To understand role of the French Army in the 1914 - 1918 war, and to compare it with the armies of the other main Great Powers on the Western Front, there is, perhaps one prime consideration. That is, that British and German Armies were mainly constituted of men from urbanised industry and commerce, with large numbers of lower-middleclass volunteers, whilst the French Army consisted predominantly of conscript peasants from the countryside.

 

Accordingly, the French Army had a much stronger hierarchy, with a stricter division between the ordinary soldier (the poilu = the bearded one), the non-commissioned officer (NCO) and the officer. This is amply reflected by a famous sign of the Great War on the toilet facilities at French railway stations which was said to read:

 

W.C. pour M.M. les officers = Toilets for Messieurs the officers

Cabinets pour les sous-officers = Lavatories for the NCO's

Latrines pour la troupe = Latrines for the soldiers

 

The expectations of daily life were also somewhat less for the French peasant soldier, and they were rather more inured to a hard open-air lifestyle, which stood them in good stead in the open trenches. Their stoic acceptance of the rigours, stress and horror of 20th Century warfare, became legendary.

 

It is also necessary to consider the psychological effect on the French nation of the debacle of 1870 when, after France declared war on Prussia, the Prussian Army invaded and, after a whirlwind six-week campaign, occupied France.

 

To add salt to the wounds of the French nation, the Prussian King had himself acclaimed as Kaiser at Versailles, armed German troops strutted the streets of Paris, whilst the French Emperor was unceremoniously bundled off to Germany. Indeed, it was a shattering fall from grace and power for a country that had for decades had held almost uncontested sway over most of Europe. It struck a stinging blow to the nation's self respect.

 

After a humiliating peace conference, in 1873 the French finally regained part of their lost territory of Alsace-Lorraine by the payment of a huge reparations bill of £200,000,000, and the Prussians left the country.

 

Reorganisation, fortification and a new philosophy of war

Immediately, the French set out to reorganise their army and defences; particularly those in the northeast adjacent to the frontier with Germany. A conscript army was created with 5 years of compulsory service, and an Army Staff College established for the training of senior army officers. Huge expenditure went into the creation of a system of forts and bastions along the newly drawn eastern frontier and into the introduction of new weapons. However, the machine gun and the heavier artillery pieces were thought to be unsuitable for modern warfare. The key bastion in this line of fortification, both strategically and psychologically, was the ancient fortified town of Verdun, and its environs.

 

Between 1870 and 1914 a whole new philosophy of war was created, expressed by slogans such as: L'attaque à outrance = Always immediately counterattack; L'audace, encore l'audace, toujours l'audace = Be daring, again more daring, always daring (compare the more modern British SAS motto version: He who dares, wins); L'élan vital = The vital impulse.

 

Unlike the British and the Germans, with their muted battlefield uniforms of khaki and feldgrau (field-grey), the French infantry went to war in 1914 bedecked with red képis (peaked pill box hats), blue frock-coats and bright red pantaloons. However, in the late autumn of 1914 a new uniform designed for the modern battle-field was supplied to all new recruits. It was made from a wool monochrome fabric which the French called - bleu horizon (horizon blue) - not a colour one would assume as being ideally suited for camouflage but, no doubt, passable when liberally plastered with mud as the soldiers quickly were once in the trenches. By the late Spring of 1915, all of the French front line units on the Western Front were equipped with this new light blue uniform.

 

Initially, the French cavalry was even more bizarrely dressed with burnished silver breastplates and plumed helmets. Splendid targets for the German Army's numerous machineguns, as the early horrendous casualty figures clearly attest. Later the cavalry's uniform was also changed to be less striking.

 

By the end of 1914, the French had suffered nearly a million casualties with 300,000 killed. A staggering loss over five months for a nation of 40 millions.

 

The new steel helmets

The British often claim to have introduced to the Western Front the first steel helmet, or 'tin-hat' in its familiar ' Brodie' design bowler shape, in early 1916. In fact, the French had issued theirs in the Summer of 1915: the Adrian helmet, that had a sort of well fashioned, even dashing, look. The German 'coal-scuttle' type helmet was only introduced in 1916 just in time for the latter battles of the First Somme.

