tanks would be needed much sooner than they could be manufactured in the states and sent over to France. Training had to be on the tanks to be effective and the only way to get the tanks in time was to purchase the Renault FT17s tanks directly from the French. The French were slow and inefficient and days went into weeks and months with no tanks to train on with the now growing numbers of future tankers.
They did have access to the Hotchkiss Machine gun and the French 37 mm cannon that would be mounted in the turrets of the tanks when they arrived. Training on these to weapons commenced at once. A firing range was obtained in Bourge, France. As Patton was beginning the task of training his growing numbers of officers and men, Colonel Rockenbach began to develop the heavy tank command and work with Patton on his light tank program
Colonel Samuel Rockenbach
Since Captain Patton’s rank, at first, was too low to command a staff position and his duties would be limited to light tanks, Col. Rockenbach assignment was envisioned by high command, to be a head of a new tank corps with both heavy and light tanks. This too had been in Patton initial report in that a higher command structure was needed for the tank command to be viable in a war footing. Martin Blumenson wrote in the Patton Papers, “Colonel Samuel Dickerson Rockenbach was formally appointed Chief of the Tank Corps, AEF, on December 22 and thereby
became Patton’s immediate boss. He was sixteen years older than Patton and a stolid a somewhat pompous man with little sense of humor…. Neither liked the other at first, but they quickly established and developed an ability to work and get along together. … Although they never became warm and close friends, they learned cooperate in the interests of the war effort and their own personal ambitions. They had to, for each depended on the other for success in the common venture and for consequent career advancement. Whatever each did reflected on the other. The tanks provided a big opportunity for both men, and neither wanted to spoil his chances for achievement…. Rockenbach would support Patton, but only as long as Patton’s handling of his responsibilities satisfied Rockenbach. And except for routine business, all that Patton did required Rockenbach’s approval. …Rockenbach would also be the American representative on a new Interallied Tank Committee to be formed in April 1918. Consisting of the Chiefs of the French, British, Italian, and American tank corps, the Committee would meet at Versailles on the first day of each month to keep abreast of mechanical and tactical improvements and to coordinate the production, shipment, and distribution of tanks.”
All of Rockenbach’s tasks required tact and push. And Rockenbach, with Patton’s loyal support, despite an occasional reservation expressed privately, would make a go of his job
Lt. Baine was sent to the states to secure the manufacturing of the Renaults tanks in the United States. To make this long story short, he ran into the American bureaucracy inside and out side the government. It was too slow and no tanks were built and sent over to France but two, and both arrived after the war’s end in 1919. He worked tirelessly and came back to France, had materials and a tank sent back to the states and did all he could.
Training in French Renault FT 17 light tanks
Determined, Patton now a Major, used what he had, trained the soldiers he was given and made them ready for combat, awaiting the tanks promised to be made in the states.
Patton secured a firing range in a ravine and wooden sleds were used to teach gunner and simulate the movement tanks as they fired at fixed targets. They constructed wooden boxes on skids and mounted French Hotchkiss Machine guns in them and later the 37 mm tank cannon in them to practice target shooting and become familiar with the weapons in the Renault tanks.
Getting the land from the French and tanks to train on was slow going and Patton went to Paris to try and speed the process up. January and February passed slowly.
After the land was obtained for the school and two months went by they received their first tanks. On the 23rd of March, 10 French Renault FT 17’s light tanks arrived by rail to be unloaded at the tank school. They arrived with no weapons or turret fore plates to attach them. The newly promoted Lt. Col Patton had to drive them off and teach the others quickly to do so as there were no tanks prior to this to practice with. Several responded and together the tanks were driven, in the dark, to the tank training center. By midnight they were safely at the training center in Bourg, which was over a mile from the rail line. The new tanks were run 10 hours a day and training was constant as the men alternated in and out of the 10 tanks.
Patton had to change his original on paper organization to the reality of what men and materials could be made available to the light tank service.
Patton had organized, on paper, the 1st Light Tank Brigade into two battalions and they into 3 companies of 5 tank each and hoped to raise several brigades of light tanks. On the 28th of April the first light Battalion was organized with three companies of 5 tanks each and the supporting personnel and equipment. Captains Viner, Brett and Herman commanded them. Patton was the battalion commander.
