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The French Army Thread


Tomb1302
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My word, astounded by the response to the thread.

 

All - Forgive me for being unable to address you individually, I'm very busy at the moment. I do continue to read contributions, and I sincerely thank you for the interest generated! 

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Tomb1302,

 

I too am delighted to see this thread!

Due to my lack of knowledge, I shall undoubtedly get more out of it than I am able to contribute.

However, I do have a comment regarding the relative British & French  casualties pre- and post- 1916.

My feeling is that, regardless of good/bad leadership or scale of offensives, it finally comes down to the number of soldiers in the field.

If the German Army had crossed the frontier with only 2 divisions, it could have been surrounded and destroyed by 5 French divisions; a casualty rate of 10-20% would have cost the French Army 10-20,000 men.

However, the German onslaught was just that and the French response, especially following the loss of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, had to be to use its large standing army to stop the enemy at whatever cost.

Similarly, the initial BEF was very small at 140,000 men (and Gen. French could not afford to let it be destroyed), so casualties were correspondingly smaller.

I have read that in 1918, the British Army was the largest in France and so I would expect it to take the greater number of casualties then.

 

Regards,

JMB

 

 

 

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Thanks for the tip, Phil. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with any German sources and can’t read German. I have some French though. Any chance you could give me some relevant German sources that have been translated into English?

 

What do you know about the new infantry tactics the French developed for when their men moved away from artillery cover?  How did they develop platoon level tactics with some fire power employing soldiers with different functions such as those with light machine guns, rifles, bayonets and rifle grenade specialists?  And, were these taken on board by the British afterwards, or was it the other way round, or were they developed simultaneously?

 

What new artillery tactics did the French develop and how and when did the Brits use them?

 

As I said above, they must have been learning from one another. 

 

Richard

 

 

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Really good thread.

Intend to sit back, take in, and learn.

Then buy books. :)

 

Thanks to all.

Gary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On 28/08/2019 at 03:47, MikeMeech said:

Hi

No!  Haig was not leaning on Byng in this respect.  Currie's liaison trip to the French betwen the 5 and 8th January 1917 was part of a GHQ arranged visit (not even the first).  Some other officers on this trip were Birch (GHQ), Uniacke (Fifth Army), Major Alan Brooke (18th Div), various divisional commanders included Deverell (3rd Div), Stephens (5th Div), Scott (12th Div), Couper (14th Div), Shute (63rd (RN) Div) as well as Currie.  A previous group visited in November 1916 included Solly-Flood, who was working on the new Infantry tactic manuals. A brief account of these visits can be found in'From the Somme to Victory' by Peter Simkins (pp.46-49).  Also of interest on this subject is 'Learning to Fight' by Aimee Fox.

The first documents on French battle experience that were distributed around the BEF I have seen date from 1914.  During Verdun the correspondence between the French Air Arm and the RFC are copious, and changes in air and air/ground tactics were changed for the Somme battles due to the French experience at Verdun. There was also attendance of each others courses etc. where tactics techniques etc were discussed.

 

There is a problem with the Battle of Vimy as a good performance by the Canadians has been turned into 'national myth' on websites and some books, one of the worst 'myths' being about McNaughton and Sound Ranging, which appears to have little relationship to the actual history of SR and the people involved.

 

Mike

i do not think as you say "national Myth"???? it was a very calculated  and rehearsed battle where the Canadians were victorious   to say the least 

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1 hour ago, 17107BM said:

Really good thread.

Intend to sit back, take in, and learn.

Then buy books. :)

 

Thanks to all.

Gary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That makes the two of us!

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1 hour ago, robins2 said:

i do not think as you say "national Myth"???? it was a very calculated  and rehearsed battle where the Canadians were victorious   to say the least 

Hi

 

The battle is not a 'myth' but some of what is stated about it is.  The example I gave about McNaughton and SR, according to the 'myth' the 'British' had ignored it until McNaughton used it at Vimy, the actual history of SR shows otherwise, indeed SR was being used at Vimy before the Canadian Corps arrived and continued with them.  Also websites state that Bragg, Darwin and Bull were McNaughton's 'team', some details differ either they all came from 'civilian' jobs direct (Bull was at the Marey Institute in Paris and basically remained there), Bragg and Darwin had been with the British Army from the start and did not 'leave' it to join the Canadian Corps. At the time of Vimy Bragg was working with a GHQ based unit (he had previously trained all the SR sections when in charge of W section), Darwin was in charge of the SR Section on the flank of the Canadian Corps so was reporting to his own Corps and the Canadian Corps, so not just to McNaughton.  Just google McNaughton + Vimy or similar and compare the information on the history of SR sources I have already given, the claims do not make sense.  I am not denigrating the Canadian Corps performance, or McNaughton's, but these claims 'ignore' and 'denigrate' the work on SR undertaken by quite a few people in the BEF(and Paris) and in Britain.

