Caterpillar played pivotal role in World War I

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On this 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, we’ll take a brief look at the contribution made by the Holt family and their Caterpillar tractors to the war efforts of several nations, as well as to what was probably the most significant technological development of the war, the military tank.

Senior military commanders everywhere have always been firmly rooted in tradition and usually prepare and equip their forces to “fight the last war.”

For example, in 1910 a wealthy Hungarian farmer ordered a Holt tractor and was so pleased with its performance that he became a Holt dealer with exclusive rights to sell the American tractors in Austro-Hungary and Germany.

The Austro-Hungarian army was duly impressed with the Holt tractors, but the German high command was not, much to their regret when their horse-drawn transport bogged down in the mud of France.

Demonstrating tractors

The U.S. Army was equally obtuse and brushed off Ben C. Holt’s pre-war letters offering to demonstrate the Caterpillar tractors. Finally, grudging permission was given for a 1915 demonstration of a Holt 75 at the Rock Island Arsenal-provided Holt paid all the expenses.

This test, along with other later ones, showed that Holt crawler tractors could pull heavy artillery pieces and supplies through mud and over terrain that defeated even the famous Army Mule and at about one-third the cost.

Meanwhile, though shipments from America to the Central Powers-Germany and her allies had been prohibited, Great Britain, France and Russia bought large numbers of Holt tractors beginning shortly after war broke out in 1914, with some 1,200 shipped to the Allies by September 1916.

In March 1916, forces led by Mexican revolutionary leader, Pancho Villa, attacked Columbus, New Mexico, and the Army’s nearby Camp Furlong, looting the town and killing soldiers and civilians.

When General Pershing took the U.S. Army Punitive Expedition against Villa into Mexico a few weeks later, Holt Caterpillar tractors went along.

Pershing later wrote, “The expedition into Mexico would have been impossible without the tractor and motor truck.”

Breaking the deadlock

In 1915, as fighting on the Western Front settled into a stalemate between two strongly fortified lines of trenches, the French, English and Germans all searched for ways to break the deadlock.

A British Army engineering colonel named Ernest D. Swinton had been told by a friend in 1914 that he had just seen “a Yankee machine they call a Holt Caterpillar Tractor,” and that, “This machine climbs like hell.”

With this germ of an idea, Swinton recommended a crawler-type machine that could climb a 5-foot wall, cross an 8-foot trench, run 4 MPH, carry several 6-pound guns, and that would have 10mm steel armor.

The British Army brass, typically, wasn’t interested, but someone got to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who quickly saw the benefits of such a fighting vehicle and got the prime minister, Lloyd George, interested.

So the first tanks were developed under the auspices of the Royal Navy and, after many dead ends, including trials of the American Bullock and Killen-Strait tractors, a British agricultural machinery maker, Fosters of Lincoln, began making tanks that bore no resemblance to Holt machines, although they did run on tracks.

Use of tanks

The first use of tanks in battle was in September 1916, at Flers, during the battle of the Somme. The machines were deployed in groups of two or three, and of the 49 in the attack, 36 managed to reach the front line, while only 27 reached the Germans and just six broke through.

Although the few tanks that didn’t break down, get lost or stuck in shell holes, or that weren’t destroyed by enemy artillery, were able to flatten barbed wire barriers, destroy machine guns, and panic German troops, the debut of this new weapon of war wasn’t at all impressive

Press reports, however, greatly exaggerated the tanks’ effectiveness, especially in America, and artists who had never laid eyes on a tank rendered drawings of fantastic machines crushing terrified enemy troops.

The prestigious Scientific American reported on the new wonder and gave its readers the impression the tank was an adaptation of a Holt tractor. Many Americans believed Ben Holt had actually invented the tank!

When the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, the Holt factories went on a war footing and by the time of the 1918 Armistice had made more than 5,000 Caterpillar tractors for the U.S. and the Allies. Training tractor drivers. Ben’s son, William, went to France as an Army lieutenant and was responsible for training artillery tractor drivers.

A nephew, Pliny Holt, worked for the Ordnance Department and developed self-propelled tracked-type mounts for artillery pieces. Colonel Swinton visited the United States in April 1918, and stopped in Stockton where he met Ben Holt and made a speech to the Holt workers praising the Caterpillar tractors and the workers’ contribution to the war effort.

The Holt Manufacturing Company not only made a significant contribution to the Allied cause during the war but made a lot of money as well. Total company assets had increased by more than 12 million dollars during 1917 and ’18 and had earned over $23 million in government contracts alone.

They paid for it after the Armistice, however. Millions in government contracts were abruptly canceled and the postwar agricultural recession cut farm machinery sales. There were also many war surplus Holt and other tractors on the market, and many smaller firms that had originally been making war material decided to jump into the tractor market themselves.

The Holt Company survived, however, although Ben didn’t, dying suddenly in November 1920. In 1925, Holt and its largest competitor, C.L. Best Tractor Co., both on shaky financial ground, merged and formed the Caterpillar Tractor Co. that is still in business today.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this, Sam. For readers who do not know much about “The Great War,” they need to learn about it.

    If you have a dry eye after viewing this, you’re a better man than me:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glPTt7tZ5Mw

    WW1–Battle of the Somme–72,000 names of Missing Men–Bodies never found; blown to kingdom come, lost, died in an unknown area…..

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