French Military Tactics Pt. 1



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 41. This is going to be a bit of a deep dive into the evolution of French military theory before and during the war. This episode was prompted by me picking up a copy of Flesh and Steel During the Great War: The Transformation of the French Army and the Invention of Modern Warfare by Michel Goya, Hew Strachan, and Andrew Uffindell which is certainly the best English language source on the evolution of French military doctrine before and during the war that I have come across. One of the reasons that I decided to tackle this topic is due to the general evaluation of the French army during the war, and its overall incredibly negative nature. There are a very good reasons for this negative evaluation. The French attacks at the start of the war were catastrophic, they were almost war losing failures, that is how bad they were. Then over the next 3 years the army basically threw itself against the German defenses until the army almost fell apart into mutiny in 1917. Throughout all of this, just on a surface level, it is easy to assume that the army did not learn or improve. Once we start digging into the details I think it will become obvious that this is not correct. There were certainly many mistakes made by the French military, which we will spend most of the next two episodes discussing, but that does not mean that the French military did not grow and evolve just as quickly as the other armies that it was fighting. Today we will start with the Franco-Prussian War and then move forward through the last decades of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. Over these years the French military would, just like every other army, have to try and grapple with the incredible pace of technological advancement. Their conclusions and evolutions based on those technological changes would be different than some of their neighbors, but many of them would also be the exact same conclusions drawn by the German and Russian military leaders. Then the war came and trying to improve tactics, strategy, and armaments became much more important. Those war time experiences will be the topic for our next episode, but I do want to drop this quote, from Flesh and Steel, which I think gives a pretty good indication of where this is all going. “By the time the Armistice rang out on 11 November 1918, the victorious French army was more modernized than any other army in the world. No longer did its infantry have to go on foot in order to move from one point of the front to another. When it attacked, it did so with light tanks acting in conjunction with groupes de combat (tactical sub-units of between fifteen and twenty men) that were equipped with powerful weapons and surrounded by accurate fire from machine-gun sections, mortars and 37mm guns.”

It is impossible to talk about the French army in the First World War without starting the story during the Franco-Prussian War. This conflict was important for all of the reasons that a country’s previous large conflict is always important when determining the future course of the military. In this case it went even further, and that was mostly due to the timing of the two wars. The Franco-Prussian war occurred in 1870-1871, roughly 44 years before the French went to war in 1914. This was just long enough to allow the next generation of French generals, who had spent their entire careers studying the Franco-Prussian war, to come into leadership positions. This created an atmosphere where many of the men who would be leading the French Army in 1914 were raised in a climate that was desperate to make sure that the failures of 1870 did not occur in the next war. There were many of these problems that the French felt had caused their failures in 1870. There were issues with the mobilization process, which was slower than the German mobilization. There were also issues in the command structure and a general lack of staff knowledge and skill. However, the number one reason that was cited for the French defeat was the army’s passivity, it did not seek out the enemy in an effective and aggressive fashion.

These deficiencies, or at least perceived deficiencies, would effect the French army in a number of ways over the next 40 years. When trying to fix these problems the French turned to the Prussian style, and started to emulate many of the Prussian Military processes and structures. Some of the emulations would drastically change the military in France. In 1872 compulsory military service was put in place, a very obvious influence, however some of the influences were far less obvious but in the long run would be just as impactful. One example of this is that when French officers would write for military publications in the years after the war it was seen as a requirement that they use German authors as sources. The Prussians were seen as the pinnacle of military thought and knowledge at this time and so their thought had to be used when working with and evolving French military thought. This general mindset of inferiority, in the years after the 1870s, would then alter French thinking as they tried to find ways that they were better than the Germans, which caused them to over value some quality of the French army that they saw as uniquely French. It is probably important to state that this emulation of the Prussian military was in no way limited to France, and in the years after the Franco-Prussian war many of the armies in Europe would make the exact same adaptations for the exact same reasons, to greater and lesser degrees.

