Colonel Clifford Carson and Virginia Tech’s Connection to Tractor Artillery Transport in the First World War 

Captain Clifford C. CarsonFigure 1: Captain Clifford Carson photographed in Spring 1917 during his short tenure as VPI’s Commandant of Cadets. (Source: Virginia Polytechnic 1917 Bugle Yearbook)via the VPI in World War I blog at Virginia Tech University 

In January 1917 Virginia Polytechnic Institute welcomed 41-year-old Captain Clifford C. Carson as Commandant and Professor of Military Science. Captain Carson was born in Ohio in 1876 and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1900. After graduating Carson spent the next 17 years as a field artillery officer; spending time at different Army installations and schools from the Philippines to Fort Monroe, Virginia.

Captain Carson’s tenure as VPI’s Commandant was cut short by America’s entry into the First World War. In need of qualified officers for the United States Army, Carson was pulled back to regular service in June 1917 to become the director of the field artillery training camp at Fort Monroe. His talent at organizing instruction of artillery officers at Fort Monroe was noticed by Army leaders. Carson was promoted to Major and sent to France, where he was tasked to create and direct tractor artillery training centers for the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).

Even before the First World War militaries began to see the advantages of transitioning from horse-drawn artillery to mechanized artillery transport. Among the new technologies used to transport artillery were continuous track caterpillar tractors. Continuous track tractors are propelled by a continuous band of treads or track plates which run around two or more wheels. The treads could be made of different materials, but the most common type of continuous track used during the First World War were tracks of steel plates which were called caterpillar tread – hence the name caterpillar tractors.

These tractors became a commercial success in the first decade of the 1900s and were mainly used for agricultural purposes prior to war. Their ability to transport heavy loads and traverse difficult terrain, otherwise impossible for horses, convinced military leaders to adapt them for war.

The largest manufacturers of these types of tractors were both located in the United States – the Holt Caterpillar Company located in California and Illinois and the C. L. Best Tractor Company also located in California. Both companies later merged in 1925 to form the Caterpillar Tractor Company which still exists today. Prior to 1914 both companies conducted brisk business in Europe and sold thousands of tractors to Allied and Central Powers. After 1914, largely due to Britain’s naval blockade of Germany, nearly all their international manufacturing exports went to the Allied nations – chiefly Britain and France.

Germany was perhaps the first warring nation to widely use caterpillar tractors, many of which were requisitioned from German farmers, to haul their heavy artillery pieces to both fronts. The German Army began the war with a clear advantage in the numbers of heavy large-caliber artillery and it was an advantage that they would maintain through most of the war.

Britain and France began the war with an artillery disadvantage. Most Allied artillery consisted of smaller field pieces with a shorter range, compared to the Germans, which required them to be placed closer to the front and thus more vulnerable to artillery counterfire and infantry fire. Further, smaller Allied artillery did not have the punching power to penetrate reinforced and underground fortifications. While the Allies did use caterpillar tractors from the beginning of the war, they mainly used them to construct, haul, and transport.

By 1916 both Allied and Central Powers were commonly using caterpillar tractors to move heavy guns to and across the front. Some tractors were even modified and fitted with basic armor to protect against bullets and shrapnel– a modification that was an inspiration for the development of the tank.

Tractor-drawn artillery held distinct advantages over horse-drawn artillery. Tractor-drawn artillery was able to move across difficult terrain in a variety of weather conditions and across ground disturbed by artillery shelling, vehicles, horses and mules, and infantry. As one journalist noted, unlike horses, tractors could “push down trees,” “ignore fallen logs,” and could “waddle over the roughest kind of terrain and [go] through what have before been the most discouraging obstacles.” 

Read the entire article on the VPI in World War I blog here:


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