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The French Army in the Great War

During the years which followed the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 a war for the reconquest of Alsace and Lorraine was very frequently discussed in France. But it implied aggressive action against Germany, and those who judged with reason and not with sentiment knew very well that such action was impossible. In fact, Germany, at every international crisis that arose, asserted, sharply and menacingly, her readiness to accept a challenge, while France prudently yielded and avoided a conflict. It may be observed that, under similar military systems - that is, under laws of universal military service - the effort of France could not surpass the effort of Germany, for France counted less than 40 million inhabitants against the 65 to 70 millions of Germany.

France had no natural frontier with respect to Germany, and was obliged to moke good this defect by a system of fortresses and entrenched camps - a form of defence which it is exceedingly difficult to maintain at such a level as to be capable of resisting at any moment an artillery that itself is constantly evolving in the direction of increased power. On the side of Germany, on the other hand (even leaving out of consideration her first-class fortresses, for which money was never lacking), there was a line of defence of the very first order, the Rhine - impossible to turn even if the neutrality both of Holland and of Switzerland were violated, for its flanks rest on the Alps and the sea.

The French Army consisted of the national army, styled the Metropolitan Army, and the Colonial Army. Both were under the War Minister, but the estimates for colonial troops abroad are included in the budget of the Minister for the Colonies. The considerable forces maintained in Algeria and Tunis, however, were all regarded as belonging to the Metropolitan Army, and their cost is included in the War Minister's budget.

Military service in France was compulsory, and it was universal in the fullest sense of the term, no exemptions being allowed except for physical disability. Liability to service extended from the age of 20 to the age of 48. According to the law of 1913 the term of service in the ranks of the first line, or 'active' army, was 3 years, and the men joined at the age of 20. The soldier then belonged to the reserve for 11 years ; after which he passes to the territorial army for 7 years ; finally completing his service with 7 years in the territorial reserve. Men of the reserve of the active army are called up for training and manoeuvres twice in their period of reserve service, for 4 weeks on each occasion. The men of the territorial army have only 1 training of 2 weeks, and those of the territorial reserve no periodical training.

To understand the position of the French War Ministry it is well to keep in mind the organization of the French army, according to units of men. The first unit was the company, commanded by a captain, whose place may be taken by a lieutenant, so called for that reason. Companies were gathered in a battalion, numbering 1,000 men, commanded by a major, called in France "commandant," or by a lieutenant-colonel. Four battalions made a regiment, commanded by a colonel, who might be replaced by a lieutenant-colonel. Two regiments made a brigade, of 8,000 men (usually 6, but sometimes 7 or 8, battalions), commanded by a general of brigade (a brigadier-general) ; two brigades made a division of 16,000 men, commanded by a general of division - the highest title in the French army list. Two divisions made an army corps, commanded by a more experienced general of division. These army corps, just before the war, numbered twenty-one, of which one was in Algeria, while the other twenty were stationed in the larger towns of France (except Paris) : at Besancon, Nancy, Amiens, Rouen, Orleans, Tours, Bordeaux, and so on ; each corps being raised by additions of cavalry and artillery to 40,000.

Owing to the length of the reserve service the number of reservists per battalion was very large (2,000 or more.) On mobilisation, therefore, the reserve not only brought its unit to war strength, but every battalion and regiment formed a corresponding reserve unit, and there was still a certain surplus left for the depot. In peacetime the troops on the eastern frontier had a considerably higher establishment than the remainder.

French batteries had only 4 guns each. Each division had a field artillery regiment of 9 batteries (86 guns), while the corps artillery consisted of 9 field and 3 howitzer batteries: altogether 30 batteries to the corps. In addition there were 6 'reinforcing batteries' to each corps, which only existed as a cadre until mobilisation ; if they can be placed rapidly on their war footing gave a total of 144 guns to the corps. To an army corps in the field were also attached a cavalry brigade of 2 regiments, 1 chasseur battalion, some companies of engineers, &c. There are also 42 heavy batteries, of 2 guns each, to be distributed amongst the army corps. A cavalry division is nominally composed of 8 brigades of 2 regiments each, with a division of horse artillery of 2 batteries, in all 24 squadrons, and 12 guns. There are 10 permanent cavalry divisions. The mobilised strength of a normal army corps would be nearly 38,000 combatants. The strength of a cavalry division of 6 regiments would be about 4,700 combatants.

