French Military Tactics Pt. 2



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium Episode 42. Last episode we dug into the evolution of French military thought before the war. This episode we will see how that evolution continued after the war started. In the initial battles things would not go as well as the French had hoped, and in fact the first month of the war would be a complete disaster for the French military. With their opening attacks stopped by the Germans before they really even got going things would have to change, and that meant changing how the army was fighting. The process of making those changes would in some ways be very different than the evolutionary process in peace time, but in other ways it would be very similar. The biggest differentiator was that it happened much more rapidly, what had taken decades of discussions and theorizing would take just months during the war. Over the course of the conflict there would be several different overriding theories on how the French should execute their attacks. In 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 would describe four distinct models, each built upon the last, but greatly altered “1. the ‘breakthrough by rapid, direct attack’ in 1915; 2. the ‘scientific conduct of the battle’, applied at the Somme in 1916; 3. the ‘Verdun school’, which attempted a decisive offensive on the Aisne in 1917 by applying on a greater scale the attack tactics that had driven the Germans back from Verdun; 4. Pétain’s ‘combined-arms battlefield’ in 1917 and 1918.” These changes were forced upon the French army by the political requirement that the French army staying on the offensive, while also being confined to the very challenging battlefield of the Western Front. They only had one theater to look at to try and gain and understanding of how to fight the war, and the changes that they made to their fighting style over the years reflected that influence.

In 1914 the French army would be led by General Joffre, who had been put in command of the army in 1911. His generals, were well there is no other way to put this, they were real old. Brigades were led by men with an average age of 59, divisions by men with an average age of 67. This meant that many divisions were led by men with an average age older than the life expectancy of the average Frenchman. There was a new law introduced in 1912 that tried to make it easier to remove these older generals, but it still required that some level of incompetence be demonstrated. Demonstrating this shortcoming was challenging in peacetime, but then the war started. By the end of of 1914 162 French generals and colonels would be removed from their commands. Many of these generals, who had spent their entire army careers leading a peace time force, did not prove to be capable of handling combat commands. Having so many officers dismissed never speaks well to the preparedness of the army, even though many of those dismissed officers would claim that they were just being used as scapegoats. The removal of so many commanders did nothing to reduce the offensive spirit, and the belief in the offensive, if anything it heightened it, because it had always been the younger officers who had been the greatest advocates for the offensive.

One problem that the French had neve solved, which we discussed in last episode, is that the units were not very good at implementing the regulations as written, and this was just as true in July 1914 as any other year. Even if they did the regulations were so full of contradictions and non-answers that it may not have helped them very much. Because of this lack of knowledge about the regulations it very quickly became apparent that there was a disconnect between what the staff officers had written and expected and what was actually implemented by the line officers at the front. Staff officers, who were career officers who spent their entire lives in the army, preached an all out offensive, but within those offensives there were always nuances, fire and movement, fire superiority, concentration, some level of decentralization, they saw the offensive as almost a dance. There were complex moves that had to be executed based on concepts that had to be well understood so that they could be applied at key decision points in the action. These decisions dictated when and how to move forward, when to launch the final assault, the structure of the formations and the importance of maintaining proper fire superiority. Most of the nuances and details were lost when put in place by the army in 1914. Regimental officers and below were made up of a large percentage of reservists, and they were the ones that were actually leading the attacks. With their level of training, and its distance in the past, and the levels of training of those below them, they felt forced to simplify the attacks down to just the basics. They put their units in order, told them to go forward, and expected them not to stop until they reached their objectives, stopping would cause mass confusion, dispersion would cause confusion, decentralized command would cause confusion so they were all discarded. This would be be a valuable but incredibly costly lesson for the French, and they would have to eventually learn it. The correctness of the orders and the doctrine were important, but more important was created orders and regulations that the army could actually put in place and could actually execute.

I am not going to do a full recap of the early battles of the war in this episode, but in the Battle of the Frontiers the French army showed some of its worst tendencies. There was a total lack of artillery preparation during the attacks, which was very critical given the fact that they were at times attacking prepared German positions. In these attacks the officers attacks in ways mostly following the regulations, although greatly simplified, resulting in instances of human wave attacks where the attacking poilu were cut down by machine guns and rifle fire. In many areas the attacks would not be able to capture any territory, and when they did they ran into the almost greater problem of exploitation. Soon after these opening failures the French were forced to react to the German advance moving through Belgium and northern France and at the Battle of the Marne they would find greater success against an overextended enemy. Almost immediately after this battle the reactions to the failures of the opening attacks would begin to be felt both from the men who had executed them and from the officers in charge of those units. I will break up these reactions into three categories, reactions from above in the form of new regulations, reactions from below in the form of them and how they altered how they fought, and then finally reactions within the artillery. All three of these reactions, and the changes that they caused in French fighting, would be occur for the rest of the war.

