The Early War French Army
Dr. Gavin Hughes

'Abolish red trousers?! Never! Red trousers are France!'
- Eugene Etienne, the French Minister of War, 1913


One of the most distinctive sights during the first days of the Great War was the appearance of the French Army; resplendent in their anachronistic uniforms of blue and red. Much has already been written about their colourful appearance and, in a war not exactly noted for its colour, the French Army is a delight to game with. At any wargame level, French infantry certainly paint up exceedingly well and add a splash of colour to any tabletop action. So, what follows is a brief glimpse into the world of the 'poilu' (literally 'hairy one'!) from 1914 - 1915, as they attempted to hurl the insolent 'Allemandes' back across their borders once and for all...

In the immediate days after German mobilisation, the French Army, for all its antiquated look, swung into deadly action. On paper, it seemed an unwieldy force of 823,000 conscripts and colonial troops, with 3, 780,000 reservists (including officers) called up for the war. Despite these huge numbers of troops, upon mobilisation the Army managed to transport over two million men to the front line, in 4,278 trains, with exceptional efficiency. It was organised into twenty-one numbered Army Corps, within five numbered Armies, although these soon expanded as enlisted manpower increased. A typical early-war example would be the Second Army (commanded by General Castelnau) during the Defence of Lorraine. It contained five Army Corps; the IX (HQ at Tours), XV (HQ at Marseilles), XVI (HQ at Montpellier), XVIII (HQ at Bordeaux), XX (HQ at Nancy) and also included the 2nd Groupe de Divisions de Reserve. Making up these Corps were usually two Divisions (although VI and VII Corps had three each in 1914), a Cavalry Regiment, four groups of field artillery, a Reserve infantry brigade and associated support staff.

Approximately 12,000 infantry were present in a Regular French division, split into two Brigades, each of two Regiments of three battalions strong. With the addition of an engineer company and support group, a field artillery regiment and attached cavalry squadron, the strength of a Regular French Division in the line generally stood at 15,000 men. In 1914, some divisions also had one or two chasseur battalions - or light infantry group - attached to it, but this policy was changed in 1916 when they were formed into their own divisions. Strengths of units varied considerably during the war and whilst a battalion officially consisted of 1,000 men (approx. 200 men making a company), in practice many were under-strength. With regards to the structure within a regiment, four companies (and a machine-gun company) made up a battalion, whilst five battalions (although technically two formed the reserve regiment) including a HQ Coy, made up the Regiment. The smallest unit was the squad, two of which made a platoon, whilst two platoons constituted a company.

In August 1914, the French had 173 Line and Reserve Regiments each, supplemented by 145 Territorial Regiments. These were comprised of men who had already served their time as Reservists but were still of military age. In addition, the Light Infantry (the chasseurs a pied) had a further 31 battalions at their disposal, each with their own Reserve battalion. Of these battalions, 12 were of the elite 'Blue Devils' (the chasseurs Alpins), raised specifically for mountain warfare. Although designed for fighting in the Alps, most of these tough mountain troops saw service in the Vosges during the early months of the war.

With regards to uniforms for French infantry, as there is a great selection of reference books published on the topic (some of which are given at the end), only the briefest guide is given here. To many, the early days of the Great War are characterised by the dash and 'la gloire' of the French Army. This spirit was encapsulated in their uniforms, which were virtually unchanged from the Second Empire. The reason why they were so distinctive is, perhaps, the cornerstone of understanding the French Army of 1914; as it was integral to the country's politics and national character itself.

Prior to the war, many committees had attempted, despairingly and unsuccessfully, to find the ideal camouflage colour that suited France's military image of itself. Most camouflage schemes were dismissed and to even suggest that they should adopt more neutral colours became something of a national conspiracy. A weave of blue and white was eventually agreed (it was originally to have contained red as well but, as this dye was only available from Germany, it was discarded!) and official production of these 'horizon blue' uniforms began at the end of August 1914. However, it was not until January 1915 that items in this shade began to commonly appear at the Front. Until then, the political wrangling and High Command's unyielding commitment to the Offensive Ideal guaranteed that France went to war still dressed in blue and red. However, the practicalities of warfare soon took over and inevitable concessions to the peacetime uniform were made. It was soon discovered that the high visibility of French troops made them easy targets and one of the most immediate changes - as shown by the Renegade models here - was the skirts of the greatcoat left unbuttoned to cover the trousers up as best as possible! Luckily, the battalions of chasseurs had it a little easier, as their trousers were a less-distinctive iron-grey colour.

