As the victors in the Great War, the French considered themselves to have perfected the perfect doctrine for any conceivable future war. While some of the weapons they developed during that conflict proved to be less than ideal, lessons had still been learnt and these shortcomings had been largely addressed. While there was formally only ‘The French Army’, in effect there was more than one. Firstly there were the units based in Metropolitan France itself, recruited from European Frenchmen and which did not typically serve outside of Europe itself. Secondly there were those units and formations which were conscripted or recruited from amongst the diverse ethnicities which existed within France’s colonies and protectorates. While these were trained for conventional warfare and had participated in the fighting during the Great War, they were typically used for foreign service.
The régiments d’infanterie coloniale (colonial infantry regiments), the régiments de chasseurs d’Afrique (colonial light cavalry) and the régiments d’artillerie coloniale (colonial artillery regiments) were mostly drawn from the European settler community in North Africa (known as the pieds-noir to the French), along with smaller numbers of Frenchmen wishing to serve out their conscription period overseas. Their equipment was generally on a par with their equivalent formations in the Metropolitan units and as the 1930s approached were becoming increasingly mechanised. There were of course also the régiments étranger (foreign regiments – ‘The Foreign Legion’) which were recruited from non-French European volunteers (with French officers) and who were equipped to the same standard as the other colonial units. The régiments de zouaves had initially been drawn from ethnic Berbers, but by the 1930s were wholly drawn from the same European settler population as the colonial regiments. Apart from their distinctive chichi (fez), they were little different to the colonial infantry.
The other ethnic groups within the colonies were conscripted into tirailleur (infantry) units. These formations were typically 60% Maghrébin (local Berber and Arab Muslims) and 30% European settlers or ‘Pieds-Noirs’ (individuals of mixed-race, or Europeans born in the colonies). Depending on where they were recruited from these were designated as Marocain (Moroccan), Algérien (Algerian) and Tunisien (Tunisian). Colloquially these units were also called ‘Turcos’ (Turks). The cavalry equivalents of these formations were the Spahis. These originally consisted only of Algerians, but Moroccan units were added after the Great War. Within the Spahis the ethnic division of personnel was around 80% in favour of the Maghrébin. Within France’s Sub-Saharan possessions infantry formations were also raised and were collectively termed Tirailleurs Sénégalais. None of these units were mechanised or motorised and typically their equipment was older than that of the ‘coloniales’.
The French organisation pattern was common throughout all of its forces. While the actual equipment might differ by type, any infantry platoon or cavalry troop was organised in the same way for that type. The Metropolitan forces were organised into divisions, but the forces in the colonies were more typically employed in a policing role in which the division was of little use. To this end the typical divisional support assets were divided across the notional division’s constituent elements. This allowed each unit to have a proportion of the supporting arms attached to it and should a division need forming, its constituent sub-units would amalgamate their attached support and the division would be complete.
The realities of policing the colonies and protectorates did not support such a formal organisational pattern however. Units were usually dispersed across a wide area in isolated detachments and to bring together disparate forces to respond to an emergency, or for a punitive expedition, the French had developed a system of creating ad-hoc field forces from within any given area. Typical of such formations were the régiments de marche and demi-brigades, which were typically composed of three or four infantry battalions, along with attached supporting elements. Such formations might not necessarily be drawn from a single unit and the battalions might all have come from separate regiments. In some cases there were even bataillons de marche formed, which contained several companies drawn from a variety of units.
When it became apparent that Italy was preparing to invade Abyssinia, the forces within French Somaliland (Côte française des Somalis) were meagre to say the least. Abyssinia’s sole railway line stretched from Abyssinia and into French Somaliland, terminating at the port city of Djibouti. It was obvious to all that this line had great strategic significance and that there was the potential for it being seized by the Italians to assist their efforts. Djibouti was already being used as a port for goods going to parts of Eritrea and an Italian Consulate had been established there in 1934. When the Italian invasion began the port and rail line were also used to ship war materiel to Italian Forces inside Abyssinia itself.
French forces in Djibouti consisted of the compagnie de tirailleurs sénégalais de la Côte française des Somalis, coastal artillery batteries and a militia drawn from Djibouti’s indigenous population (two infantry companies and two mounted platoons of méharistes). Base aérienne 188 (Djibouti) had three Potez 25 light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft and a single Potez 29 air ambulance.
In October 1935 the decision was taken to reinforce the colony due to the potential threat of Italian invasion. The Somali Tirailleurs were increased to regimental size, a colonial mountain artillery battery was despatched to the colony, along with a company of Renault FT tanks, a platoon of armoured cars and a further seven Potez 25 from the Levant. Finally a company-strength unit of European volunteers (in their own vehicles) was also formed. In all there were some 2,000 Somalis and a few hundred Europeans in arms. France had also traditionally utilised bodies of tribal irregulars, in the same way as they had elsewhere (e.g. Goumiers in Morocco) and were able to raise a considerable number of these to patrol their frontiers.
In December 1935 France decided to increase its forces in the colony to the equivalent of a division. Two régiments de marche were dispatched, the first composed was made up of two battalions of Senegalese Tirailleurs and a colonial infantry battalion, while the second had one battalion each of Foreign Legion, colonial infantry and Moroccan Tirailleurs. A regiment of the Chasseurs d’Afrique were despatched to form the ‘divisional cavalry’ along with a regiment of Algerian Spahis. Finally a composite artillery regiment, containing five 75mm batteries and four anti-aircraft companies, was also assembled. An additional FT tank company was also sent, along with a solitary company of Char D1 tanks, the first of many which were being withdrawn from frontline units and relegated to colonial service.
In all the French had three brigade-sized formations, each with three infantry battalions, a tank company, half a regiment of Spahis (or indigenous cavalry in the case of the Somali formation), two artillery batteries and associated anti-aircraft, engineer and supply units. One group had an anti-tank company with the fairly recent 25mm Hotchkiss gun, while the others still had their 37mm Puteaux trench guns. The Chasseurs d’Afrique were retained as an ‘army reserve’ in view of their relative mobility. The air component was rounded out by a further five Potez 25, bringing the total to fifteen and the dispatching of a single squadron of Dewoitine D.371 fighters.
The original French plan of battle was to utilise the Somali Group to patrol and defend both Djibouti itself, as well as the rail line inside French Somaliland. The other two groups and the Chasseurs d’Afrique were to deploy near to Djibouti, but would relocate should aggressive actions by the Italians be evident. Events taking place some distance away from Somaliland, would however throw such a defensive plan into disarray and force the need for offensive action.