Combat of the Section and Group

Relevant terms:

Compagnie: “company” – cohm-pah-nyee
Section: “section” (i.e., ‘platoon’) – sek-seeoh
Demi-Section: “half-section” (i.e., ‘half-platoon’ – deh-mee sek-seeoh
Escouades: “squads” – es-koo-ahd
Groupe [de Combat]: “[combat] group” – groop duh kohm-bah

Capitaine: “captain” [company commander] – ka-pee-tan
Chef de Section: “section leader” (i.e., ‘platoon leader’) – shef duh sek-seeoh
Chef de Demi-Section: “half-section leader” (i.e., ‘half-platoon leader’)
Serre-Files: “file-closers” – sair-feel
Sergent: “sergeant” – sair-zhah
Caporal: “corporal” – ka-poh-rah

Tirailleurs: “marksmen” (or, ‘skirmishers’) – tee-ray-yuhr
Fusiliers (F): “automatic riflemen” – few-zee-leeyay
Fusil-Mitrailleur (F.M.): “automatic-rifle” (i.e., Chauchat)
*Grenadiers-Voltigeurs (G.V.): “grenadier-riflemen” – gren-ah-deeyay-vuhl-tee-guhr
V.B. [Vivien-Bessière]: V.B. rifle grenade; V.B. rifle grenadiers
Nettoyeurs: “trench cleaners” – neh-toy-uhr

*By 1917, the standard infantrymen was trained not only as a riflemen but as a grenadier as well (both hand and rifle grenades). The term grenadier-voltigeur (‘voltigeur’ meaning literally “vaulter”) denotes this functional change. While all grenadiers-voltigeurs were adept at using the V.B. rifle grenade, Grenadiers-Voltigeurs primarily used hand grenadiers. (The term ‘V.B. grenadier’ was reserved for those men assigned this role who received more extensive training with this weapon.) Furthermore, there were three sub-roles within the more general role of grenadier-voltigeur: assistant, thrower and supplier, with the thrower and supplier more heavily armed with grenades. For more information on this, please visit the following page:


The composition and officering of the section, its approach formation and the type of deployment and of the progression of tirailleurs have been covered in Chapter V of Part II. The section firing was covered in Chapter IV of Part III.

Roles of the officers of the section in combat.

The section is commanded by a chef de section, seconded by two chefs de demi-section. Conforming to the plan of engagement of the capitaine, the chef de section prescribes the overall disposition of his section and that of each of his demi-sections. During combat operations, he orders the maneuvers intended to break the enemy resistance. He unleashes immediate counter-attacks and does not cease to make his action felt on his two chefs de demi-section. His position is at the place from which he can best direct his unit, while always setting the example. During the approach he is at the head of his section; during the attack, at the head or center.

The chef de demi-section guides his unit. He only observes it when the exercise of his command obliges so; he should only have his eyes set on the enemy. The demi-section is bound by its chef who remains in all circumstances the rallying signal. It is relegated upon his attitude and his demeanor. During the halts, when the fire is opened, the chef de demi-section places himself on the same line as the advanced elements or just to the rear of them. At close distances to the enemy, the chefs de section and ­demi-section abstain from unnecessary gestures which are brought to the attention of the enemy.

The serre-files sergents and caporals, and in cases of need, soldats – are the auxiliaries of the chef de section. They maintain themselves at the place which they are assigned and watch the execution of the orders. If a sergent serre-file is present in the section, he is obliged to this role as the eventual substitute of the chef de section. Therefore, this NCO in turn is to follow all the vicissitudes of action and, if the chef de section is put out of action, take command in all circumstances.

Combat formation.

The section is in combat formation when it is in a position to open fire instantly, without going through evolutions or after only a simple and anticipated evolution. In the first case, it marches in deployed order. In the second case, it marches in open order; that is to say in groups (demi-sections, escouades) maintaining deployment intervals. Alternate formations are also possible. For example: a section by successive demi-sections, having its head demi-section deployed in one or two lines and its following demi-section in line of escouades of one with deployment intervals.

Assault formation.

The section is formed as a rule:

--In column of section, by successive demi-sections (one demi-section making up part of the assault wave, the other demi-section making up part of the support wave);
--By ‘accoladed’ (side by side) demi-sections, the section making up only one wave (either an assault wave or a support wave).

