Combat of the Company, Section and Group

  • Relevant Terms
  • Combat of the Company
  • Combat of the Section and the Groupe
  • Combat of the Section
  • Assault Order

    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:

    COMBAT OF THE Compagnie

    In all these formations, the capitaine usually stands four paces in front of the base section leader or the lead section (section de tête), the sergeant-major, if he does not command a section, or at the center of the 2nd, 4th and 1st sections. Drums and bugles, in one rank 2 meters behind the left or rear section or in line.

    Approach formations.
    The most common approach formation is the double column, at varying distances and intervals (Fig. 30).

    Fig. 30. Company double column; Fig. 31. Column by accoladed platoons; Fig. 32. Company in triangle, section A in front.

    Sections may have to follow the same route to conform to the terrain or to avoid crossing an enemy artillery fire zone. The capitaine posts at the head of his company. He designates the base section. The front-line or advanced-guard company is preceded by patrols or a small avant-garde.

    Figures 31 to 38 show formations derived from the double column to use according to the ground or according to whether one wants to protect a particular flank or both. In all these figures, the sections are schematically indicated. In reality, each takes one of the approach formations given above for the section which gives the company the necessary dispersion. It is only when beyond the reach of the enemy artillery that it would be permitted to change the sections in column of four.

    Fig. 34. Company en losange; Fig. 35. Company en echelon, the left forward; Fig. 36. Company en echelon to the right, center forward.

    Fig. 37. Company in checkerboard, the 2nd line overlapping to the right; Fig. 38. Company en trapèze (or tête de porc).

    Movements of the Company.

    The company executes at the capitaine's command all the elementary movements indicated for the section. The indication of Company is substituted in place of that of Section in the commands. For all the movements where the sections have to perform the same thing, the company maneuvers as a block at the capitaine's command alone. Section leaders have no commands to give.

    On the other hand, in movements where all sections do not have to set off or stop together, the one to be executed immediately obeys the capitaine's execution command alone, and the others then execute the command of their leaders.

    In line formations, alignments are taken off of the base section. In the column formations, they are parallel to the lead section and by the center, exceptionally to the right or left.

    The lead section or the base section is placed in advance exactly facing the direction. All evolutions are done by the same principles as those of the section (see page 67). The capitaine states the formation to be taken or gives the necessary indications, then he commands: MARCHE or EXECUTION.

    Section leaders execute with the minimum of gestures and commands.

    While marching, the capitaine designates the section of direction; he stands in front of it in order to lead it and he indicates, if necessary aloud, the direction to follow. Subordinate units shall maintain their place they are to occupy in the prescribed training, but with the ability tof depart from it when the circumstances so require. They will return to their normal place as soon as they can.

    Development of the Advance in Open Terrain.

    From the moment it has managed to drive the enemy back beyond the zone of organized positions, the infantry echelons further in depth. It resumes the road column when the removal of the enemy cannon allows it, but always remains covered by security detachments and takes all precautions against aerial observation. The cavalry maintains contact.

    Before arriving to carry off the enemy's cannon reported by the air power and the cavalry, the infantry resumes its approach formation. It is ready to recognize and attack the opposing resistances.

    When the advanced elements come up against widespread resistance, which they can not eliminate them, they seek to establish themselves so as to cover the artillery and to keep up observation. They thus form a curtain of fire behind which the battalions maneuver in order to the assault. It does not proceed without preparation of artillery.

    It is necessary to explain through an example what has just been said about the assault and the march on successive objectives. Figure 225 schematically represents assault troops separated into successive waves VI V2 V3 V4 and having encountered beyond the first line TT enemy resistances of very different value. V1 represents an assault wave of arranged in two lines separated by a twenty-pace interval. E and F are represented in attack departing positions. In front of C, a breach has opened: This passes as quickly as possible the enemy’s barrage area and will attack the intermediate objective that it hopes to remove using its same momentum.

    If the resistance of the trenches TT and the barrage have caused V1 and V2 to slow dow and, consequently, the narrowing of the waves, they must be able to take up the momentum again while marching so as not to be mixed up when approaching the intermediate objective and always being able to maneuver: this accordion movement can be done as well with V3 and V4 when in a deployed line as well as line of small columns.

    Troop B encountered on its left flank a center of resistance (N) which did not yield: the waves of reinforcement V3 and V4 then maneuvered to face it and began encirclement of the obstacle, so that the advance in the open interval can continue. The new direction to be given to the elements of V3 V4, their maneuver, are facilitated by their formation in line of small columns.

    For D, the same formation is needed so that the four waves can maneuver by shifting over and skirting to the right and attacking the center of resistance N1, which has been tenacious on this side and presents on the interval flanking fire, which must be extinguished.

    In front of A, the line of combat was clearly stopped to its front by N. In this case, reinforcement would often produce no result, if not serving to multiply the losses. It is by encirclement and attack from the rear that N must be made taken out. It is explained as well, that the density of the attack, in infantry at least, will generally be greater in front of the intervals than in front of the strongly organized center N and N1.

    NOTE I. Another reason necessitating strong reserves E and F ready to engage in the interval. It is the gap that allows for the rapid advance of units B and C. Whereas the units that move around A and D have been able to engage in the fight on the edges of centers N and N1 (Fig. 26), is the enemy has sheltered some reserves behind these centers, what is probably is that his counter-attacks on these gap points will be dangerous. It’s necessary to prevent these counter-attack by pushing reserves without delay up through the communication trenches already taken and attacking as soon as possible N and N1 at the most sensible point, which would be from behind.

    NOTE II. After arriving at the last objective, the best way to get back into order is to __ regular on the rectified trace and spread out judiciously. Avoid as much as possible the new parallel (trench) __ the rejoining of individual elements in the midst of __the fight. Signal without delay any artillery observatories discovered. The organization of the conquered terrain includes the reorganization of liaisons with elements to the right, left and rear.


    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 en tirailleurs ("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 tenue d'assaut ("assault order"):

  • Clothes: field dress (i.e. capote, culottes, etc.) without the backpack;
  • Equipment: toile de tente worn as a shoulder roll (i.e., rouleau d'assaut), with the couverture rolled up inside;
  • Tools: one or two e-tools (especially the pelle-beche and pelle-pioche), either carried on belt or fastened to assault roll;
  • Haversacks: two regular musettes and (ideally) a third a reinforced model (for grenades and flares);
  • Canteens: one 2-liter bidon (for water or wine) and one 1-liter bidon (for coffee/tea or brandy);
  • Gas mask: ideally two masques de gaz, a primary mask worn at the ready and a second supplementary mask transported in the tin;
  • Sandbags: 2-5 sacs à terre, fastened to the front of the assault roll;
  • Signaling devices: either panels or ‘bengale’ ground flares;
  • Miscellaneous: first-aid packet and soldiers livret (carried in interior greatcoat chest pocket), ID plaques (one around the neck, the other around the wrist)
  • Ammunition: 120 cartouches, 5 grenades (3 hand and 2 V.B.)
  • Rations:
    --1 haversack for “vivres de jour,” 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 2nd tin of seasoned meat;
    --1 2-liter bidon (water or wine);
    --1 1-liter bidon (coffee or liquor);
    --1 1-liter bidon 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.

    ("The Manual of the Infantry Platoon Leader"), Impr. Nationale, Paris: January 1918.

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