By the 6th of June, 1918 Patton had organized the second light tank battalion. The battalions were later designated, the 326th and 327th Tank Battalions. The organizational numbers would be changed a second time before war’s end to the 344th the 345th. Tank battalions. [note: these were the same men and tanks but someone in Washington thought the number change made better sense…go figure.]
The training center would change to the 301 TC and the whole of the light tanks would eventually end up as the 304th…till Washington changed the numbers again. The 301 number would soon be the heavy tank brigade, not to be confused with the 301 TC. ] What remained constant was the triangular tank patch which separated the men in Patton’s 1st Tank Brigade from the heavy tank brigades.
While the light tank brigade were being developed in France the 301st Heavy Tank Battalion was to be raised at Camp Meade, Maryland and the personnel transported to the British Tank Schools at Camp Bovington in southern England, for training. There were no tanks on US soil to train on. Are you confused now? Most are. So for the rest of this article Patton’s 1st Light Tank Brigade will be a little bit more clear as to numbers… but not much.
For over 100 years this Should Sleeve Insignia (Patch) has remained on a uniform once worn in combat in 1918. There is a story behind the first Tank Shoulder Sleeve Insignia. Follow this link First Tank Patch History
Training at the tank center took place all summer and Lt.Col. Patton also attended and taught schools for AEF staff officers.
By August 16, 1918 there were 900 men and 50 fully trained officers at the tank center and but they still had only 25 tanks
The 1st Light tank Brigade went about constructing a field machine shop at the tank school to keep up with the maintenance of the tanks. In Patton’s original report he had envisioned the tanks to have a more mobile approach to maintenance
Earlier in August, Patton was notified that there was to be big offensive by Col. Rockenbach to take place soon. He was advised that a large number of tanks would take part in the offensive and US British made Heavy tanks were coming from England, a French command of light tanks would participate.
Patton’s compliment of tanks were still very small. There was only about 25 tanks that he had trained his men on and they had been used daily and near 1000 men had to share their time to train and learn tactics. This included both the Officers and the enlisted men.
Patton, on the evening and night of August 21-22, personally reconnoitered the proposed battle area his tanks were to be placed into action in the US First Army area. There was concern that the ground was too muddy, filled with marsh and that the barb wire emplacement could be a serious impediment. Upon reflection after he returned he felt the tanks could operate satisfactory enough to engage the enemy with out being bogged down.
The British had promised their heavy tank brigade to be part of the overall tank assault and plans made up by the US tank command had included them. At the last minute they communicated that they would be unable to proved heavy tank support and this reduced the amount of firepower that could be delivered to the enemy by some 300 six pounders and 600 machine guns that would have been coming from the armament of the British tanks.
With an impending offensive about to take place, Lt. Col Patton still had very few tanks.
Finally on September 1st the promised French Renault light tanks began to arrive by rail. Nowhere near the numbers promised and it became apparent that Patton would have to make due with only 144 light tanks. They were to be divided into two battalions. Had it not been for the constant training of his command with the few tanks he had, manning brand new tanks it would have been impossible to have taken them from the rail head into battle. The logistics of immediately manning these tanks was equally enormous as they had to be provided with 20,000 gallons of gas, 2,000 gallons of light oil and 600 gallons of grease, all of which had to be applied in order for the tanks to be brought into battle ready conditions. This does not include the ammunition needed and the logistics behind their moving them to the embarkation area in time to be used as planned.
To learn more about the Renault FT 17 French Light Tank follow this link : The Renault FT 17 French Light Tank
The St. Mihiel Offensive
The first tank used in battle by the US Army in WWI
There was a huge shortage of tanks and an offensive about to take place. The plan originally was to have both light and heavy tanks made in America and shipped over. The bureaucracy in the US made that process too slow and non-existent for current war needs. Pershing’s staff contacted the French and contracted for 2000 light tanks to be purchased from the French. They were unable to produce any thing close to that figure. They were only able to commit to a number less than two hundred total and many of them did not arrive until literally hours before they were to be used in combat.