These two formations give the same depth to the compagnie.

The first wave takes up half the normal frontage (80-90 meters) of the section and is led by the chef de section. It allows for the reinforcement of one demi-section of assault by the other demi-section of the section (the support demi-section) and avoids the mixing of sections. The section formed by successive demi-sections can normally fight on a front of 40-45 meters (4-5 paces between the tirailleurs of the demi-section of assault forming two lines). With four sections, the compagnie maintains its normal front of 150-200 meters. The distance between the demi-sections of a section in column varies from 60-100 meters.

The second wave, by contrast, takes up the frontage of the entire section for an enveloping maneuver of the points of enemy resistance. The section formed by accoladed demi-sections can normally fight on a front of 80-90 meters (4-5 paces between the tirailleurs forming two lines). With two sections in the first line, the compagnie maintaining its normal combat front of 15-200 meters.

The demi-section is formed as a rule:

a) As an assault unit of a first line compagnie, in two lines constituted generally in the following manner:

--At the head: the fusiliers and the greater part of the grenadiers-voltigeurs
--In line: the V.B. grenadiers-voltigeurs and the rest of the grenadiers-voltigeurs.

In particular, the fusiliers are placed at the head when the terrain lends itself to being opportune for a marching fire or when encounters, from the collision with the first enemy positions, are expected with points of resistance, which must be pinned down immediately with gunfire. The lines march at a distance of 10-15 paces between them and most often in skirmish order.

b) As a support unit of a first line compagnie and in a battalion reserve compagnie or a second line compagnie, by accoladed escouades in column in single file or by twos. It is sometimes advantageous for maneuvering reasons, notably in the battalion reserve compagnie and in the second line compagnies, to form the demi-section in columns of singles or twos.


Demi-section of assault.

The demi-section of assault (or each of the demi-sections when the section is formed by accoladed demi-sections) set off from the departure trench at l’heure H (“zero-hour” – lehr ahsh) and proceeds to its objective, reaching the enemy in a single rush without delaying itself to inspect the enemy shelters. It only throws in passing some offensive grenades on the defenders, if necessary, and into the entrances of the shelters which it comes upon.

It is essential that it follows the rolling barrage closely and that it exploit by the rapidity and continuity of its actions the effect of surprise realized upon the enemy. When the tirailleurs encounter an obstacle (notably intact barbed wire obstacles) they must go around it by moving through the passages and breaches. They do not hesitate, under the protection of the grenades, automatic rifle and rifle fire, to finish with tools the breaches that are not sufficiently open.

When a demi-section hits a point of enemy resistance (putting up a defense with grenades or machine-guns), it seeks to reduce it through the combination of movement and fire. The automatic rifles and rifles open up on anyone emerging from the ground and force the defenders to keep their heads down in their holes. The hand grenades and V.B. grenades are used against anyone sheltering in the ground. Thus, the actions of a handful of brave men, especially of those who make a successful attempt to break the resistance, often lead the enemy to ask for mercy.

But the demi-section can not always regulate the fight by its own means alone. In such cases, it must pin down the enemy with its fire so as to allow a neighboring unit or a supporting unit, to take the resistance by the flank or from the rear. These maneuvers as well as those intended to break enemy counter-attacks, must be ordered by the chefs de section, using their section or using a neighboring section less favored in its progression. If the chef de section can intervene immediately, they must transpose this initiative on the chefs de demi-section and even on the spirit of camaraderie of the soldiers.

Once a section or demi-section has broken a resistance, its chef rapidly puts it back into order and the march forward is retaken. If the progression is not momentarily possible, the terrain must not be abandoned under any pretext, even if the enemy has regained it. It is the fierce fighting of small elements clinging onto the ground gained that most often allows to check an enemy counter-attack and retake the offensive.

Section or demi-section of support.

The section or demi-section of support marches towards its objective, keeping the appropriate distance from the assault wave, as well as from the areas of the fight not requiring its intervention. It must, spontaneously if necessary, wholly or partially engage itself in order to:

--Fill in the intervals which are produced in front of the assault wave and which break the tactical links of this wave;
--Cooperate in the envelopment of points of resistance which can not be overwhelmed by the assault unit which preceded it or by the neighboring units delayed in their advance;
--Break counter-attacks.

