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Kings of the Air: The Father of Tanks (and Godfather of Aviation)

In a recent post, I mentioned Charles de Rose, who was a member of the pre-war aviation research team at Vincennes. The team was under the command of Eugène Estienne (1860-1936), a man who deserves a post of his own (his first name was actually Jean-Baptiste, but he preferred his middle name Eugène).

In that post, I also used the term 'the snake pit of French military aviation'. In Estienne's case, I might expand this to 'the snake pit of French defence procurement'.

Estienne entered the Artillery, and was commissioned into the 35e Artillery in 1884. By 1909, with plenty of regimental and staff experience under his belt, he was a major and commander of the Artillery school in Grenoble. From here, he went to the main Artillery depot at Vincennes just outside Paris. In March 1910, he was made a lieutenant colonel and give charge of the Artillery's aviation establishment in the same location.

With the introduction of the first flying machines to the French Army, there was immediate conflict about who was to take charge of the new toys. The Engineers were already in charge of balloons, so felt this experience and their general technical background, made them ideal for the job. But the Artillery saw the value of aircraft to spot the fall of shot, so felt, as the 'end user', they should get the responsibility. The Chamber of Deputies contained a strong pro-Artillery lobby, who ensured the funding went to the gunners.

Estienne's assembled a group of officers from all arms of service - for he was no narrow partisan -
to train as pilots and work together to develop doctrine, test aircraft and assess their military potential. Among them was a fellow gunner, Lieutenant Georges Bellenger. 'All with the minimum of bumf,' recalled Bellenger. '"Don't be afraid to show initiative and imagination," the colonel told me. "All I want from you are results."' Six aircraft were purchased – two Wrights, two Farmans and two Antoinettes – and Estienne and his team set to work. Their next-door neighbour was the new Pathé film studio, providing some rather exotic lunch companions in the local restaurants: 'One day our motley uniforms might be sitting alongside the court of Louis XIV; the next, cowboys and Indians, even a tame panther brought back from Abyssinia by one of the directors.'

The Engineers then returned to the offensive, and the Minister of War changed his mind, and put aircraft under the sappers instead. However, Estienne's establishment was left in place, and they continued with their work, testing the use of cameras, the carrying of bombs, fitting guns to aircraft and the best tactics for armed aircraft to employ. In the background, the struggle for control of the Aviation Service went on in the corridors of power and in the smoke-filled rooms of the Chamber. And in 1912, a reorganisation put the Engineers firmly in charge, and the work of Estienne's group was severely curtailed. Estienne himself was posted away to command the 3e Aviation Groupe, responsible for establishments from Lyon to Biskra (Algeria). On the outbreak of war, although promoted to colonel, he found himself back in regimental service with 22e Artillery, his aviation experience ignored. Yet for all that, nearly all the techniques and tactics employed during the opening months of the war had been devised at Vincennes by Estienne and his team.

While serving with his regiment (his divisional commander was one Philippe Pétain) he is supposed to have uttered the statement, 'Victory in this war will go to whichever of the belligerents finds a way of moving artillery across all types of terrain.' This sounds a bit after-the-fact to me, but you never know. He was certainly so impressed with the value of the work being done with Holt Tractors by the Royal Engineers, that he started bombarding Joffre with ideas. Out of this campaign came the Schneider CA1 tank, built around a Holt tracked chassis.

Schneiders were ordered to produce 400 of the new machine, using a second company, Saint-Chamond, as subcontractors. But Schneiders and Saint-Chamond were long-time rivals, and Schneiders refused to reveal patented information. The owner of Saint-Chamond then roped in the artillery expert Colonel Emile Rimailho, and they designed a tank of their own, which was going to be better than that of Schneiders. Using his friendship with the minister of war, Saint-Chamond persuaded the politician to order some of his tanks as well. The Saint-Chamond was faster than its rival, but was heavier, putting undue pressure on its tracks. Crucially, the track base was too short for the body, and often got stuck trying to cross trenches.

Estienne was made commander of 'special artillery', as the French referred to their tanks, in September 1916, and was promoted to général de brigade in the following month. The French had hoped to use tanks in a joint attack with the British, but the latter had gone too soon (according to the French) in 1916. The French tanks made their operational debut at Berry-au-Bac during the Chemin des Dames offensive. Estienne thought the action premature - it was certainly unsuccessful, with heavy casualties amongst the French. Nivelle's fall during the summer almost took Estienne with him, but fortunately Pétain recognised the value of the tank as something that would potentially reduce casualties amongst the infantry, and was an enthusiastic supporter, and the tank arm grew tremendously during the last year of the war, with large number of the new Renault light tank that Estienne had persuaded Renault to build.

Estienne finished his career as inspector of armoured troops, developing tactical and strategic ideas for the arm that would resurface in the writings of Charles de Gaulle (who met Estienne after the war) and George Patton (whom Estienne met during the war). But France chose to attach tanks to the infantry after the war, setting in train a development and doctrinal route that would come home to roost in 1940.

Estienne was a remarkable man, an enthusiast formodern weapons of war, and a clear thinker about their effective use.

Pictures: Estienne during the 1920s (Wikipedia); Estienne, Lieutenant Clavenad and Captain George Bellenger attempt a balloon ascent, Saint-Cloud, 1911 (Gallica); Estienne and civilian aviation pioneer Marquis Edgard de Kergariou (nice hat!) at the Michelin-sponsored bombing competition, 1912 (Gallica); the Schneider, Saint-Chamond and Renault tanks; Estienne's memorial in front of the Armoured Troops monument at Berry-au-Bac (Aisne); the plaque at the site of the Artillerie Spéciale's headquarters 1916-18 at Orrouy (Oise) (all Wikipedia).

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