The French army was localised and territorialised. There were 21 army corps 'regions' including Algeria (the 19th) ; the division in occupation of Tunis was furnished by Algerian troops. Each region, Algeria excepted, furnished a complete army corps ; also a variable number of units of cavalry, garrison artillery, &c. Each of the 8 infantry regiments of an amiy corps was recruited from its regimental district; but there was also an additional regiment (the 'regional' regiment) which was recruited, like the chasseur battalions, the cavalry, &c, from the region at large. The regional regiments, and also the chasseur battalions, were usually stationed out of their own regions, in the neighbourhood of the eastern frontier. The 6th army corps (Chalons) and the 7th (Besancon) were by this means augmented to 3 divisions, and there was a brigade of 3 regional regiments and 2 chasseur battalions at Lyons. This was the general arrangement: there are certain variations which need not be detailed.

The Reserve Troop form divisions corresponding to those of the first line. Therefore usually two in each region. There were in all 86 reserve divisions, of approximately the same composition and strength, on mobilisation, as the first line divisions. The reserve formations of the regional regiments, of the foot artillery, and of the engineers, are available for garrisoning the fortresses.

The Territorial Army similarly consisted of 86 divisions, and garrison troops. The Algerian troops had their own reserve formations, and also territorial reserve cadres for 10 battalions of Zouaves, 6 squadrons of Chasseuis d'Afrique, 9 field batteries, etc. The surplus men of the reserve and territorial army would be called to the depots, as required, after mobilisation has taken place, aud wonld be drafted to make good the losses of the army in the field.

The military Customs Corps of 38 battalions, and a large nnmber of Chasseurs Forentiers were recruited from men who have been passed into the territorial army. They could be employed as garrison troops, if necessary. The Gendarmerie was a force of military police, reernited from the army, bnt performing civil duties in time of peace. There was a legion in each army corps region, and some regions had more than ono legion. The total strength was about 21,700 men, of whom about half were mounted. It is proposed in 1916 to create a mobile gendarmerie, to deal with strikes and riots, so as to avoid the necessity for calling out troops on such occasions. The Garde Rtpublicaine was also a police force, and performed duties in Paris similar to those performed by the gendarmerie in the departments. Its strength was nearly 3,000, of whom about 800 are mounted.

The Colonial Army was entirely distinct from the Metropolitan, and consisted partly of white troops and partly of native troops. The colonial troops were recruited, for the most part, by voluntary enlistment, or by voluntary transfers from the Metropolitan Army, but compulsion could be used for native corps in West Africa if sufficient volunteers did not come forward. The colonial troops at home consisted of 12 regiments of infantry, each of 3 battalions, and 3 regiments of artillery, each of 12 batteries (6 field and 8 garrison). These were all permanently stationed in France in peacetime.

The troops in the Colonies according to the Budget estimate for 1912 consisted of 3 battalions of the Foreign Legion (in Indo-China),1 13 battalions and i companies of colonial infantry, 32 batteries of artillery (field, mountain, and garrison), 1 squadron of native cavalry, 3 companies of native sappers, and 49 battalions of native infantry (12 Senegal Tirailleurs, 3 squadrons Confins Salinriens, 12 Tonkinese, 9 Malagasy, and 4 Annamite Tirailleursj 3 battalions of West African natives, and 6 battalions in French Congo). The batteries of artillery are of ' mixed' type, half to two-thirds of the rank and file being natives. In the native corps the officers, and most of the non-commissioned officers, were French.

It will be understood that to support so great an effort upon the several fronts, France found it necessary to mobilize all her available classes. Since August, 1914, 7,500,000 Frenchmen had been called to the colors, one-fifth of the total population of the country. The like proportion would give the United States an army of 21,000,000 men.

In France, the ratio of casualties was highest during the opening period of the war, in which the battles of Charleroi and the Marne were fought. In each six months of the years 1915 and 1916 the ratio of casualties to men mobilized in the French Army declined: from 2.39 per cent in the first six months of 1915 to 1.68 per cent in the six months following; to 1.47 per cent in the first half of 1916, and to 1.28 per cent in the latter half of that year.

French infantry entered into the campaign with the armament corresponding to its conception of a war of movement, short and violent. (Rifles, bayonets, machine guns.) The assignment of automatic arms was two machine guns per battalion. Its rifle was out of date. In the first encounters the automatic arm affirmed its power. The conditions of its use in attack and defense, the necessity of opposing to it machines of superior power and of offering to it only small objectives transformed rapidly the organization and tactics of the regiment, of the battalion and of the company.