If an assaulting section meets with resistance, the supporting section takes care to avoid encountering the same resistance. It tries to outflank the resistance and take it from the rear.

Combat in the trenches.

The fight in the trenches is avoided by both the assault units and support units so long as they have not attained their final objective. Trench fighting is the business of the nettoyeur units. The grenadiers-voltigeurs in the nettoyeur units progress through the communication trenches, the grenade throwers being preceded by a man armed with a rifle and bayonet. Posted in shell-holes, the fusiliers sweep the parapets in order to cut off certain elements, while the V.B. grenadiers-voltigeurs open up a barrage beyond the defenders so as to cut off their resupply and the arrival of reinforcements.

Comparison of the line of tirailleurs and a line of small groups in single file.

The tirailleurs in one rank are more closely in touch than other. They see one another and advance at the same pace towards the same dangers. If there is a space of a few meters on each side, the soldier can advance more easily and is better able to pick out a shelter for himself when the order to halt is given. For crossing ground which is being shelled, it is best to maintain as a great a space between the men as possible. A distance of 4 to 5 paces between the men is the best formation for firing and attacking. However, this formation creates parallel lines of men visible from a distance and therefore should be used as an approach formation when under artillery fire only.

As regards to the vulnerability from infantry fire on this formation, it is impossible to state that at short distances one formation is more dangerous than the other. Everything depends on the position of the machine guns and the proportion of fire from the front and the flank. The sheaf of fire from a machine gun is very thick and very narrow. From the flank, it will play more havoc in a line than in a column; from the front the effect will be the reverse. (See fig. 280 below).

MG Fire

Figure demonstrating the effects of a sheath of machine-gun fire against a line and a column from the flank (top) and the front (bottom).

From this it follows that among the assaulting waves, which follow one another in close succession, the first waves may be in lines and the following ones in short columns (small groups in single file).

The short columns are more easily maneuvered than the line. Once a line has been launched into the attack it works well only when advancing straight ahead, whereas the small column can be easily directed and maneuvered in any direction, even during an assault. Short columns in single file or by twos are used:

--In approach formation, under artillery fire, obligatory on all terrains;
--In fighting formation, under infantry fire, only on thickly overgrown terrain of difficult crossing;
--In assault formation, for the support waves which must be easily and readily maneuvered.

The great drawback of this formation is the dropping off of men, especially in the assault, and the need for numerous and reliable file closers. When it is necessary for the supporting wave to march in lines of groups in single file, it must first start in line like those preceding it and then quickly be formed into column. If this is not done, the men coming out behind one another from the same point in a trench will not be able to maintain proper intervals, and will become spaced too far apart, losing all cohesion.

In summary, under artillery fire the formation of small columns is obligatory.

Under infantry fire, the choice between formation in column or in line will be more a question of which maintains good order and not necessarily which is more vulnerable.

Various observations.

Figures 230-232 below give examples of different formations of a section. These sketches are only illustrative; they are not strict combat schema.



Fig. 230 (top): example of a company in assault formation, with "accoladed" sections. Fig. 231 (middle):example of a company in assault formation, in double column. Fig. 232 (bottom): example of a company in assault formation.

It can be seen that the wave is not a line of tirailleurs, but a line of groupes de combat (“combat groups”), each forming upon their departure two lines of tirailleurs, a line of small columns in single file or by twos. Therefore, the line has a degree of depth to it which varies with its fluctuations. During the course of fighting it may be reduced to a single line after taking on losses, or from the need to shelter everyone during a halt at an intermediary objective or against a point of resistance. But it is critical to be watchful at any moment against being bunching up¸ as well as automatic tightening toward the center which is instinctual of men. The benefit which is had by maintaining the large intervals between tirailleurs when they initially depart is lost.

For the caporaux (“corporals”) in the first wave, either both march with the first line, or one marches with the first line and the second with the second line. In the case of the former, each caporal generally maintains command of his escouade. In the case of the latter, each can receive the command of one of the lines of the wave. The chefs de demi-section in the supporting wave march either in front and to the center of their detachment or in front of the escouade that they have designated as their base escouade.