Patton had increasing received officers and enlisted men into the tank service and put them through the “Tank Center” and trained them on the few tanks he had. He rose rapidly in rank from Captain to Lt. Col. in the space of a few months. He was in charge of the tank school and commanded the First Tank Brigade.
Just a few days before the offense was to take place, high command changed the battle plan and putting Patton’s tank command in another location, different in terrain from where he had reconnoitered. This caused a new reconnoiter of the new battle area, which had significant terrain issues and the ground was muddy.
Because of the armament that arrived with the new tanks, arriving from 27th of August through the 6th of September, training had to be conducted to make sure they could adequately maintain and fire the new French 37 mm, and 8 mm Hotchkiss model 1915 machine guns and company level training took place until the 6th of September.
Command and control needed to be maintained and the tanks were numbered in a unique way so they could be identified in battle as to what tank belonged to what command. The marking would be that of playing cards from a card deck. They would use hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds. ‘They were stenciled in black on varying shaped white backgrounds. The suit served to identify the platoon, while the background denoted the company to which the vehicle was assigned. A numeral (one through five) was stenciled next to the unit making to identify each tank within the platoon. For example, the platoon leader’s tank in Company C, 326th Battalion, was marked with a black heart superimposed on a white diamond. A white number 5 was painted next to the symbol. The marking were then applied to all of the tanks before the unit were rail-loaded from the front.”
On September 12, 1918, Lt. Col Patton tanks entered the St. Mihiel Offensive and they would be joined by two French tank Battalion bringing the total number of tanks committed by French and the US to 419 tanks. Of these were 24 were French Schneiders. Patton’s 1st Tank Brigade consisted of 144 light French Renault FT 17 tanks and 24 Schneiders French heavy tanks in Chanoines’ IV Groupement. The 1st Tank Battalion was given the mission of supporting the US 1st Infantry division and the US 42nd infantry division. During one portion of the battle Patton rode the back deck of one of his tanks as his visibility was crucial to direct the tanks. The tank received german machine gun fire and was hit on the front of the turret and the sides causing Patton to quickly dismount into a nearby shell hole. The portion of the offensive lasted from the 12th through the 16th of September 1918.
The tanks, including the French detachment of light and heavy tanks moved into their final positions on the night of September 11th. It was raining which would add to the problems off getting the tanks in battle position.
Patton had issued his orders to his subordinates and they communicated it to the tankers.
By 1 am on the 12th of September all of the tanks were in position with the exception of Captain Compton’s company C, which had trouble getting the French train operators to drop them where they could disembark. They had to remove the tanks in driving rain, move them several miles and were in place by 5 am the morning of the battle.
The mud was knee deep in placeless the morning of the battle severally hampering the function of the tanks causing them to use far more gasoline than was originally thought to be needed.
A four hour artillery barrage was undertaken and the tanks then received orders to move out toward their prospective objectives. The 326th Battalion tanks lead the First Infantry division. The other tanks followed the lead elements of the American 42nd Infantry division.
Patton was on foot and near his communication wires when he began to lose sight of some of his command. He left his CP and used runners to communicate with it. He reported that at least 16 of his tanks were engaged in heavy fighting. Captain Compton had 25 of his tanks engaged in heavy fighting in his sector, though Patton could not see it from his vantage point. The fighting was heavy. Captain Dean M Gilifillan commander of the 327th Company A lead one of his platoons through a hail of fire in an attack on the southern edge of Bois de la Sonnard knocking out a number of machine gun nests. The tanks began to bog down due to five days of heavy rain. The tanks were faced to try and cross trenches that were wider than anticipated and bogged down into them due to the heavy mud.
Major Sereno Brett, on the left flank, was encountering the same obstacles on his sector and his 326th battalion managed to cut the wires and proceed forward near Salient du Haren. The attacked successfully several German machine gun nest. For this and other actions he earned the Distinguished Service Cross.
