The Great War French Army:
Dr. Gavin Hughes
'Et pour qu'an Nom de Dieu, Vive la Coloniale!'
- the traditional battle-cry of the French Marine Corps
THE FRENCH MARINE BRIGADE IN BELGIUM 1914 ~ 1918
In 1622, Cardinal Richelieu created an armed force to serve on French ships and protect both them and overseas possessions from the enemies of France. Nearly three hundred years later, in 1914, their successors were wading through the water-filled trenches of Flanders, fighting the enemies of France once more. This article hopes to give a brief guide on the organisation, uniform, tactics of the French Marines, with a view to offering a few scenario ideas on their defence of Dixmude.
In the early days of their creation, the original role of the Marines was to act as the 'Armed Service' in the Royal Fleet and defend its ships. Their role gradually developed when the French Admiralty formed its own Naval Fusilier and Gunner Corps to garrison French harbours and outposts abroad. These troops were called 'fusilier-marins', although they were also commonly known as 'Marsouins' (porpoises) and 'Bigors' (winkles). These names dated back to 1856, when French sailors disparagingly referred to the Marines on board their ships as nothing but 'passengers', like the porpoises that frequently followed in their ships' wake. 'Bigors' referred to the Marine Gunners who left the ships to go ashore and man the harbour batteries; as hard to dislodge as 'winkles' from rocks. This sea-fairing tradition continued in Marine enlistment with most recruits coming from the fishing villages around coastal France. One such recruit was a Breton lad called Yves Lebouc, who became famous for being one of the youngest Marines to fight with the Brigade in 1914 - at the age of sixteen. Although the French Marine Brigade was under the command of the French Navy, its military organisation was in the same manner as that of the Army. Company and Battalion strengths were 200 to 1,000 men respectively and these were further divided into platoons and squads. Additionally, Marine battalions were supported by a specially trained Machine-gun Section, armed with the 1907 St. Etienne Machine-gun.
Finding commercially accessible uniform guides on the French Marines during the Great War can be difficult (a notable exception is Osprey No.286, see below) but, luckily, their uniform details were fairly straight-foward. Marines were issued with the same black leather equipment as their infantry counterparts and a heavy greatcoat. Although 'horizon blue' greatcoats were worn, they were mostly of Navy Blue, as Marines were loathe to loose any of their distinctive naval connections. Yet, by far the most distinctive uniform feature was their famous blue naval 'ratings' cap. It had red piping and pom-pom, a white chinstrap which was worn over the crown, with the 'cap tally' (of ship's name or number) and 'Regiment de Fusiliers-Marins' on its band. As the war dragged on, both chinstraps and ship's name were sometimes removed whilst on campaign but, on its front, the prized Golden Anchor badge was always worn. Trousers remained naval blue (or brown corduroy if available) and helmets, when issued, bore the anchor badge. This badge of the 'fouled' anchor was in exactly the opposite direction to their colleagues in the Navy. Most officers wore the standard Naval officer uniform with peaked cap, however, officers also wore Kepis, which were in naval blue. Both forms of headgear had the Golden Anchor badge worn on the front.
The tactical role of Marines was, effectively, as the French military equivalent of 'trouble- shooters'. They were trained to be mobile, self-supporting units in an assault, to carry an attack forward and to sustain it, if necessary, until reinforcements arrived. Some units, known as 'groupes mixtes' were placed in armoured cars and attached to infantry and cavalry formations. Mostly, however, Marines were simply expected to hold a position against all odds. In those operations where the Marines were armed lightly, with rifles and machine-gun teams, they favoured a tactic of employed defence; reminiscent of the 'bigors' role as naval gunners. In 1914, when Marines were acting without sufficient artillery support, their machine-guns were usually grouped into teams of four. Although the 1907 St. Etienne guns were eventually relegated to garrison or colonial operations, they could still pour an appalling rate of fire against any advancing enemy. An illustration of these tactics in operation can be shown by one of their most famous actions, at the battle of Dixmude (16th October-10th November 1914). Their exploits in the stubborn defence of the Yser is one of the best examples of their fighting skill, determination and reputation as France's oldest elite force.
In mid-October 1914, Belgian troops, thoroughly exhausted from their arduous retreat from Antwerp, held the line from Nieuport to Dixmude - to prevent the British flank from being turned. Battalions of the French Marine Brigade, under Admiral Ronarc'h, held the town of Dixmude but they had no artillery support. General Foch did not reinforce these troops for some time and, when he did, he sent in General Grosetti's 24th Division, bringing the small force's numbers to around 59,000 Belgian and French soldiers. Yet, they were still without artillery and, against them, were Duke Albrecht of Wurtemburg's well-supported 150,000 German troops. Interestingly, Foch deliberately let his forces here on the Yser remain apparently weak, to attract German attention and divert them from Calais directly. If it was a gamble, it played to the atmosphere following the fall of Antwerp perfectly. Rather than wallowing in victory, the Germans were instead deeply worried that the Belgian army had managed to slip away relatively intact. Whilst they were under no illusion as to the capability of the Belgians they believed that they were effectively a spent force. Yet, having said this, they also realised that, for both political and domestic reasons, the Belgians had to be visibly destroyed. This was why, on the 16th October, Duke Albrecht (with the Kaiser himself to overlook any plans) began the massed German assault to destroy the Belgian Army and then slam along the coast to Calais.
