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Evolution of French Infantry During World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special


In the public mind, the First World War is
often seen as narrow-minded or stubborn officers sending wave after wave of men to die going
over the top from the trenches. In reality, the war saw the nations fighting
it undergo the most profound and radical military revolution I their histories. We’ve looked at several of these so far,
and today I’m to look at France. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War
special episode about the evolution of French infantry doctrine during the First World War. To look at that, though, you really have to
go back to France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. French leadership saw the defeat as an intellectual
one. The Prussian High Command had given its officers
a greater sense of purpose and tactical flexibility, and that army overwhelmed a French one that
was not only underprepared, but had no clarity of objectives or united leadership. The Third French Republic completely overhauled
the military, and after 9 years of reforms the French War Academy was founded. Garrison libraries were instituted in 1871
to promote intellectualism and initiative; there would be 200 by 1914. Soon, each branch of service had a monthly
magazine. Officers of all ranks were expected to hold
conferences and write essays. The mobilization that had been chaotic became
thoroughly planned and the railway networks that had been poorly exploited were expanded
and fully integrated. But the French leadership overemphasized what
it saw as its flaws or the enemy’s virtues. The defensive stance, the passivity, and the
belief in superior equipment of 1870 became anathema. Even the adoption of the Lebel smokeless rifle
in 1886 that guaranteed accurate and lethal fire on an individual level did not shake
off the anti-materialism of the new generation of graduated officers. The concept of leadership capable of leading
the troops to victory by superior morale became widespread, and the solution to the lethality
of the modern battlefield was simply French élan. Now, the German military did not share this
anti-materialism, having drawn the correct lessons from 1870-71. The British and the Russians had, by 1914,
benefitted from the lessons of the Boer Wars the Russo-Japanese War. France of course took away lessons as well,
particular those of artillery and concealment, but the lack of practical experience and centralized
leadership delayed implementation. By 1914, Germany had a huge advantage over
France in artillery and machine guns, and also in manpower, having outgrown France enormously
over the past three decades. To French Commander Joseph Joffre, training
always toward offense was the answer, which is sort of the opposite of the trench war
that was coming. “It is not in the excess of cautiousness
that we must search safety; but rather in the disposition of our troops in a way that
always guarantee our combat readiness. The real defense of a marching column lies
in its ability to launch an immediate counter attack…” While this understanding of modern war is
erroneous, it does contradict the idea that France entered the war without a doctrine
that was- in its context- coherent. The first hostilities of 1914 quickly revealed
the flaws of the system. On August 14th for example, near Plaine, repeated
bayonet frontal assaults were shattered by German machine guns and artillery, while the
same day, two batteries of 75mm field guns disregarded the rules and made a joint action
with the infantry- a fixation barrage with outflanking movements- that forced a German
withdrawal. For the rest of 1914, the French Army was
forced to hugely adapt and evolve. Over 40% of the commanders of large units
were removed for incompetence or insufficiency during this time, and already in August, GHQ
issued notes based on battle reports: Conquered territory must be manned and defended
with artillery to prevent counter attacks The enemy must first be engaged with skirmishers
and artillery before the main assault The infantry must wait for artillery support,
do not let the troops needlessly expose themselves There were more, and in early September new
instructions were issued about building trenches. However, even though French leadership had
now realized that firepower kills, assimilating this was a work-in-progress and it was tough
to overcome the damage done by prewar military education. General Fayolle wrote in January 1915, “I’m
having a lot of difficulties trying to organize the construction of trenches by the troops…
my men are more interested in dying than working.” He wrote in December that year, “The truth
is that nobody was prepared for this war of positions… we all had the greatest disdain
for fortifications and entrenching works. Our whole education has to be reworked… War cannot be improvised.” The Northeastern part of the country was occupied,
and France had lost 60% of its coal and iron mines, so 1915 was a year of frantic reforms