Such drastic failures demanded action from the French military leaders. When evaluations were done to try and determine the cause of the failures during the opening attacks some of the most important things that needed to be fix became clear. The first official orders on these changes would be released just a few weeks after the war started, on August 16th. These notes functioned mostly as a way of reminding the commanders and officers at the front of the regulations that had been distributed before the war. This was because one of the largest problems that was identified is that the officers who were leading the attacks were failing to properly execute them. Where the regulations called for proper artillery preparation, attacks were launched with very little or even none. Where the regulations called for attacks that, while moving forward constantly, used terrain and waited for fire superiority, attacks were instead launched with densely packed units just charging forward. These are just two example of the ways that GHQ reminded commanders of the regulations. I feel it is important to point out that, as we talked about last episode, this misreading or misapplication of the regulation as written was almost certain to be the case when the war started. So this note from August 16th, and another that would follow a week later, were able to shift the blame away from how the French army was planning to fight the war and put it squarely on the shoulders of those that were executing the attacks. A full repudiation of those pre-war regulations would not come until much later. Many of these early adjustments were also addressed towards the lower level officers, those at the front, with generals told to make sure that they were properly keeping control of those under them. This was also coupled with the dismissal of huge numbers of those same generals. Another important note would be released 2 weeks later, in early September, and this note would have a greater emphasis on the required defensive procedures that should be followed. This would be the first official French army communication during the war that started the process of solidifying what would be the critical French defensive doctrine for the next four years. It included instructions that would be common place in all of the armies during the war like stating the need to create two lines of trenches, to rotate men in and out of the front line, and other basic positional warfare techniques.

While the French military leaders were trying to bring their officers back into line with the pre-war regulations there were also spontaneous changes occurring among the men and units of the army at the front. IN many ways the troops at the front were the ones that were best able to make this adaptation, and were the ones most dependent on it occurring. This would cause some units to begin to adapt to the tactical situation very quickly and the specifics of these adaptations would vary from unit to unit based on the circumstances. One item that was almost universal was the need to dig in, and the need to try and use some measure of terrain when attacking, even if it was not part of the orders given to the units. There were limitations to these adaptations though, especially at the individual soldier level. In some units they were were assisted by the officers in command, who were also trying to make the adaptations that they saw were necessary, with one French officer saying “for us, this was the first stage in a new awareness. Even as we obeyed the orders we received, we used to consider it a duty to implement those orders in a way that matched what was possible. We went ahead, at the set hour, with the attacks we were ordered to make. But we had them carried out by chains of skirmishers that were widely spaced and not particularly vulnerable, and which flattened themselves on the ground if their appearance was greeted by bursts of fire from machine-guns opening up from behind intact wire.” Joffre would also admit that these changes, made by the men at the front, were decisive by the time that the Germans were at the Marne, saying “if the success that I desired occurred on the Marne, it was to a very great extent because by the start of September our armies were no longer the same as in the first days of the war. The infantry had learnt from the hard experience of the battles fought on the frontier. Despite having lost many of its cadres, it made better use of the terrain, it was more willing to use its entrenching tools – whose value it now understood – and it no longer went into action without artillery support.” This would be the start of a process that would continue throughout the war, with units learning and adapting at the front and then some of those adaptations making it back up the chain of command. I do not want to necessarily oversell this upward movement though, part of it was just overall experience in combat, and there were often times when innovations from below were ignored by officers in charge. One problem that the front line units would always fact was attrition degrading the effectiveness of units, and at least early in the war the one place where that would not be as much of a problem was in the artillery.