One area that saw Prussian influence was in organization and preparations. The army was organized into permanent army corps that were prepared in peace time but would be greatly expanded in times of war. These were based in specific geographical locations, and the corps commands were seen as very important positions for military officers to occupy. A new permanent staff office was also created in 1874. A General Staff would come a long with this, along with a leadership setup that tried to make sure that the military leaders were ready for war and there was no ambiguity about who would be in overall command. There would also be a Minister of War, but this was separate from the Commander of the Armies, and separate from the General Staff, with all three structures being seen as having roughly equal power during peace time. These three groups, or people, were kept very purposefully separate to prevent the possibility of the military uniting behind a leader and allowing that leader to gain too much political power in France. Due to this arrangement, and the overall culture of the French military the Corps Commanders would gain a good amount of autonomy. So for example the army Corps commanders were in charge of maneuvers, and they were generally able to run their corps how they saw fit from a strategic and tactical perspective. This setup up this general feeling of antagonism between the corps commanders, which were generally quite old, and the officers of the General Staff, who were generally younger and had generally more modern ideas. Much of our conversation today will be around this antagonism as both groups had very different views on the type of war that France should be planning and preparing for.

Before these antagonism began it was felt that the French had to fix the problems that had been identified with the staff work done during the war with the Prussians, to do this, they once again looked to the Prussian model, and specifically their War Academy, the Kriegsakademie. Instead of having just one War College the French would have two, the first being the Ecole Polytechnique and the other was the School of Saint-Cyr. These colleges had very different curriculum. the Polytechnique was based around providing engineers and artillery officers with a deep understanding of the technical and scientific facets of their arms. So these officers would come out of college with a good understanding of the current technology and also of current technological trends. On the other side was the School at Saint-Cyr. This school was made to train infantry and cavalry officers, and the curriculum focused heavily on history based learning and an understanding of modern military theory. Then these two sets of officers came together they were clearly at odds with what they expected the proper military doctrine to be, a disconnect that would only increase with time. The officers from the Polytechnique indexed technology heavily in their conclusions, too much so if you would have asked a graduate of Saint-Cyr. The officers from Saint-Cyr often completely ignored technical advancements in their thinking, believing that they did not at all change the basic theories of war, and even if they did try and evaluate the technology they would often come to what would prove to be incorrect conclusions. A great example of this was the belief that the increases in firepower in the last decades before the war would be more beneficial to the attackers than the defenders.

Due to the build in lack of centralization of command of the French army over the 40 years after 1870 military thought would swing back and forth between several different overriding theories of warfare. These swings would happen based on who was in charge at the time, what their beliefs had been as a younger officer, and then who was chosen to write the regulations for the army. When discussing what an army is going to do in a war, or at least what it planned to do these regulations were critical, but the French had many problems in creating and using the regulations that they produced. The first was simply that they were incredibly long, mostly due to the changes in French military theory over the years. Often this would result in the regulations slowly growing as new theories were added, but not all of the old information was removed. As an example, in 1888 the French regulations were a staggering 2,300 pages, 2.5 times more than the German regulations. Many officers did not even both to read them, or even if they did, they did not actually apply them to the overall direction fo their units. This would lead one French officer, Captain Andre Chalmandrey, to say “Our officers are crushed by the ever increasing burden of your empty, hollow regulations teeming with contradictions and ambiguities. They barely have the time to become familiar with them, and have no time at all to put them into practice. Besides, your regulations are replaced so often that even a lifetime would not be enough to learn them all. We see them changing all the time, and we see the new ones are just as bad as their predecessors, so in the end we lose interest and regard them with indifference.”