aimed at replenishing worn out artillery, depleted ammunitions stores, and the nation’s
crippled heavy industry. Still, Joffre launched two major offensives
to draw German divisions away from Russia and to experiment with new ways of using artillery. They really also tried to teach the lessons
of 1914- wounded veterans replaced military instructors and dedicated instruction centers
were created. The offensives were really the swan song-
with a few exceptions- of the old style of leadership since the expected breakthroughs
never came. Fayolle again, “Our magnificent infantry
was broken by barbed wires and entrenched artillery. Our soldiers demand new combat methods and
more combat weaponry.” But new armament programs, organizational
reforms, and troop instruction took time, and it was only in late 1915 and 1916 that
the French army was again really innovating. That period saw all sorts of material upgrades,
from the Adrian Helmet to the Chauchat light machine gun, grenade launchers, and even the
wheeled field kitchen. The French leadership devised new doctrines
for methodical battle, with cooperation between infantry and artillery, and the primacy of
material over men. The shackles of 1871 had finally been broken,
and the dramatic increase of firepower at the divisional level and enthusiasm for experimentation
would be instrumental in turning the tide at the Battle of Verdun. Local superiority in material, a rolling artillery
barrage, and a thoroughly trained and equipped infantry would propel Robert Nivelle from
success at Verdun all the way to Chief of Staff, replacing Joffre in December 1916. He began the modernization process that would
ultimately lead to the creation of the modern French army, but though the men were trained
to fight within a system, and the branches coordinated actions, his strategy was flawed,
as the speed of the infantry was subordinated to the artillery, which could only keep up
as preparations allowed. So when Nivelle attacked on a large front
with unlimited objectives, especially against the new German defenses the Hindenburg Line,
it was a catastrophe, made worse by Nivelle’s refusal to call it off for weeks. So Nivelle was out and Philippe Petain was
in. Finally a true convinced modernist who had
been in favor of modern methods since well before the war. He implemented a second rearmament program
to give the army Renault FT tanks, infantry trucks, more planes, but more importantly,
the logistical means to properly exploit a breakthrough of the German elastic defenses
once the critical mass of material required had been secured. Two conditions were necessary to bring about
a war of movement in the Allies favor; guaranteed local superiority in both firepower and manpower
and the motorization of the infantry and artillery to keep the initiative during exploitation
before German reinforcements could arrive by rail. This methodology worked well in limited offensives
like the Second Battle of Verdun and the Battle of Malmaison, and really, for the first time
in the war, the French Army was truly playing in the same league as its adversary. They now understood both German defense in
depth and infiltration tactics. However, the disaster that hit the Italians
at Caporetto and Russia leaving the war forced the Entente to concede initiative to the Central
Powers, and as 1918 began they prepared for the inevitable onslaught. If they could withstand the storm long enough
for the French armament program and the arriving American troops to give them their two conditions,
they could win a war of movement through logistical superiority. Germany relied increasingly on shock troops. Petain and Ferdinand Foch thought this indicated
a lack of confidence in the regular infantry, whether or not true. French High Command debated something similar,
but decided instead to further the integration of different branches into a coherent, interarm
fighting force and the French Modern Infantry was born. Still, the first half of 1918 would see the
army reel under German attacks; I mean, it’s difficult to unlearn three years of offensive
trench warfare, but you could see- the 4th army of General Gouraud, that diligently applied
Petain’s directives, held its ground, and by the summer, the troops embraced battle
proven concepts. Let’s see… Mangin’s counter attack at Matz June 11th,
for example, supported by masses of tanks and planes, just lay waste to the German advance. Massive motorization and extensive and well-maintained
roads allowed France strategic deployment that Germany just could not keep up with. In fact, German Quartermaster General Erich
Ludendorff claimed, “The Entente victory of 1918 is the triumph of French trucks over
the German railway”. By August 1918, after four years of bloody
war, the French Army was the most modern fighting force in the world, with a highly motorized
infantry, supported by 2,300 tanks, 3,800 planes, and over 10,000 artillery pieces. 1914 had been completely reversed and the
victories of 1918 were performed by Allied troops sharing a cohesive training and a logistical organization.

