The French Army in 1914

Updated on April 6, 2018
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Ryan Thomas is a university student with an extensive interest in European, Indian, and Chinese history.

In 1914, the continent of Europe, and the entire world, was plunged into a apocalyptic war which would endure for four years, killing tens of millions and forever altering the face of the continent. The titanic struggle was between two blocs of nations; the Central Powers—principally composed of the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire—and the Triple Entente, itself formed from the French Republic, Russian Empire, and British Empire. In the end, the Allies were victorious, winning the bloody conflict after long years of struggle. Foremost in their ranks, France carried the brunt of the burden of war, in disproportionate status to the size of her population and industry. France poured more than a million and a half lives into this dreadful abattoir, and sustained over four million more military wounded. They earned the gruesome prize of the highest military deaths as a percentage of the population of any power, save Serbia, and the most military wounded of all. And yet, in the end, after all this sacrifice, France, and her soldiers—the redoubtable poilu, as the common name for French infantry went—and her people, had won the war.

Yet even on this bitter and cruel path which France walked, perhaps her only comfort being that she was not alone in such agony, certain times and periods were worse than others. One of these was the start of the war, when the French Army, although ultimately repulsing the German attack at the Marne before the gates of Paris and thus saving the nation, took dreadful casualties and lost great swathes of valuable French soil and industry in the north before the Germans were stopped. It meant France would fight the rest of the war on her soil, with all the devastation that this entailed, and that a bitter and brutal struggle to try to liberated the sacred soil of France occupied by the enemy would by necessity present itself. The French Army had fought with grave bravery and courage, and ultimately saved the nation, but it was a defeat nevertheless. What had occasioned this setback in 1914, which France would labor for the rest of the war in overturning? What were the problems which had led the French army to perform less well than it might have had against its German opponent?

The Dreyfus affair, where a French Jewish artillery officer was accused of spying for Germany, polarized French civil-military relations and led to repressions of the army.
The Dreyfus affair, where a French Jewish artillery officer was accused of spying for Germany, polarized French civil-military relations and led to repressions of the army.

Structural Flaws

It would be useless to discuss the issues which France had with its army without discussing the relationship of this army and the state, which drove many of them.

Traditionally, views upon the French army in 1914 have seen it as a product between two schools of military thought : the nation in arms, and the professional army. The first, a product of the French Republican tradition and dating back to the Revolutionary Wars, called for a vast popular army, of citizen-soldier conscripts called forth to defend the nation in danger. French Republicans supported it both due to reasons of military capacity, but even more importantly due to the belief that only an army of short-term service citizen-soldiers would be a truly popular, people's army, which wouldn't be a danger to French democracy and which might be used as a tool of repression against the French Republicans.

In contrast, the French political right supported a professional army composed of long-service soldiers. Led by aristocratic officers, it opposed the Republican effort to mold the French army into a democratic force. This army would be one which would be capable of maintaining order internally and one dominated by aristocratic elements in a hierarchical organization that well suited a conservative organization of society. The French army's high command swung to this side of politics, being monarchist, conservative, and religious.

This was not always true, and there are some sections which are outright incorrect concerning it, and of course generalizations. The army was not dominated by aristocrats, and although aristocrats were actually more present in it than during the 2nd empire, it remained a thoroughly bourgeois and plebeian institution. Only around a third of French officers came from officer academies, and only around a third of these had aristocratic names, a figure which declined as the Republic aged. In similar nature, the belief that religious schools produced a stream of officers with fervent anti-Republican sentiments is extensively overrated, since only around 25% of officers came from religious schools, and not all of those were enemies of the Republic. But, it can be used as a useful base to discuss the conflicts and political debates in France over the French army, and to understand the struggle which plagued it in the early 20th century. After all, something need not be true for it to be believed, and this belief helped shape the way in which French republican leaders interacted with their army.

