This book looks at the day-to-day life of the French infantryman during the First World War, from the moment the new conscript joined his unit to his entry, through his training, into the trenches and combat, and then either into hospital or on to leave. The Poilu ('hairy one') was in an unusual position, fighting on his own soil and yet isolated from the general population. The French army fought in some of the most desperate battles of the war, and yet the infantry is best remembered for the mutinies of 1917.
Joining Up starts with a look at the pre-war army - how it was organised, how the annual conscription worked and how it trained and how the army mobilised at the start of the war. Sumner then moves on to look at the experience of later recruits who were faced with the daunting task of joined existing units to replace the ever present flow of casualties. Even at the height of the war the departure of the new recruit was marked with some ceremony in his home town.
Equipment and Weapons begins with a look at the uniform and how it evolved from the pre-war blue and red, which was blamed for some of the early heavy casualties, into the famous horizon blue. We also look at the heavy load of personal equipment each soldier carried at the start of the war, and how well it survived contact with the ever present mud of the trenches. Sumner then looks at the personal weapons used by the infantry, starting with the inferior Lebel rifle, before looking at the improved 1907 Berthier rifle and the hand grenades, machine guns and small-scale trench artillery and mortars that played an increasingly important part in the fighting.
Into the Trenches follows our recruit as he joins his squad, the small unit that became the centre of every soldier's existence at the front. Sumner looks at how the squad was organised, how it related to the rest of the army, how the corporals and sergeants were selected and trained, and their roles in the trenches. He then moves on to look at the soldier's pay and food - for once national stereotypes are perhaps a little reinforced when one realises that the role tea played in the British army was taken by wine for the French!
In Action looks at the infantry tactics used by the French army, starting with the disastrous close order linear tactics used at the start of the war, which saw rows of infantrymen advancing across open countryside only to be cut down by the German guns. Sumner then gives a brief account of the tactical experiments that eventually produced the efficient war-winning Allied armies of 1918. This section is supported by a fascinating eye-witness account of one of the first offensives of the war, where the French troops first encountered the empty battlefield that was so different to anything they had been expecting (or indeed to the virtual siege warfare of most of the war).
The final chapter, Out of the Trenches, looks at the two vividly contrasting ways in which the Poilu could leave the trenches - either to go into hospital after suffering a wound, or to go on leave. One of the reasons for the outbreak of the mutinies of 1917 becomes rather more obvious when one discovers that nearly all leave was cancelled between 1915 and 1917!
We are all familiar with pictures from the trenches, but the subtle differences present in the French trenches give the photographs used in this book a certain freshness. The photographs are well chosen, varied, and include a good mix of staged pre-war pictures, formal war-time group portrait and authentic pictures from the trenches. The pictures are also supported by the normal high quality full colour illustrations.
The French contribution to the Allied victory in the First World War is often overlooked in English language publications, and so this is a valuable addition to the Warrior series that goes some way towards redressing the balance.
Equipment and Weapons
Into the Trenches
Out of the Trenches
Author: Ian Sumner