100 thoughts on “Evolution of French Infantry During World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special

  1. Is it right calling the entente allies? I'm reading a book written by my great grandfather in 1935 (before ww2) about hungary after ww2 and he calls the entente allies

  2. Everybody at the front had to die until the leaders got it right and retrained the troops. Too bad. Hard lessons, held for only 20 years and then start it again.

  3. There are so many historical channels now on youtube and most of them are too shallow, give no real information but they decorate it with colorful infographics, as if the viewers were children with concentration disorder
    .

    Your show is so much superior, it's like a fresh air.

  4. I bought a French military rifle the other day. Great bargain as it has never been fired and only dropped once.

  5. Xin Chao Indy and his friends. Been watching a long time now, but I was wondering about the use of French Indochinese solders during the war. How many soldiers were conscripted, where were they deployed, and what kinds of roles did they perform? If they were on a front, how was their fighting reputation? It's near-impossible to get any information here in Vietnam before 1952-54 once the Vietnamese were clearly in favor of winning the First Indochina War and Eisenhower was sending the first US military advisors. Thanks!

  6. As a proud Scot I have to take me hat of to Le French , they are fighters and they were the best looking except fer meself oan a Sat night in me kilt !

  7. …and this modernization didn't end with WW1. When WW2 started, the French army was the most modern of the European forces.

  8. How amazingly pitiful the situation must have been to consider the chauchat machine gun as an "improvement".

  9. Magnifique vidéo mon ami
    Très intéressante
    Magnificent video my friend
    Very interesting
    I am subscribed
    And I would be proud to have you as subscriber too 👍

  10. #thegreatwar ik this is a old video but i was just wondering if yall are gonna start making new vids on other wars like WWII or amy war idc just miss the vids Indy si love history and explain & break everything down so well and they are just so well put together amazingly, love the work that the you and the staff put out. Ive been going back & watching all the WW1 vids in order again for like the 3rd time lol. Just miss the content hope to see you guys back at it soon. Much Love & Respect from North Carolina. -A long time loyal fan and subscriber!!! P.S FLO 😂

  11. So why do they abandon these modern tactics after the war and go back to relying on the system of forts for their defense?

  12. Louis XIV wars, french victory’s, napoleonic wars, french victory, and ww1, french victory. We made the principal effort in ww1. They win in 40. We won in 45. Only 2 defeats against them but so much other victory’s….
    UK did well in ww1 but we have to assume that we did more than they, we lost more mens, fought more battle, on more fronts (western of course, serbia, italia, africa, sea…) we did the best tank of ww1 the « FT 17 »( his nickname was « the tank of the victory ») even the Americans bought them…
    Vive la France

  13. Hey, I actually liked the video, but what's with the body language in the first 20 seconds? It seriously feels like the guy's looped, lol.

  14. The parallels between French infantry doctrine prior to the First World War and Japanese army doctrine in WW II is absolutely uncanny. Both armies were obsessed with taking the offensive. The Japanese in particular, were so averse to retreat that in official reports they called withdrawal "Advancing by turning." They also tended to completely dismiss the effects of modern weaponry and believed that success could only be achieved by superior fighting spirit. During the offensive into Burma in 1944, a more practical Japanese general explained to his superiors that the campaign had stalled because the troops were out of food, fuel and ammunition. The high command's response was " lack of material resources was no excuse for failure." They seem to have learned all the wrong lessons from the First World War.

  15. An American historian who knows detailled topics about the French military History ? I have found gold with your channel, sir., congrats ! Thanks for your video which is very instructive, even for me as a Frenchman. I am about to watch more !

  16. Why did Germany have a spike in the top of their helmet sorry I could not write the proper name because of autocorrect.