The question remains why these claims about McNaughton and SR have been published on-line and in some books as the 'real' information can be found fairly easily.

 

Mike

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1 hour ago, Longton1971 said:

Thanks for the tip, Phil. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with any German sources and can’t read German. I have some French though. Any chance you could give me some relevant German sources that have been translated into English?

 

What do you know about the new infantry tactics the French developed for when their men moved away from artillery cover?  How did they develop platoon level tactics with some fire power employing soldiers with different functions such as those with light machine guns, rifles, bayonets and rifle grenade specialists?  And, were these taken on board by the British afterwards, or was it the other way round, or were they developed simultaneously?

 

What new artillery tactics did the French develop and how and when did the Brits use them?

 

As I said above, they must have been learning from one another. 

 

Richard

 

 

 

Richard,

 

You do me too much honour asking me such things !  I fear that I’ve come across posing as learned here....in truth, I’m out of my depth.

 

My principal inspiration in the French story of the Great War is Alistair Horne’s The Price of Glory, which I first read fifty years ago .  It’s dated, caricatured and , perhaps, simplistic.....and I still think it’s one of the best books I have ever read about that - or any - war.

 

The German comments about the French come from Lloyd George’s War Memoirs, where he cites the opinion of Colonel Wetzell about the pros and cons of attacking the British or the French in 1918.

 

Robert Doughty’s book on the French Army in the Great War- Pyrrhic Victory - is first rate.

 

I have read that the French were creating infantry manuals that advocated storm troop tactics by the spring and early summer of 1915.

 

One officer in particular wrote an essay on infiltration tactics using methods that were copied by the Germans later in the war.

 

More grenades, more specialists, good fire and movement stuff....husbandry of manpower and developing technology. I get the impression that the French were more ahead of the game than is generally acknowledged. After the catastrophe of the opening encounters, they had to get it together : existential warfare against the most formidable army in the world required nothing less.

 

I’m shocked that the French were deploying so much more heavy artillery than the British, even as late as the Flanders battles of summer and autumn 1917. They achieved great gains at a fraction of the cost. 

 

Currie’s diversionary offensive at Lens in August 1917 strikes me as a success that might have owed much to assimilation of French methods, but I must defer to others more knowledgeable than I am about the whys and wherefores.

 

Phil   

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1 hour ago, phil andrade said:

One officer in particular wrote an essay on infiltration tactics using methods that were copied by the Germans later in the war.

 

Phil

 

Might this be Andre Laffargue? Like so many views of the French in WW1 I believe this should be taken with a pinch of salt. Have a look at Simon Jones' @Simon Jones outstanding description and critique of this on his website. It is also relevant to the discussion of the sharing of information if I remember correctly.

 

One of the things I am hoping this thread will help us do is look at some of the dogma surrounding the French Army in Anglophone literature, Simon's article is a fine contribution I think.

 

Pete.

Edited by Fattyowls
rogue apostrophe catastrophe
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On 27/08/2019 at 19:09, Christina Holstein said:

Hello Pete, my old friend,Malancourt Wood, what a wonderful place

 

Great to have you contributing Christina, I hoped you might be interested. If I knew which box I'd packed your Left Bank book in, or indeed my battered copy of Horne I could have checked. As I'm sure you have realised from our discussions about the woods on both banks of the Meuse I don't know my bois from my elbow :unsure:

 

Pete.

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Thanks very much for the Simon Jones article, Pete.

 

Is this the same Simon who wrote a big essay on the Battle of the Frontiers, debunking myths about the red trousers etc ?

 

If memory serves me, he emphasises how it was not the red trousers - which were not ubiquitous - but the stacked up glinting paraphernalia of pots  and pans that the French infantry carried that made them conspicuous .  They did not enjoy  the advantage of the mobile field kitchens that served  the Germans, and this seemingly prosaic thing rendered them fatally vulnerable .

 

Phil

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Thanks Phil and Pete. The Simon Jones article is a good read and is something I’ve not come across before. I’ve read Doughty’s book on the French army but it doesn’t say much about the way in which ideas were shared across the two main Allied armies, if my memory is correct. 

