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French Arms Industry - Great War

The French General Staff initiated development of a French tank program in 1914. During the war, the French produced 4,300 tanks, more than any other power. In contrast, the Germans never deployed more than a few dozen tanks, and of these, only 20 were of German manufacture.

Since the beginning of aviation itself, French designers and pilots have been amongst the pioneers of world aviation. It was a Frenchman, Louis Bleriot, who first demonstrated that the Channel was no longer an effective barrier between England and the rest of Europe, a factor which was recognized just in time during the years before World War 2. The Channel area became the field of the Battle of Britain, the first truly aeronautical battle.

Another French success story was their effectiveness in designing and producing high-quality aircraft. The military leadership and civilian industrialists demonstrated a high degree of innovation in effectively standardizing aircraft types and engines. France led the world in aircraft engine production and quality. By 1918, the French had designed and built the first supercharged engine. In design, the French equalled the Germans, with such rugged, effective and swift aircraft as the Spad VII, Spad XIII fighters and the Breguet 14 bomber. Indeed, the quality and quantity of French aircraft design and production enabled the Allies to gain air superiority in the latter part of the war. Due to the inefficiency of British aircraft design and production, the British had to rely upon the French for many aircraft and engines. As late as 1918, British squadrons on the Western Front flew Spads and Nieuports into action.

The combatant power of the French army was augmented in a formidable manner by late 1917. At the beginning of the war the French were surprised with a terrible scarcity of munitions and of heavy artillery. The augmentation of production had to contend with lack of laborers, many of whom were sent to the front. Finally, however, it was realized that specialists were more needed in the factories, and they were returned to that duty.

Although France lost, at the beginning of the invasion, forty percent of its coal, four-fifths of its steel, eighty per cent of its metallurgical machinery, and 60,000 of its 112,000 laborers in these industries, still, by organization of its labor, it was, in the beginning of 1915, able to produce munitions for Russia. By late 1917 France had myriads of factories, employing 1.000,000 laborers, one-fourth being women. The production of projectiles of 75 mm. had increased forty times, large caliber projectiles ninety times, pieces of 75 mm. thirty times, machine guns one hundred and seventy times, powder seven times, other explosives forty times. France supplies all the Allies except England.

Private metallurgical works devoted themselves to the production of the munitions to which the machinery already installed was most applicable. The automobile factories, besides producing motors for aircraft and tractors and trucks for the army, began making projectiles bored cold from cylinders which the factories had in abundance. Later forges were acquired and the system of die forging was adopted. All arsenals and factories have been much expanded. It would appear that the expenditure involved would be wasted after the termination of the war, but this is not so, as the factories could be transformed for peaceful pursuits. For example, the powder factories can be transformed into dye works.

French labor was reinforced by Chinese, Cambodian, Moorish and Spanish contingents. Foreigners received five francs per day and lodging. The most important innovation was the use of women in the factories. Women were more skillful in minute work. They, almost exclusively, were the employees in the cartridge, powder, and fuse factories, and many were employed otherwise. The minimum daily wage of women was five francs, with an addition for excess production. The consequence would be a serious problem when peace is restored; in order to attract the women from the factories to maternity, the State would have to pass laws for their compensation during the period of gestation.

A great variety of artillery materiel was produced, but seemingly without confusion. Many new pieces were in use, and trench warfare made available many models out of date because of slowness of fire. All the fortress, coast and naval artillery has been taken to the front. Where the weight was excessive, the pieces had been shortened without unduly decreasing the range. The French heavy artillery consisted of the 120 short, 120 long, 150 short, and 155 Rimailho, with siege mortars (principally 270). Others had been added. Those of most value for a campaign of movement are the new medium caliber pieces: the 105, a piece of great rapidity and range; the 150 Schneider howitzer, and the 155 short. The heavy pieces which predominated were the 155 rapid fire long, the 220 and 280 mortars, and the 400 howitzer; the latter was mounted on trucks for fire from railroad tracks. There was also a 520 howitzer. Although an enormous quantity of projectiles is produced by die forging, they have also reverted to the process of casting.

The Schneider works were at Havre and Harfleur. Their most interesting products were the 75 trench mortar, the 155 gun, the 120 and 155 howitzers and the 280 mortar. The trench mortars were at first improvised pieces, firing shells made in the trenches; later a mortar of 58 mm., which fired aerial torpedoes predominated, but the velocity was so slow the enemy could see the projectiles leaving the pieces. Later the 75 was adopted, which fired the defective shells which cannot be used in the 75 gun. It was mounted on a small platform which can be easily mounted on an axle with two wheels, which are separated by the recoil. The charge varied, the maximum being 70 gm.; it was contained in a 10 cm. case. The maximum range is 2000 meters. The mortar had a sliding breech block. The total weight of the piece is 400 kgms. An improved type has a maximum range of 8000 meters. Another model has a split trail, and the trunnions are near the breech. The arrangement facilitates highangle fire.