Several of the tank commanding officers, including Captain’s Weed, Semmes and English, standing outside since their tanks were disabled, faced heavy fire as they directed their units on foot through difficult terrain. Uncommon valor was common., Capt Semmes whose tank became submerged, realized his driver had not gotten out and as under the water. He dove back into the water where the submerged tank was and freed his driver and brought him to the surface, saving his live, this during heavy
machine gun fire on his position. The reports of uncommon valor were many and far too many to mention in this short article. It is suffice to say that courage and devotion to duty earned many a the distinguish service cross and before the war ended, two with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Lt. Colonel Patton was just outside the town of Pannes. There, to get the tanks through the town, mounted one from behind and directed the company on how to proceed through it. Just outside of the other side of the town, Patton encountered German machine gun fire as he was riding on the rear. It showered Patton with chips of paint of the side of the tank. He dove off and took cover in a shallow hole but was pined down and unable to move out of it for a short while.
The battled continued through the early afternoon. The tank reserves were needed and fuel was running low and attrition to mud and mechanical failures were high. The enemy began some withdrawals but continued shell fire. Patton found Brett who had 25 tanks make it two their objective, slightly wounded in the noise but upset to the point of tears. Not for his wound but be cause most of his tanks had run out of gas due to the strain of the mud. They had used far more than anticipated.
Two of Compton’s tanks were able to drag on skids some much needed gas from Bernecourt to Pannes during the night but that was the only fuel to reach the front by 10 am on Friday the September 13th. Meanwhile the tanks assigned to the 42nd Infantry division had been ordered to move to a rear area by Brigadier General MacArthur as he had obtained the area he was looking to have and he wanted the tanks held in reserved to be called up as needed. They were ordered to a wooded area to be concealed from German air. Patton received a couple of truck loads of gas and oil and ordered it distributed between Compton and Brett’s tank battalions.
Compton was able to refuel enough of his tanks to send another 20 tanks by noon forward to St. Benoit, giving MacArthur a reserve of thirty five tanks. By 2 pm Brett received an additional supply of fuel and was able to refuel fifty tanks and get them to Vigneulles, where they assembled by midnight. By the end of the 13th of September and into the morning hors of the 14th, the battle came to a halt and preparations were made to remove the tanks back to and assembly area begin to prepare for the next offensive, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
They were ordered to move to Bois De La Hazelle and prepare for a rail move into the Meuse-Argonne sector. He was to take 15 tanks into the rouge and deploy them near Liverdun on the 19th and 20th of September.
After the offensive the 1st Tank Brigade recovered its tanks, reorganized and reviewed their combat effectiveness. The 1st Tank Brigade was designated in Washington as the 304th Tank Brigade, through still referred to by its rank and file as the 1st Tank Brigade.
To pull this off, Pershing directed some of his soldiers to wear French uniforms and move toward the Moselle River as if they were following up the advance after the Mihiel Offensive. Major Viner, 304th tank school commander, was used to organize and lead a faint of the 326th Battalion, now renamed the 345th under Capt Compton’s command.
The Meuse Argonne offensive was scheduled to begin on September 26, 1918. This was to be the first phase of several phases. Patton received his first briefing on the 15th of September when he meet with Col. Rockenbach in the St. Mihiel sector. He informed Patton that his brigade would retain its present composition and operate in the I corps sector in support of the 35th division.
On the 16th of September, Patton put on a French uniform, so not to give is real reasons for being there and reconnoitered the area in which he would fight. He found the land much better for tanks and divided a plan. Brett’s 344th battalion loaded on trains and moved toward the Clermont and unloaded. Two train loads of Compton’s
345th tank battalion finally arrived after delay at 1 am on September 21st. Upon arrival they were greeted by German artillery shelling while still on the train. Some 56 of his tanks where caught up in the shelling. The crews unloaded the tanks under heavy fire. One of the flat cars was struck. They drove the tanks right off the rear with out the aid of a ramp. This was soon emulated and the tanks left the flat cars in a boon jarring move but pulled of without loss of life limb or tank. Truly an amazing feat under fire.
This time Rockenbach ordered far more fuel than he thought needed to keep from repeating the fuel shortages in the St. Mihiel Offensive. Patton went a step further and ordered two twenty liter gasoline can fueled and strapped to the back of the tanks. Though dangerous he felt the risk justified.
Patton had been reprimanded by Rockenbach for not staying back and thus keeping him apprised of the battle, an order that Rockenbach had now issue with threat of court martial for those who willingly left their tank to fight on foot. Patton aware of the orders proceeded to beef up his communication capabilities by increasing the number of runners from 6 to 10 men. Salvage and repair trucks were brought near to the front so the tanks could be repaired and sent back into battle without having to evacuate them to the rear.