For all was not well in the relationship between the state and its army. France was a parliamentary republic, and perhaps the most democratic nation in Europe, but army-state relations were fatally flawed, driven by government fear of military power and anti-militarist sentiment from the French Radicals on the left, as part of the general division of French politics during the period. In the decade and a half leading up to the First World War, the French governing parties, of the French Radicals (a political party), humiliated the French officer corps, reduced their prestige, purposefully divided military command to ensure the army's united front was weakened, used troops constantly for repressing strikes which undermined morale, and created an inefficient system of organization. The result was a weak command over the army and its balkanization, low prestige, low impetus to join, declining standards, and ultimate inadequacy during the opening of the war. The few years before the war had been the "national revival", with increasing morale and patriotic sentiment, but although they provided some improvement, they came late.

The largest French training camp, Chalons, shown here in 1862, was in a poor state in 1914. This was not an exceptional stage for France's military camps.
The largest French training camp, Chalons, shown here in 1862, was in a poor state in 1914. This was not an exceptional stage for France's military camps. | Source

Training and Fitness

France formally held large maneuvers - the grand manoeuvres - were of little actual training usage before the war. Often, the generals in charge of them retired immediately thereafter, meaning that no experience was passed to the coming years. As the French Socialist politician Jaures noted

"The grand manoeuvres are nothing but a parade where military leaders hope to be noticed, not through good planning and organisation, but by the press and politicians. The point is not who best directs his forces to achieve precise goals, but who will have the most influential newspaper editor in his car. . . The best part of their strategy goes into press campaigns against their rivals, while battalions, regiments, and brigades move in a void, without firm direction or goal."

Of course, the French army was hardly unique in this regard : the Austro-Hungarian army has something of an infamous event in its memory of having re-done and reversed the outcome of an exercise where the army commanded by the Austrian crown prince lost to the opposing side. But still, training standards were lower than they should have been, hurt further by poor training facilities (sometimes no training facilities for city-based regiments), especially in winter, inadequate training personnel, lack of firing ranges, and too few training camps - only 6 to Germany's 26, and smaller, mostly only capable of accommodating brigade-sized operations.

Although there can be much critique heaped upon the French Radical governments in the decade and a half leading up to the war, they did do important measures to improve the living standards of conscripts in the army, with better food, entertainment and entertainment facilities, and education (although this was more general purpose education than military education). But at the same time, discipline standards fell, as the traditional means of punishment and authority were removed from officers, replaced with the idea of civic education and duty - both important of course, but important in combination with the former. Men with criminal records no longer went into disciplinary forces - the bataillons d'Afrique - but instead into the regular regiments, which drove up crime statistics. As with other elements of the military, this started to

The French army recruited a proportion of the population that approached a near universality of its male citizens, Moltke noting that 82% were entering into the conscripts in the years leading up to WW1, while the respective German figure was 52-54%.France's population was smaller and growing more slowly than Germany's, meaning that it had a much reduced size of conscripts available. Thus, in order to match the German military's size, the need was to conscript a higher share of the population, which as needed, was accomplished. But this necessity also meant that French soldiers with lower physical standards or fitness had to be recruited, while the German opposition could be more selective. French troops had higher rates of illnesses than their German counterparts, although the more outlandish German claims - that French measles and mumps rates were up to 20 times higher than their own - were false. Some preliminary attempts had been made at using colonial manpower in France (as in, the use of non-French citizens but instead French nationals, French citizens still being required to serve), but only a few thousand were yet serving at the beginning of the war.

Civilian-wise, other nations had far more in the way of military preparation societies. Switzerland had 4,000 societies who received 2,000,000 French francs, Germany 7,000 with 1,500,000 francs, and British shooting society 12-13 million francs annually. France had 5,065 in 1905 and they received only 167,000 francs in subsidies and 223,000 francs of free ammunition.

In response to German military expansions in 1911, the French had passed their own Three Year law in 1913. This would increase the length of service to three years, instead of two years, for conscripts, and sought to rectify a variety of training problems and experience issues. Unfortunately, implemented later, when war broke out in 1914 there had been little benefit which had been brought from it : overcrowded barracks and lack of sufficient cadre to train the increased numbers of troops represented the main results, and it would have not been for a period of time that real results would have been shown. Thus, last-minute preparations for the war failed to amount to much.

"Like at Valmy : The Bayonet Charge to the Chant of la Marseillaise." Unfortunately, the Prussians at Valmy did not have machine guns, smokeless powder, and bolt-action rifles, while those in 1914 very much did.
"Like at Valmy : The Bayonet Charge to the Chant of la Marseillaise." Unfortunately, the Prussians at Valmy did not have machine guns, smokeless powder, and bolt-action rifles, while those in 1914 very much did.

