It should surprise nobody that a steam traction engine (steam tractor) was the basis for the first motorized armored vehicle used in combat. The first steam tractors had been built in the 1850s, and, after the American Civil War, their use proliferated.
In the 1870s many of the world's armies experimented with steam tractors, using them to pull road trains of supply wagons. Their speed was never more than 10 miles per hour, but that was three times the speed of animal-drawn supply wagons.
The British were among the largest builders and users of steam traction engines. They found them useful in many places in the empire, particularly in the vast arid lands such as Africa and Australia. When the Boer War broke out in 1899 both the British and the Boers immediately began using available steam tractors. The British Army immediately bought some for military use and sent them to South Africa.
These steam tractors were used to haul road trains of supply wagons to places not served by railroads. Boer troops began attacking them and the British had to divert troops to defend them.
In 1899, in cooperation with the British Army, the steam traction engine builder John Fowler and Company of Leeds, England, designed and built a special armored steam traction engine road train for use in South Africa. It was pulled by a 20 HP steam tractor fitted with an armored shell to protect its crew and working parts. It weighed some 15 tons complete with armor. The steam tractor incorporated sprung wheels so it could run as fast as 10 miles per hour on an improved level road and about half that on a level unimproved road or across level fields. It had no rough-country, off-road capability. Its operation was limited by the need to supply it with boiler water and coal fuel.
The Fowler armored road train shipped to South Africa had three armored and sprung wagons used to carry either troops, cargo or even artillery up to light six-inch field howitzer. The armor proved resistant to fire from the Boer's Mauser rifles, and shrapnel balls and fragments from artillery projectiles.
This Fowler armored road train was successful enough that two more had been built by the time the Boer War ended in 1903. There was no report of any similar equipment having been used outside South Africa, and their ultimate disposition is unknown. The Fowler armored steam traction engine appears to have been the first self-propelled armored road vehicle ever deployed and used in combat. Its service in the Boer War is well documented, although it was never spectacular. Military authorities of the time were very interested in it and the fact that hostiles were very reluctant to attack it when it carried a contingent of riflemen.
As a result of its success in South Africa the British and other armies continued to use steam traction engines. Even though more efficient internal combustion engine tractors and trucks began superseding them by 1910, they were used in World War I. The production of steam traction engines declined rapidly after World War I, but many of these basically rugged machines were still in use as World War II began. They then quickly disappeared from military use.
Source note: The primary source for the above and all the illustrations are from the R. B. Marston's English translation of Lt. Col. Otfried Layriz, German Army, Mechanical Traction for War published in 1900. Several other contemporary Boar War era publications were also consulted.
Author Konrad F. Schreier lives in Los Angeles, Calif. This article first appeared in Army Motors, Number 91, Journal of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association. It is reprinted with permission from Army Motors and Konrad F. Schreier,Jr.