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French army training before 1914

History & strategy
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When one evokes the training of French army units before 1914, a stereotype comes to mind, the "great manoeuvres". The idea of their unsuitability is well established, and starting from this image of Epinal, we have come to consider that the French army was not trained on the eve of the war. The truth is far removed from this image that has become a caricature. In fact, looking back at the pre-war years, one can only conclude that the army was trained. How, moreover, would the large units have been able not only to maintain their cohesion, but also to return to the attack, after a retreat of several hundred kilometres, if they had not been trained in manoeuvre?

In fact, the large units of the French army, such as regiments and battalions, were trained in manoeuvre, but not at all in the kind of siege warfare that their leaders would have to conduct. This is what this article will attempt to demonstrate.

What is meant by the term "great manoeuvres"? In fact, it meant, in the autumn, training two corps in a double-action open terrain exercise under the direction of a general member of the Conseil supérieur de la guerre (High Council of War), and therefore the designated commander of an army for mobilisation, with a strong arbitration cell.

Admittedly, these exercises included an aspect of great spectacle, with an airborne spectator audience made up of both military attachés posted in Paris and delegations of friendly and allied foreign armies, which made it necessary to establish a rather heavy protocol, which was likely to undermine the realism of the exercise. All the more so as, often, for peacetime constraints, the realism of the exercise theme could be undermined. Finally, it must be admitted that, after several decades of peacetime, the enthusiasm, or even just the interest, of some high-ranking generals in participating in these exercises had largely waned. This is what emerges from the memories reported by Messimy, when he was led to take part in these "great manoeuvres, as a trainee at the School of War [1] :

"... On a torrid day, I had meticulously explored the terrain to determine the location of my batteries. After galloping across the chalk plains, I came, with the joyous pride of having carried out my mission conscientiously, to report back to our leader. And he answered me in a mocking tone, with his purest Gascon accent: That's all very well, my boy, but you're late for lunch and you're hot. You'll put your work on a piece of paper that no one else will have time to read. But why take so much trouble? Get it through your head, that in a staff manoeuvre the only thing that counts is drinking... fresh, and have a good lunch, on time! ».

It goes without saying that this approach to manoeuvres was not at all General Joffre's when he reached the supreme command in 1911. He was a strong supporter of keeping these exercises on open ground, as they allowed him to assess command. In this respect, it is not innocent that four corps commanders, including a former Minister of War, were relieved of their command for inadequacy following the "...". This would tend to show that the "sackings" at the beginning of the war had been "initiated" in peacetime. It must be admitted that there is nothing surprising in this with ideas about these exercises, such as those mentioned above.

In addition to this evaluation function of the High Command, these exercises also gave divisional commanders the opportunity to assess the command ability of their corps leaders in 'real life', since this was the only opportunity they had to exercise their command authority.This is not possible in map-based exercises, which can allow 'smart' minds to shine much more easily than in the field. This is what General Zeller recalls in his Memoirs when he served as an artillery group commander in the division commanded by Foch in the years 1910-1911 [2] :

"On the first day of these maneuvers, at sunrise, as I rode at full gallop, off the road, on the flank of my group, in a column of march, General Foch, at full gallop of his elegant mount, and followed by his pennant and his staff, passed me, in a nearby field, without warning, without a word or a gesture of welcome, and threw me in passing, in an irritated tone: "Behind that column of artillery, a column of veterinarians in disarray! …. ». Whether the "allegorical" figure of the great leader was justified or not, (I had only one veterinarian under my command), and whether or not it applied to my subordinates is of no interest. Its form was not surprising to me, but this unkind approach was strongly commented on by my officers. »

In short, the "great maneuvers" are not at all worthy of being decried as they have been, for they have everything to do In short, the "Grand Manoeuvres" are not at all worthy of the criticism they have been given, for they have done their duty, to train the troops, the contact cadres and the upper echelons of command to the role they would play in wartime. Whatever criticisms may have been levelled at them, sometimes well-founded, sometimes much less so, it must be recognized that there was no other way to put leaders and implementers in a situation. It is also significant to note that the French army was by no means the sole owner of this form of training, but that all the major European armies, German, Austrian and Russian, practiced this form of open terrain exercise at the same annual rate. In addition, with a chief of staff of the calibre of Joffre, they fulfilled another role, also of capital importance, that of serving as a selection tool for the high command.

This evaluation, and therefore selection, aspect of command has all but disappeared today. However, it is very unlikely that a leader who fails in training will reveal himself in combat. This is why the "Aurige" simulation exercises played at the CPF, limited to the evaluation of the functioning of the staffs alone, do not play all the role that could be expected of them.

But, obviously, these "big manoeuvres" were not the only training tool. Joffre launched a major pre-war programme of training camps before the war, because for training, means were needed [3].

3] Two successive training camp programmes had been adopted: the first in 1897 and the second in 1908, but the budget planning adapted to it did not provide for its completion until ... 1930! So much so that in 1911, when Joffre took command of the French armies, they had only eight unfinished camps, so that barely a third of the active units could carry out a selection.The German army was not far from having completed its programme of one divisional camp per corps.

So, in November 1911, Joffre had a camp acquisition and development programme launched on the following bases: a camp was to allow the deployment of a division and manoeuvres involving all its weapons, in close combination with each other (infantry - artillery and infantry-cavalry, which we tend to lose sight of), i.e. an area of 5,500 to 6,000 hectares. Then, for reasons of economy, the camps must be distributed so as to have one camp for the training of two corps.