Doctrine

L'Offense a outrance - the belief that men, elan, the "moral factors of war", determination, and mobility would overcome firepower and carry the field - characterized the French army in the opening days of the war, and indeed throughout 1915, before finally dying a grim and gruesome death in the face of artillery, machine guns, and bolt-action rifles.

Two different visions exist for the reasons behind the emergence of this doctrine France. The first is that the it was driven by internal confusion and lack of consensus about army structure, the myth of the assault, without the tempering of a more realistic doctrine, that thus imposed upon the French army the easiest possible system : the simple attack. The French high command, led by men like Joffre and with little grasp themselves of detailed tactical matters, were unable to instill the cohesion and discipline needed to provide for more a more subtle doctrine than simply attacking with fixed bayonets. Men like Joffre could be strong and determined leaders, but without the intimate technical knowledge they needed and faced with limited powers, they were unable to mold the French army into a unified whole. Instead the army would find refuge from its political problems in the attack with cold steel, to regenerate France and the body politic. It was the defensive static of the Franco-Prussian War that had cost the French army the conflict, with insufficient offensive elan and spirit, and so to counter this, the attack would be stressed to the utmost. Officers supporting it drew examples and historical premises as they wished to support their favored doctrine, often in complete reverse of the actual situation - General Langlois in 1906 for example, concluded that the increasing power of armaments meant that the offense, not the defense, was more and more powerful. General - later Marshal - Foch agreed too.

An alternate view holds that it was a firm doctrine fixed by the French "national revival", where supposedly a professional army was adopted at the expense of a defensive nation in arms conscript. This grander view of history stems from earlier appraisals of the French army, and as mentioned above, requires to be at least taken into account if one is to understand the way in which debates were and are framed. Of these two historiographical traditions, the first is perhaps more cogent, but both have important points.

But whether it resulted from lack of doctrine as charged, or a fixed and unyielding doctrine (embodied by the 1913 infantry regulations, which stressed stressed the offensive as the only possible tactic) the de facto doctrine was that of mindless offenses against the enemy. This offensive doctrine had a impact upon France at the beginning of the war. In the first 15 months, France took more than 2,400,000 casualties - equivalent to those of the next 3 years - a number in large part due to launching foolhardy frontal assaults, insufficiently planned and with inadequate support of artillery.

Of course, French flaws here shouldn't be merely examined in the French context. Across Europe, the same doctrine of the offensive was utilized, to varying degrees, and the French were hardly unique. All of the nations involved in the war took heavy casualties as the war began.

French officers had a rough ride from the Dreyfus Affair to WW1, and then they died.
French officers had a rough ride from the Dreyfus Affair to WW1, and then they died.

Officers and NCOs

There are no bad men, only bad officers, and bad regulations. A good officer corps, and a strong NCO (non-commissioned officer) force, is the backbone of an army. Unfortunately for the French army, its officer and NCO cadres were both distinctly marginal at the start of the war. The former faced declining prestige and social standing which reduced their numbers and standing, the second being frittered away into various roles.

There are broadly speaking, two ways to become a military officer. The first attendance to a military school and hence graduation as one. The second is promotion "through the ranks" - to be promoted from being an NCO , to an officer. The French army had a long tradition of promotion through the ranks. The most negative element associated with this upon the French officer corps - that the NGOs were insufficiently educated, not having attended a school to become an officer - had been increasingly solved in the first decades of the Third Republic by the creation of NGO schools. However, following reforms after the Dreyfus affair (which ostensibly intended to "democratize" the army), the process of forming officers began to draw more and more from NGOs, instead of officers, and by 1910, 1/5 of second lieutenants were promoted directly from the ranks without preparation. Partially this stemmed from the attempt at "democratizing" the French officer pool, but it also was due to decreasing numbers of applicants at the French Saint-Cyr military academy and resignations after the Dreyfus affair, as the prestige of the French officer class was under attack. With decreased prestige came decreased recruitment from the upper echelons of society, and standards for the officer corps dropped : at Saint-Cyr 1,920 applied in 1897 but only 982 did so a decade later, while the school admitted 1 in 5 in 1890 and 1 in 2 in 1913, and admission scores dropped simultaneously.

