The Mystery of the Maxwell Crawler Tractor

Solving the mystery of a Maxwell crawler tractor from World War I

| March 2011

Many years ago, I read a book by Pete Davies called American Road. The book was about the eight-and-one-half-week journey across the U.S. undertaken by the U.S. Army in 1919 that I wrote about in a 2003 Rusty Iron column. In his listing of convoy vehicles, Davies noted that a Maxwell caterpillar-style tractor had accompanied the expedition. That statement nagged at me ever since, as I could find no evidence that Maxwell ever made a tractor. The answer to the mystery finally appeared in an article in a British tractor magazine about the armored Holt 5-ton artillery tractor produced during World War I.  

Right after the “guns of August” kicked off the “war to end all wars” in 1914, Holt engineers arrived in England with a standard Caterpillar farm tractor and demonstrated it to the British army, who found it quite interesting. After the soil of the Western Front had been churned into a muddy morass by shell fire and trench warfare, Allied forces desperately needed a way to move heavy artillery and supply trains through the muck. Both the British and French armies began to look seriously at Holt’s crawler tractors.

The British, French and Russian armies placed orders with Holt, which eventually (although accounts vary) sent 1,200 to 1,400 Holt Caterpillar tractors of various sizes to Britain and France, and, before the Bolshevik Revolution, maybe 100 to Russia. This was during the early years of the conflict, before the U.S. entered the fray, when we were officially neutral and unable to sell armaments. Holt officials, truthfully enough, maintained that they were selling standard agricultural machines and had no responsibility for how the customer used them.

Resistant to new technology

The U.S. Army was slow to adopt crawler tractors and motorized trucks, even though Brigadier General John J. Pershing, who led the 1916 Mexican punitive expedition, said later, “The expedition ... would have been impossible without the tractor and motor truck.” Although the Army ran several tests on tractors as early as 1912, the big concern was that motor vehicles required a constant fuel supply, while the ubiquitous Army mule needed only a minimal supply of forage, which could often be obtained locally.

In May 1915, eight months after the European war started, the War Department authorized a test of a Holt 75 at the Rock Island Arsenal – provided the Holt company paid all expenses. More tests that fall at Fort Sill finally convinced the hidebound Army brass to convert the 9th Field Artillery Regiment, stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, to a fully motorized outfit.

Ramping up production

In 1916, the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps placed an order for a number of “Holt 45 tractors or its equal.” In response to this order, Holt developed the armored “Artillery Tractor 5-ton Model 1917,” although it wasn’t ready for another year.