On the eve of the battle, Patton’s tank compliment consisted of 28 French Schnieder tanks, under French command, 69 Renaults in Brett’s command and 58 in the 345th under Compton’s command. They would be joined by the 14 tanks used in the deception earlier.
The Battle Begins
On the morning of the 26th of September 2,700 artillery pieces opened fire, 100,000 doughboys crammed the front lines and a28 mile front opened up. At 530 am in a dense fog, the whistlers were blown and the troops moved forward. Brett’s 344th moved out with lead elements of the 28th division and 35th division. Because of the dense fog, several, of the company commanders lead their tanks on foot searching for places their tanks could cross over the trenches. Elements of the 344th and the 345th pushed forward in the dense smoke filled fog. Visibility was minimum but this pressed on. The deadly fire of a hail of bullets from the Germans cause the advance to stop and begin to fall back. The tanks and men soon pushed forward again.
The battle in and around the areas assigned to the tank corps was intense. During the battle, uncommon courage and valor was exhibited by common soldiers. The 1st Tank Brigades was no exception. On September 26, one stood out as being far beyond of the duty expected. One such soldier was Cpl. Donald M. Call. He was assigned the 344th Tank battalion and his company became heavily engaged.
September 26, 1918 Citation:
During an operation against enemy machinegun nests west of Varennes, Corporal Call was in a tank with an officer when half of the turret was knocked off by a direct artillery hit. Choked by gas from the high-explosive shell, he left the tank and took cover in a shell hole 30 yards away. Seeing that the officer did not follow, and thinking that he might be alive, Corporal Call returned to the tank under intense machinegun and shell fire and carried the officer over a mile under machinegun and sniper fire to safety. For his uncommon bravery he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. This was not the end of the story. The French Government once again recognized his bravery by awarding him the Legion of Honor in the degree of Chevalier and an additional Croix de Guerre with palm. He was also awarded the Montenegrin Order of Prince Danilo I. Two days after the Medal of Honor exploit, from which he emerged unscathed, Call was wounded and spent some time in the hospital. He returned to the front line in time to participate in the Argonne and St. Mihiel offensives. Call was commissioned as a second lieutenant in October, 1918. During WWI a wound stripe was issued to wear on the shoulder sleeve uniform. Later it was converted to the Purple Heart Award.
During the pursuing actions uncommon value was common. The 1st Tanks corps would have 35 recipients of the Distinguish Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor.
Date of Action: September 26, 1918
The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to George S. Patton, Jr., Colonel, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action near Cheppy, France, September 26, 1918. Colonel Patton displayed conspicuous courage, coolness, energy, and intelligence in directing the advance of his brigade down the valley of the Aire. Later he rallied a force of disorganized infantry and led it forward, behind the tanks, under heavy machine-gun and artillery fire until he was wounded. Unable to advance further, Colonel Patton continued to direct the operations of his unit until all arrangements for turning over the command were completed.
General Orders No. No. 133, W.D., 1918
Home Town: San Gabriel, CA
Major Brett was put in charge of the Patton’s tank command and Compton was instructed to take charge until Brett could be notified and take command. Patton’s brigade lost a total of forty three tanks during the first day of operation.
General Rochenbach, concerned over Patton’s loss ordered Brett to stay at the brigade headquarters and Compton to stay in charge at the front. Fighting with the tanks came very closer and some became within ten feat of the enemy. Firing many times at point blank range. German artillery was so close at times that they had to fire open sight and because they were so closed missed most of the time. The 35th division remained disorganized and the tank moved onto other objectives when the infantry could no longer fight along side or support them. One tank was so close to the enemy machine gun, with its cannon out of action, ran headlong through the nest crushing them beneath the tank.
The tanks in the 28th Division sector could count only 11 tanks operation al between the two companies. By the night of the 27th of September the tanks assigned to the faint at St. Mihiel which added fourteen more tanks to the dwindling tank brigade.
