The Poilu and His War

The Soldier of 1915 - Georges Scott

    The French played a central role in the First World War (1914-1918), known at the time as the Great War, with roughly 8.5 million men mobilized during the war. Over half of all French soldiers became casualties: more than 1.5 million killed and 3 million wounded. This number represents more than the total number of American, British, Canadian and Commonwealth forces combined. In only the first three months of the war, the French suffered 350,000 dead alone. The infantry, being the most exposed branch, suffered a death rate of roughly 25% with the wounded adding another 40% on top of this -- a 65% total casualty rate.

Initially beset by antiquated armaments, systemic disorganization and poor leadership by the top command, the French army continued to fight on despite hardships and death unparalleled in the annals of war. Battles often dragged on for months, resulting in only minimal gains with losses for both sides in the hundreds of thousands. The Marne, Artois, Champagne, Verdun, the Somme and the Aisne: these rank among the bloodiest battles in history. Yet after 52 months of war, the French army had become the most modern fighting force of its time, well equipped, expertly trained and successfully lead.

    The soldiers of the Great War had to endure one of history's most brutal and unrelenting wars. In cataclysmic offensives, hundreds of thousands of men were cut down by machine-gun fire and artillery shells, where gains were often measured in meters not miles. Included among the horrors in the trenches were poison gas, mine warfare, and massive artillery bombardments lasting for days on end, ravaging the land with millions of shells. Tens of thousands were mutilated, turned into pulp or buried alive by these onslaughts that transformed the earth into a vast quagmire, a lunar-landscape of crates and mud. Death was a daily part of life that took tangible form at the front, always hovering over the combatants with its crushing presence. In the face of such devastating weaponry, such tremendous violence, soldiers had never felt so utterly defenseless or so utterly cut-off. The alienation of life at the front only added to the soldiers' miseries. So too did the sheer brutalization of the war. They were not simply witnesses who saw their comrades suffer horrible deaths and woundings. They were also participants who took an active part in the killing. They shot, bombed and stabbed the enemy, often times in close-quarter combat. This was the first true modern war; a "total" war that changed the very foundation of the world.

    The front became a world radically different from that of the civilian one less than 50 miles away. Death was a daily part of life that took tangible form at the front, always hovering over the combatants with a crushing presence. In the trenches, corpses often went unburied or were re-interred from the constant shelling. Putrefying human flesh mixed with defecation and urine in trenches often flooded knee or even waist-deep in water. Rats and blow-flies feasted on these by the thousands. Mud was a constant nuisance for the men and could be quite dangerous, as an untold number were swallowed up in the morass, disappearing without a trace in some unknown corner of the battlefield. Shelter from the elements was meager and sometimes nonexistent. The men lived in underground bunkers like troglodytes. Even the more substantial bunkers were cramped and rat-infested, and the men lived with the constant knowledge that roof could suddenly collapse upon them burying them alive with the detonation of a large shell.

    Nothing like it had ever been seen before. For the vast majority of French soldiers, the war was far from being glorious and heroic; it was a common experience of suffering. It is no wonder then why la Grande Guerre was referred to at the time as "la der des ders" by the French -- "the last of the last."

Here are some other quick facts about the French army of 14-18Ö †


Mobilization

  • France mobilized 8.5 million men during the war out of a total population of 40 million. 20% of the nation would be under arms between 1914-18. During the course of the war, boys as young as 18 and men as old as 50 served in the military together. †
  • †Many French soldiers at the time of enlistment did not actually speak French as their primary language. France was highly regionalized at the time and many spoke only their native regional dialect, or patois. †
  • †France also recruited men from itís colonies to fight. Almost a half million Africans, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Madagascans, and Vietnamese (Indochinese) served in the French army on the Western Front.

    Losses † †

  • †The French army lost 1.5 million killed and another 3 million wounded in the war. Put in other terms, an equivalent loss in the US today would be 11 million killed and 23 million wounded. †
  • †The infantry, representing 75% of all French forces, suffered a 26% death rate and a 40% wounded rate, making a 65% total casualty rate. †
  • †The bloodiest single day for the French army was on August 22, 1914, during the Battles of the Frontier, where 67,000 men fell, of whom 27,000 were killed. † †

    The Army

  • †The French army went through a rapid evolution in uniforms, weaponry and tactics between 1914 and 1918. At the start of the war, the French infantryman was dressed in conspicuous 19th century uniforms and equipped with a bolt-action, single-shot rifle. The weapons complement of a regiment was 3,000 rifles and 6 machine-guns. By 1917, this had changed to1,800 rifles, 36 machine-guns, 108 automatic-rifles, 576 rifle-grenade launchers, 3 37mm rapid-fire canons, and an assortment of trench mortars. By 1918, the French infantryman was a highly trained, multi-armed specialist supported by heavy artillery, tanks and fighter/bomber aircraft. †
  • †The French army supplied the bulk of the US army's needs for guns, tanks and aircraft. By fall of 1918, more than three-quarters of French production went to the American Expeditionary Force. US troops also received advanced infantry training from French instructors. †

    The Soldiers

  • †The common French infantryman was called 'poilu' (pronounced pwah-loo), or "hairy," a nickname derived from the unshaven appearance common to the men serving at the front. He detested pomp and panache but could be relied upon to fight tenaciously when required of him. †
  • †The French soldier was both brave and patriotic but always considered himself a citizen first and a soldier second. He believed strongly in the individual rights endowed to him by the republic.

    For more information about the French army and its experience in the Great War, please see the "History" section