WW1 Photos Centenary Website: 2014-2018 By Paul Reed

Posts tagged “Poilu

Winter War: French Mountain Troops on Skis, Vosges 1915

This image was taken in the Vosges area, a region known for its severe weather and deep snow in the winter, and a sector of the Western Front in Eastern France where the fighting revolved around mountainous terrain. Here a group of French Alpine Troops are using skis are ‘on patrol’ although the front here was never really that fluid to allow such patrols to take place in the face of enemy positions and this is likely to be a posed image taken behind the French lines. However, it does give an insight into winter conditions in the Vosges in 1915.


WW1 Landmarks: Fort Vaux, Verdun

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.


France At War: Le Crapouillot

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.


France At War: The New Poilu

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.


France at War: The Poilu of 1914

The French Army of 1914 was a truly massive one; the infantry alone numbered 173 separate regiments each made up of 3000-4000 men. It was armed with one of the best field guns in Europe – the 75mm – and it’s soldiers carried a powerful 8mm Lebel rifle. The soldiers – who would quickly become known as the Poilu – were all conscripts who would spend most of their adult life committed to French military service; first as full-time regulars, then reservists and finally as territorials.

While the Poilus weapons were modern, his tactics and uniforms were not. As can be seen in this contemporary image from 1914, showing a French infantry regiment marching to war, the men are wearing uniforms that have changed little since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The men wear bright red, somewhat conspicuous, trousers and blue serge tunics. They advance en-masse with their officer at the front and the flag flying. While this is obviously an illustration the facts reflect the awful truth; that while France was prepared for war in 1914, it was not prepared for the Great War. By the 31st December 1914, just five months of conflict, France had lost more than 300,000 men killed on the battlefield; nearly a fifth of their loss for the entire war. Troops in column easily visible to an enemy with powerful artillery and a large number of machine-guns stood little chance, something the casualty figures reflect.

But as will be seen on Wednesday, despite or perhaps because of these losses, France was one of the first combatant nations to truly adapt to the conditions of trench warfare.


French Camouflage: Pop-Up WW1 French Soldiers

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.


French Camouflage: An Armoured Observation Post

The use of camouflage in the Great War is something not widely appreciated or even known about. This week the site will feature a series of images from La Guerre Documentée a little known French publication printed in 50-odd parts in 1919/20. Unusually for contemporary publications it used colour illustrations widely, the majority of which were specially commissioned and have never appeared in any other source.

The image above shows the preparation of a steel observation of a type commonly used in many front line positions. These bunkers would be manufactured behind the lines and then brought up at night and installed in a forward position with a good field of vision. If just put in place without any attempts to disguise them the bunker would be highly conspicuous and likely to be destroyed by artillery fire very quickly. The French Army camouflage service therefore painted on camouflage before they were taken up the line, and often created a covering that would blend in with the battlefield they were going to be placed on. In many cases such devices were never spotted and allowed the user to get clear observation of key points on the battlefield.