In the meantime, 'mechanic's blue' (a deep sky-blue) was sometimes used as an intermediate colour for trouser overalls from October 1914, until 'horizon blue' was completely adopted in November 1915. Even before this date, by Spring 1915, units were wearing kepi covers of blue cretonne, which faded to a bluish-grey colour, and trousers were being replaced by brown corduroy or dark blue firemen's fatigues. As for variations in the Regiments, this was shown by regimental number on the kepi (which with a cover disguised this) and on the collar patch of the greatcoat. For Line infantry the colour of the patch was the same as their trousers - garance - or red. As such, the overall uniformity of the early-war French Army was sometimes variable. For example, the 38th Regiment was issued with horizon blue greatcoats and kepi covers (and a mixture of overalls, red and fatigue trousers) and dark blue puttees in late 1914. However, the 50th Regiment was still wearing its blue greatcoat, cretonne kepi cover, boots and red trousers as late as early 1915.

Ideas for recreating actions with the early French Army are plentiful and accounts of their fighting abilities well documented. In 1914, the French Army had no intention of acting defensively and, in their instruction manuals, made no provision for the digging of trenches or placing of entanglements. If a position was to be defended, then it was left to the individual soldier's courage to stand his ground and fight. Luckily, during the early months of the war, this was one aspect that the French Army could absolutely rely upon. It was shown repeatedly during the defence of Belgium (from Brussels to Antwerp and following), in the Ardennes and the hard fighting in the Argonne, particularly around the village of Louppy-le-Chateau, which changed hands between French and Germans throughout the war. Other examples might involve campaigns along the Alsace-Lorraine frontier. Indeed, the first actual contact between Germany and France occurred in this disputed territory, days before the official Declaration of War, when isolated German mounted patrols crossed the border.

Yet, perhaps the best example of the French fighting spirit was the 'Miracle of the Marne', when the Germans were stopped within only a day's march of Paris itself. In the hilly countryside along the Ourcq battle-line, which stretched from Nanteuil-le-Haudouin (ten miles from the forest of Compeigne) to Meaux (only twenty miles from the north-eastern Paris fortresses) some of the most important fighting took place. The French, supported by light field artillery (the redoubtable 75mm gun) had initially pushed the Germans back but, on the 6th September, they met with stiff resistance. Again and again, the French attacked, whilst German heavy artillery shelled them to smithereens. The tenacity and fury of the French assaults can be shown by just one Zouave battalion that had entered the battle on the 6th September a thousand strong. When it was pulled out of the attack two days later, a staggering 800 men of the battalion were casualties. On the same day, General Foch's IX Army was severely mauled, leading to his legendary message to Joffre that "My centre is giving ground; my right retiring; situation excellent; I am attacking."

Whether the message was genuine or not, it nevertheless captured the spirit of the French Army. The Chateau of Mondement, four miles east of Sezanne, also became known as one of the fiercest battles of First Marne. The old chateau was originally held by the French 32nd Regiment and the 231st Territorial Regiment but, during the fighting, possession swung back and forth between them and Germans four times before it was finally recaptured. Mondement subsequently became known as the 'Hougomont of the Marne'. Other later engagements were equally courageous; such as the battle for Lens, a small mining town on the River Deule, ten miles from Arras and directly on the path of the German thrust towards Calais. Here the French and Germans fought a very bloody engagement, in barricaded streets and houses, fighting amongst the mineheads and iron and steel works for possession of the town.

Yet, the emphasis on the heroic offensive, combined with their lack of defensive training, proved costly. In the first five months of the war, some 500,000 Frenchmen became casualties. Some 300,000 of these occurred in August alone, during the Battle of the Frontiers (in Lorraine, Ardennes, Sambre and Mons). Despite these slaughters, the Army stayed cohesive and fought back with redoubled determination and bravery. From mid-August 1914 to June 1915, a further 2,700,000 men had been called up. By this time, the French were bearing a terrible burden on the Western Front and, whilst the old blue and red uniforms may have been slowly disappearing from the front-line, the spirit of the early-war 'poilu' never quite faded away. Suggested further reading:

The following are highly entertaining and informative works on the early-war French Army:

de la Gorce, P.M. - The French Army (London 1963)

Ferro, M. - The Great War 1914-1918 (London, 1987)

Marshal-Cornwall, General Sir J. - Foch as Military Commander (London 1972)

Mollo, A. - Army Uniforms of World War 1, (Blandford, 1977)

Summer, I. - The French Army, 1914-1918, No. 286 (Osprey 1995)

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