Schneider | Civilians in Italy | 11 Dec 1915

French tank development

If there’s one thing I’ll never understand about this war, it’s the comparative arc of British and French tank designs. Back at the start of this year, you may recall how the French beelined straight for the caterpillar tracks of imported American Holt tractors. Meanwhile, the comparable British effort spent six months faffing around trying to decide between tracks and wheels before they even got round to seriously considering what kind of vehicle might be driven by them. By all rights, the French should have developed the first tanks and they should be in mass production already.

But, for some reason, the same people who hit immediately on doing something with a Holt hit an absolute intellectual brick wall after the failure of the Frot-Laffly landship design. It’s been pushed aside in favour of a project by Colonel Jean Baptiste Estienne of the French artillery and the Schneider-Creusot arms company. Which just so happens to manufacture a lot of the French Army’s guns. In contrast to British efforts, which are currently designing an infantry support vehicle, the Schneider effort is trying to produce a self-propelled armoured soixante-quinze. Which is a fair idea, and far closer to what we now think a “tank” is.

Unfortunately, they’ve not got very far with this idea at all. Which is why we find, at recent trials, “prototypes” which are basically tractors with large bits of metal bolted to them. They’ve been shown to General Petain, and I’m sure he was very polite about them. Meanwhile, Colonel Swinton has been working hard on a full working prototype of Mother, has just conducted successful trials on a new design of caterpillar track, and is about a month away from having Mother move under its own power for the first time. Schneider and Colonel Estienne haven’t just been overtaken by the British effort; they’ve now been lapped at least twice by them.

Tomorrow, Estienne has a chance to recover at least a little bit of the lost ground with a presentation to General Castelnau…’s deputy. He’ll be armed with nothing more than imagination and a few speculative technical drawings. The response will be along the lines of “Oh, go on then, if you must”. It was rather hard to believe when Winston Churchill (just about to go to France with the Army, incidentally) set up the Landships Committee out of his petty cash that it would eventually lead to the iconic tank of the war. It is similarly hard to believe that these fumbling French efforts will, very eventually, lead to the Renault FT, the best tank of the war.

Italian Front

On that cheerful note, let’s go to Italy. Don’t worry, General Cadorna has no intent on ordering any offensives until next year. Let us instead turn to the question of civilians. Much to its frustration, the various opposition parties in the Italian parliament have found public opinion, carefuly insulated from the horrors of the front (aided and abetted by the Army’s refusal to give anyone home leave), still firmly behind the war and the Army. Attacking the Prime Minister, Alessandro Salandra, over the conduct of the war, is a non-starter.

So, in search of something to bollock the Prime Minister about, several deputies have put down questions about what exactly the Army is doing with civilians near the front line. Quite a lot of people have been noticing what seem like quite a lot of trucks carrying quite a lot of occupants to all corners of Italy. And, reminding us that “modern politics” is not nearly as modern as we might like to believe, Salandra and Cadorna have jointly determined their line to take.

Yes, some civilians have been detained. Reasons of military necessity only. Small total, about 2,500. Most are Austro-Hungarian subjects and have had to be deported for obvious reasons. A small number are Italian citizens, all of them subversive elements. Don’t worry, everything is under control. Hopefully you’re snorting skeptically, and well you might.

The “war zone” is of course under military law, and the internment process works on a One Man, One Vote basis: the military governor is the Man, and he has the Vote. Certain communities in the occupied areas, particularly political communities, are dissolving into a seething hive of score-settling as everyone denounces everyone else before they themselves can be denounced. With a capricious military in charge, people are being interned and deported for such heinous crimes as “defeated me in an election”, “looking at me in a funny way” and “being a Slav” (there are literally papers with the extent of the box ‘Reason for deportation’ being ‘Slav’).

And you don’t even have to be interned for the Army to remove you somewhere else. Some 20,000 additional civilians from both sides of the pre-war border have been deported for their own safety from “the zone of military operations”, wherever that is, and scattered randomly through Italy. This is leading to quite a few problems when, say, a newly-“redeemed” ethnic Italian family from Monfalcone suddenly appears in a small Sicilian village and discovers that nobody here speaks Italian. Remember, folks; it is always the civilians who get the shitty end of the stick when war comes rolling through.

Although the poor sods in the Army aren’t too happy either. The 48th Regiment has lost two-thirds of its men on Mount San Michele over the last four months of uninterrupted service. A few days ago they were taken out of the line. Now, in its infinite wisdom, the Staff has decided that 200 of the 700 survivors will go back to a rest camp; but the other 500 will be going to Tolmein as a half-battalion, where they’ll have to be more than a little lucky to avoid spending Christmas up a mountain. More on what happened next tomorrow.


Staying in that part of the world, the Serbian Army is now well into Albania, and right as the biggest naval power in the world is considering how to get rather a lot of men off Gallipoli, there’s now another army in the Mediterranean that needs evacuation. After a great deal of shouting, the Italian Navy has been persuaded to take the lion’s share of the evacuation effort, given that Italy’s just over there from Valona and Durazzo, the two best candidates for ports to take the Serbians off from. However, the Italians are making it very clear that they don’t intend to have the Serbians as permanent house-guests. More soon.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut

Further Reading

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