So the regulations were very lengthy, some commanders chose to ignore them entirely, but they were the officially sanctioned publications about how the French army planned to fight, so we should talk about them for a bit. We will start with the 1875 regulation, the first full rework after the defeat at the hands of the Prussians. Obviously there were many regulations, so we are going to focus on just the instructions provided on how to launch an attack on an enemy. The reason I have chosen this topic to focus on is because it would be the failure of the French attacks in 1914 that would fall under such criticism, so we will focus on the evolution of the French theory on how to launch these attacks. The 1875 regulations would contain a system that, looking back seems pretty reasonable. The attack should be launched in extended order, which means a loose formation, not shoulder to shoulder or close order as previously used. The infantry company was seen as the standard combat unit, with each company making up an attacking from of 150 meters, with the men spaced out to a depth of 500 meters. For any attack there would be artillery preparation, with the goal of obtaining fire superiority over the defending force. It was envisioned that the infantry attack would start at about 2,000 meters from the enemy, and they would advanced up to about 800 meters at a march. Then, after arriving at 800 meters the type of advance would change. Instead of slowly marching forward the infantry companies, would start moving forward in smaller sub units, with each moving forward in rushes and utilizing both geographical features as cover but also the covering fire provided by other sub units. These disjointed rushes would continue until the unit was able to reach a point 300 meters from the enemy positions. At 300 meters the company officer would be responsible for pushing forward any necessary reserves to try and get one man per meter of front at the front of the attack. Roughly the same style of advance would continue after the company became a bit more condensed up, rushing and sprints that utilized as much cover as could be found. Then at 50 meters the infantry would shift into a dead sprint and assault the enemy positions. In theory at this point the infantry, combined with the artillery, had gained the upper hand with suppressing fire making the attack successful. Hand to hand combat was expected, and so the men would still use the bayonet. There are a few things to remember about these regulations and the world in which they existed in. When they were written in 1875 there were few machine guns in the army, and what machine guns were available were of the gatling gun variety. Artillery was still breech loading cannon of the smooth-bore variety that had a pretty low fire rate. Infantry rifles were breech loading, but still used black powder, which meant a lot of smoke. Overall the firepower of the defenders would be roughly similar to what had been present during the Franco-Prussian war. When these regulations were written and then published, by staff officers, there were some concerns in the upper echelons of the French army command, mostly around the pushing down of command responsibility to the company level, which would be commanded by a Captain. There was also a huge amount of responsibility placed on even lower level officers to keep their men moving forward and organized. This skepticism resulted in these 1875 regulations never really being put into practice, and the army mostly just muddled through for a few years.

The next set of infantry regulations would not be created until 8 years later in 1883. These regulations would begin a trench, which would continue for the rest of the century. It could probably be described as the French army returning to its Napoleonic roots. This meant an emphasis on shock over firepower, an argument that you may remember from our cavalry episodes. Basically, over the course of the 2 decades between 1893 and 1903 the French army would revert back to shock instead of shifting to a firepower school of thought. The 1875 regulations contained infantry companies moving forward in loose order, at a depth of 500 meters, and this would slowly disappear. Instead it was altered so that the company was bunched towards the front with the logic that it would help maintain forward momentum. Instead of using cover and moving forward in bursts, it was expected that once they started moving the infantry unit would continue forward. The logic for this was that seeking out cover and stopping to use that cover slowed the advance which just left the attacking units in the deadly fire zone for a longer period of time. Another important change was that, with all of these changes based on concentration and momentum, it was also believed that the Captain, whose company was mostly just a projectile to be fired by his commanding officers, did not have the appropriate information to make decisions. Therefore decisions on where and when to attack bumped up the ladder a bit, and instead rested with the Brigade commander. It was believed that these officer would be able to have the proper context on the best point to attack.

It was around 1900 that this trend began to break down, kind of, and most of this shift was based around technological advances. The increase in firepower, and just as importantly effective engagement ranges, that was present at this time had what I think were pretty obvious effects on military thought. The attacking lines would be moved to being more dispersed again, out of what was felt to be necessity. There was also a belief that the smaller units, usually down to the infantry section which was made up of 50 men would have to be mostly autonomous. The commander of the section, a lieutenant would have to determine how to move his section, or delegate even further down to half-sections or even squads. The responsibility for decisions had to move back down the officer ladder due to communication challenges. These would be a problem for most of the 20th century, basically there was no form of technology that allowed for easy communication between an officer and his men. All that an officer had was his voice, and this put serious limitation on how many men he could easily command during combat when they were dispersed and not in a compact formation where just the general mass of men would keep others moving forward. This shift back to the 1875 style dispersed formations would last until the start of the war, and would be in place in 1914, even if they were not always correctly applied. There was still some ambiguity about when precisely the final assault should be launched, everybody agreed that firepower was still a part of that equation, but it was difficult to determine when enough firepower had been leveraged against the defenders. One final comment about these regulatory evolutions, there was a large amount of discussion among officers and military thought leaders about how to attack, and theories around attacking changed over time as these discussions took place, however there was not nearly as much time spent discussing what would happen after the attack was launched. The areas not discussed were around exploitation of a successful attack and then properly defending the territory gained by the attacks. The lack of brain power spent in considering these pieces of military actions would result in many of the failures of all of the armies in 1914.

