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  • Military steam traction

    Although Leonardo Da Vinci designed a number of armoured vehicles these were intended to be powered by humans turning cranks. Unless he had been able to recruit some super humans (or equally mythical golems or trolls) these was no way such heavy vehicles could have moved any worthwhile distance. The first mechanised military vehicles to be built were steam powered. As early as 1769 the French engineer Nicholas Cugnot produced a steam powered artillery tractor. The following year he produced an improved model capable of towing four tonnes at two and a half miles per hour. Cugnot was encouraged in his research by General Gribeauval and the Duke of Choiseul who were engaged in creating a unified artillery arm within the French army. This became known as the Gribeauval System and remained in effect right up until after Waterloo. Under it there was a common design of gun carriage, ammunition caissons and supporting wagons (such as field forges). The weights and calibres of guns and howitzers were standardised into a limited number of types (such as the 12 pounder, 9 pounder, 6 pounder etc.) Even the number of horses used to pull the guns and their harness was defined. It would seem that the idea was to incorporate the steam tractor into the system. Gribeauval and Choiseul wrote a letter to the Minister for War requesting funding for further trials and development. The letter was never answered and the money for development ran out.

    Cugnot’s machine had some serious design defects that would have to have been overcome if it was ever to become a serious proposition. The tractor was three wheeled with a front wheel drive. This meant that the cylinders, boiler and firebox all had to be mounted on the same bearing structure that allowed the front wheel to be turned for steering. This must have made steering very heavy and difficult, there also appears to have been no provision for a brake. Indeed the machine did collide with a stone wall, this being the World’s first accident by a self propelled vehicle (and Cugnot had no licence or insurance!). Worse still the design had the boiler and fire box mounted ahead of the front wheel. This meant that the tractor had to be stopped to allow more fuel to be fed into the fire box. There was no water tank so that the boiler would run out of steam very quickly. All of this meant that the machine could not travel much more than a mile before having to halt for more fuel and water. Had Cugnot opted for a real wheel drive with the boiler and fire box mounted behind the front wheel (where it could be stoked when the vehicle was in motion) and added a water tank then his invention could have formed the basis for a viable artillery tractor.

    More than eighty years were to pass before further attempts were made to use steam as a means of motive power for military vehicles. In that time the railway train pulled by a steam locomotive had become an established means of transport in Britain and was rapidly being adopted in mainland Europe and North America. The technology of the steam engine was still to be developed much further but was past the stage of initial experimentation and had become reliable. The use of steam power for road vehicles (as opposed to rail) was much less developed. In the 1820s a Mr (later Sir) Goldsworthy Gurney had developed and operated practical steam coaches but encountered fierce opposition from vested interests in the stage coach business. No less than 50 private members bills were passed imposing tolls that were more than 30 times greater than those charged on horse drawn vehicles on steam coaches . Even though a House of Commons select committee found that the steam coaches were faster, more reliable, and damaged the roads less than horse drawn coaches a new bill to remove the tolls was blocked by the House of Lords. Gurney’s coaches went out of business. Time passes but much does not change. One result was that the development of steam powered road vehicles was restricted to heavy traction engines. Two steam coaches on the Gurney pattern built by Thompsons of Edinburgh were successfully introduced in to India the 1870s by Captain R E B Crompton for military transport and proved very useful on the Grand Trunk Road. These were the first self propelled military personnel carriers in the world.

    Traction engines were large and heavy and used for hauling very substantial loads (such as stone or large timbers) or to power agricultural equipment (either as stationary machines or to pull ploughs by a system of ropes and pulleys). It was in the first of these roles that traction engines became of interest to the military. One issue that concerned the British Army was the ability (or otherwise) of such heavy machines to cope with soft going. The late 1850s saw two attempts to deal with this problem. The Burrell-Boydell traction engine was fitted with pivoted wooden feet all around each driving wheel (these were actually foot shaped complete with a big toe). These were referred to as forming an ‘endless railway', effectively a track laying solution just like the much later tanks. In 1857 two such engines were purchased by the Royal Engineers for trials. The system worked well on soft ground but was very prone to break on hard roads or stony ground. The engines were not adopted.