NCOs being drawn into the officer corp also carried the result that naturally, NCOs were less available in the ranks. Furthermore, after the 1905 law instituting a 2-year force, NCOs were encouraged to join the reserves as NCOs or subalterns, rather than re-enlisting, meaning that the number and quality of NCOs fell. Before the French 3-year law in 1913, the German army had 42,000 career officers to 29,000 in France - but 112,000 NCOs to only 48,000 French NCOs. French soldiers were much more often deployed into administrative roles, reducing further the pool available.

It sounds like a typical lurid conspiracy theory, but the affair des fiches occurred and rocked the French army.
It sounds like a typical lurid conspiracy theory, but the affair des fiches occurred and rocked the French army.

Promotion in the French army was undertaken by promotion committees, where officers were judged by their superiors to determine their eligibility for promotion. Under the leadership of Galliffet, War Minister during the Dreyfus Affair, a check was added in that these were merely consultative, and that the War Minister would be the sole figure to appoint colonels and generals. This ability for the War Minister to appoint rapidly became a political tool : ironically, part of the reason claimed for its adoption was that the existing promotion process was full of favoritism. In 1901 promotion committees and general inspections were disbanded by French War Minister Andre, bringing promotion entirely into the hands of the French war ministry. The War Ministry intended to promote only French republican-leaning officers, and block the progress of French Jesuit-educated officers to the top, and reward political loyalty to the government. Competence was of little concern. On November 4, 1904, this came to light in the "affair des fiches", where it was shown that the Andre (the aforementioned War Minister), had turned to the Free Masons for political opinions and religious beliefs of officers and families, which was utilized in determining their promotion prospects. The army was divided against itself as it sought out those who had leaked the information in the Masonic orders, officers were promoted only for political reasons, favoritism skyrocketed, and once again the general standards declined. Prefacture notes on officer political opinions were withdrawn in 1912, promotion committees re-established in some areas, and the ability of officers to see their efficiency reports (which had ruined them as a real tool for analyzing their efficiency) withdrawn, but this came too late to make a difference.

This politicized structure, lack of prestige, and insufficient officer education was combined with dismal pay for officers. The French army had always had low officer pay, but prestige could compensate for that. Now, low pay further reduced incentives to join the army. Second lieutenants and lieutenants could earn just enough to live : married captains for example, could not, presuming they didn't have another source of income, and they certainly weren't able to afford a course at the Ecole superieure de guerre, the French general staff college, reducing the number of highly trained officers for the French upper command. The education these officers received was not always practical : examination questions at the ecole de guerre involved questions like tracing Napoleon's campaigns, writing a paper in German, listing Austro-Hungarian ethnic groups, but involved little independent thinking and were either too vague or too precise. Military education refreshers were minimal at best.

As a result of all of this, the French officer corp declined in the decade and a half leading up to the First World War. Efforts to change its composition and outlook with "democratization", succeeded in little but reducing its quality and caliber. Age completed the picture, with French generals being 61 compared to their German counterparts' 54, often making them too old to campaign.

In keeping with the fragmented nature of French command, French army commanders did not have the permission to inspect the corps that would later make up their commands : instead their management was solely the prerogative of local commanders. This made it difficult to centralize control and ensure uniformity.

Reserves

Part and parcel of the fiercely partisan historiographic debate over the type of army France needed - the professional, long-serving, aristocratic army, or the popular, democratic, nation in arms - has been the focus upon the French reserves. French reservists were men who had completed their military service, but still had military obligations - those of 23 - 34 years of age. Territorials meanwhile, were 35 to 48 in age.

French reserves were found in a sorry state when the war began. Training had been cut in 1908, from 69 to 49 days, and territorials had gone from 13 to 9 days. The number of reservists eligible for training in 1910 did go up compared to 1906 - 82% compared to 69% - but 40,000 reservists still avoided training. Physical composition was poor as well, with poor discipline, and in training maneuvers in 1908 almost 1/3 of troops dropped out, in a limited training regime. Above all else, as the army stumbled throughout problems in the first part of the 20th century, the number of divisions had fallen : in 1895, Plan XIII called for 33 reserve divisions, which had fallen to 22 by 1910, and which had barely inched its way up again to 25 in 1914.

