French Army – The Abyssinian Crisis

Distribution of the forces

The following distribution of forces in 1936 identifies the most likely source for a French expeditionary force to East Africa. Predominately these troops would come from the Mediterranean and other colonial garrisons within the French Empire. Whilst a little less likely further troops could be deployed from Metropolitan France though these tended to be stationed for homeland defence only and would be used as a last resort.

French practice in 1936 was to designate their overseas colonial garrisons in ‘groups’ under the overall control of the French Supreme War Council. These forces were permanently stationed overseas, organised and constituted to be specially suitable for meeting the peculiar requirements of the territories in which they were stationed. They are, as it were, a first line of defence against possible disturbances of the peace, whether originating in the territories themselves or brought about by outside causes.

In 1936 the Colonial troops were distributed among: I, the theatres of operations abroad; II, garrisons in France and Algeria-Tunis; and III, the colonies. For our purposes the colonial troops in the colonies are divided into six groups; in each group, they are placed together under a single higher command.

These groups are as follows :

  • 1st group – Indo-China group; Indo-China.
  • 2nd group – West African group; West Africa, Senegal, Sudan, Niger, Mauritania, French Guinea, Ivory Coast, Dahomey.
  • 3rd group – East African group; Madagascar (main colony), Reunion, The Comoro Islands.
  • 4th group – West Indian group; Martinique (main colony), Guadeloupe and dependencies, French Guiana.
  • 5th group – Pacific group; New Caledonia (main colony), Tahiti.
  • 6th group – Equatorial Africa group; French Equatorial Africa, Middle Congo, Gaboon, Ubangi-Shari, Chad.

Of the troops above the colonial forces available to France were;


  • 5 zouave regiments
  • 15 regiments of North-African “tirailleurs”
  • 5 foreign legion regiments
  • 5 Saharan companies
  • 1 battalion of light infantry
  • 2 regiments of colonial infantry
  • 18 regiments of colonial “tirailleurs”
  • 3 mixed colonial infantry regiments
  • 11 battalions of colonial “tirailleurs”
  • 2 mixed colonial infantry battalions
  • 2 battalions of colonial infantry
  • 3 companies of colonial infantry
  • 6 tank battalions
  • 4 tank companies
  • 1 tank section



  • 5 regiments of Chasseurs d’Afrique
  • 8 regiments of spahis
  • 1 foreign regiment
  • 5 remount companies
  • 1 motor machine-gun group



  • 5 regiments of artillery
  • 6 regiments of colonial artillery
  • 1 independent group of colonial artillery
  • 3 groups of colonial artillery
  • 3 batteries of colonial artillery
  • 2 squadrons of motor machine-guns

Of these troops from the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 6th group are most relevant to The Abyssinian Crisis and represent the great bulk of the forces detailed.

Naturally enough these forces were supported by all the typical logistical troops in a modern army. Of note there was 1 independent regiment and 4 independent battalions of engineers (Algeria, Tunis, Morocco, Levant), colonial telegraph companies and detachments along with 9 train squadrons, 3 motor transport companies and 2 colonial motor detachments stationed outside France.


Supporting this force would be elements of the now autonomous French Air Force, newly created by the laws of 1928 and 1933.  The General Officer acting as Chief of the General Staff of the Air Force would exercise in time of war the supreme command over the air forces as designated by the Government.

Each Air District was under the command of a general officer directly subordinate to the Air Minister. District air commands had at their disposal a varying number of district air formations, consisting of one or more squadrons, intended to meet the demands of the land forces. The general staffs, formations, services and establishments of the air force were stationed in air bases with their administration in the hands of air battalions.

Operationally the air force was organised territorially into Air Districts, Air Sub-Divisions and District air commands. Due the change in laws and doctrine the airforce expanded to include 134 squadrons by 1937, however the French Air Ministry retained operational control of only 118 squadrons, thus dividing the French air arm between the airforce, army and navy. Further doctrinal disputes emphasised the use of airpower for strategic bombing, thus restricting battlefield support roles, something the Italians excelled at in their war in Ethiopia.

Fortunately for the French, what aircraft that were under army control did place an emphasis on battlefield interdiction so combat troops could expect some degree of air support. To that end the ‘airforce’ was organised to meet the requirements arising out of their special functions, with flying units organised into higher air units, corps, divisions and brigades as required.

Therefore, in The Abyssinian Crisis the French could expect to receive some fighter and possibly bomber support. The main airfield being in the capital Djibouti placing it well within range of British controlled Aden and British Somaliland.