The attack initially began with the advance of two German corps towards the defences along the Yser canal. They were surprised to discover that the several villages north of the canalised Yser were stoutly held by Belgian units. In the low-lying areas and marshland, those entrenchments which had been dug for the defenders were quickly filled with up to three feet of water. At Dixmude, the German scouts reported back that French Marines held the town with only infantry and machine-guns. In fact, the Marines were defending makeshift strongpoints and built defences in the town, taking turns every other day to change companies in manning the water-filled trenches out on the perimetre. The northern sector of Dixmude was held by Commandant Delage, whilst the southern sector was defended by Commandant Varney, with a reserve battalion of his men holding the railway station at Caeskerke behind the Yser bridge. These men were protected by a machine-gun section which covered the approaches to the bridge.
On October 17th, German artillery support was brought up and a fierce bombardment all along the Yser line began, followed by mass infantry assaults. On the 18th, the Germans forced the 1st Belgian Division out of Mannekensvere and drove the 4th Belgian Division out of the town of Keyem, leaving the French Marines at Dixmude exposed. A counter-attack that night by the 4th Division regained Keyem and occupied the small village of Beerst, which nestled innocuously between Keyem and Dixmude. On the morning of Monday the 19th, the Germans shelled Beerst unremittingly, tearing the village apart and then pouring infantry into the ruins. At the same time, assaults on the Marines at Dixmude were proving fruitless yet, as the pressure mounted on Beerst, the Belgians eventually fell back.
In Keyem, the Belgians, under heavy howitzer fire and infantry assault, clung onto the town tenaciously and refused to be beaten back. At dusk, they advanced northwards from Dixmude, with a vanguard of French Marines (one source called them '...tall, tanned Breton fishermen...') and forced their way through to Vladsloo and re-entered Beerst. The same source grimly noted that the French Marines' assault was '...with not much shooting but with...silent steel'. Despite having clawed their way back, these troops discovered that fresh German reinforcements were hastening westwards. They were then ordered to retire to Keyem and Dixmude, whilst the Allied-held northern villages were evacuated. Dixmude was shelled again and, again, another German infantry assault was repelled. Yet, by now the French 'blue-jackets' were effectively on their own, with their only support being from the ever-dwindling remnants of the Belgian 4th Division. To this background, the battle of Dixmude proper was fought.
As the Belgian Army reeled from the sustained German attacks, in order to relieve some of the pressure on the Yser, the British First Army sprung north of Ypres against the Germans in between Roulers and Thourout. Whilst this was supposedly a purely diversionary action, it actually forced the Germans back instead. The unexpected British advance stopped the fresh German assault on the Belgians, but it did not halt their artillery bombardment on the Yser line. That night, all along the coast, it was said that villages could be seen though the sea- mist eerily burning from the fierce artillery duel between the guns of the Royal Navy and the German Army. It was also through this thick sea-mist that the Germans relaunched their highly concentrated attacks on the Marine positions at Dixmude. By the third attack, at dawn, masses of German infantry were funnelled against the battered French Marine defences, only to be repelled once more. With hardly any respite (and certainly none from the shelling) the defenders prepared themselves for another German reorganised attack that afternoon. This time, using fresh reinforcements flooding in from Thourout (mainly of eager Berlin volunteers formed from students and office workers), a ferocious German charge almost turned the tide. Yet, the disciplined Marine rifle volleys and sustained machine-gun fire brought their assailing enemy down in countless numbers, to such an extent that after the failure of this fourth assault, the Germans finally withdrew to refocus their attention elsewhere on the Yser line.
Although the shelling on Admiral Ronarch's French Marine positions continued, another major assault did not occur until two days later, on Friday 23rd. As if to demonstrate further the resolute courage and discipline of the troops on either side, amazingly another fourteen assaults were flung against Dixmude between Friday and Saturday. During this fighting, elements of the German forces managed to work their way forward and capture a cemetery which they infamously occupied with heavy machine-gunners, who used the tombstones as valuable cover. Despite this, no breakthrough occurred and the fighting subdued until eventually Dixmude was simply 'given up' and the Germans moved into the town on the 11th November. However, by this time, it had lost its importance as a bridgehead on the Yser and the French Marines had simply withdrawn to trenches on the drier south of the canal; leaving the Germans in possession of little more than water-logged 'drains and ditches'. Yet, the battle of Dixmude had cost the Marines a quarter of their strength in casualties, nearly two thousand men in total. The Germans too, realised the price of crossing the Yser, as one anonymous officer noted, ' Seven times we crossed... and seven times we were beaten back.'
For those wishing to recreate the French Marines in Belgium, the organisation and strength of the Brigade under Admiral Ronarch was as follows. There were seven battalions, divided into two battle groups under Commandants Delage and Varney, making a total of 7,000 Marines. Figure-wise, Mike Owen's excellent range for Renegade is a great place to start; one can easily imagine these highly detailed 'Marsouins' gruffly shouting furious oaths at their oncoming enemy!
As distinctive, tough and hardy troops, the Marines were considered to be the elite of the French Army; with their only nearest rivals in reputation being the Foreign Legion. It was the Marines who were popularly believed to have 'saved the homeland' by their grim defence of the Yser in 1914. The respect in which they were held was aptly shown when General Joffre was told that the Marines were fighting in the flooded trenches at Dixmude waist-deep in water; he allegedly replied with a wry smile, saying: 'They are in their element.' Not even a Legionnaire could proudly claim that.
Sources and suggested further reading:
The following are excellent works on the French Marines in 1914 although, sadly, some are quite difficult to get hold of. Nevertheless, they are highly recommended if you find them!
- Summer, I. - French Army, 1914-1918, No. 286 (Osprey 1995)
- Haythornthwaite,P.J. -Photo-history of World War One (Arms & Armour Press, 1993)
- Official Guide, 'Les Troupes de Marine, 1622 - 1984 (Lavauzelle Publishing 1986)
- Mabire, J. -La Bataille de l'Yser: les fusiliers-marins a Dixmude (Paris, Fayard, 1979)