WWI Balloon Company Winch Truck – A French Latil Mystery Story

I paid a pretty penny for a dozen photos from the 20th Balloon Company (WWI, American) specifically for this photograph.  I’m attracted to obscure and strange photography, and this photo is an anomaly for WWI image collectors.  What the heck is going on?

20th Balloon Company Winch Truck

20th Balloon Company Winch Truck

The vehicle/tractor/truck in the image was something I’ve never encountered.  I knew it was related to a balloon company, and the large drum on the back alerted me to the fact that it likely was meant to hold and retract cable wire.  But how could I figure out the make and model of the vehicle?  Balloon Company information is difficult to identify through google searches, but I was able to make some leads by searching in French!

Latil Truck

Latil Truck


My first hit came with a French search for “winch truck” and provided the above image.  I now knew that the Latil Company made heavy 4×4 vehicles for the French army during WWI and provided the American Expeditionary Forces with balloon winches!

I couldn’t quite make out the grill badge in the image I purchased……

Mystery WWI Badge

Mystery WWI Badge

But I was able to figure it out after my French language search…

The Latil trucks/tractors were originally made to tow 155mm guns, but they were retrofitted to accept heavy-duty winches to support the observation balloons used by the 20th Balloon Company.  The Latil company would later be absorbed into Renault….

Lentil Artillery Tow

Latil Artillery Tow

And according to a ca. 1919 publication, only 50 of these trucks were made specifically for the AEF during WWI.  They were outfitted with Cachot power winches (seen in the rear of the head image) to retract the balloons after observation was achieved.



Latil in Action  – Courtesy LOC

Special thanks to the Transport Journal  blog!

Check out this specific post to learn more about the Latil:


And another blog picked up the Latil story: http://justacarguy.blogspot.com.br/2015/11/ww1-observation-blimp-and-tow-truck-i.html

One thought on “WWI Balloon Company Winch Truck – A French Latil Mystery Story

  1. Dear Brennan —

    My father (yes, father! — I am 75 and was born when he was almost 50) was a member of the 12th Balloon Company. His company distinguished itself as part of the 5th Balloon Group in the Great War.

    My father was Austin Johnson, and I’m telling his story and that of the 12th BC in a book. I hope to have it available by 2018, the year of the Centenary.

    Your photo of the 20th BC’s winch truck is the best I’ve yet seen. As you probably know, the Balloon Service was very small. Only about 7,000 men served in it under live-fire conditions at the front, and it attracted comparatively little attention. The flyers in their biplanes were the favorites of the press photographers.

    Hence, it’s hard to find sharp photos of balloon-related equipment. So it would be a very great favor if I could reproduce the shot of the 20th’s winch truck I found on “Portraits of War,” your WordPress Web page. I will acknowledge you with your choice of wording and list the source the way you prefer, wherever the shot falls in the text.

    Please let me know your decision. I thank you in advance.


    Robert Eugene Johnson
    Author, “Austin in the Great War” (2017; forthcoming)

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