Nieuport-Delage NiD 62

Nieuport-Delage 62


Military organisation – Mediterranean

The following organisational details expand on the overview of forces above to provide players with the background formations. This will enable them to use their desired forces in The Abyssinian Crisis should they wish to include forces not otherwise described in the previous article on the French army, which were deemed the most likely to be sent to French Somaliland. There were huge French formations in Metropolitan France but as they were dedicated to the defence of the homeland and with legal restrictions preventing conscripts being sent overseas, they are not included here.

That said, a small number of virtually any type of troops from the main Metropolitan army ‘could’ be included, so this is left to the scenario designer’s discretion should players wish to explore this idea. A quick glance at these troops shows them to be better equipped but less exotic in their make-up of infantry formations. Bear in mind however that with an attempted Nazi putsch having taken place in Austria the year before and an evident shift of German troops preparatory to militarising the Rhineland in March 1936, the French would be extremely reluctant to send men out of France.


The forces described here were assigned to the defence and permanent occupation of French external possessions in the Mediterranean theatre. This essentially covered French North Africa and possessions in the Middle east. They include many indigenous forces organised on the Metropolitan model (division – brigade – regiment) or a manner more in accordance with military guidelines, further details of which were given in the previous article on the French army in The Abyssinian Crisis.

19th Military Region:

-Subdivisions: Algeria, Batna, Constantine, Mascara, Médéa, Oran

-Military territories: Aïn-Séfra, Ghardaïa, Des Oasis, Touggourt

→ Protectorate of Tunisia: Tunisia (Supreme command of troops)

-Subdivisions: Bizerte, Sousse-Kairouan, Tunis

-Military territories: South-Tunisia

→ Protectorate of the Morocco: Rabat (Supreme command of troops)

-Subdivisions: Agadir, Atlas central, Fès, Marrakech, Mekhnès, Ouarzazate, Talifalet, Taza-Oujda

-Military territories: Algerian- Moroccans

→ Mandate of the Levant: Beirut (Supreme command of troops)

-Subdivisions: Beirut (Beyrouth), Damascus, Deir-ez-Zor

-Military territories: nil

 .Frn colonial 1936 sm

Deployment of Infantry units.

The three divisions of the 19th corps of Algiers were organized on a binary mode, i.e. the Divisional infantry comprising two infantry brigades. Algerian forces had a variable number of regiments of tirailleurs.

→ Division of Algiers:

-Algerian infantry 1st brigade: Algiers

9th regiment of Zouaves: Algiers

13th regiment of Senegalese tirailleurs: Algiers

-Algerian infantry 5th brigade: Blida

1st regiment of Algerian riflemen: Blida

5th regiment of Algerian tirailleurs: Maison-Carrée

9th regiment of Algerian tirailleurs: Miliana

-65th regiment of artillery in Africa: Blida


→ Division of Oran:

-Algerian infantry 2nd brigade: Oran.

1st Foreign Legion regiment of infantry: Saïda

2nd regiment of Zouaves: Oran

4th/13th regiment of Senegalese tirailleurs: Oran

-Algerian infantry 4th brigade: Tlemcen

2nd regiment of Algerian riflemen: Mostaganem

6th regiment of Algerian tirailleurs: Tlemcen

-66th regiment of artillery in Africa: Tlemcen


→ Constantine Division:

-3rd Algerian infantry brigade: Constantine

3rd regiment of Zouaves: Constantine

15th regiment of Senegalese tirailleurs: Philippeville

-7th Algerian infantry brigade: Constantine

3rd regiment of Algerian tirailleurs: Bône

7th regiment of Algerian tirailleurs: Constantine

11th regiment of Algerian tirailleurs: Sétif

-67th regiment of artillery in Africa: Constantine


There are eight Algerian tirailleurs, three regiments of zouaves, two regiments Senegalese tirailleurs, and a Foreign Legion infantry regiment.

Most of the ‘native’ regiments are four battalions strong (except the fourth battalions of the 6th and 7th Regiment of Algerian tirailleurs which are in the Levant), while the regiments of Zouaves and the Foreign Legion are three battalions.

The three regiments of artillery in Africa, 1,010 troops, are employed in three light groups with mountain guns of 65 mm or 75 mm model 1897.

During any mobilization, only the 66th regiment of artillery in the division of Oran will split with Metropolitan regiments. It will receive one or two heavy groups of 155-mm reserve artillery. The 65th and 67th regiments of artillery will remain as complete units.


→ Tunis Division:

-4th regiment of Zouaves: Tunis

-4th regiment of Tunisian tirailleurs: Sousse

-8th regiment of Tunisian tirailleurs: Bizerte

-62nd regiment of artillery in Africa: Tunis

→ Sousse Division:

-5th regiment of Senegalese tirailleurs: Monastir

-10th regiment of Senegalese tirailleurs: Bizerte

-18th regiment of Senegalese tirailleurs: Gabès

-Grouping of independent colonial artillery of Tunisia: Sousse

The Tunis infantry division was formed with two regiments of Tunisian tirailleurs active in four battalions and one regiment of Zouaves in three battalions. It also received an additional unit of the 1st Battalion of African Light Infantry. The Sousse Division is in fact a colonial division comprising three regiments Senegalese tirailleurs, four infantry battalions in each.