The studies led to the following predictions:

Two corps camps (Châlons enlarged) and Mailly.

Ten divisional camps: La Courtine (existing), Coëtquidan (being transformed), Sissonne and Valdahon (enlarged) and six camps to be created.

The camps of Larzac and Souge, which are defective, will only be used in their present dimensions.

The realisation of this plan, spread over six years from 1913, was, of course, interrupted by the war.

After having explained the modalities as well as the means of training the French army before 1914, it remains to study its contents, and it is here that the baton can hurt.

From the outset, let us set aside the polemic of the so-called "excessive" offensive, because it is obviously a false problem, a rewriting of the post-war period. It is obvious that when an army commits itself, it is to win. To win, you always have to attack. No one has ever seen an army win by staying on the defensive! Castelnau, who had some ideas in the tactical field, used to say "offensives with limited objectives can only lead to limited results". This is the obvious. And, in offensive matters, there is no more "excessive" offensive than there is a "restrained" offensive [4]. 4] We attack when we can, where we can, and as far as possible, to the limit. Moreover, it is clear that all the other major European armies (German, Austrian and Russian) had all designed an offensive planning of their operations from the very beginning of the war.

In the case of France, where the problem lies is the form of the attack. In fact, for far too many minds, this return of offensive ideas meant a return to the offensive modes of action of the Empire! That is to say, in close ranks. The error does not come from the very nature of resorting to an offensive mode of action, but from wanting to rehabilitate a mode of action, in a form that is one seat old.The mistake is not in the very nature of resorting to an offensive mode of action, but in seeking to rehabilitate a mode of action in a form that is old-fashioned, i.e. largely outdated by the weapons systems then in use, particularly in the potential enemy, i.e. the German army.

And the tragedy was that the training of the small tactical levels, regiments and battalions, was conducted according to these errors. Obviously, there were military personalities, and not the least important ones, who dared to shout "daredevil! ». But they often preached in the desert. This was the case of Colonel Pétain, and especially General Lanrezac. Pétain, head of the corps of the 33rd R.I., the anecdote is very well known, was present at a demonstration of an attack according to these errors, carried out by his brigade commander. The latter had a regiment deployed in battle, and, in close ranks, as during the assault on Pratzen, sent the regiment off to attack its objective. The position, the objective of the attack, was, according to the arbitration, removed ...... The hour of criticism came, during which the word was given by his divisional officer to Colonel Pétain: he was laconic and brief, as usual: "Gentlemen, you all know that there are two methods of instruction: one in which one is shown what to do, and one in which one shows what not to do. Certainly, today's demonstration belongs to the latter category".

The exorbitant loss rate of August 22nd has its origin here. The different levels of the hierarchy, in spite of the formal orders given by Lanrezac to the Fifth Army, manoeuvred as they had done in training.

Last point, the training of the large units of the French army, as well as the subordinate units, did not take sufficiently into account the lessons of the conflicts that were then taking place. Without going back to the American Civil War (which had demonstrated the end of the usefulness of cavalry on the battlefield, as a weapon of decision before the "creator" of the French army), the French army was not able to take into account the lessons learned from the conflicts that were then taking the event", the lessons of the Manchurian War between the Russians (our allies) and the Japanese, or the Balkan Wars between Serbia and the Sublime Porte, were obscured. And yet, in both cases, there was no Napoleonic-style decisive manoeuvre, but a war of attrition, in the form of a siege war, from the bottom of trenches. In the end, the French infantry did not train to dig positions or field fortifications like their German counterpart. This is what made Fayolle write [5] :

"The difficulty of making the infantryman work. The sappers must make their fire trenches and the territorials their parallels. »

Further on, the same Fayolle is even more severe. He writes that the infantrymen still prefer to be killed rather than digging and stirring the earth.

Typically, here we are faced with a lack of training in peacetime.

So, what can we conclude? Certainly, contrary to 1870, the French army was trained in 1914, and no deadlock had been reached in this area, and even, from 1911, Joffre had vigorously re-launched training. The question that arises is whether the training was adapted to the forms of modern warfare. Certainly, the tyranny of fire had been poorly understood (and not only from a training point of view, the very serious shortage of artillery ammunition that hampered the smooth running of operations during the winter of 1914 was a major problem).was also due to a poor appreciation of the effort that would be required of this weapon) and the form of training would very quickly show its limits, which was to result in the hecatomb of the first weeks of the war.

But this observation is an assessment that can only be established a posteriori,when we know the rest of the story! It is only the trial by fire that makes it possible to determine with certainty whether the efforts previously made in peacetime were sufficient, beneficial, appropriate or not, and this, yesterday as today.

1] Messimy, General, Souvenirs, Paris, 1935 , Plon, p.7.

2] Zeller, General, Souvenirs sur les maréchaux Foch et Pétain, presented and annotated by Claude Franc, Economica, Paris, 2018, p. 52 .

3] This paragraph was written according to the Memoirs of Marshal Joffre. Joffre, maréchal, Mémoires, Volume 1, Pais , Plon, 1932, pp. 79 ff.

4] If, nowadays, a distinction is made between an attack in force and an attack in flexibility, it is with regard to the nature of the equipment used; an attack based on a unitAn attack based on mechanised armoured units will be of the "in force" type, while an attack conducted by landed infantry units will be of the "flexible" type. In both cases, however, the aim is to destroy the maximum enemy potential.

5] Fayolle, marshal, SecretNotebooks of the Great War, presented

Title : French army training before 1914
Author (s) : le colonel (H) Claude Franc, du CDEC