Patton had established a moving maintenance plan where the tanks would be removed from the battlefield and taken a distance from the action and pooled together. The salvage and maintenance section would work feverishly along with the men who manned them and quickly got as many back into service as possible.
German reinforcements began to arrive in the First Army sector and some fifty of the tanks that had been in the fighting were knocked out of service
On the morning of the 29th of September the French tank commander, Major Chaioine was ordered to withdraw his mechanically inferior tanks from the I Corps section. The French takers had fought very well but their tanks had reached the limit of their capabilities and could no longer engage the enemy. This left Brett and Compton with only fifty five operational tanks. They would have had many less but the tanks were being repaired and returned to service as far as the tank maintenance and recovery section could do so.
Infantry units along the front had been fighting for three days and began to collapse for exhaustion and lack of food. The 1st tank brigade was withdrawn to a reserve position near Montblainville in the 28th division sector. The 35th Infantry division was finally relieved and had suffered between 6000 to 8000 casualties.
The fighting became sporadic and on the 30th of September the 30th and 28th infantry asked for tank assistance and two tank platoons were engaged. On the 1st of October the Germans counter-attacked Five tanks were destroyed by artillery fire killing several and wounding many others.
On the eve of the renewal of the offensive of 4th October Rockenbach wrote a report. He stated that that included both the dead and wounded, the 1st Tank Brigade had suffered casualties of 53 percent of its officers and 65 enlisted men which was near 25%. His estimate was that he could start with only 72 light tanks and based on attrition that at the current rate the battalion would be finished by the 5th or 6th of October. His estimate was not far off. The Meuse Argonne offensive continued and the both the men and the tanks were pushed to the limit.
The men of the 1st Tank Brigade were far more resilient that the report and they were resolved to continue the fight.
On the second phase of operations in the Meuse –Argonne and the 1 tank brigade and been busy and resurrected some of the down tanks and could now field 89 tanks. The fighting was intense, many times the tanks got out of their tanks and assaulted positions on foot when their tank could not achieve the objective or was broken down. By the 5h of October the tanks numbers were now down to 30 operational. By the 6th of October, continuous service over the last month and taken its toll and only 17 were left. These tanks were ordered in reserve while pressure was put on in an effort to relieve pressure on the 77th division. The “”Lost Battalion in the Argonne Forest.
On October 6th, Corporal Harold W. Roberts, Company A of the 344th Tank Battalion, 1st Tank Brigade was moving his tank toward the tank maintenance center collection point near Bois de Montrebeau. Enemy fire was prevalent and trying to avoid being hit he inadvertently drove his tank into a water tank trap.
Citation: Cpl. Roberts, a tank driver, was moving his tank into a clump of bushes to afford protection to another tank which had become disabled. The tank slid into a shell hole, 10 feet deep, filled with water, and was immediately submerged. Knowing that only 1 of the 2 men in the tank could escape, Cpl. Roberts said to the gunner, “Well, only one of us can get out, and out you go,” whereupon he pushed his companion through the back door of the tank and was himself drowned.
Some years later more information came to light and is included here.
“On October 4, 1918, shortly after his promotion, his company was engaged in a fierce battle in the Montrebeau Woods, which was part of the famous St. Mihel and Meuse-Argonne Offensives. His company was advancing under heavy enemy artillery fire. Advancing about a mile, Sergeant Morgan and Corporal Roberts saw a disabled tank with a soldier crouched by it. As Roberts stopped his tank, the soldier crawled toward them, open the door and asked for help. They said they could not help at the moment but would return after the battle and render aid and drove off into the heart of the German artillery barrage.
Ahead lay a large mass of bushes that they thought was a machine gun nest and drove the tank into it. In an instant, they found themselves overturned. Recovering from the shock they learned the tank had fallen into a tank trap with approximately 10 feet of water in it. The tank had only one doorway and with the water rushing in Roberts said to Morgan, “Well, only one of us can get out, and out you go,” and with this he pushed Sergeant Morgan from the tank. Morgan tried to assist Roberts, but with the heavy gunfire around the area, was unable to do so. After the machine gunfire ceased, Sergeant Morgan returned but found Roberts dead.
When the battle stopped, Roberts’ body was recovered from his tank. One of the personal effects found on him was a photo of his dog “Frisky.”
