America's first-ever tank unit saw heavy combat in World War I

America’s first tank unit, known as the “Treat ’em Rough Boys,” rushed through training and arrived in Europe in time to lead armored thrusts through Imperial German forces, assisting in the capture of thousands of Germans and miles of heavily contested territory.

George_S._Patton_1919-colonel

Army Col. George S. Patton just after World War I. (Photo: U.S. Army)

The tankers were vital to the elimination of the famous St. Mihiel salient, a massive German-held bulge in the lines near the pre-war German-French border.

American forces joined the war late, participating in their first battle on Nov. 20, 1917, over three years after the war began and less than a year before it ended.

America had never attempted to create a tank before its entry into World War I. So while American G.I.s and other troops were well-supplied and fresh, most weren’t combat veterans and none had any tank experience.

Into this gap rode cavalry captain George S. Patton. He lobbied American Expeditionary Force Commander Gen. John J. Pershing to allow him to establish a tank school and take command of it if the U.S. decided to create a tank unit.

Patton also pointed out that he was possibly the only American to ever launch an armored car attack, a feat he had completed in 1916 under Pershing’s command in Mexico.

Pershing agreed and allowed Patton to set up the school in Langres, France. Patton quickly began taking volunteers into the school and establishing American doctrine and units.

The first-ever American tank unit consisted of the light tank units organized by Patton and heavy tanks with crews trained by England.

The_American_Army_in_France_during_the_First_World_War_Q49398

America’s first heavy tank battalions were not ready and equipped in time for the St. Mihiel offensive but took part in later battles. (Photo: U.S. Army)

When it came time for the AEF to lead its first major operation, the St. Mihiel salient was the obvious target. Other allied forces had already pacified other potential targets, and the salient at St. Mihiel had severely limited French lines of communication and supply between the front and Paris since Germany had established it in 1914.

The tanks led the charge into the salient on Sept. 12 with two American light tank battalions, the 326th and the 327th, backed up by approximately three battalions worth of French light tanks and two companies worth of French-crewed heavy tanks.

Infantry units moved into battle just behind the tanks, allowing the tracked vehicles to crush barbed wire and open the way.

world war i, douglas macarthur, army,

American engineers returning from the front at the Battle of St. Mihiel. (National Archives, 1918)

Per Patton’s design, the tank companies were equipped with a mix of heavy guns to wipe out machine gun nests and other prepared defenses and machine guns to mow down infantry that got within their fields of fire. This mix allowed for rapid advancement except where the Germans had dug their trenches too deep and wide for the Renaults to easily cross.

The American infantry attacked the remaining resistance after the tanks passed and then took over German positions.

The light tanks, which could move at speeds faster than advancing infantry, sometimes pressed ahead and found themselves waiting for the infantry to catch up. At the village of Thiacourt, an important crossroads within the salient, tank units surrounded the village and cut off all entrances and exits while waiting for their boot-bound brethren.

George_S._Patton_-_France_-_1918

Army Lt. Col. George S. Patton with a Renault tank. He became America’s first-ever tank officer the previous year as a captain. (Photo: U.S. Army)

While the tanks received great credit in American newspapers for their success in the AEF’s first independent operation, the real story of St. Mihiel was that it was an enormously successful combined arms operations with massive amounts of artillery support, about 3,000 guns, the largest air force assembled to that date (approximately 1,500 planes), and large infantry assaults making huge contributions to victory.

Plus, the Germans had received ample warning of the AEF’s pending attack and had decided not to seriously contest it. Instead, they pulled many of their units back to the Hindenburg line to the east and left only 75,000 men defending the salient against the over 260,000-man attack.

One of the prisoners, a German major and count, reportedly was even waiting with his staff and packed bags to be captured.

Of course, the first American armored offensive was not without its hiccups. The French-made Renault tanks got bogged down in deep mud. While German artillery was only able to knock out three American-crewed tanks, another 40 were lost to mud, mechanical breakdowns, and a lack of fuel at the front.

Patton continued refining American tank deployments, ordering that U.S. tanks carry fuel drums strapped to the back of the tank. At the suggestion of an unknown private, he also began equipping one tank per company as a recovery and repair tank, leading to the dedicated recovery vehicles in use today.

The tank corps went on to fight in the Meuse-Argonne offensive through the end of the war, this time with their heavy tanks there to support the infantry alongside their light armored friends. All of the tanks continued to face greater losses from terrain and mechanical breakdown than they did from enemy forces.

The greatest enemy threat to the tanks was artillery and mines, but the Germans learned to place engineering barriers such as large trenches to slow down the advance, and early anti-tank rifles took a small toll.

TOP ARTICLES
This Marine creates amazing sculptures to remember fallen heroes -- free of charge

Spending nearly 70 hours creating each sculpture, Cliff Leonard carefully carves out the finest details, making each piece a real work of art.

This is why Iran is smuggling boatloads of weapons into Yemen

The top US admiral in the Middle East said that Iran continues to smuggle illicit weapons and technology into Yemen, stoking the civil strife.

This is why Trump wants a massive military parade on Pennsylvania Avenue

President Donald Trump's trip to France for the country's Bastille Day parade in July left him wanting to replicate the experience back home.

The Navy just fired more commanders connected with ship collisions

Just before hearings on Capitol Hill, the US Navy has fired two senior commanders in the Pacific region in connection with recent deadly collisions.

'The man who saved the world' dies at 77

Stanislav Petrov was on the overnight shift in the early morning hours of Sept. 26 when the computers showed US had launched five nuclear missiles.

This is the fictional country the Russians are training to fight

Just like the U.S. trains to fight in Atropia, Centralia, and North Brownland, the Russian military gears up to fight Veishnoriya to protect its interests.

9 struggles infantrymen know all too well about mail drops

While you're deployed, mail becomes a commodity. Emotions can roller coaster as that mail truck rolls in, though — you never actually know what you'll get.

Putin is keeping a watchful eye on the Zapad exercises

Putin attended the week-long war games with Belarus that have demonstrated the Russian military's resurgent might and made neighboring countries nervous.

This video of a Russian helicopter accidentally firing on observers is crazy

Two people were hospitalized with heavy injuries after a helicopter accidentally fired on observers, likely journalists, of the Zapad '17 exercises.

This is the story behind one of the most successful fighters ever built

The McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle was the pinnacle of US air superiority, incorporating advanced technology to create a fierce multi-role fighter aircraft.

THE MIGHTY SURVEY GIVE-AWAY

We want to hear your thoughts. Complete our survey for a chance to win 1 of 5 gaming consoles

COMPLETE SURVEY TO WIN