    An alternative approach was pursued by William Bray whose traction engine of 1858 had driving wheels fitted with an ingenious device that caused metal blades to be extruded through the rims as they revolved. These could be set to protrude as the rim made contact with ground when the going was soft and retract when it was hard. It performed well during trials but the army did not adopt it. The Royal Navy purchased two and made significant use of them in naval dockyards. Both engines shared the same odd configuration. The fire box and the fireman were located at the rear of the vehicle as in a conventional locomotive but the driver stood at the front, ahead of the boiler and steered using a wheel much like that used on an ship (possibly this is why the Bray machine appealed to the Navy). Communications between the two crew members must have been near impossible.

    One of the premier names in the history of traction engines is that of Fowler, this British company produced a range of traction engines over a period of about eighty years. In 1868 the Prussian Army ordered a number of Fowler Road Locomotives and these went to war in 1870 They played an important role in the Franco Prussian War in maintaining supplies to the Prussian Army when an important railway tunnel was destroyed by the French cutting an vital artery through which materials flowed. In one week they had transported some 100,000 kg of ammunition around the hills through which the tunnel passed. The Fowler Road Locomotives proved very useful during the Siege of Paris allowing the Prussians to move ammunition, guns and fuel with much greater ease than would have been possible using horses.

    In Britain the company of Aveling and Porter produced the first steam vehicle since Cugnot’s tractor, to be specifically designed for military use. This was a traction engine known as the Steam Sapper. This machine had bee specially designed to weigh no more than the heaviest gun in use by the British Army in the field. This meant that it could use the standard pontoon and other bridging equipment in service at the time. The machine had rubber (but not pneumatic) tyres. The wheel span of the Steam Sapper was the same as the standard railway gauge of four foot eight and a half inches and flanged wheels could be fitted to convert it into a light weight railway locomotive. The Royal Engineers bought a number of Steam Sappers and in 1873 one belonging to 28th Company Royal Engineers accompanied the British expeditionary force to Ashanti (in what is today Ghana) led by General Sir Garnet Wolesley. It was Wolesley’s intention to lay a railway line as his force advanced inland. The Steam Sapper would act as a locomotive for a train carrying supplies to the front and evacuating wounded to the rear. This idea shows the innovative thinking for which Sir Garnet was well known (and he was indeed a modern major general) but in reality proved impracticable. The terrain in Ghana was such that it needed far more engineering resource than was available to the expeditionary force to construct any significant amount of level track and the rains quickly washed out what was built. The Steam Sapper was used as a stationary engine to power a saw mill back at base. Breach loading rifles proved a sufficient technical advantage to ensure success and the victorious British force brought the Steam Sapper back to Britain with them. It is believed that it may have survived well into the 20th century working in the yards of a light railway company.

    The armies of Italy, France and Russia bought steam Sappers. In the latter case they formed the back bone of a force of traction engines that hauled more than 9,000 tons of supplies during the Russo-Turkish war of 1876-78. In France a home grown military traction engine, the Tracteur Scott was built. The French Ministry of War, following the precedent laid down one hundred years before ignored it. In the meantime Fowler built machines continued to be used by both British and German armies. There is a photograph of a Fowler traction engine on exercises with the German army. The style of uniform suggests that this is in the 1890s, interestingly enough the crew are wearing motoring goggles which, given that the machine probably could not exceed 8 mph, appears somewhat unnecessary.

    The Ottoman government appear to have acquired one or two Steam Sappers. Not much is known of them but there are some unverifiable reports of some sort of steam engine working in the rear of the Ottoman lines on Gallipoli in 1915.

    The hey day of the military steam traction engine was during the Boer War. This was a war fought over a large area requiring the British forces to maintain extended lines of supply. A number of different types of traction engines were used to meet the demands placed by this. These included the McLaren which pulled the wagons and powered the winches of the Royal Engineer’s Balloon Company and the German built four wheel drive Keller tractor. However it was Fowler machines that formed the backbone of this effort. They hauled guns, equipment, supplies and men across the South African veldt.

    Boer riflemen posed a considerable hazard, accurate even at extreme range and skilled at firing from cover they were masters of the ambush. Gun crews could be slaughtered, even as they brought their guns into action, by Boer snipers. To answer this problem the World’s first armoured vehicle to see action was developed. This was the Fowler Armoured Tractor and Land Train consisting of a traction engine encased in bullet proof plate towing up to three armoured trucks and two heavy guns. The trucks could house supplies, ammunition and even troops. Light field pieces could be housed in such trucks and delivered to the battle area ready for action. The Fowler Armoured Tractor was the first armoured vehicle to see action. Four of these were also used on the North West Frontier of India.