The 155 gun is the old piece on a new carriage. Two wagons are employed in transportation. The piece may be displaced laterally, and has an angle of elevation of 37 degrees. The charge is in two parts. The range is 13.5 kilometers. The 120 howitzer is of the same type as the well-known Schneider howitzers of 103 used by the Belgian and Serbian artillery. The 155 howitzer is regularly in use in the French army. The 280 mortar is 12 calibers long. It is transported on four wagons. The projectile weighs 75 kgms.; the initial velocity is 320 meters; the angle of fire is 65 degrees; the maximum range is 6.5 kilometers. Loading is by means of a derrick and a shot-truck. The fuse shops employed 9000 laborers. The shops are isolated by thick walls to localize the effect of bombardment by airplanes. The gun factory employs 3000 laborers. It receives the tubes from the Creusot works.

The Renault automobile factory produces daily 10,000 shells of 75 mm. and 800 of 155. The factory also constructs military trucks and tractors, motors for air-craft, and breech blocks of artillery and of rifles. The ordinary trucks have a capacity of three tons, but a new type can carry 18 tons. It has an engine of 70 h.p., has both axles movable, and carries a capstan, driven by the motor of the truck for the maneuver of guns. The airplane motors have 200 or 300 h.p. with eight or twelve cylinders. The shops employ 18,000 laborers.

The Citroen factory of 75 mm. projectiles (shrapnel) was the most perfect type of factory improvised since the declaration of war, and was a model of organization of labor. It produced daily 50,000 projectiles of which 10,000 were for France and the remainder for England, Italy, Russia and Rumania. It employed 14,000 laborers. The steel was received in cylindrical bars from the United States, and in this factory underwent all the processes necessary in the manufacture of the complete projectile, except that the bursting charge was not inserted in this factory. The shrapnel balls were made of lead with 10 per cent of antimony. The shop produced 10,000,000 daily. The complete manufacture of a projectile takes 25 minutes. The factory has a reserve of steel for six months, having consumed 500 tons per day.

The laborers were paid in proportion to production. Women did all the minute work. There were three shifts which worked at night. In order to prevent delay, each laborer was paid on Saturday the nearest multiple of ten francs below what he has earned, the balance being added to the account of the following week. There was a pay window corresponding to each multiple of ten francs so that a laborer, for example, who has earned 50 francs went to the 50 franc window and the tellers did not lose time in counting.

The Bourges artillery foundry was a government institution, employing 9000 laborers for the production of the 75 and the 155 guns. The mechanism of the 75 was at first kept secret but later became public. In order to produce interchangeable parts, all the 75's were at first produced at Bourges, but in view of the great consumption in the field, it was necessary to have recourse to private industry for the tube, the carriage, and the recoil check. All of these parts were however sent to Bourges to be assembled. The piece was similar to all the modern field pieces which recoil on a cradle and had a hydraulic check.

An important industry of the factory was the repair of pieces worn out or damaged in service. In the enormous gun hospital it was apparent that the time fuse in the explosive shell which produces explosion above the target causes more damage in materiel than explosion on percussion. The number of shots fired by a piece before it was returned for repairs has been as high as 22,000. The rapidity of fire had more influence than the number of shots. Six weeks were employed in the manufacture of a gun.

The machine guns come from Chatellerault and St. Etienne but the accessories were manufactured at Bourges. A few mountain guns of 65 mm. were manufactured here. The piece had a differential check for short recoil and springs which assist the check, while the check in modern pieces is integral. The piece proved defective in Morocco. At Bourges was also manufactured the 155 Bange piece, which had slow fire and was mounted on a platform with an inclined plane for the return into battery after firing. The form of the collar was changed, the trunnions removed, and the piece placed on a Schneider carriage for recoil on a cradle. This improvement made it a rapid fire piece, but many of the old type were still in service at the front. Shells of 65, 75, 80 and 90 mm., powder charges, fuses, primers, are also manufactured here. At Bourges were exhibits of all of the shells in use, viz.: 520, 400, 370, 293, 280, 270, 220, 155, 120, 75, 65, and 37.

The Navy Steel Works principally at St. Diamond were the most important in France except the Creusot works. There were 18,000 laborers. The Martin furnaces produced 200 tons of steel daily. The artillery produced comprises principally adaptations for the field of naval guns, such as the 75. The other important types were: the light howitzer of 105 mm., 12 calibers long, rotating breech block, projectile weighing 14 kgms., range 6200 meters, firing 15 shots per minute; the 155, 16.9 calibers, projectile 43 kgms., range 11 kilometers, 6 shots per minute; the 120 gun, projectile 20 kgms., range 15 kilometers; (in the latter two the breech block closes automatically by a spring actuated by the flange of the case as it enters the breech); the 145 gun, range 18 kilometers, on the carriage of the 155, with a view to substituting the 155 when the gun was worn out; the 240, mounted on a carriage which is transported on a truck for fire from railroads, some of which were employed in the last Somme offensive. Guns of different calibers, but of similar mechanism, were grouped together for manufacture, instruction, and service, with a view to zone fire. Thus the 120 long is grouped with the 155 short, the 105 long with the 120 short. The means of transportation of the different guns of the same group are the same, i.e., horse, tractor, narrow gauge rail, or standard gauge rail. The largest French shrapnel is the 150; the Italians have a 240 shrapnel, and at Verdun the Germans had fired a 305 shrapnel against convoys and rearguards.