Before departing, show to all the men if possible photographs of the terrain that will be crossed. At the least, a sketch should be given to each chef de groupe de combat or trench cleaning unit, which shows the itinerary, specific objectives and halt points of each indicated with colored pencils. Also, all compass carriers must know the azimuth of the attack.

Unless they have been given as intermediary or normal objectives, the attack sections must not get into the trenches. They must attack them from open ground, quickly carrying out the fight, limiting themselves to the elimination of any defenders which are present and being sure not to leave any behind their back. The rest of the work is done by the trench cleaning units; it is only they who get into the trenches.

After taking a trench which has temporarily stopped the progression of a wave, it quickly reforms itself several meters beyond the parados and sets back off toward the objective, keeping up with the rolling barrage and taking back up its initial deployment.

In general, the maneuvers executed by the support sections can not be prearranged. It is up to the chef to make the decision during the course of the fight and give his orders to a section already deployed by wave of a few words or gestures. These difficulties will be diminished if the section is arranged in short, thin columns, and moreover, if all the men have clearly understood in advance that the support sections should not blend into the assault section thereby augmenting the density of the latter when facing a point of resistance which has checked its advance. This “doubling” only serves to increase friendly losses without reducing the resistance. (For example, a machine-gin remains intact under its casemate.) To the contrary, if the support section sliding towards a wing, to overwhelm the knot of resistance and takes its defenders from the flank or the rear while they are occupied in stopping the first wave, it is very likely it will force the defenders to surrender.

It is only in this particular case where the assault section isn’t in a state to carry out its role that the support section “doubles” it or lends it s demi-section. With this being well understood, a gesture from the chef de groupe will suffice to indicate what course of action he wants to take.

Figures 228 and 229 below demonstrates two possible deployments of the schematic arrays in figures 230, 231 and 232 during the course of the fighting.



In fig. 228 (top), the section is split into accoladed demi-sections, F.M. and G.V. on the first line, the V.B.s and some G.V.s on a second line. It reaches a wire entanglement in which there are three breaches. Additionally, with the right flank of the right-hand section too strong, the capitaine has sent a F.M. from his reserve to plug up the space between the left-hand and right-hand sections.

In the fig. 229 (bottom), the section is stopped by the machine-gun ('M'), which flanks the wire entanglements that it must make its way through. The F.M. takes up position and returns fire, the V.B.s stop and open their high-angle fire, the G.V.s move up from shell-hole to shell-hole to within grenade throwing distance, those who were in the second line pass behind their F.M. in order to overwhelm ‘M’.

Assault order.

The following constitutes the assault order:

  • Clothes: field dress (i.e. greatcoat, trousers, etc.) without the backpack;
  • Equipment: tent canvas worn as a shoulder roll (or, assault roll), with the blanket rolled up inside;
  • Tools: one or two e-tools (especially the spade-shovel and pick-shovel), either carried on belt or fastened to assault roll;
  • Haversacks: two regular haversacks and (ideally) a third a reinforced model (for grenades and flares);
  • Canteens: one 2-liter canteen (for water or wine) and one 1-liter canteen (for coffee/tea or brandy);
  • Gas mask: ideally two masks, a primary mask worn at the ready and a second supplementary mask transported in the tin;
  • Sandbags: 2-5 bags, fastened to the front of the assault roll;
  • Signaling devices: either panels or ‘bengale’ ground flares;
  • Miscellaneous: first-aid packet and soldiers booklet (carried in interior greatcoat chest pocket), ID disks (one around the neck, the other around the wrist)
  • Ammunition: 120 rounds, 5 grenades (3 hand and 2 V.B.)
  • Rations:
    --1 haversack for “fresh rations,” cup and spoon;
    --1 haversack for “light rations”: 600 gm of hardtack, 300 gm of tinned seasoned meat, 300 gm Gruyère cheese, 350 gm of chocolate, 160 gm of sugar or jam, 1 tin of sardines or a 2d tin of seasoned meat;
    --1 2-liter canteen (water or wine);
    --1 1-liter canteen (coffee or liquor);
    --1 1-liter canteen or flask for liquor.
  • Another combination consists in taking the backpack to carry the rations, the tent canvas and the blanket. If it is very rainy, it is useless to carry the blanket.

    Manuel du Chef de Section d'Infanterie ("The Manual of the Infantry Platoon Leader"), January 1918 edition.

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