The Battalion Commander, Sereno Elmer Brett, recommended Corporal Roberts for the Medal of Honor. The posthumously-awarded Medal was given to his father, John A. Roberts, who died four years later.”
By the 7th of October none of the tanks east of the Aire river were running. There were only 8 left capable of supporting any operations. From the 8th through the 10 of October no tanks were used in combat from the 1st Tank Brigade.
The 1st Tank Brigade refused to give up the fight. Due to heavy maintenance and the salvage and recovery efforts made forty eight tanks reported operational. They had a request for service and as many as possible were sent to assist the 164th brigade of the 82nd division. Because of the distance involved and the heavy use of the tanks previously, only four tanks made it.
Rockenbach issued orders that no tanks would be deployed under platoon strength. He then ordered both Compton and Brett to assemble their remaining troops at Varennes in preparation for their evacuation back to the tank center at Bourg. This action ended the 345 participation as a battalion. They left the few tanks still operational and a detachment of men organized themselves into the 1st Provisional Tank company under the command of Captain Barnard. There were ten officers, 124 enlisted men and 124 tanks.
On the 13 and 14th of October the provision company was ordered to move out for the final assault of the Siegfried line, Due to the distance involved, only 10 made it in time for H hour. The tanks penetrated the German lines as far as Somerance and were able to bring enough fire to bring considerable loss to German forces. They were forced to withdraw due to the lack of infantry support. The first provisional tank brigade was withdrawn on the 14th of October.
Afterwards, tank recovery took place and all but one of the 141 tanks of the 1st tank brigade were recovered and accounted for.
By the 17th of October, Lt Col. Patton was promoted to full Colonel at the age of 32 years old. Patton was discharged from the hospital on the 28th of October and returned to Bourg.
The legacy of the 1st Tank Bridge is extraordinary. Their tanks and men dwindled quickly in the first combat operation of US Army tankers. They refused to quit and took what was left of the tanks, recovered them from the battlefield, repair what could be repaired and reentered them back into the battle. Their wounded, when they could, re-entered combat. As those numbers dwindled they still reformed again and again and finally formed, with the men left able to fight and tanks still serviceable, formed a first tank brigade provisional company of tanks.
They continued to fight on. On the 9th of November and were relieved owing to the fact that battle had moved forward and they were at the end of any logistical means to support it.
The casualties if the 1st Tank Brigade were three officers and sixteen enlisted men killed. 21 officers and 131 enlisted men were wounded. Vehicle loses were at 121 percent. This number of 121 percent reflects the salvage and repair of damaged tanks over and over again.
After getting out of the hospital, now Colonel Patton continued to command the light tank Battalion in France. This was to be only a short time as he would sail back to the states on March 2, 1919.
This is one of the last images taken of the 1st Tank Brigade, Light Tank Staff in the Winter of 1918.
The US Army’s first tank soldiers proved the value of the tanks in future battles. The heroism earned on the battlefield included: Two Medal of Honor recipients, 35 Distinguished Service crosses and numerous other awards. The 131 men wounded, some several times, were later converted to Purple Heart Awards. The reauthorizing the award into its present form took place in 1932.
Introductory suggested reading
Blumenson, Martin; The Patton Papers, Vol. 1 1885 to 1940, Hought Mifflin Company Boston 1972
Ford, H. Ross, Shoulder Sleeve Insignia of the American Expeditionary Force Pg 17-18 Schiffer LTD 2012
Wilson, Dale, E “ Treat’ Em Rough! The Birth of American Armor, 1917-20. Presidio Press 1990.
Rockenbach, Samuel, Brig. General, Organization of the Tank Corps, 1st Army Headquarters, 10th September 1918. www.edu/archives; VMI archives
Ford, H. Ross, Shoulder Sleeve Insignia of the American Expeditionary Forces 1918-1919
Library of Congress, Patton Papers. Oversize files. Most images are from these files. Most of this web site was generated from the Patton Papers, either directly or indirectly
Images courtesy of the Patton Museum at Fort Knox, Library of Congress; Patton Papers, and author’s personal collection. Images at the Museum of the American GI in Texas taken by the author.
All colorized images are the sole right of the author and are not to be duplicated.