This contemporary illustration from La Guerre Documentee shows a typical French Poilu in a front line trench in winter garb. The French soldier was issued with a substantial greatcoat worn over his tunic which did offer some protection from the cold, but as this illustration demonstrates they also had to result to make do and he has a pair of woollen gloves and a scarf to help make long periods in the front line during the winter at least bearable. The artist, Guy Arnoux, was a well known French illustrator of the period whose work appeared in many magazines and children’s books
The Western Front was more than 450 miles long and the British Army at one point occupied just over a hundred miles of it. Sometimes it is easy to forget the sacrifice of the French Army who held more than 300 miles of the front, or the more obvious fact the mighty German Imperial Army was holding all 450 miles on its side of the lines.
The so-called ‘French front’ had many of its own landmarks but for France and Germany one of its greatest symbols would be Verdun. Here both nations bled in 1916 with more than 770,000 casualties.
Fort Vaux was one of many static fortifications that came to characterise the battle; nearby Fort Douaumont fell to a handful of Germans but costs the lives of thousands of Poilus to retake. Fort Vaux was a more heroic story, at least in 1916. Surrounded, the besieged garrison under Commandant Raynal held on until food, water and ammunition all ran out. Raynal signalled his fate in a pigeon message delivered by the pigeon Valiant, which fell dead at the feet of the staff officers in the Verdun citadel once its mission was complete. Fort Vaux fell on 7th June but it was a hollow victory for the Germans who casualties were verging on catastrophic for a battle in which they had hoped to ‘bleed France white’.
Today Fort Vaux has been left in its wartime state and has an excellent museum. The pocked landscape that surrounds it reminds us of what once the whole Western Front landscape was like.
The French Army of the Great War was a huge conscript army which proved capable of more than doubling in size in the first few weeks of the war. As the Germans crossed the borders of Alsace-Lorraine the Battle of the Frontiers began and more and more troops needed to be shipped to the front.
This image from a French source shows soldiers in a railway carriage cheering as they begin their journey to the battlefield. France’s response to war in 1914 was rapid and successful, but costly – more than 300,000 French soldiers would be killed before the year was out in just a few months fighting.
The railway carriage they are sitting in was the standard used by French railways; it bears a famous inscription which would become well known to British troops ‘Hommes 40, Chevaux 8′; 40 men or 8 horses. It was painted on all these wagons and troops remembered it as a lot more than 40 British soldiers were usually packed inside!
Le Crapouillot – no, this is not a French swear word or a turn of phrase the British Tommy secretly used to describe the French Poilu, but the name given to French Trench Mortar weapons in the Great War. As we saw from the post on Wednesday the French Army was quick to react to the situation of trench warfare and realised that essentially WW1 was a huge siege war – and that in previous siege wars mortars had been used to propel projectiles towards the enemy positions and try and break that siege.
The name Le Crapouillot was one used in the trenches; the mortars were described as ‘little toads’ and a toad is ‘crapaud’ in French. In fact far from being the centre of humour the Crapouillot units of the French army were elite troops with specialist kit. The sort of mortars shown in this illustration from 1915 could fire substantial projectiles hundreds of metres across the battlefield and cave in trenches, dugouts and strong-points. Various examples existed and their role on the battlefield from 1915 was vital giving the French Army a good weapon to counter the German Minenwerfer and other types of trench artillery being used at that time.
The experience of 1914 taught the French Army that to be conspicuous on the battlefield meant certain death; especially on the modern battlefield with massed machine-guns and artillery. In 1914 alone France had lost over 300,000 Poilus killed in action and despite going to war locked in the mentality of the Franco-Prussian the French Army proved remarkably quick to adapt to the war when it went into stalemate during the winter of 1914/15.
The French Army was the first to introduce a steel helmet; a first this was a light steel skull cap worn under the issue Kepi. Then an officer called August-Louis Adrian adapted the design of the Paris fire helmet to produce the M15 Adrain helmet, worn by the men in this illustration, which became the standard French helmet for the rest of the war. The French also discarded the dark blue serge and red trousers and adopted the Horizon Blue uniform, also seen here; it was felt the blue would blend in with the skyline when French soldiers attacked, rather than attempt to develop a uniform colour that would blend in with the shattered landscape.
New uniforms also meant new weapons and stuck in trenches unable to emerge and fire their weapons, both sides turned to using the periscope rifle, also seen in this illustration; in this case enabling the Poilu to fire his 8mm Lebel rifle remotely and safely using the periscope fitted to the frame. It was just the start of adapting old weapons to work in a new way, or re-introducing old weapons from earlier siege wars.
Battlefields of the Great War were often littered with unburied dead killed on patrols in No Man’s Land or in the last attack. The recovery of such bodies was often too dangerous to be attempted or if the body was of an enemy soldier the inclination to do it may not have been there. Such sights therefore became quite standard to the average front line soldier.
The French Camouflage Service used this fact and constructed their own dead soldiers from papermache and other material. This illustration from La Guerre Documentée shows the dummy body of a German soldier having replaced an actual one on the front line wire close to a French trench. The dummy body is hollow to allow a soldier to gain access to it’s interior and observe from within. Obviously a papermache dummy offered little protection from bullets or shell fire so armoured sheeting was often placed inside or the soldier wore trench armour to protect him. There are images in the archives of the Imperial War Museum showing similar dummies constructed by the Royal Engineers, so it is likely to have been a device used by all sides on the cluttered battlefields of the Great War.