    The British Army learnt many lessons from the Boer War, by 1914 it had forgotten many of them again and others proved less than relevant to the trench warfare of the Western Front. One valuable lesson that stuck was the value of ‘motorised’ transport and in 1901 moves began fostered by Crompton, by now a colonel, that were to end with the replacement of the horse and wagon with the truck and lorry. After some trials the Thornycroft and Foden steam lorries were selected to be the British Army’s first mechanised transport to be ordered in number.

    Although the mechanisation process became unstoppable it is worth remembering that the British Army still used huge numbers of horses for transport in the First World War. The German Army was still employing a significant number of horse drawn supply wagons in the Second World War. Never the less the Thorneycroft and Foden lorries started the process that finally replaced the horse as a tool of military logistics.

    Germany introduced its first mechanised military transport vehicles in 1908. These too were steam lorries. However steam powered vehicles never became the conventional means of military transport. By 1906 the British Army was already buying petrol engined trucks and Germany, the USA, Italy, Austro-Hungary and France followed suite very quickly so that by 1909 the steam lorry was already obsolescent and the internal combustion engined vehicle became the normal means of military transport.

    It is, however, to Germany that one must look for the last hurrah of military steam traction. After the Battle of Cambrai in 1917 the battlefield was littered with knocked out, broken down or ditched British tanks many of which were capable of repair. The Germans used steam traction engines to recover these and tow them to a rail head for transportation on to where they could be refurbished and in 1918 go into action as German Beute tanks
    Attached Files
    Last edited by MarkV; 07 Jun 16, 11:17.
    Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe (H G Wells)
    Mit der Dummheit kaempfen Goetter selbst vergebens (Friedrich von Schiller)

  • #2
    Interesting topic!


    Here's a picture of the Fowler Land Train during the Second Anglo Boer War, 1900.



    Here's a good source of additional information.
    http://forum.worldoftanks.com/index....powered-tanks/

    Enjoy!
    Attached Files
    Battles are dangerous affairs... Wang Hsi

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    • #3
      Great post! Can't help but imagine how hot it must have been inside those caravans.

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by Mountain Man View Post
        Great post! Can't help but imagine how hot it must have been inside those caravans.
        From accounts I've read about 55 degrees C for the engine crew and about ten degrees cooler (if you can call it that) for anyone in the trucks (depending on the time of day and year). Probably better than a Mauser round through the ear hole. Mind you temperature in an A7V tank in 1918 was about 55 degrees C. I've experienced about 52 degrees C in the Gulf - not very nice - but in that case humidity was about 99%. It would have been lower in SA and I'm told that that makes a difference - wouldn't fancy comparative trials though
        Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe (H G Wells)
        Mit der Dummheit kaempfen Goetter selbst vergebens (Friedrich von Schiller)

        Comment


        • #5
          The Burrell Boydell I mentioned
          Attached Files
          Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe (H G Wells)
          Mit der Dummheit kaempfen Goetter selbst vergebens (Friedrich von Schiller)

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by MarkV View Post
            From accounts I've read about 55 degrees C for the engine crew and about ten degrees cooler (if you can call it that) for anyone in the trucks (depending on the time of day and year). Probably better than a Mauser round through the ear hole. Mind you temperature in an A7V tank in 1918 was about 55 degrees C. I've experienced about 52 degrees C in the Gulf - not very nice - but in that case humidity was about 99%. It would have been lower in SA and I'm told that that makes a difference - wouldn't fancy comparative trials though
            I'm familiar with having to wear heavy gloves in the desert to avoid being burned on track hulls and other metal surfaces.

            Iron men in those days.

            Reminds me of the road train that served Camp Century a long time later. Different engine system, same principle.

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by Mountain Man View Post
              I'm familiar with having to wear heavy gloves in the desert to avoid being burned on track hulls and other metal surfaces.


              Had the same experience on construction sites (oil refineries in Saudi - Red Sea side) but I had an air conditioned car to scuttle back inside. Some of the poor 3rd country nationals employed by the contractors were out there for full shifts. There is an old saying "When God made Hell it wasn't bad enough so He added flies and called it Mesopotamia" but in parts of Saudi, Qatar etc it gets so hot even the flies die.
              Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe (H G Wells)
              Mit der Dummheit kaempfen Goetter selbst vergebens (Friedrich von Schiller)

              Comment

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