 

None of these steel helmets was intended to stop a bullet full on - it would be far too heavy at that gauge of metal. But the British model was made of forged steel, and had steeply sloping surfaces that proved to be effective at deflecting debris, shrapnel and small shell splinters. The plain steel plate used in both the French and German versions was less efficacious. Moreover, the high, relatively flat surfaces of the sides of the German helmet made them much more susceptible to piercing by projectiles.

 

Sustaining the army

Napoleon stated that 'an army marches on its stomach'. As one would expect, the WW1 French soldier was, in principle, well fed with two full meals stipulated per day. Each company of soldiers - 200 men - was supposed to be provided with its own mobile field kitchen well supplied with bread, tinned meat - a.k.a. singe = monkey - salted fish and other foodstuff as available. Of course, in the front line these good intentions often gave way to a less regular and palatable menu, with the French equivalent of the British canned corned beef often being the principal, and unappreciated, item of diet.

 

A major item in the sustenance of the French soldier, and extremely important to his morale, was the daily ration of wine. This wine, called pinard, was a simple red country wine but, no doubt of a kind to which the former peasants were well accustomed and liked.

 

Relations between officers and men

The relations between the French soldiers and their officers was significantly different from those of the British and German armies. The officers of all the Great War armies tended to keep their distance from their troops except when in engaged in battle. But the British officers' code of 'his first concern should always be the welfare of his men' was not at all general practice in the French army, where the men and NCO's were expected to take care of themselves. They were not considered to be the officer's concern outside of the periods of actual combat.

 

In the German army the Junker cadre of senior officers was extremely clannish, but the lower officer ranks were frequently in close contact with their men. Indeed, the German practice of giving the command of units to relatively junior officers, and even NCO's, made this closeness much more feasible and likely.

 

French soldiers were generally expected to move almost everywhere on foot. They were also required to carry with them clothing, bedding, food and drink - including a wine ration - equipment and ammunition. The combined weight of the backpacks carrying all this usually exceeded 40 kg (88lbs); by comparison the British soldier's field pack only weighed around 30kg (66lbs). One can only image with what difficulty the French soldier moved over broken roads, shell-torn terrain and through the zigzagging trench system.

 

Perhaps, due to their former simple rural life style, the French poilus were notorious for their cavalier attitude to hygiene in the trenches. British troops hated taking over trench-lines formerly occupied by the French, and one of the first duties they usually undertook was to clean up the lines.

 

All the armies on the Western Front suffered severely from the so-called 'trench' diseases due to lice, the wet and the cold, and poor personal hygiene. But the French seemed to suffer the most due to their unwillingness to take the necessary steps to alleviate, wherever and whenever feasible, the awful conditions concommitant with trench warfare. Also, like the British, they had the idea and philosophy that trench-works should be inherently temporary by design and intent. The more defensive minded Germans had a much more long-term outlook, and put enormous effort into their trench work and fortifications. Hence the famed strong points such as the Schwaben Redoubt and the Hindenburg Line, in the Somme Sector, of which the French and British had no direct parallel.

 

Another failure of the French commanders was the lack of provision of additional amenities for the troops. Until General Pétain's shake up of the conditions of service in 1917, that alleviated matters somewhat, leave was rare and poorly facilitated. Leisure activities behind the front-line were also minimal.

 

The one area of their life where the poilus were well served, was the ardour in action of their officers and their exceptional commitment to leadership even at the supreme cost of self-sacrifice. As a result of this commitment, by 1916, 50% of the prewar professional officer class had been eliminated from the battlefield by one lethal process or another. To be sure, the maintenance of such a level of commitment and discipline in the ranks of the ordinary soldiers was only thought to be possible by a fearsome regime of discipline, backed by courts-martial, prison and execution.

 

The practice of decimation, where one out of every ten men from a battalion were arbitrarily and summarily shot, was also allegedly used when it was felt that a particular battalion had signally failed in its duty. Modern French historians dispute that there was any wide scale use of summary executions and/or decimations. They claim that whilst it is true that the right to these actions existed under French Army Penal Law in emergency situations, their use in 1914-1918 is greatly exaggerated, and there was no reason to carry out in secret any executions that did take place. Any such action would be entirely legal and permissible where the conditions of war justified it. Executions that did take place had to be reported to the civil authorities and not many were.

 

Penal battalions were formed in each Division where even relatively minor defaulters were ruthlessly exposed to the most dangerous tasks and activities on and around the battlefield.

