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France’s World War I infantrymen bore the brunt of Allied fighting in horrific Western Front trench warfare.

“Poilu” (“hairy one”), the nickname for a French army infantryman, dates back to Napoleonic times, but it is most often used to refer to a French soldier who fought  during World War I. From August 1914 until November 1918, poilus bore the brunt of Allied fighting in brutal trench warfare on the Western Front. Throughout the war, they held all but about 100 miles of the 400-mile-long front line.

Yet a much grimmer benchmark revealed the true extent of the combat burden borne by poilus: Nearly 70 percent of the 8.3 million French infantrymen who served in the war became casualties. The 1.4 million of them who died constituted 25 percent of all Allied military deaths. Adding the 4.2 million who were wounded, French soldiers accounted for over 30 percent of Allied casualties during World War I.

Poilus entered the war wearing the same type of brightly colored uniforms French infantrymen had worn over four decades earlier in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. However, their dark blue coats and bright red pants made them easily seen targets, and their wool kepis (caps) provided no protection against the torrents of bursting artillery shells that made head wounds the most common injuries of trench warfare. Later in 1915, the French changed the infantrymen’s uniform colors to a less conspicuous “horizon blue” (blue-gray) and adopted Model 1915 “Adrian” steel helmets. (See Bonus Article, p. 24.)

Like all World War I infantrymen, poilus carried bolt-action rifles with long bayonets (8 mm Lebel Model 1886 rifles with 20-inch spiked blades). Support weapons included 8 mm Hotchkiss Model 1914 machine guns and 75 mm Model 1897 quick-firing guns (“French 75”). For close-quarter trench fighting, poilus added pistols, knives, grenades and even clubs.

Unfortunately, these brave infantrymen’s courage, endurance and fighting skill were too often wasted by incompetent French generals. The criminally inept tactics employed by these leaders produced massive casualties as they callously thrust waves of poilus headlong into the deadly “mincing machine” of the superior firepower of German artillery and machine guns.

By early 1917, over 1 million French infantrymen had been slaughtered and millions more were wounded in horrifically costly battles that resulted in little gain. These figures included 300,000-500,000 poilus killed, missing and wounded at Verdun (February-December 1916) even as 200,000 more fell at the Somme (July-November 1916).

Inevitably, the French infantrymen’s morale reached its breaking point. In May 1917, many soldiers in about half of the 113 French army divisions refused orders for further senseless attacks. Yet the thoughtful efforts of France’s best general, Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun (commander in chief from May 15), restored morale by late 1917. In 1918, during the September-November Meuse-Argonne Offensive, 31 French army divisions gallantly fought alongside the American Expeditionary Forces to win final victory over the German army.

 

 Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief

Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Armchair General.

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Jerry D. Morelock (7/22/2024) French Poilus, 1914-18. HistoryNet Retrieved from https://www.historynet.com/french-poilus-1914-18/.
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