 

Anything that can correct the national myths surrounding both French and British armies has got to be a good thing, in my view. 

 

I think we all have our little silos of knowledge on the relationship between the British and French armies and that this is a great place to share them. 

 

Richard

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Somewhere - and, again, it might have been DLG’s memoirs - I remember reading that there was some complaint about the excessive size of the BEF’s “ tail” compared with that of the French.  Too many British personnel deployed in LOCs etc, effectively depriving the front line of troops.  As to whether the complaints emanated from the French, or the British themselves , I cannot remember : but it was certainly noted and commented upon.  I wonder if it was something I read in Churchill’s history. 

 

Phil

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Hi All,

 

Michael Goya's book has now been translated as "Flesh and Steel During the Great War- the transformation of the French Army". It comes highly recommended although I have still to get a copy.

 

Of books on the Battle of the Frontiers, I still consider Jean-Claude Delhez' 2 volume work the best, although it is in French and out of print (and likely to remain so). He has a much condensed version in one volume (and about a quarter the number of pages) still available in:

 

La bataille des Frontières : Joffre attaque au centre (22-26 août 1914)

https://www.amazon.co.uk/bataille-Fronti%C3%A8res-Joffre-attaque-centre/dp/2717865888/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=jean+claude+delhez&qid=1567167242&s=gateway&sr=8-1

As Phil alludes to Simon House's more recent book based on his PhD thesis is excellent too:

Lost Opportunity: The Battle of the Ardennes 22 August 1914 (Wolverhampton Military Studies)

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Opportunity-Ardennes-Wolverhampton-Military/dp/1911096427/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=simon+house+helion&qid=1567167338&s=gateway&sr=8-1

Considering the two authors worked independently they come to similar conclusions.

Steve 

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I reviewed Flesh and Steel for the WFA bulletin and it was recently published. It's an excellent work if not the easiest of reads.

I agree with Steve Marsdin - hello Steve - on Delhez's work on the Battle of the Frontiers.

 

Christina

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Reassuring to see that you didn’t find Flesh and Steel an easy read, Christina !

 

I struggled with it so much that I failed to get the benefit of the narrative : agree that it’s a high order of scholarship and deserves commendation ......sad that I get demoralised by difficult prose.

 

Phil

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On 29/08/2019 at 19:44, JMB1943 said:

 

I have read that in 1918, the British Army was the largest in France and so I would expect it to take the greater number of casualties then.

 

Regards,

JMB

 

 

 

 

This is not the case, JMB.

 

When the Armistice was signed, the French armies on the Western Front amounted to 2.6 million, compared with just under two million for the British Empire. Actual combat strength was about 1.55 and 1.2 million respectively.

 

French casualties in 1918 were slightly heavier than those of the British - up to about ten per cent more.....but, in proportionate terms, the British took the heavier loss that year.

 

Phil

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Phil,

 

Thank you for the correction.

Do you think that the proportionally higher casualties of the British forces in 1918 were due to the German spring offensive being 

largely against the British sector of the front?

 

Regards,

JMB

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JMB,

 

Undoubtedly, the scale and intensity of the German drives against the British in March and April 1918 caused a preponderance of British casualties in the Allied total ; the French suffered too, of course, but not on the same scale until late May, when they took a huge beating on the Chemin des Dames. From then until July the French losses exceeded those of the British.

 

One thing does become apparent when investigating the British 1918 casualties : if we take mid July as the watershed - which I think is important, because we Brits focus on 8 August to the extent that we overlook the mid July turning point  - the number of British deaths from then until the Armistice is very similar to the number between the German onslaught in March and the French counter offensive in mid July. In other words, 1918 can be divided into two parts, each with roughly equal casualties for the British.

 

I think it’s fair to say that, in the Hundred Days, the British did “ go at it a bit harder” than the French : certainly, in proportionate terms, the casualties were heavier for Haig’s armies, as they plied themselves relentlessly and triumphantly.  The very large contribution of the Dominions was to the fore here.  This is not to say that the French were not pulling their weight : far from it !  

 

Phil

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Phil, your statistics are phenomenal and help teach quite a bit about the shift in French efforts.

 

Thanks to all who've contributed with that.

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Only too pleased to be of some use, Tomb1302 !

 

I hope that I have interpreted the figures properly.

 

There must have been an awful lot of fighting carried out by the French in 1918 which British people just don’t know much about.