French reserves had insufficient officers, and generally lower morale. This was both due to condescension from regular officers, boredom and sterility of their training, but also due to the lack of pay. The German army had high prestige, and higher pay for its reserve officers, but this was not the case in France, something which discouraged the recruitment of reserve officers. Reserve NCOs were often in vital tasks like postmen, which meant they could not be mobilized.

The French uniform in 1914 was striking and easy to see - helping friendly commanders, but also making French troops easy targets for the enemy.
The French uniform in 1914 was striking and easy to see - helping friendly commanders, but also making French troops easy targets for the enemy.
By contrast, German uniforms - like those of the other major powers - were much more subdued, reducing their casualties.
By contrast, German uniforms - like those of the other major powers - were much more subdued, reducing their casualties.

Uniform

Le pantalon rouge c'est la France! (Red pants are France!) - Eugène Etienne, a French Minister of War, in 1912.

For millennia, soldiers have gone into battle dressed like peacocks. There were a great many reasons behind this, many of which were quite rational and beneficial. In an era where commanders relied upon sight for controlling their units, brightly arrayed uniforms helped command them on the battlefield. Flashy and distinctive outfits made for higher esprit de corps, and hence morale. Bright uniforms made distinguishing between friendly troops, and enemy troops, easier - vital in particular in the early modern era, when black powder barrages left battlefields shrouded in smoke. And of course, it was stylish, fashionable, and well appreciated in particular by nobles and elites who made up disproportionate percentages of militaries.

Unfortunately for this style of uniform, times were changing. In the decades prior to WW1, black powder had been replaced by smokeless powder, making rifles more accurate, longer ranged, and removing the clouds of smoke that dominated battlefields prior, thus meaning that accurate shooting could be continuously maintained. Muzzle-loading or single-shot breech loading rifles were surpassed by magazine-fed bolt action rifles. Machine guns joined the fray, and artillery dominated it all. Firepower was becoming more and more important. Already in 1870s, attempts by the Prussians to storm French positions with élan brought about withering casualties, such as at the Battle of Gravelotte, where 5 Germans died for every Frenchman who fell. By 1914, battles were yet more bloody.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, this was not always effectively dealt with : theorists could see that firepower on the battlefield was increasing, but not always draw the correct result from it, such as the idea that firepower favored the attacker and not the defender. But most countries increasingly realized that the old uniforms drew too much fire and led to dramatically higher casualties. Italian trials of firing bullets at dummy targets revealed that old style blue uniforms were hit 7 times as often as new style, less gaudy greyish-green ones. Thus, in the decade leading up to the war, nations changed their uniforms, so that by 1914, every nation had replaced the old-fashioned, bright and colorful uniforms of the 19th century with ones which were less visible. Germans went to war in their grey, Austro-Hungarians in "pike grey" from their Jager troops, English in khaki, Italians in grayish-green, every nation that is, except for France.

In France, tradition had kept the red trousers and blue jacket from being changed. This uniform, the same as that of 1870, actually dated from 1829, making it nearly a century old. By 1914, this traditionalist opposition was fading, France actually had been considering the shift to new uniforms, and by 1914 had ordered a shift to new uniforms - blue-grey in color, later to become the famous "horizon blue" uniforms - but this was not complete by the time war broke out. As a result, French troops went to war being dangerously visible, and suffered intense casualties as a result.

Artillery and Machine Guns

France pioneered the development of modern artillery, when it introduced its Canon de 75 modèle 1897. Breech loading, with a steel tube, and firing smokeless powder fixed ammunition, it combined all of the extant features of state of the art military technology, but added onto this a hydro-pneumatic recoil system. Previously, every time a gun fired, it had to be re-aimed onto the target, as the recoil upset the gun's position. The hydro-pneumatic recoil system instead absorbed the recoil and returned the gun to its original position. Older guns could only manage a few aimed shots every minute, but the 75 could do 15 or even more in the same period of time. Extraordinarily fast firing, accurate, highly effective against troops in the open, and light enough to keep up with advancing troops easily, the canon de 75 would be the gun which would do it all, without significant need for heavy artillery except intermittently in the siege role. Foreign observers before the war noted upon the splendid effectiveness of French artillery, which fired in defilade positions, accurately, efficiently, and with high technical standards.

