The French Army in World War I

The French army had to rebuild and restructure itself after the lost Franco-Prussian War. Despite great efforts, however, France failed to equip its army for the modern war.



At the beginning of the early modern period, under the leadership of Louis XIV and Napoleon I, France was able, despite some defeats, to expand and consolidate its supremacy in Europe. At that time the country had the most powerful army.

Only with the emergence of the North German Confederation under the leadership of Prussia and the Franco-Prussian War from 1870 to 1871 could this supremacy be broken. After the war, the French army was crushed and France not only had to cede Alsace-Lorraine but also pay high compensation payments.

Driven by injured national pride and the hope to recapture the lost territories, France began to build a new army shortly after the lost war.





Like most other major European powers, France introduced compulsory military service. From the age of 20 each Frenchman had to serve in the army for 3 years, afterwards the soldiers were transferred to the reserve, where they passed through several stages:

From 20 to 23 years: Military service in the army

From 24 to 34 years: Service in the reserve of the army

From 35 to 41 years: Service in the Territorial Army

From 42 to 48 years: Service in the reserve of the Territorial Army

The peace strength of the French army amounted to 736,000 soldiers, which increased to 3.5 million soldiers when the reserve was mobilised and withdrawn. However, only 1.7 million soldiers were to be deployed directly at the front, the others serving as a reserve, in supply or with the pioneers.

The army was divided into:

  • 173 Infantry regiments
  • 89 Cavalry regiments
  • 87 Artillery Regiments
  • 201 Reserve Regiments
  • 145 Territorial Regiments

During the mobilization the active regiments would be filled up by reservists. For this purpose, each regiment was entitled to a training staff who would carry out refresher courses with the reservists.




Strategy of the French Army:

After the Franco-Prussian War, the orientation and strategy of the French army focused on two key points:

  • Expansion of the fortifications on the border to the German Empire
  • An offensive attack strategy


The construction of fortresses, also known as Barrière de fer, marks a series of construction projects around towns and important points on the border with the German Empire. Even before the Franco-Prussian War, France had built strong fortification belts around the cities of Lyon and Paris. Later Metz, Belfort and Langres followed. After the lost war and the transfer of Alsace-Lorraine to the German Reich, the planning and implementation of the construction of a fortress belt along the border to the German Reich began in the late 1870s and early 1880s in the 19th century. General Séré de Rivières was commissioned to do this, so the building project was also known as Système Séré de Rivières.

The project was supported in particular by the fear that Germany might wage a new war against weakened France and by the widespread revanchism, i.e. the hope of bringing Alsace-Lorraine back to life.

The Comité de Défense, which was responsible for this, was set up on 28 July 1872 and initially consisted of 9 representatives: the Minister of War, artillery representatives and military engineers. The first meetings were held in secret, as it was not until 1873 that the last German occupying troops left the country. The task of the Comité de Défense was to close the gap created by the loss of the fortresses by modernising old installations and building new ones, and to adapt them to the requirements of modern warfare.

After the planning was completed, the line of the fortress was divided into two areas:

  • The northern part: From the North Sea along the Belgian border and the historical border with Lorraine and Alsace to the Swiss border in the area of Belfort
  • The southern part: From the Maritime Alps of the Swiss border to the Mediterranean Sea at Nice

Especially the former garrisons and fortified towns along the border (Verdun, Toul, Épinal, Laon, Belfort, Nancy, Reims) received a new fortress ring or the old one was modernized. Since these cities were often connected to the well-developed railway network, large contingents of soldiers could quickly be loaded here.


Fortifications near the Brisach Gate in Belfort, picture by Thomas Bresson


Aerial view of the village Villey-le-Sec with the Fort de Villey-le-Sec


Aerial view of Fort Douaumont near Verdun in spring 1916



The second point about the strategy of the French army was the principle of the offensive à outrance, the attack to the extreme. The idea behind this strategy was that Alsace-Lorraine, lost in the Franco-Prussian War, could only be regained by an unconditional attack. Among the leading representatives of this tactic was the well-known Ferdinand Foch. In his opinion, the German advantage of a higher population could only be compensated by decisive attacks.

Already shortly after the end of the Franco-Prussian War this strategy was worked on, whereby the offensive character only became clear at the turn of the century. Until August 1891, Plan XI was the first plan to pursue both a defensive and an offensive strategy. When France diplomatically approached Russia in 1892 and a two front war was considered for the German Empire, the plan was revised and transformed into Plan XII in February 1892. At this time, the Committee was also considering a possible invasion of France by the German Empire via Belgium, and plans to do so were incorporated into French tactics. This assumption was reinforced when in 1904 a German sold the deployment plans of the German army leadership to the French secret service. There the troop movements were marked by France in order to bypass the French fortifications and to fall into the side of the French army. The French plan XII was adapted accordingly until 1906 in the plan XV.

