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War in Theory and Practice
The French Army 1914-1916
By William Sariego
November 2013

No nation or army was prepared for August 1914 and its aftermath. All had envisioned a short and sharp war of mobility, and yet “home before the leaves fall” would prove a naïve sentiment to say the least. No national army, however, underwent such a radical change in both doctrine and equipment as that of the French during the 16 months from the start of the war to the opening guns at Verdun, the subject of They Shall Not Pass.

Le Pantalon Rouge C’Est la France!

France went to war with uniforms little changed since the Second Empire. Indeed, the famous red pants originated before that, in 1829 in an odd economic effort to boost the madder industry against British competition; the red dyes were a byproduct of the madder plant. The red pants, dark blue greatcoat and the kepi were as outdated in 1914 as Napoleonic tactics.


Senegalese in their colonial khaki.

 
Other armies had long given up their colorful uniforms. The British had begun to phase in khaki after the Boer War, and the Germans switched from Prussian blue to field grey in 1910. The French army, to its credit, had experimented as early as 1902 with a different uniform, but the issue was political at that point. The red trousers had become a perverse symbol of nostalgia and past glory. A last effort in 1912 for an earthen toned uniform (it would have looked similar to that of the Italian army) came to naught.

After the death of so many brave young men in 1914, even the most naïve politician came to realize something must be done. The choice of bleu clair, or horizon blue, remains something of a mystery, but is probably related to the dyes available in the wartime conditions.

 


France's defenders in their horizon blue.

 
Anything was an improvement. Alistair Horne, in his magnificent book, The Path of Glory, remarked upon the positive morale effects on British troops when French reinforcements appeared to materialize on the horizon in their blue uniforms.

Oddly enough, colonial troops, both native and metropolitan, would be issued khaki uniforms. The kepi would be replaced by a steel helmet similar to that worn by the Italians. Transition to the new style of dress began in April 1915.

L'Artillerie

In 1909, a forgettable member of the General Staff uttered words that would echo the pre-war French disdain for artillery. “You talk to us of heavy artillery. Thank God we have none!” That was a something of an overstatement, but not by much, and reflected the army’s attitude well enough. Heavy artillery was deemed contrary to the mission of the army, which saw as its strength the lightness of its guns. To this end the French army entered the war with the 75mm artillery piece as its staple. Luckily for them, it was one of the finest field guns ever designed. Mobile with a high rate of fire, it was longer-ranged and more accurate than any of its peers.


Aux armes, citoyens! . . . Abreuve nos sillons !

 
Yet the Great War demonstrated the need for bigger guns, especially when the war of mobility ended and the trenches were dug. That France had any heavy guns at all was largely due to General Joseph Joffre’s efforts before he took command of the army. As an engineer he recognized the need for heavy guns to breach fortified zones. After stalemate set in, more guns were ordered. Joffre’s vision on this point, however, nearly proved fatal to France when the Germans launched their offensive at Verdun. To compensate for the shortage of heavy guns until more could be manufactured, most of the forts depicted on the map to They Shall Not Pass had their big guns removed to support his 1915 offensives.

Revanche!

The French strategy against Germany would come full circle. Following the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War, a resumption of hostilities at a later date was assumed. French strategy in preparation for this future war was defensive in nature. Her great fortifications at Verdun, Belfort and other places reflected this. Yet as time passed it became clear to military strategists that to win back the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine the country would have to take the offensive. The doctrine of the offensive served to boost the morale of the army, humiliated in 1870-1871. L’attaque a l'outrance would become an idea so fixed in the military and political mindset that officers who counseled caution found their careers ruined.


Their turn would come all too soon.

 

Historians commonly point out that Plan 17 was a failure. Granted, but the Schlieffen Plan also failed in the end. The plan of attack was quite flexible, and the French generals were hardly ignoring the real potential of the Germans sweeping through Belgium. As the Germans advanced with their “right hook,” the French hoped to hit and break through the center, unhinging the German offensive. It did not happen that way, as we well know. Tactics had not kept up with technology, and many brave soldiers died in these futile attacks. In the end, France did win the war and regain her lost territory. She did this however, thanks to the tenacity of her soldiers on the defensive, such as during the epic struggle at Verdun.

Put your own theories to the test in They Shall Not Pass!