The final area of reaction and evolution that we will discuss during this episode is in the artillery. Much like the infantry the artillery found their wartime experiences to not match up to expectations, especially after the Battle of the Marne. They had prepared for a war build around movement and quick striking offensives, they planned to hammer the enemy lines as an attack went forward, then once the attack was successful they would move their guns forward to follow. These concepts had driven French artillery design, and was one of the big reasons that the 75mm was the French artillery gun of choice in 1914. What happened in the war, of course, was that the artillery quickly found themselves in almost totally static positions. Then an attack did happen, instead of just having a brief window during which they would fire in support of the advancing infantry they had to try and do something about the German defenses, to reduce them enough for the attack to be successful. The artillery’s problem was that they were greatly constrained by the equipment that they had. At the start of the war the French, just like everyone else, simply did not have enough guns to accomplish what was being asked of them, they were especially deficient in the realm of heavy guns. During August they would have to start pulling old and obsolete guns from coastal and other permanent fortifications to make up for their shortfall of larger artillery pieces. These were generally old and obsolete, but they were all that was available. Early in the war the artillery did have one advantage over the infantry, early in the war when counter-battery was not the priority casualties were quite light, this allowed the artillerymen to learn and evolve without having to constantly integrate new members. The downside to this is that the batteries evolved their own methods, generally quite divergent, that over time would have to brought back together into a unifying force as methods and theory improved. The French artillery would not really be brought onto the same page until 1916.

The early adaptations that we have covered so far seem pretty understandable, even with the benefit of hindsight. However, over the middle three years of the war, 1915, 1916, and 1917, the French would make some choices that have drawn no small amount of criticism. During this time there would be several mistakes made, many of them shared by the other armies during the war. There would also be friction between three groups of officers within the French army that would dictate future doctrinal changes, and would also account for some of the great swings in French doctrine until the end of the war. The first of these groups were the officers in the staff at general command, or GHQ. These officers were full of pre-war ideas, and they generally have very little practical experience at the front. These officers had played a hand in authoring the early notes that had attempted to bring the army back to pre-war regulations. When those changes would not end up working as expected they would not just instantly shift their thinking, but instead they would continue to push for those pre-war ideas. They did make some changes, like using more artillery as a way to fulfill the need for fire superiority, but they were in many cases unable to make the drastic changes that were required. These drastic changes would have required the officers to admit that they were wrong, and that their methods had caused many Frenchmen to lose their lives, and that was a jump they were just not willing to make. That first group of officers back at GHQ would come under criticism from a second group of officers, the army commanders. These men felt that they were far better engaged with the actual pace and realities of combat. Included in this group would be men like Petain, and he was never short of criticism for the leaders of the French army. As early as May 1915 he would already begin blaming the failures of his army on the methods imposed upon him by this commanders. The third group of officers were even closer to the front, they were men who commanded divisions and brigades. They believed that both of the other groups did not full understand the situation and came up with their own thoughts about how to fight the war. This type of officers was embodied by Nivelle, who would eventually rise to command the French army in 1917. Sometimes these officers did have different ideas, but that did not mean that these ideas were always better. While these three groups of officers would not agree, even at the end of the war, there was a problem that contributed to these divides. Before the war the French Corp commanders had been relatively independent, and this independence bled down to the other officers as well. We talked about this a bit last episode, and it resulted in it being a challenge for the central commanders to force them into line with regulations. This resistance to directives from above would continue until 1918 as well, with many French commanders in 1918 not obeying Petain’s order to prepare a defense in depth, and then paying for that mistake during the German offensives.

With the importance placed on the artillery during the war it is almost certainly worth focusing on the evolution of artillery after 1915 just a bit more. 1915 was an important turning point for the French artillery. They were called upon to support attacks that aimed at taking the entire set of German positions in one go, and this spread the artillery fire thin as they were called upon to cover so much ground without enough guns for shells. A new memo was sent to the artillery in April that also made it clear that the goal of the artillery was not just to suppress the enemy or achieve fire superiority but also to destroy the enemy’s defenses. This concept of destroying the defenses had not really been part of the pre-war doctrine, at that point the artillery existed to suppress the enemy infantry and artillery and to achieve fire superiority over the battlefield in the moments of the attack. As the defenses got stronger and stronger they would lean on the artillery to destroy. The British and Germans would make this same change in 1915 as well, all three going down what is today considered to be the incorrect path. The problem was that, with the amount of artillery that was available in 1915, and the size of the guns themselves, there was an issue actually achieving the goal. The only way to drop the amount of explosives into the enemy line that were required to destroy the defenses they had to expand the length of the bombardment, and this trend would continue throughout 1915 and 1916. Throughout this two year period the same process happened again and again, an attack would be launched with what was believed to be the appropriate amount of artillery, it would fail, and the decision would be made that the next attack needed even more artillery preparation. More guns were arriving, but never fast enough and then the artillery barrage had to be even longer.

