In August 1914, Belgian Lieutenant Charles Henkart, put his two armoured Minerva cars at the Army’s disposal. Cockerill & Co (Engineers) in Hoboken had added some armour plating and a Hotchkiss machine gun to each as shown below. Despite previous efforts of both the German and French armies to build armoured cars, it was Belgium, which produced the first effective ones.
One of Lt. Henkart’s Minerva armoured cars (pictured above)
Crew of 3 or 4
4.9 m long x 1.8 m wide – Weight 4 tonnes
1 Hotchkiss machine gun
4 mm thick armour plating limited top speed to 40 kph
Henkart made forays into the German lines gathering information and prisoners. Soon they established a reputation, such that the enemy started tracking them down. On 14 September 1914, they laid an ambush at Zammel (nr Antwerp), in which they confronted the cars with a cavalry squadron of some 450 men. After a fierce two hour battle, Henkart and his men were killed, but not before they had killed 25 Germans as well as inflicting heavy casualties. This decided the Belgian GHQ to create the Corps of ACM’s. (ACM = Auto-Canons Mitrailleuses, which translates as car mounted machine guns).
The Corps operated from early September 1914 under Lt. Thierry, being attached to the 1st Cavalry Division. They were used for reconnaissance, intelligence and infantry support in attacks and operations behind enemy lines. They did a wonderful job until mid-October, at which time the Belgian army was ensconced behind the river Yser, which was then flooded from the 25th. Thus, their role effectively ended in Belgium. Belgium to the west of the Yser remained unoccupied throughout the war. King Albert lived in this area at De Panne, which normally was his summer retreat, during the war.
The decision to create an independent unit with ACM’s was made in Nov 1914. Major Collon was in charge of some 350 volunteers, who were billeted in Paris. The Corps consisted of the following:-
- Headquarter staff – 1 officer and 10 men
- 2 batteries of armoured cars, both of them including
- 3 cannon-cars – one with 37 mm navy gun
- 2 machine gun cars with Hotchkiss machine guns
- 1 command armoured car
- 2 ammunition cars, 2 lorries and an ambulance
- 1 bicycle platoon
- 2 motorcycle sections
- 1 catering section
- 1 supply depot with 2 officers and 65 men
They even had a special uniform designed by Paquin, a Parisian couturier, with jacket, trousers and cap of black cloth. For combat there were black leather jacket & trousers.
While in France, both Mors and Peugeot built armoured cars to replace the Minervas.
Minerva motor, Mors chassis armoured car (pictured above)
built at Billancourt, France
37 mm cannon or 2 x Hotchkiss machine guns
Crew of 3 or 4
Armour plating 7 mm thick
Peugeot motor on Peugeot touring car chassis (pictured above)
two built for the ACMs in 1915
1 x 37 mm naval cannon
crew of 3
The ACMs also purchased some English Lanchester armoured cars
Lanchester armoured cars (pictured above)
Probably one of the best known armoured cars made for WWI
Lanchester: 60hp motor
Top speed: 80kph
Machine gun: 1 x Vickers 303
On 17 April 1915, French General Clergerie presented Major Collon with the Corps Colours at Longchamps. On 21 April, with training complete, the Corps took up quarters at Furnes behind the Yser in unoccupied Belgium. As the static war continued, there was no use for the ACM. In Galicia (Ukraine) large Russian armies were on the move. King Albert decided to put his armoured car corps at his cousin’s, Czar Nicholas II, disposal.
22 September 1915 the Corps embarked at Brest on the British steamer, Wray Castle, for Archangel, where they docked on 13 October.
They moved to Peterhof, 20 km west of St Petersburg, where they stayed until 11 January 1916. The Czar inspected the corps there on 6 December 1915. The severe Russian winter meant changing their Parisian uniform for Russian sheepskin coats (choubas) and hats (papachas) to keep warm.
Early Picture postcard from Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to Belgium
Written 21 October 1915 (G) (a week after landing at Archangel)
The Gregorian calendar led the Julian by 13 days. Thus 14 October Julian was 27 October Gregorian and
17 October Julian was 30 October Gregorian
(20km west of St Petersburg)
The postcard (pictured above) took a week to reach the Petrograd post office, 3 days to be censored, and then 10 days to reach Calais via Archangel, whence it went to Mr Meert of the Belgium 3rd Division in the area behind the Yser.
As such, postage of 4 kopecks was paid, since frank free mail had not yet been set up.
1916 letter to Baarle-Duc
The ‘Mot du Soldat’ was a staging post to smuggle letters into Belgium
The letter has passed through the two postal zones, which apply to ACM mail 8 & 213, having been written during the field campaign in Galicia.
Free frank mail existed for the rest of their stay.
They fought valiantly in Galicia, being mentioned 5 times in the Order of the Day. In February 1916, Major Collon, having been recalled to Belgium, handed over command to Major Semet, who arrived in early April. From June 1916, after the campaign, the ACM returned via Moscow to its winter quarters.
1916 picture postcard from Jezerna (Ukraine) to Calais
It took 7 weeks from 18 Jul (J) (31 Jul G) until 14 Sep (G) to travel from the Ukraine to St Petersburg, to Archangel to Calais.
Not bad time during all the upheavals.
With the Revolution early 1917, the Czar abdicated. Karenski advocated a new offensive in which the ACM partook. From July 1917 the collapse of the Russian army spread, but the ACM kept fighting for the White Russians as long as they could. The ACM decided it was time to head home with all the turmoil. However, it proved very difficult for them to obtain the necessary authorisations for departure from the Soviets.
Rather than give their vehicles and armaments to the Bolsheviks, they destroyed their vehicles and hid the weapons and stores, then took them with them. The Bolsheviks were gaining control and the projected route north to Murmansk was not an option. Thus they decided to head east via the Trans-Siberian rail to Vladivostok. The convoy reached China on 27 March 1918, and after being threatened with armed conflict, surrendered their guns.
They left Vladivostok for the USA on the SS Sheridan, and docked at San Francisco on 12 May. They were fêted all across the USA, which culminated in the Memorial Day parade (end May) in New York.
They reached Bordeaux 24 June and passed through Paris to Eu, where they had overdue leave and were finally disbanded. Thus ended the official ACM saga.
The picture above shows all the places the ACM either passed through, stayed at or fought in their 4 year life.
The Corps, while officially disbanded lived on as a Brotherhood for 50 years.
The picture above is from the front cover of the May 1969 edition of the ACM Bulletin, when the Brotherhood had their 50th anniversary of their founding in February 1919.
The car shown is a Lanchester, which supplemented the Peugots and Mors and replaced the original two Minerva cars of Lt. Henkart.
14 soldiers were killed in Galicia. The Belgian Government later confirmed the Russian citations, which were embroidered into the Royal Army Museum in Brussels.