 

I have found out that some of the French casualty figures are compiled on a very different basis from those of the British. For example , there are figures for wounded in some  French tabulations that include large numbers of accidental injuries ; they also include wounded allied and German soldiers....the importance being the number of cases treated, rather than the causes or nationality of the admissions.

There might even be significant numbers of sick in some of the totals.  Hence the very different citations of the total of French wounded for the entire war, ranging from  2.5 million to 4.3 million. My opinion is that the lower figure is nearer the mark, if battle wounds ( and, of course, gas cases) are the criteria. The British figures, although susceptible to variation, are very consistent by comparison, and are meticulous about separation between the wounded as victims of enemy action, and the “ injured”, who were non battle casualties. Admissions for sickness are not conflated with the wounded. 

 

I would like to find out more about the French 1918 figures.

 

Phil

 

 

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Here’s something I’ve picked up from John Terraine’s To Win a War, a book published in 1978, a sixtieth anniversary pitch.

 

He cites Foch’s Memoirs, written in 1931 :

 

Foch tells us that between 1 July and 15 September [1918] French casualties had amounted to no less than 7,000 officers and 272,000 other ranks - and this on top of 245,000 in the defensive battles earlier in the year.

 

In notes at the end of the chapter, Terraine mentions that Foch stated that British casualties for the same July to mid September period were 7,700 officers and 166,000 men. 

 

The implication here is that, from the beginning of July to mid September 1918, the French took roughly  five casualties for every three suffered by the British.

 

The figures cited by Foch require circumspection : the 245,000 French for the defensive battles seems rather low ; likewise his 173,700 British for the later period.   But Foch’s message is clear : the French made a terrific resurgence from July onwards ; and the British need to be reminded that their much vaunted Hundred Days have obscured the heavy lifting that the French had been undertaking.

 

Editing again : The Anglo French parity in 1918 becomes yet more apparent if we just focus on those posted as killed or missing.  The missing, it must be stressed, contained enormous numbers of prisoners. The British Medical History reveals casualties that included 251,764 killed, missing and prisoners in France & Flanders 1918. Official French  Parliamentary documents presented in 1920  tabulated the French killed, missing and prisoners for 1918 as 259,000. These figures do not include the died from wounds or gas poisoning. The French attribute 145,000 of their total (56%) to the period March to June 1918. The British - from the SMEBE source - posted 147,600 of their killed and missing ( 58.6%) to that defensive period. Here I confess that I find the similarities remarkable. Of the British killed and missing in the March to June fighting, 82% were attributable to March and April. For the French, there was a reversal of this trend, but not to the same extent. I would guess that two thirds, at least, of their killed and prisoners were lost in the period of May and June. Bearing in mind that the Chemin des Dames blow ( Operation Blucher-Yorck) did not fall until 27 May, we can appreciate how severe the damage was in such a short time, and how quickly and effectively the French recovered and retaliated on 18 July. I hope that I don’t try the patience of the Forum by constantly referring to these statistics.

 

Phil

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18 hours ago, phil andrade said:

 

There must have been an awful lot of fighting carried out by the French in 1918 which British people just don’t know much about.

 

 

 

Phil

 

 

Hi Phil

 

I presume when you refer to "British people" you are talking about the general public?  If so my opinion on this in general is why do you expect them to know about the French?

Over the past 26 years I have worked as a Volunteer Tour Guide in a museum and have met many British and overseas visitors and the 'general public' whether British or from overseas, unless they have a major interest in WW1 or WW2, do not know much detail.  Indeed the 'British' generally do not know much at all about British activities during 1918 (they have heard about the Somme and Passchendaele) let alone the French!  Even those who have an interest in past members of the family that fought during WW1 do not always have an interest in the wider picture.  Many Canadian, Australian etc. visitors appear not to know much about what the 'British' were doing let alone the French, people from the USA also do not know that much about WW1 generally.  The French people I have met do not know much about what the British were doing they were of course more knowledgeable on French activities.   This is the crux of the matter ALL nationalities are generally more interested in what their own nation (or family) did during the war than what other nations did, it is not just a 'British' thing.

 

Those Britons that are interested in the wider war can access books on the French Army's activities during WW1 (I have tree general books on the French Army plus some more specialist tomes, but they are not the total available), but I suspect they do not sell as many to the British public as books about British involvement for the obvious reasons.  I also suspect the books on the British Army in France during WW1 sell as well in France as books on the French Army, and that type of situation, I should think, applies in most nations of the world, they want their 'own story' more than 'other people's stories'.  Do you actually expect the British public to be that different from those from other nations?

 

Mike

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