Unfortunately, things would not turn out so cheerfully. In practice. The canon de 75 had certain inherent disadvantages, which were not really realized as being such until the war itself arrived. It fired on a flat arc, its range was relatively short (although longer than its opposing German equivalent, the 7.7 cm FK 96 n.A.), and it fired a light shell. Since it fired a shell on a flat line towards the target, this meant that it had difficult shooting over hills or into covered positions : no matter how high its rate of fire was, the enemy would be safe there. There was a special shell developed which was supposed to have a curved trajectory to enable the 75 to fulfill this role, but this was not particularly successful. The short range meant that it had difficulty engaging enemy guns engaging in counter-battery fire and conducting indirect fire (shooting at targets which aren't visible) : the enemy could respond from covered positions with their own counter battery fire. French field artillery had been noted for its excellent defilade positions for indirect fire before the war, but it was unable to cope with real howitzers when the war arrived. And the light shell limited its effect on dug in enemies. For the intended role of the 75, providing direct supporting fire to advancing infantry, and gunning down enemy troops advancing in the open with shrapnel shells, none of these were severe problems. Unfortunately, when the war came, these limitations showed themselves clearly : the 75 had difficulties against enemy trenches, and it was suppressed by German artillery doctrines, while the French had placed little importance on counter-battery fire themselves. At the Marne, German heavy artillery lagged behind the advancing front and at last 75s could maneuver freely against the Germans, but this was the exception, not the rule.

Instead of being dominated by light field guns capable of quickly keeping up with advancing troops, the need was for heavy artillery guns capable of defeating enemy trenches, outranging and suppressing enemy guns, and providing the sheer explosive firepower needed to break a war of position. How well prepared was the French army for this?

155mm Rimailhos could shoot fast, but they had inferior range and above all else inferior numbers to their German counterparts.
155mm Rimailhos could shoot fast, but they had inferior range and above all else inferior numbers to their German counterparts.

In short, not very well. The French had a modern heavy artillery gun in the form of the Obusier de 155 mm CTR modèle 1904, a fast-firing howitzer. This used the barrel of a previous French gun, the 155mm court modèle 1882 (model 1882 short howitzer), but added on a hydro-pneumatic recoil system. Although possessing a very high rate of fire, it had a shorter range than its opposing German howitzer, the 15 cm sFH 02. Much worse was the fact that the French had far fewer guns : the Germans had over a thousand heavy artillery guns (1,148), while the French had 308 heavy guns. German 10.5 cm howitzers completed the picture, as the French had no equivalent to these light howitzers at the start of the war except a few mountains guns that were much lighter. French heavy artillery was not integrated with the army to the same extent that the German was, being mostly seen as an anti-fortification weapon. French corps had 120 guns, which might include at most only 4 heavy guns, versus 158 German guns in an opposing German corps, which would include at least 16 heavy howitzers. The French had a large amount of other heavy guns, but these were in French fortifications, and hence unable to lend their effectiveness to the evolving mobile battle.

This numbers problem was complemented by improved training, fire control/observation, shells (the Germans had delayed fuses but the French did not, improving artillery effectiveness markedly), and doctrine on the German side. Sometimes these were the victim of self-fulfilling prophesies : the heavy artillery needed delay fuses to improve its effectiveness against fortifications, but delay fuses were unsuitable for the canon de 75, and hence were not developed, meaning that the heavy artillery was not adopted to replace the 75 due to not having delay fuses! Observation was the most crucial problem for heavy artillery in 1914. Previously, artillery had little need of observation support, since it was firing against targets that it could see, directly. With howitzers capable of direct fire against distant targets that the battery itself was unable to observe, this had changed. The way to fix this was to have forward artillery observers that were with aircraft or infantry. Unfortunately the French air observation arm hadn't yet perfected the signalling system despite experiments dating from 1912, while their German counterparts were much better than them. Occasionally French units were the match of their German equivalents, such as the 22e régiment d'artillerie which fought excellently at the Battle of Charleroi under Jean Estienne (future father of the French tank force) who had emphasized cooperation with aviation, but most French artillery units failed to match this standard. Meanwhile field telephones had only had money voted for them in July 1914 - thus the comic image of French officers searching houses and public buildings for telephones in the opening weeks of the war!