Until September 1911 the planning was revised and adapted several times until Plan XVII was issued to the army commanders and the commander-in-chief on 7 February 1914. The aim of the plan was now to carry out a concentrated advance from two sides of Metz-Thionville or north of Belgium towards Arlon and Neufchâteau.


The most important railway lines for the transport of army corps during mobilization


Von Lvcvlvs - Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Scheme with the planned offensives according to plan XVII





In contrast to the other armies of the major European powers, the French army was unable to keep pace with modernisation.

Until the First World War, the uniform of 1870 was worn, consisting of a long blue skirt and red trousers. This uniform was not only very heavy, which was a problem for the soldiers especially at hot temperatures, the colours were also no longer designed for a modern war and too conspicuous. Other armies such as those of the German Empire had already introduced more inconspicuous colours.


French soldiers at the beginning of the First World War. They keep the peaceful blue coats and red trousers worn during the first months of the war


French soldiers with the modern uniform and the Adrian helmet 1917 in Paris


But not only the heavy skirt made the soldiers to suffer, also the equipment to be carried was about 20 % heavier than that of other armies. Although an improvement was already being worked on for some years, nothing was implemented until the outbreak of the war. Only after the first months, the heavy losses and the knowledge about the outdated equipment, the French soldiers were better equipped. In 1915, the old uniform was replaced by the horizon blue field uniform. Also the Képi headgear was exchanged against the Adrian helmet to prevent injuries by shell splinters.


Adrian Helmet



The standard weapon was the Lebel modèle 1886. After the French chemist Paul Vieille developed the smokeless gunpowder in 1886, the Lebel modèle 1886 was the first rifle specially developed and built for this new ammunition. Although this rifle was improved in 1893 and was used as a Modèle in the French army in 1886/93, compared to the German Mauser Model 88 or other modern rifles, the French version remained behind. In 1909, planning began to replace the outdated rifle with the new Meunier rifle, but the outbreak of the First World War meant that series production could not begin.


Lebel modèle 1886


The introduction of machine guns was strongly neglected by the French army, since this weapon did not correspond to the strategy of the concentrated offensive. While the German Empire already used about 12.000 machine guns at the beginning of the war, the French army only used about 5.000. During the war, the Hotchkiss M1914, Chauchat and St. Étienne Mle 1907 models were introduced.


French soldiers are trained on Chauchat machine guns


A St. Étienne Mle 1907 machine-gun



The artillery was mainly set on the 7,5 cm field gun M1897, which was the standard artillery of the French army with about 4.000 pieces at the beginning of the war. Despite the mass of guns, this proved to be insufficient for the German guns, as the range of the French guns was about 3 kilometres less than that of the Germans. Only with the introduction of the Rimailho model 1904TR guns the disadvantage could be compensated again. In addition to the 7,5 cm guns, 308 heavy field guns and 380 siege guns of 12 cm calibre were added until the beginning of the war.


Canon de 75 modèle 1897


Rimailho Model 1904TR




Army equipment at the beginning and end of the war:


Field guns de 75 Modèle 1897 3.840 pieces
Mountain guns 65 mm 120 pieces
Heavy field guns 308 pieces
Anti-aircraft guns 1 pieces
Machine guns 5.000 pieces
Motor vehicles 9.000 pieces
Aeroplanes 162 pieces


Field guns de 75 Modèle 1897 5.484 pieces
Mountain guns 65 mm 96 pieces
Heavy field guns 5.000 pieces
Anti-aircraft guns 404 pieces
Machine guns 18.000 pieces
Motor vehicles 88.000 pieces
Aeroplanes 3.608 pieces



Due to the continuing positional war and the high losses associated with it, the French side began to develop armoured vehicles and tanks from mid-1915 onwards in order to break through the German line of defence.

Among the first vehicles of this type were the Schneider CA1 and Saint-Chamonds models, first used in early 1917. However, as these vehicles proved to be quite unreliable, the much more powerful Renault FT was used later. These tanks and armoured vehicles were mainly assigned to the cavalry regiments. Existing regiments kept their old names while the new regiments were called Régiments de char de combat.