When it came to preparing for a war, and validating the regulations that had been created, the French borrowed another tradition from the Prussians, and that was the tradition of annual maneuvers. These would begin in 1874 and continue until 1914. During these maneuvers the French Army would have large units, generally topping out at the corps level, confronting one another in various scenarios. One important piece of this setup though, was that while units up to the level of corps were involved, they were often greatly below war time strength. This meant that while there might be a corps or divisional staff they would actually be controlling just a small fraction, a quarter or even less, of the number of men that they would command during the war. This was important because such small numbers of men greatly reduced some of the staffing and command challenges. It was felt that this did not undermine the goals of the maneuvers though, which was to get the men at the front in some kind of semi realistic combat scenario, and also to provide training to staff and officers in trying to command large scale units. In isolation having much fewer men involved probably would not have sabotaged the maneuvers, or at least robbed them of most of their values, but the French had other habits that would do just that. First of all the scenarios that would be used for a given year were generally given to officers months before the maneuvers started. Then at a small unit level the men would generally start off the day participating in the maneuvers for the day, but would then generally stop around lunch time to eat and prepare to spend the night in the field. In both of these cases the problem was that the maneuvers were not replicating the unpredictability and frantic nature of real combat. One French military theorist, Joseph Montelihet, thought that these problems went even deeper though and in fact the deficiencies were not just robbing the maneuvers of value but were in fact actively harmful to the French army, he would say “The large-scale manœuvres were the very opposite of an education. Everything about them was conventional, fictional and incoherent. Officers learned nothing, and the soldiers even less. In fact, it was worse than that. They formed bad habits, whilst their senior commanders learned to be content with appearances and with vagueness, and to be taken in by illusions.” Cricism of the maneuvers would continue until 1913, which would see the last maneuvers before the start of the First World War, at that time Joffre would write that “that from army corps level, minds were not prepared for the conditions of modern warfare. … In too many cases, minds were still paralysed by the habits of routine. Above all, knowledge about strategy was almost completely non-existent.”

In the final run up to the war the key player in French military thought, and one of the real drivers towards the offensive a outrance style of French attacking was Louis Loyzeau de Grandmaison, who in 1907 would be a Lieutenant Colonel. Grandmaison represented the most extreme offensive school of thought in the French military, it was a school that believed in constant attacks and just as importantly discounted many technological advancements. They placed their faith in the infantryman and his rifled, and in fact words like machine-guns, heavily artillery, and airplanes almost never even appeared in Grandmaison’s writings. While it is easy to place all of the blame for this rejection of technology at the feet of Grandmaison this mostly just represented the final form of a kind of systematic rejection of technology that had been happening in the French military since 1870. There were certainly very skilled technical officers, many coming out of the Polytechnique, and the French had some impressive pieces of technology available to them with the French 75 being the most well known. However, it was felt that technical officers, while great for building bridges and commanding artillery, did not really know how to wage war. This meant that officers coming out of the Polytechnique, or officers who put too much stock in the technology of the day were generally not put in positions where they were writing regulations or promoted to staff positions. Officers of the Grandmaison school did not ignore that various technologies like machine guns existed, they just believed that they did not change the overall equations of war, or if they did they either helped the attackers or made attacking even more paramount. They would use the increase in the firepower of the defenders as a way to prove that the offensive must be launched and carried through as fast as possible. They also believed that the overall increase in firepower of the armies of Europe made attacking easier. This was based around the ambiguity I mentioned earlier about when to launch the final assault. Even Grandmaison believed that unleashing as much fire at the defenders as the infantry prepared for its attack was important, which was one of the reasons French officers liked the rapid firing but still very mobile 75, but they believed that machine guns and the 75 allowed the French army to reach the point where enough firepower had been unleashed on the defenders to launch the final assault even faster. This was seen as a good thing.