Not having heavy artillery early on meant that the French were unable to spend time working on improving their doctrine for its usage. French units were not really sure what they were using the heavy artillery for in 1914, and what its position was. As one French general writes in 1913, quoted in March to the Marne :

"Ask one hundred officers picked at random of all ranks and arms: 'What is heavy artillery? What is it used for? How it used? Whom does it support? Where is it positioned?' The odds are 100-1 that you will get no answer or that the same questions will be asked of you. It is this impression of general confusion which one sees in Kriegspiels, cadre manouvres, and grand manouvres when there is a decision to take concerning the heavy artillery. Of course, the decision is eventually taken, but it is makeshift, taken when there is no way out."

Artillery numbers (according to Herbert Jäger)

 
 
 
 
French Artillery
German Artillery
75mm/77mm
4780
5068
105mm
-
1260
120mm
84
 
150/155mm
104
408
210mm
 
216

This poor picture was completed by the extensive German deployment of "minenwerfer". Light mortars with short range, but highly mobile and destructive, German 17cm and 21cm mortars provided impressive firepower to German troops in siege warfare and trenches, to which the French had little ability to respond.

The French had plans to fix this, and various artillery programs had been proposed by the French parliament since 1911. In the end, none were adopted until July 1914, only days before the war, due to constant instability for the French parliament to have the stability to approve the legislation, and competing visions over what the heavy artillery arm should look like (military officials feuded constantly over what type of artillery to adopt, its system, and production, which made a firm vision of the artillery arm hard to achieve). So too, lack of trained manpower hurt the ability to expand the artillery, which was only resolved when large expansions of the French army occurred in 1913 with the three-year service law. Unfortunately, even then, it required officers who could only be drawn from the already over-stretched cavalry and infantry. As a result of all of this, despite an increasing awareness of the need for artillery, it was only starting to be dealt with when German declared war upon France in 1914.

German advantages in machine gun numbers only added the final conclusion to an unhappy image, with 4,500 German machine guns counter-posed to 2,500 French ones.

Joffre did get the last laugh in the end, but ignoring intelligence meant that laugh arrived a lot later and at greater cost than it had to.
Joffre did get the last laugh in the end, but ignoring intelligence meant that laugh arrived a lot later and at greater cost than it had to.

Intelligence

French military intelligence probably ranks as the best in Europe in 1914. It had broken German codes, determined the attack vector of the German army, and revealed how many troops that it would attack with. All of this should have left the French army with an effective capability to respond.

Unfortunately, intelligence is only as good as it is acted upon, and this excellent array of military intelligence was largely neutralized. Various ministry indiscretions had resulted in it being revealed that the French had deciphered German codes, which meant that there was not absolutely certain information about the Germans. But there were reports, and battle plans supposedly sold to the French, which indicated a German sweep to the sea in an invasion of Belgium. But Joffre and his predecessors accepted this information, and decided that it meant that German armies in Alsace-Lorraine would be so denuded that it would be easy to punch through there.

The result is an ironic reversal of what happened two and a half decades later : there, the military intelligence had over-estimated dramatically the strength of the German armies, and the high command took careful note of this and chose to utilize it to form a battle plan - the Dyle-Breda plan - which ultimately cost France the 1940 campaign by directing her energies to the wrong sector. In 1914, excellent military intelligence was tendered, but this was ignored by a high command which chose to believe that the enemy was weaker than it actually was, and thus formulated a plan which directed her energies to the wrong sector, which came perilously close to resulting in a defeat for France in 1914 as well.

Plan XVII, an offensive plan to attack Germany in the center, faltered quickly in the face of German defense.  It did however, have the flexibility to enable a rapid redeployment north.
Plan XVII, an offensive plan to attack Germany in the center, faltered quickly in the face of German defense. It did however, have the flexibility to enable a rapid redeployment north. | Source

Battle Plan

In both the First and the Second World Wars, the French Army opened its battle with a battle plan which directed their forces to the wrong area of the front. In 1940, the French deployed their forces into the north Belgian plain, resulting in a German breakthrough in the Ardennes. In 1914, the French opened the war with an immediate offensive into Germany in Alsace-Lorraine, which resulted in heavy French casualties, and left the Germans well posed to strike through Belgium into North France.