As is natural, French cavalry was in 1914 still more than French infantry imbued with the idea that movement and shock were the decisive actions of battle; it is with this thought that it undertook its double task; its missions of reconnaissance, of security and its missions of combat. It found before it a cavalry, refusing all mounted collision and making systematic use of fire action (combat on foot or supported by advance elements of infantry). Engaged upon the front of battle, maybe in order to cover or prolong a flank, maybe to close a breech, it learned immediately the violence of long dismounted combats for which its larger units were prepared neither tactically nor organically.

From 1914 to 1917, fire has been perfected so much by the improvement of mechanism that the movement of infantry upon the field of battle is possible only with the support of and under the protection of powerful artillery; this diminution of the factor of movement was so noticeable that there came to be distinguished two classes of war, the war of movement and the war of position. The use of the motor and of the caterpillar tractor gave to movement a great part of its importance, combined with armored concealment, it assured to the users of machine gun and of the infantry cannon a certain invulnerability which will be employed with the greatest profit in the "manœuvre." The appearance of mobile armor upon the field of battle opens up other perspectives as yet undeveloped.

Little known is the French decimation (the shooting of every tenth person in a unit) of the 10e Compagnie of 8 Battalion of the Régiment Mixte de Tirailleurs Algériens. During the retreat at the beginning of the war these French-African soldiers refused an order to attack. They were shot on the 15th of December 1914 near Zillebeeke in Flanders.

The French maintained consistently that making their losses public would give the Germans important information, and in March, 1918, they represented to General Pershing that the American custom of making public full details of names, residences, etc., of killed and wounded was dangerous. General Peyton C. March, acting Chief of Staff in Washington, in discussing the French attitude, repeated that the French Government has never issued a casualty list of any kind since the beginning of the war. The French War Office in Paris transmits the name of every man killed or wounded to the mayor of the town from which he came, and this official notifies the family.

In November 1916 Joffre assembled his second conference of commanders-in-chief to consider plans for the following year. It was agreed that the Germans were in great difficulties on the western front, and that the situation of the Allies was more favorable than it had ever been. The fighting strength of the British army had grown to about 1,200,000 men, and it was known that considerable further reinforcements would reach France during the first few months of 1917. The fighting strength of the French army had been increased by the incorporation of native troops to about 2,600,000, so that, including the Belgians, the Allies disposed of about 3,900,000 men against about 2,500,000 Germans. Joffre declared that the French army could maintain its strength for one more great battle, but that thereafter it must progressively decline, as France had no longer a sufficient number of men of military age to replace losses. He therefore warned Sir Douglas Haig that during the coming year the burden must fall more and more upon the British army, a position which the British commander-in-chief readily accepted.

In the scandalous mass mutinies of 1917, half the divisions of the army were incapacitated by their refusal to attack. Between April and September 1917, serious mutinies broke out in 54 French divisions. The French Army was temporarily crippled. Over 20,000 men were found guilty of crimes by military courts. Although these mutinies were quelled by hundreds of secret executions, the French Army has, to this day, refused to examine those events.

In the French Army 1,089,700 were killed; 265,800 missing; total ^SS'S00—16 2 per cent, of mobilization of 8,410,000. Navy: 5,521 killed; 5,214 missing; total, 10,735—4.19 per cent, of forces mobilized. The French High Commission in Washington on January 8, 1919, estimated the French wounded at 3,000,000 and the prisoners at 435,000. It put the total French losses, excluding native Colonials, at 4,762,800. Colonial killed and missing are included in the figures for killed and missing given above. Colonial wounded numbered 44,000 and prisoners 3500.

France, and the French army in particular, have been increasingly marginalized in the growing body of scholarship on the Great War. To British scholarsFrance is the "Great Other." Sometimes it is the unknown ally, the off-stage factor ina war fundamentally about Britain: its military system, its social structure, its mythology. At other times France becomes "Perfidious Gaul," seeking to enmesh honest Britons in devious schemes to take over more miles of trench and mount offensives in the wrong places. American scholars frequently regard France as elder brother, generously providing tools and training, then applauding as the doughboys assume the war's burden. Yet France is also the calculating patron, expecting to use the naive foreigners to underwrite France's plans for peace and reconstruction. German authors for their part tend to concentrate on the British connection. Verdun is overshadowed by the Somme and Passchendaele. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the Royal Navy are the standards against which German military effec-tiveness is measured. The British parliamentary system is the touchstone for critiquing Germany's ramshackle authoritarianism

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Page last modified: 19-01-2019 18:36:09 ZULU