Schneider CA.1
with photos by Eric Gallaud and video by Philtydirtyanimal: Edited by Charlie Clelland

The development of trench warfare on the Western Front in 1914-15 prompted the invention in France, as in England, of devices to overcome machine guns and barbed wire.

Rollers and wheeled tractors of the agricultural type for crushing or cutting through obstacles were tried out. In January 1915 the armaments firm of Schneider et Cie of Le Creusot obtained two versions of the successful American track–laying Holt tractor. One was the semi–tracked and more common type, already in use by the British Army for gun towing, with tracks at the rear and steering wheels at the front and the other was the smaller "Baby" type with tracks only. The latter was found to be more handy for use as a cross-country vehicle. A demonstration was given before the President of the French Republic on 16 June 1915; the Schneider concern were encouraged to prepare designs for an armed and armoured version (tracteur arme et blindé).

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Eugene Brillié was the designer employed on this work, and he was responsible for the introduction of the nose piece and the tail skid later used in the production machines. One of the armoured Holt tractors was fitted with a machine gun but the idea was that the main function of these vehicles should be to destroy and cross barbed wire and it was intended that they should be fitted at the front with a wire-cutting device invented by J. L. Breton, a member of the Chambre des Députés.

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An official order for ten machines was given to Schneiders on 15 December 1915 At this time Colonel Baptiste Estienne, who for over a year had been urging the French G.Q.G. to develop armoured tracklaying vehicles to overcome the stalemate of trench warfare, was put in touch with the Schneider firm. He was able to place his own ideas and practical experience of warfare at the disposal of Monsieur Brillié and changes were introduced into the designs.

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Two prototype Schneider machines, including the one fitted with a machine gun, which also had extended tracks, were demonstrated at Vincennes on 21 February 1916. Both did well in crossing trenches and barbed wire and 400 of similar type to the machine gun armed model were ordered on 25 February, delivery to be made before as November. At this stage the inclusion of a 75mm gun in the armament was evidently decided on.

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The first batch of vehicles – "tracteurs Estienne", later known as "Chars d’assault" or simply "Chars" were delivered in September 1916, in the same month that British tanks were first used in action on the Somme. The Schneider tank consisted, essentially, of an armoured box with a pointed nose placed on a lengthened Holt Caterpillar chassis. The suspension consisted of two frames, carrying the roadwheels, return rollers and idler concentrically mounted with the drive axles at the rear. The frames were sprung by large springs mounted on the hull sides. A similar suspension was used on the FT-17. The engine was a 70 h.p. four-cylinder type mounted near the front, to the left of the centre line, with the radiator in front of it. An air intake grille was incorporated in the nose glacis plate. The three-speed gearbox was at the rear and the track driving sprockets were at the rear of the track. The maximum speed attainable was 5 mph. and steering was by the clutch and brake method. One short 75mm. gun was fitted in a sponson on the right hand side of the hull with one Hotchkiss machinegun further back on the same side and one Hotchkiss machinegun in the middle of the hull on the other side. Ninety rounds of ammunition were carried for the gun and 4000 rounds for the machineguns. Six men made up the crew, the officer in command being also the driver.

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The Schneider CA.1 was quite possibly the worst AFV of the whole war. Never mind that it was painfully slow, badly ventilated, cramped and noisy and that its armour was thin - the same can be said of almost all tanks of the Great War. No, in addition to this, it used a standard Holt Tractor track system, which was way too short for this kind of vehicle, and made all trench-crossing and parapet-climbing very difficult. And its main gun was located in a small embrasure on the right hand side, with a very narrow field of fire as a result - the two MGs were also mounted in a awkward way, that limited their usefulness.

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However, the tanks largest drawback was its two petrol tanks, that were placed high up - like the British Mk 1, the engine had no fuel pump, but depended on gravity feed - on each side, next to the Machine Gunners. The thin side armour was easily penetrated by bullets or splinters. When this occurred the crew were often sprayed with petrol from punctured fuel tanks. Often enough a single, misplaced bullet would set the tank on fire, unsurprisingly it was nicknamed "The Mobile Crematorium".

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It was first used in combat in an attack outside Barry au Bac, on the Aisne River, on the 16th of April 1917 (a part of Nivelles’ infamous and futile offensive against Chemin des Dames). The approach to the jumping-off positions was done in broad daylight, in full view of the Forward Observers of the German Artillery, who greeted the slow moving column with showers of shells, inflicting heavy casualties on the AFVs even before they crossed their own lines. Some tanks managed to breach the German lines, but it was still a disaster. Of the 121 tanks used, 81 were immobilized, 56 of which were destroyed beyond repair.

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Faults which became apparent in the Schneider tanks in training and later in action for the first time on 16 April 1917 included poor ventilation and vision arrangements and inadequate armour, danger in action of fire in the internal petrol tanks and lack of egress on the left hand side. Changes to add extra doors, modify the petrol tanks and add additional 5.5mm. plates to the main vertical surfaces (which were 11.4mm at the sides) to give protection against the German "K" bullet were recommended but were carried out at best only slowly and spasmodically and not all tanks received all or indeed any modifications.

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Despite the changes the tank still proved both unsuccessful and quite unpopular with the crews. Production was slowed down to a trickle, and many surviving CA.1s were converted to unarmed Supply Tanks - Char de Ravitaillement.

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The defects in the French heavy tanks led Colonel Estienne to advocate the acquisition of British Mark V or later model tanks in exchange for Renault light tanks, which were highly successful and in quantity production. This was done and seventy-seven Tanks, Mark V* were received by the French before the Armistice. Some Schneiders were still in service when the war ended. It was also tested by the Italian Army, but they saw the obvious defects of the tank, and declined to buy it (rightmost image below).

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Additional Information

Schneider CA.1 Walkarounds

Eric Gallaud have taken these images of the worlds only surviving Schneider CA.1, now in the Musée des Blindés in Saumur in France. The tank has been BEAUTIFULLY restored, it is now a fully functional runner! This is the late variant of the CA.1, with applique armour and gasoline tanks to the rear, flanking the double exit door.

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The photos below were taken by Eric Gallaud on a previous visit to Saumur (captions appear with expanded images).

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Notice the spaced applique armor, and also the racks for stowage on top - another modification to the late marks of the Schneider.
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The bulges should, of course, be carrying Hotchkiss MGs - there was one to each side. The bust is of legendary Commendant Louis-Marie Bossut, who led the first operation with Schneiders, at Barry au Bac, on the Aisne River, on the 16th of April 1917, and who was killed in that action.
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Points to notice here is the drive train details, but also the extension to rear hull, that housed the gasoline, plus the small un-ditching tail. Notice also the 75mm howitzer, of the same type used in the Schneider CA.1.

Another walkaround of the Saumur Schneider CA.1 can be seen at the AMMS Brisbane site. The images were taken by Dave Scorer. Click on the image below.

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How to Model this Tank

1/72: Retrokit have recently issued an excellent kit of this tank - see Kit Reviews section.
1/72: Cardmodel (free lo-res versions at, purchase and download hi-res versions at