The Navy Steel Works also manufacture the "tanks", forged and cast steel shells, and fuses. The "tank" was a new automobile, armored and armed, which was so constructed as to be able to move off the roads, and to cross trenches and obstacles of slight relief. Each carried a gun, several machine guns, and a garrison, and was proof against bullets and shell fragments. The purpose was to accompany the infantry in the attack, and to precede it in the crossing of enemy trenches, in comparative immunity since artillery fire directed against it would damage the trenches themselves.

The French tank lacked the rear train of wheels of the English model, and is smaller. The movement of both was produced by an endless chain over pulleys and rollers. Petroleum motors drive the pulleys, which are attached to the body of the vehicle by springs which enable it to be accommodated to accidents of the terrain. The ability to cross narrow trenches is due to the fact that the center of gravity of the tank is well to the rear. The French tanks had a 75 mm. gun in front with lateral apertures for machine-guns; the English had lateral caponiers for light pieces.

At the branch establishment of the Creusot works at Chalons sur Saone there was a shop where disabled pieces were sent from the front, and where new pieces are constructed from the serviceable parts of the damaged pieces. This factory also produces the 105 mm. and other projectiles, bridge elements, and other metallic construction. All naval work was suspended.

The principal Schneider factory is the well-known Creusot, which was a competitor of the Krupp works. It possessed the necessary machinery for the production of armor plate and of the most powerful naval guns, which were its principal product in time of peace. The electrical generating plant developed 15,000 h.p. from the energy produced by the gases from the furnaces. Coal from mines belonging to the company produced the coke and the gas, from which were derived the tar, tne ammoniacal oils and the benzol, a product which was sent to the explosive factories. The preparation of armor had ceased and all efforts were concentrated on the manufacture of guns and projectiles. For this purpose it was necessary, since the beginning of the war, to make extensive additions to the plant.

This factory produced an enormous quantity of pieces and projectiles of a multiplicity of calibers: 520 mm., gun 18 calibers long, range 18 kilometers, weight 190 tons with carriage and truck; 400 mm., howitzer, for fire from railroad; 370 mm., for a naval gun reduced to a howitzer, weight of projectile 400 and 500 kgms., fire from a platform on the railroad; 340, 32c and 305, for naval guns similarly adapted to the field; 293 mm., for naval gun which had been manufactured for Denmark; 280 mm., for new model Schneider mortar; 240, for naval gun and howitzer, for fire from railroad; 220 mm., modern Schneider mortar, recoil on carriage; 194 mm., for old type of naval and coast gun; 155 mm., for Rimailho gun, modern howitzer, and two types of long gun, the last three being Schneider models; 145 and 140 mm., for long naval guns; 120 mm., for long and short guns; 105 mm., for modern field gun; 75 mm., for regulation field gun and new cavalry model; 65 mm., for regulation mountain gun.

Before the war, all pieces had to be sent to the rear, or even to the foundry, for repairs. During the War much of the work is done at the front, with great saving of time. At the powder factory of St. Ausone were black powder mills, and the schneiderite works. This was composed of ammonium nitrate and dinitronaphthaline. They received the former and manufacture the latter, transforming the naphthaline into mononitronaphthaline and then into dinitronaphthaline. The factory also produced guncotton, and, in small quantities, tolite and nitrotoluene. The factory produced nitric acid in three ways: from sodium nitrate, from calcium cyanamid, and from nitrogen of the air.

The cartridge factory of Toulouse (12,000 laborers) produced daily 12,000 cases of the 75 mm. projectile and 2000 of the 155. Other shops produced cartridges and bullets. France had eight factories for the production of the latter, with a capacity, in all, of 200 million cartridges per month. The cartridges carry 2.85 grams of American, and 3 grams of French, powder. Loading by hand was preferred as more accurate than machine loading. The ball contains 90 per cent copper and 10 per cent zinc. The factory also loaded daily 30,000 primers for the 105 gun. The cartridge factory could produce 500 million cartridges annually, but the production of rifle cartridges had been reduced, as the consumption is negligible. At Toulouse there was also a powder factory where powder B (a trinitrocellulose) was produced, the 30,000 laborers producing daily 100 tons.

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Page last modified: 28-04-2019 18:50:08 ZULU