Schneider CA1




Renault FT




Balance during the First World War:

After the general mobilisation of France, the French army was divided into 5 armies according to Plan XVII:

  • First Army (7th, 8th, 13th, 14th and 21st Army Corps) with the aim of capturing Mulhouse and Sarrebourg
  • Second Army (9th, 15th, 16th, 18th and 20th Army Corps), with the aim of capturing Morhange
  • Third Army (4th, 5th and 6th Army Corps) to defend the region around Metz
  • Fourth army ( 12th , 17th and colonial army corps) in reserve around the forest of Argonne
  • Fifth Army (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 10th and 11th Army Corps) for the Defence of the Ardennes

At the beginning of the war, France had about 3,5 million soldiers, of whom 1,7 million were on the front line. Of these

  • 65 % in the infantry
  • 13 % in artillery
  • 10 % in the cavalry

The remaining 12% was distributed among the pioneers, supplies and the gendarmerie.

Throughout the war, around 7.935.000 soldiers served in the French army, including around 500.000 soldiers from the French colonies.

By the end of the war, France had lost about 1.390.000 dead and wounded about 2.500.000 soldiers.


French reserve troops cross a river on their way to Verdun


French troops 1915 on their way to Gallipoli


French colonial troops in the fight against German troops


Group of soldiers from the 66th Infantry Regiment. Between 15 May and 30 June 1915






You can find the right literature here:


The French Army and the First World War (Armies of the Great War)

The French Army and the First World War (Armies of the Great War) Hardcover – December 15, 2014

This is a comprehensive new history of the French army's critical contribution to the Great War. Ranging across all fronts, Elizabeth Greenhalgh examines the French army's achievements and failures and sets these in the context of the difficulties of coalition warfare and the relative strengths and weaknesses of the enemy forces it faced. Drawing from new archival sources, she reveals the challenges of dealing with and replenishing a mass conscript army in the face of slaughter on an unprecedented scale, and shows how, through trials and defeats, French generals and their troops learned to adapt and develop techniques which eventually led to victory. In a unique account of the largest Allied army on the Western Front, she revises our understanding not only of wartime strategy and combat, but also of other crucial aspects of France's war, from mutinies and mail censorship to medical services, railways and weapons development.

Click here!



The French Army 1914–18 (Men-at-Arms)

The French Army 1914–18 (Men-at-Arms) Paperback – July 17, 1995

Initially the strongest of all the Allied armies, France's metropolitan and colonial units bore the greatest burden during the first two years of the Great War, and made a great contribution to the final victory. In common with most European countries, the pre-war French Army was based on a system of national military service providing conscripts who could be subject to recall as reservists for several years after. However, the advent of war, the crisis in manpower, and the development of new tactics and weapons brought radical changes. The influence of these factors on the organisation, equipment, uniforms and tactics of the French Army during World War I is examined in detail in this title.

Click here!



The French Army on the Somme 1916 (Images of War)

The French Army on the Somme 1916 (Images of War) Paperback – November 30, 2018

So much has been written about the 1916 Battle of the Somme that it might appear that every aspect of the four-month struggle has been described and analyzed in exhaustive detail. Yet perhaps one aspect has not received the attention it deserves – the French sector in the south of the battlefield which is often overshadowed by events in the British sector further north. That is why Ian Sumner's photographic history of the French army on the Somme is so interesting and valuable.

Using a selection of over 200 wartime photographs, many of which have not been published before, he follows the entire course of the battle from the French point of view. The photographs show the build-up to the Somme offensive, the logistics involved, the key commanders, the soldiers as they prepared to go into action and the landscape over which the battle took place. Equally close coverage is given to the fighting during each phase of the offensive – the initial French advances, the mounting German resistance and the terrible casualties the French incurred.

The photographs are especially important in that they record the equipment and weapons that were used, the clothing the men wore and the conditions in which they fought, and they provide us with a visual insight into the realities of battle over a hundred years ago. They also document some of the most famous sites on the battlefield before they were destroyed in the course of the fighting, including villages like Gommecourt, Pozières, La Boiselle and Thiepval.

Click here!



August 1914: France, the Great War, and a Month That Changed the World Forever

August 1914: France, the Great War, and a Month That Changed the World Forever Hardcover – August 23, 2016

On August 1, 1914, war erupted into the lives of millions of families across France. Most people thought the conflict would last just a few weeks.

Yet before the month was out, twenty-seven thousand French soldiers died on the single day of August 22 alone—the worst catastrophe in French military history. Refugees streamed into France as the German army advanced, spreading rumors that amplified still more the ordeal of war. Citizens of enemy countries who were living in France were viciously scapegoated. Drawing from diaries, personal correspondence, police reports, and government archives, Bruno Cabanes renders an intimate, narrative-driven study of the first weeks of World War I in France. Told from the perspective of ordinary women and men caught in the flood of mobilization, this revealing book deepens our understanding of the traumatic impact of war on soldiers and civilians alike.

Click here!






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