 

Mutiny, and Petain re-establishes discipline

 

The French Army in the Great War also became notorious for its mutiny in 1917 which grew to affect 50% of the Army. Strangely, the neither the German High Command nor the Allies learned of it until long after it had been resolved.

 

Prior to 1916, the French record of desertions had been generally much better than that of the other Great Powers, although the numbers of executions for desertion and cowardice were considerably higher. The question that arises, therefore, is what event, or series of events, caused the troops to mutiny on the scale they did? The consensus is that the main catalyst was the disastrous Nivelle Offensive in the Chemin des Dames Sector, added to the earlier depredations in the Verdun Salient.

 

General Nivelle, over-confident and over-lauded, after his success in the recapture of Forts Douaumont and Vaux in the Verdun Sector (in fact, Pétain had done most of the real preparatory work), carelessly boasted and broadcast his plans for the new offensive in the Chemin des Dames Sector scheduled to begin on 16th April 1917. The Germans, forewarned, withdrew their troops from their forward trenches to strongly fortified defences. They slaughtered the French infantry as it advanced with tremendous élan into what was now a deserted killing ground, laced with murderous machine gun- and shellfire. By the next day there were over 100,000 French casualties. Still Nivelle insisted on further offensive waves, although it was soon obvious to all but Nivelle that the traumatised French infantry had shot its bolt, and there little hope of any further useful advance.

 

Rumours of the carnage spread back through the rear areas to stoke up the resentment that had already arisen about the unprecedented and relentless slaughter in the Verdun Salient. Of particular concern, was the report that the disillusioned men had advanced into battle baa-ing like sheep to the slaughter. Widespread scuffles and violent actions took place across northern France between the soldiers and their officers and civilian figures of authority.

 

 

On the 28th April 1917, a battalion of the French 18th Infantry Battalion mutinied and refused, to a man, to take their place in the front-line. The usual punitive measures were enforced, with the usual vigour, against the so-called ringleaders: some were shot, others imprisoned. The cowed battalion duly went into battle, only to be again severely mauled in the German killing zone.

 

Almost immediately, unit after unit refused to return to offensive action and, for the first time many previously highly loyal soldiers deserted; although the majority continued to hold the frontline and perform their routine defensive duties. Eventually parts of 54 divisions, representing 40,000 men, mutinied.

 

A panicking High Command and Government requested General Pétain to resolve the problem, virtually giving him a carte blanche.

 

Whilst refusing to outwardly accede to the mutineers demands, and judiciously stamping out the foci of the mutiny, Pétain brought about quite radical and welcome changes in the ordinary soldiers' conditions of service and welfare. But above all, he firmly overruled the hideously costly military code of continual offensive action, counseling waiting for the planned new squadrons of tanks, and the involvement of the Americans on the Western Front, before authorising more large scale offensive action by the French Army.

 

In pursuance of this dictate, during 1917 the French Army carried out a few limited offensive actions including the morale boosting final clearance of the Mort Homme sector of the Verdun Salient.

 

On the 14th April 1918, a French Marshal, Ferdinand Foch, was made Supreme commander of the Allied armies and, under his stewardship, a revived, if not entirely reinspired, French Army took part in the containment of Ludendorff's 1918 Offensive and the united Allied counter-offensives which followed to break the German Army and win the war.

 

As previously mentioned, the French military code exemplified by the slogan 'L'attaque à la outrance' had its affect on the comparative casualty figures of the three Great Powers that fought on the Western Front. France had by far the highest ratio of casualties, nearly 4,000,000 out of a population of 40,000,000 (i.e. 20% of the male population). Nearly 1,300,000 men (7%) were killed in action. By comparison, Britain had 13% casualties and 4% of its male population killed, and Germany 17% casualties and 5% killed.

 

N.B. #1: The book by Alistair Horne, The Price of Glory,Verdun 1916, [1962] apart from being the definitive English language book of the Battle of Verdun in 1916, is also the source of much information about the French Army in general, and the French soldier in particular. Accordingly, it has been a most useful reference, among many others, in the research for this article.

 

N.B. #2: The genesis and evolution of the mutiny of the French Army in 1917 is well-exemplified in Stanley Kubrick's 1957 graphic, black and white film, Paths of Glory.

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