After the Battle of the Somme, where these artillery barrages would be in full display, the French would not launch another large attack until Nivelle’s offensive in early 1917. Nivelle’s big plan, which he was adapting from the successes he had at Verdun, was to break through on a wide area of the front with several massive rapid offensives, it failed horribly. With Petain taking control of the army in the aftermath of this failure a new type of offensive came to the foreground, but not everybody was on board. Even after 3 years of failures there were some generals that believed that Nivelle’s failures were just unlucky. They discounted earlier failures for technological reasons, there was just not enough artillery at that point, and they did not know how to use it at the time, combined with other excuses. Because of this rationalization they believed that the kind of all out offensives that Nivelle had believed in should still be used but with Petain now in control there was very little chance of this actually happening. Before the need of 1917 Petain was able to launch a few French attacks, if only to try and restore some level of confidence in his troops. These attacks would be very different than those staged in the spring, which were full of heady ideas like breakthrough and total victory. Instead, these attacks were limited in both scope and objectives, the exact kind of attacks that Petain had been advocating for since the war had begun. They involved heavy artillery barrages, then the infantry would advance and seize some territory and then rapidly fortify it against a counter attack. These attacks generally only captured a few kilometers, and they were very costly in terms of shells, but they did kill more Germans and saved French lives while also restoring French morale. In both of the attacks before the end of 1917 they captured their objectives, even if those objectives were not the most ambitious.

These successes would form the template for the final set of regulations that were released in late 1917, which would be in place for the French until the summer of 1918. The best way I have seen them described is that they were written to convince both the infantry and their commanders that the infantry was totally incapable of independent offensive action. This in some ways echoed the French regulations that had been in place in late 1915 and 1916, the artillery would completely destroy the defenses, the infantry would then move forward. There were two important differences in the state of the French military at this point in the war though. Th first was that the advances would be pushed forward only as far as the artillery could support them, instead of continuing on past the artillery where the French had failed so many times. The second important difference was that there was simply more artillery, meaning they were more easily able to achieve the objectives set before them. The shell shortages were long in the past, and by late 1917 the French war machine could sustain thousands of guns firing, including hundreds of high caliber pieces, for as long as they needed to. Along with the regulation on offensive action there was another important regulation that was released before the end of the year that related to defensive formations. In these regulations, released on December 22nd Petain began his crusade to get the French army to institute a more elastic form of defense, which the Germans had already done and the British were in the process of mimicking. He would get enough resistance to this idea that some divisions would just flat out refuse to implement the new recommendations.

During the victorious fighting during the Hundred Days the French offensives would once again alter their methods. Instead of the slow and methodical fighting of the bite-and-hold tactics of Petain they would instead shift to the same use of artillery, and considerable numbers of tanks, but in a far more aggressive structure. Their new advances were based around groups of 15 to 20 men, and these were called ‘groupe de combat’. The goal was to make each of these groups self-sufficient in combat, and in 1918 terms that meant that they had enough firepower to sustain themselves when attacking. There was a squad of grenadiers in each group, and another armed with light machine guns. The amount of firepower that these groups could unleash was far more than a similar number of men when the war started, or even in 1916. They had finally found a way to achieve what the French could not achieve in the earlier years due to the weapons at hand, fire superiority. A critical piece of this puzzle, as the other armies determined in 1918 as well, was decentralization of command, which was found to be essential to success. The officers behind the front had to trust those in the fighting to do it the right way, there were opportunities that they could identify and take advantage of that were not expected or anticipated. This shift of power back down the officer ladder brought the French back to where they had been before the war, giving some level of autonomy to relatively low level officers who were leading the attacks. This movement was made after 3 years of continual centralization as the attacks got larger and larger and more and more choreographed. The French did not just copy the doctrine of the other armies, for example they would not join the Germans in the use of infiltration tactics. Instead the French favored a more methodical and systematic attack which caused their overall advances to be slower, but it was safer and cost fewer lives. This fact was incredibly important to the French in 1918, who as a nation were at the end of their manpower tether. The fighting in 1918 was still very costly, with losses similar to the early attacks of 1914, but they were not so costly that the French were not successful.

As so, after four years of fighting the French had actually determined a way to attack successfully, just in time for the fighting to be over. During the inter-war period the French would end up having the same kinds of arguments that they had before 1914, shock, firepower, armor, air power, and in 1914 they would be as ill prepared as they had been in 1914, and they would not have 4 years to figure it out.