  17. the french guy didnt even aim his gun he just pulled the trigger with out looking .;.;lol the french didnt want to dig .;.;lol

  18. french always use the uniform from napoleonic times at the beginning,the german can see it of a big distance! and please stop with this mythos (tanks the arriving from US troops) the french was able to beat the german, because you say the same about italy,in which italy fightet for 3 years with 43 reg. against 73 reg from austrian-germany. in italy only 1 US reg. comes to help and a few british. so they dont make's a great differenc,in italy like in french

  19. Hi. Now I´m writing a book that is set during World War One from the perspective of the French army,and I want to show how did they train,but I haven´t found anything about French,If you could help me,i would thank you.Thanks,anyways.

  20. You gotta admit, for all the mockery made of their military… when you really examine the French, and really look at their military prowess… it makes a damn fool of someone left unimpressed. It's hard not to admire their tenacity, and to be perhaps a bit awestruck by their savagery.
    Plus, I dont know what it is about the French language, but it sounds badass during combat.

  21. 6:30 "upgrades to… the Chauchat light machine gun"

    That was a horrible machine gun, and you only have to look at the picture to see why. It had an open magazine design on the bottom of the gun, which would work just fine if kept clean. But that was nearly impossible in the muddy trenches of the battlefield. They were jam-o-matics as the magazines and action became clogged with mud after just a few rounds. One of the worst LMG designs ever actually.

  22. They won WWI thanks to tactical innovation, and yet lost in 1940 due to lack thereof. It's strange, what changed in the French leadership?

  23. The French fashion was already here ! Look how amazing those soldiers looks like in their militaries uniform
    But honestly, no more war

  24. @The Great War Indy and crew, you guys should do an in-depth segment on German anti-tank measures. I feel like it's an overlooked topic and it's one of the few things in the meta that I don't know bout teh wor.

  25. One of the biggest myths of the 20th century is the French armed services. I’m not sure if there’s any evidence to support the existence of any French forces that existed after Napoleon I base my evidence on the French always being a bunch of pussies and getting their asses kicked by everybody!!!

  26. Regarding your Intro: most people don't understand warfare and get all their historical information from Hollywood.

  27. Funny some of the dichotomies that turn up in history… France ended up preparing for the opposite in both world wars… They trained and believed in a war of movement before 1914, and ended up with the stalemate of the trenches, then relied on the fortifications of the Maginot Line for defense in 1940, and got a war of movement that made entrenched fortifications mostly obsolete… Learned all the wrong lessons from history.

    Of course politics and finances and the state of the country had a lot to do with it too, particularly in the run-up to World War 2… But lessons learned and military doctrine and planning could have changed the conclusions and direction of preparations in both cases, had the correct conclusions been drawn beforehand…

    Later! OL J R

  28. Out of 168 battles fought since 387 BC, they have won 109, lost 49 and drawn 10", making France the most successful military power in European history. And yes lost 49. And are still a country to this day. Not a small feat

  29. Just like with evolution of any sort, the most adaptable group wins!

    There’s a famous story about when the French were first getting the hang of trench fighting they realized they needed a more “back to basics” or in America we say get medieval on their asses, type hand weapons but due to metal and strategic material shortages they had to improvise. They utilized the aforementioned field kitchens and found that if they cooked the French loaves a little too long they got really hardened and led to a group of French soldiers getting the medal of Gendarmerie Nationale for raiding a German trench and bludgeoning two Huns to death and taking an officer prisoner thereby providing sensitive intelligence credited with saving potentially hundreds of French soldiers’ lives

  30. And when the french started to enter Germany, the British and the Americans immediatly forced them to stop. They were scared that France, Belgium, Holland and a part of Germany could unify again like 100 years before under Napoléon.

  31. Question. If during Ww1 any nation had a fully trained and organized army, according to modern standard, with the weapons of the time, could they have over ran an opposing nation?

  32. If only the French Army of 1939 still had that aggressive elan things would have ended much more differently for the Allies.

  33. An interesting assessnent of the French army in WW1. The only pity is that after studying WW1, we haven't truly learned the consequences and causes of war as maybe we are heading in that direction again for the same reason, power, greed and refusing to compromise.

  34. 2:15 shows the french foreign legion lol french foreign legion has had balls for years. There were political decisions for the failure of the french military.

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