Another task of the French Camouflage Service was deception; to trick the enemy into believing that something was happening when it wasn’t or troops were in a specific area when in fact they were in another. One ruse was the so-called ‘Chinese Attack‘ where dummy soldiers would be used with real covering fire to simulate an attack taking place. This would prompt a response from the enemy who would reply often revealing positions that could be spotted and then dealt with by artillery fire, or it might draw enemy troops into a forward position in great number which could also be dispersed with shell-fire.
This illustration from La Guerre Documentée shows one such Chinese Attack taking place. A series of life-time wooden cut-outs of soldiers have been made and painted and been placed in front of a trench, and can be raised and dropped using a pulley system. This example is quite a sophisticated one; some British examples I have come across indicate that sandbags stuffed with straw with a tin helmet pushed on top were used; how effective that was is difficult to say.
This week the #Arras95 project has been commemorating the 95th Anniversary of the Battle of Arras, fought in Northern France. But Arras is not the only major battle fought during this week 95 years ago; at the same time General Robert Nivelle was commanding the French Army into action on the Chemin des Dames.
The Chemin des Dames – or ‘Ladies’ Way’ – was a road than ran across an area of high ground north-west of Reims. It had been taken by the Germans in 1914 during the Battle of the Aisne and the offensive was a combined operation with the British attacks at Arras. Nivelle’s objective was to crush the German defences on the Chemin des Dames and destroy their dominance of the battlefield – all within a time frame of 24-48 hours. Sadly from the start things went badly; in the opening of the attack on 16th April 1917 French armoured forces took heavy losses on the right flank losing more than 150 tanks and the bombardment proved ineffective with substantial casualties among the infantry; 40,000 casualties alone in the first day of operations. The battle continued beyond the planned 48 hours into early May as gradually the French forces made some gains on the high ground but at huge cost. The offensive partially led to the mutinies in the French Army and ended Nivelle’s career as a commander.
This aerial image is from a small collection showing the battlefield across the Chemin des Dames around Fort de Malmaison in April 1917. WW1 French aerial images are very large – almost A3 size – and of a very high quality; a huge amount of detail can be picked out on them. Fort de Malmaison was built in 1877 and was in fact abandoned by 1914. Captured by the Germans in 1914 they used it until the battle crept close in 1917 but the Nivelle Offensive failed to reach it and there was only serious fighting here in October 1917. After WW2 the area in front of the fort was chosen for a WW2 German Cemetery but the ruined remains of the fort were fenced off for many years; now a group of volunteers regularly conduct tours of the site.
A larger version of the aerial photo can be viewed here.
Today is the 96th Anniversary of the start of the Battle of Verdun. This defining Great War campaign cost France and German more than 700,000 casualties in 1916 and for the French Poilu it became the notorious ‘mincing machine’ as seemingly regiment after regiment was thrown into the fighting here to stem the German advance and make sure that ‘They Shall Not Pass‘.
This image from a wartime set of French stereo-cards shows French soldiers in the quarries near Verdun at the site of a ‘Poste de Secours‘ or Dressing Station. French stretcher-bearers are seen towards the rear in the area where sandbagged dugouts line the quarry. The men at the front do not look wounded but appear to have just been fed, so there could have been a supply point here or field kitchen as well.
Verdun remains the by-word for the Great War in France and today ceremonies will be taking place at various sites on the Verdun Battlefield.
By 1916 the French Army was defending nearly two thirds of the Western Front and in many respects of all the combatant nations had reacted mostly quickly to the conditions of trench warfare; they were the first to adapt their conspicuous uniforms to wartime conditions with the implementation of Bleu Horizon, the first to introduce steel helmets with the Adrian helmet and during the winter of 1914/15 widely introduced trench weapons and hand grenades.
This image shows a typical French front line trench in 1916. All the men wear Bleu Horizon tunics and Adrian helmets. The image is not likely to have been taken in the front line as the men are too exposed, but it looks like a typical sap used in forward positions. The man holding up what looks like a rolling pin is in fact holding a Barbele Grenade that was used to cut paths in barbed wire defences. All the men are wearing French M2 Gas Masks; some 29 million of these were produced and could give five hours protection against phosgene gas. The man with the canister on his back is holding and using a Vermorel Sprayer; this was a pre-war piece of agricultural spayer used to dispense a solution that would help disperse gas. Both sides used them during the war.
Over the next week I will be publishing a number of images of the ‘French Front‘ on the site. It is often forgotten that the French Army held more than 300 miles of the Western Front and by the close of the war the French had lost more than 1.4 million dead; twice the number of dead suffered by Great Britain for example. These particular images come from a series of contemporary stereo-cards produced in France during the war.
This image shows a French Poilu in a front line position in what looks like the Champagne. Contemporary accounts of the Great War often record trenches in French sectors being full of half-buried dead soldiers, or the sides of them being the fields graves of men who had died defending those very positions. When old trenches were taken over again in the final battles of 1918 the ground fought over had often been a battlefield earlier in the war, the bones of the dead soon revealed the bitter nature of the previous fighting. Here this Poilu stares thoughtfully at the camera while the remains of a former occupant of the trench lie almost casually around him.