Headgear and Insignia
The Tanker Beret in the Artillerie spéciale (AS)
This is an attempt to address a subject rarely explored in English using research from “le béret et la tarte alpine" (from Pages d'Histoire) and “Michel Tanker” from the pages14-18 internet forum. All photographs and captions can be attributed to “Tanker”.
When the Artillerie spéciale or Special Artillery as the French Tank Corps was called was created they had a unique problem associated with operating the new technology, “le calot” or cap. The regular French Army calot was no suited for use inside a tank. The design of the cap got in the way when working in the tight confines, it wouldn’t stay on the head, or the horizon blue color would become stained by grit and oil. This is also one of the reasons the tankers adopted the leather jacket worn by motor transport operators and drivers.
In many period photos one can see many of the crew members bareheaded. Quickly, a practical style cap emerged, the beret. Worn well down on the head, it stayed on the head and didn’t fall into inaccessible parts of the tank compartments. The black color also perfectly camouflaged the unavoidable grease and oil stains from working on motor vehicles. The berets were personally purchased by the owners and not provided by the French Army. Indeed, the French Army leadership took a long time to accept the beret as an accessory for tank crews. In fact the war was over before it was officially adopted. Yet soon, as tank groups began forming, the berets began to flourish.
In the spring of 18, General Estienne asked the General Staff in a note regarding AS battle dress for final adoption of the headgear since it was in fact already in use for several months by the tank crews. The response was not positive, citing the shortage of cloth to make them. The General replied with very specific evidence that they were lying. An AS Lieutenant indeed lived next to a factory manufacturing berets, and the plant manager told him he had everything necessary to honor this request and he expected an order from the Army.
Even though the headgear was illegal, General Estienne had secured its use through an official AS memorandum regulating the “illegal” clothing accessory. This is a good example of the situation dealt with by the command to address problems created by the use of the new weapon. Any initiatives that fostered progress and faster machines was welcome and very often adopted by the men at lower ranks. This “bottom up” approach quickly overtook the military administration trying to make the crews fit into the standard “mold” of the rest of the Army.
For the General, the beret as to be worn without insignia. One can see in photos that he wasn’t in agreement with his subordinates. All ranks seem to pretty much wear them as they wanted. Pictures suggest that some were trying to give it a more standardized format. Wearing a beret tilted to the right was often the case as with Cdt Bossut Goubernard Captain. The captain had previously worn the beret and been among staff who had also previously worn it this way. Very quickly, various metallic or embroidered badges made their appearance on the berets such as stripes, tank badges, and battery symbols (Playing Card symbols). These badges were a mix of single instances or mixed together.
The beret was used in camp during maintenance or training activities. When units went on alert or into action, they wore the steel helmet. The helmet itself was modified by the tankers for use inside the vehicles by removing the front visors. Wearing the leather coat and beret in large garrisons (Champlieu Marly le Roi, Cercottes Bourron, Mailly-Peppers and Martigny-les-Bains) were normally prohibited. Since the General Staff hadn’t approved the uniform, the men had to follow the regulations held throughout the French Army. The primary insignia worn was usually a single identifier associated with the tanks, at that time the left arm badge worn under brisques. In this standard uniform, is wasn’t uncommon to see another illegal insignia emerge: the salamander.
Proposed by Commander Bossut and adopted by the first Schneider tank groups, the salamander was not retained as a badge of the AS by General Estienne, who preferred the knight’s helmet and crossed guns, which was the badge normally worn on the left arm. However, the Salamander was retained in the AS, especially by the veteran tank groups under MAJ Bossut.
In any event, whatever outdoor activity, the temptation was too strong to appear in the beret and leather jacket. These two pieces of clothing were a sign of membership in the already prestigious tank corps. Regular staff of all grades were being put in order by the General or his deputy Colonel Monhoven for their “illegal” uniform.
One of the reasons that drove the Army to trivialize tank uniforms was the need for secrecy. The arrival of AS personnel became unavoidable due to the systematic use of insignia on headgear by the tank crews and indicated the onset of a future attack with tanks. Know today as operational security, or OPSEC, this information could then filter to the enemy following large formations of French soldiers. AS officers were ordered to practice good OPSEC with unmarked uniforms.
In mid-July 1918, Schneider and St Chamond Groups deployed in the Villers-Cotterets Forrest were ordered to remove logistics vehicles and special tank unit identifiers so as not to let the enemy know the arrival of tanks that were previously engaged in the Longpont/Vierzy sector. Over time the trucks and SRR vehicles had been decorated with insignia and marking of their home tank units.
Finally, the only place the crews finally got to do what they wanted was the front. For a tank unit, it started from the time they manned the tanks in camp and finished when the surviving equipment and personnel returned. At Juvincourt Lieutenant Mainardy from AS 5 Group put away his regulation horizon blue pants and wore the red trousers of his Hussar regiment. He commanded a battery (tank company) and led more on foot than from the inside of a tank. The uniform worn in combat by Marshal of Logis Georges Deloche is also part of these curiosities that photos still allow us to enjoy.
Initiative and private purchase berets, as shown by the photos, were not adopted by all the men. For this reason the pictures of 17-18 still show crew with several types of headgear. Tank crews were only part of the AS staff and the administrative and technical services in the camps normally saw no reason to adopt this style of headgear.