In detail Plan XVII called for the

  • The First and Second armies to advance towards the Saar into Lorraine
  • The Third Army to clear the Germans out of the Metz fortress
  • The Fifth Army to attack between Metz and Thionville or into the German flank of a German attack into Belgium
  • The Fourth Army to be in reserve at the center of the line (and later deployed between the Third and Fifth army)
  • Reserve divisions to be stationed on the flanks

Ultimately the French were able to halt this offensive at the Battle of the Marne, but the damage had been done, and much important French soil lost and excessive casualties taken.

Various reasons occurred for why Plan XVII was adopted. French generals purposefully mis-used the intelligence granted to them by their excellent military intelligence services, preferring to utilize it to back up what they wanted to happen - to make their offensives against the Germans in Alsace-Lorraine feasible. Instead of information being used to change their views, it was simply applied to back up their pre-conceived notions. French generals refused to believe, despite evidence otherwise, that German generals would utilize German reserves directly in the front line in the offensive in Belgium, which gave them enough troops to attack across a wide front. The shaky English commitment to France also played a role, as it meant that the French were absolutely determined not to violate the neutrality of Belgium to ensure English troops would still come. Thus, the only place where they could attack at the beginning of the war was Alsace-Lorraine. Of course, this made good strategic sense, but it still dictated the strategy adopted by the French military at the beginning of the war.

An alternate plan had been proposed in 1911 by French general Michel, to concentrate French forces at Lille, augment heavy artillery, and pair together reserve and regular infantry units (the last idea being a bad one admittedly). This plan was rejected by Joffre, the French commander. Instead, ignoring intelligence on rail-build-ups on the German-Belgian frontier, and German operational doctrine,

In critiques of Plan XVII, it must also be remembered that Plan XVII also did have one aspect that redeemed it : flexibility. The French army provided capable of rapidly redeploying and shifting its troops to meet the German army in the North in the First World War, while it was incapable of doing the same in the second. Despite its problems, this flexibility came to be a saving grace.

Conclusion

Much had gone wrong in 1914. Many men died for France when they might have instead lived. Land was lost which might have been held. But in the end, the French army held. It held at cost, it held imperfectly, but hold it did, and it emerged victoriously. The issues above presented were important ones, ones which decreased greatly the effectiveness of its operations, but in listing all of them, they should not obscur the essential fact : that it was good enough. It was strong enough to survive 1914, the fortitude to advance against such terrible disadvantages in 1915, it had the resolve to face the abattoir of 1916, the tenacity to survive the nadir of 1917, and finally the strength, resolution, and capability to emerge victorious in 1918. If it started out as flawed in 1918, it developed continuously throughout the war, and improved, so that after the long grinding years of war, it was the French army which broke the Germany, and it was Germany, not France, which capitulated and sued for peace. Flawed at times, imperfect always, but ultimately victorious. The tragedy is that along the war so many men met their deaths in the blood-drenched fields of Champagne, before the gates of Paris, in the wooded hills of the Ardennes. But the poilus of 1914 was made of tougher things than perhaps any in the world might have imaged, and although he groaned under the pressure, although he bent under the burden, although the loss and the pain might cut deeply, he would stand in the end unbroken, and once again he grimly set himself to the task of victory. The memorials to the sacrifice are numberless, from the monuments which lie scattered throughout France, where monuments peer out from little French villages, the list of names inscribed upon them larger than the number of people living there today, to the unknown soldier, to parades and remembrances. Perhaps the most telling of the price that he paid is the chapel of the French military academy of St. Cyr, which commemorates the dead of its graduates upon its walls.

For 1914, there is but one entry : The class of 1914.

Recommended Reading

March to the Marne, by Douglas Porch

No Other Law: The French Army and the Doctrine of the Offensive, by Charles W. Sanders Jr.

Images of the Enemy : German Depictions of the French Military, 1890-1914, by Mark Hewitson

The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War by David G. Herrmann.

Auguste Kerckhoffs et la cryptographie militaire by Philippe Guillot

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    © 2017 Ryan Thomas

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