French Army and the First World War

In January 1914 the French Army had 47 divisions (777,000 French and 46,000 colonial troops) in 21 regional corps, with attached cavalry and field-artillery units. Most these troops were deployed inside France with the bulk along the eastern frontier as part of Plan 17.

With the fear of war with Germany a further 2.9 million men were mobilized during the summer of 1914. Heavy losses on the Western Front during the first months of the war forced the French government to conscript men up to the age of 45.

The structure and balance of the French Army changed during the war. By 1918 about 40% of all French troops on the Western Front were artillerymen. Increasing use of machine-guns, armoured cars and tanks also reduced the numbers in the infantry. The growing importance of the French Army Air Service also had an impact and whereas there were 1,5 million in the French infantry in June 1915, this dropped to 850,000 in 1918.

By the end of the First World War, a total of 8,317,000 men, including 475,000 colonial troops, had been called up to fight in the French Army. France suffered 4.2 million casualties, including 1.3 million dead.

Primary Sources

(1) Henry Hamilton Fyfe, a journalist with the Daily Mail, went to France on the outbreak of the First World War.

The whole country swarmed already with soldiers. Most of them were middle-aged, none of their uniforms fitted. They wore the absurd red trousers below the blue coat which had been in fashion since Napoleon's time. I recall a conversation with a French journalist who assured me that the army would lose all spirit if its red trousers were taken away. He would not listen to me when I said the uniform would have to be altered, as the British red coats were changed to khaki in South Africa. That was the general attitude of Frenchmen.

(2) Manchester Guardian (18th August, 1914)

The French are under a severe handicap in the matter of uniform. It is over a dozen years since the Boer War, and certainly they should have discarded the blue coat and red trousers for a more neutral colour. They have covered the red crown of their caps with blue. This is to prevent their being discovered by aeroplane scouts. But the flamboyant uniform of the line regiments makes a fair mark as far as the modern rifle is effective. In groups they are all the gunner asks for a target. On the other hand, the Germans have adopted a grey-green colour that is almost invisible. Yesterday, with a first-class glass, I had difficulty in locating individuals. What I have written to the French applies with more force to the Belgian troops. These soldiers are as conspicuous as claret stains on a new tablecloth.

(3) William Preseey, a British gunner in the Royal Artillery, wrote about his war experiences in All for a Shilling a Day.

Coming towards us were a troop of French cavalry. I should say a hundred and fifty or two hundred strong. Gosh, but they looked splendid. I think word must have got to them about the German cavalry harassing us and they had come to put a stop to that. They could never have been told about the machine guns. They laughed and waved their lances at us. We slowed down as they trotted briskly past, and everyone was looking back at them.

Before reaching the top of the hill they opened out to about six feet between each horse and in a straight line. We hardly breathed. Over the top of the hill they charged, lances at the ready. There was not a sound from us. Then, only a few seconds after they disappeared, the hellish noise of machine guns broke out. We just looked at each other. The only words I heard spoken were "Bloody hell..." That's what it must have been over the hill, for not one man came back. Several of the horses did, and trotted beside us, and were collected at our next stopping place.

If only the cavalry officer had stopped for one minute and talked to our officers they would have told them of the mounted machine guns, and that it was certain death over the hill from where we had come. Who had sent that splendid troop to certain death? What an awful waste of husbands, brothers, sons. Many commanders of the war must have a lot on their minds.

(4) Oliver Lyttelton, letter home (9th January, 1917)

I cannot understand the French at all but I have come to the conclusion that offensively they are better though not very much than we are, but that defensively they are worse. They chance things which we ceased to chance two years ago. I don't think the French take any interest in soldiering unless they are pushing, whilst we rather over-elaborate the detail of defence. However there is very little that we haven't learnt.