The 62nd regiment of artillery in Africa, 1,010 troops, are employed in three light groups with mountain guns of 65 mm or 75 mm model 1897. It did not duplicate the mobilization nor receive a heavy artillery group. The same goes for the colonial Tunisia independent artillery group which upon mobilisation is formed into the 1st Tunisian colonial artillery regiment, with a 2nd Tunisian colonial artillery regiment also being established.


→ Morocco:

-ten regiments of varying composition and one independent battalion:

1st regiment of Zouaves (three battalions): Casablanca

1st regiment of Moroccan tirailleurs (four battalions): Meknès

2nd regiment of Moroccan tirailleurs (four battalions): Marrakech

4th regiment of Moroccan tirailleurs (four battalions): Taza

7th regiment of Moroccan tirailleurs (three battalions): Meknès

2nd Foreign Legion infantry regiment (three battalions): Meknès

3rd Foreign Legion infantry regiment (three battalions): Fès

4th Foreign Legion infantry regiment (three battalions): Marrakech

3rd regiment of Senegalese tirailleurs (four battalions): Fès

6th regiment of Senegalese tirailleurs (four battalions): Casablanca

Autonomous colonial infantry battalion: Ouezzan

-an autonomous group and two field artillery regiments:

Autonomous group of colonial artillery of the Morocco (at five horse-drawn groups of 65 or 75 mm)*: Marrakech

63rd regiment of Africa (at five horse-drawn groups of 65 or 75 mm): Fez

64th regiment of Africa (at five horse-drawn groups of 65 or 75 mm): Casablanca

*the autonomous grouping of colonial artillery in Morocco becomes the colonial artillery regiment of Morocco upon mobilization.


→ Levant:

-four regiments or demi-brigades of variable composition and one independent battalion:

Demi-brigades of Algerian and Moroccan troops:

IV / 6th regiment of Algerian tirailleurs: Aleppo

IV / 7th regiment of Algerian tirailleurs: Aleppo

V/ 1st regiment of Moroccan tirailleurs: Damascus

16th regiment of Tunisian tirailleurs: Soueïda

17th regiment of Senegalese tirailleurs: Beyrouth

Colonial infantry battalion of the Levant: Soueïda

Foreign Legion detachments:

I/1st Foreign Legion infantry regiment: Baalbek

IV/1st Foreign Legion infantry regiment: Soueïda

VI/1st Foreign Legion infantry regiment: Homs

II/2nd Foreign Legion infantry regiment: Damascus

– A colonial artillery regiment 

Artillery regiment of the Levant (groups of 65mm or 75mm ): Damascus


Mid East 1937 bw



Deployment of Cavalry and Mechanised units.

→ Algeria:

-1st brigade of Cavalry of Africa: Medea

5th regiment of Chasseurs d’Afrique***: Algiers

1st regiment of Algerian Spahis: Médéa

-2nd brigade of Cavalry of Africa: Mascara

2nd regiment of Chasseurs d’Afrique*: Mascara

2nd regiment of Algerian Spahis: Tlemcen

-3rd brigade of Cavalry of Africa: Batna

3rd regiment of Chasseurs d’Afrique*: Constantine

3rd regiment of Algerian Spahis: Batna

-five Saharan mounted companies



-4th brigade of Cavalry of Africa: Tunis

4th regiment of Chasseurs d’Afrique**: Tunis

4th regiment of Tunisian Spahis: Zarzis

-1st Foreign Legion cavalry regiment: Sousse



1st regiment of Chasseurs d’Afrique*: Aleppo

2nd regiment of Moroccan Spahis: Rabat

3rd regiment of Moroccan Spahis: Marrakech

8th Algerian Spahis regiment: Fès

2nd Foreign Legion cavalry regiment: Midelt

Saharan mounted company



1st regiment of Moroccan Spahis: Aleppo

8th group of mechanised machine-guns**: Damascus

3rd group of squadrons of the 4th regiment of Tunisian Spahis: Damascus

*partially motorised. Equipped with Laffly AMD 50  armoured cars.
**fully motorized.

***partially motorised. Equipped with Laffly AMD 50  armoured cars and Citroen-Kégresse P16 AMC





Char D1



Armoured Forces


64th armoured tank battalion (45 light tanks FT): Algiers


→ Tunisia:

61st armoured tank battalion (45 light tanks D1): Bizerte

65th armoured tank battalion (45 light tanks D1): Sousse

67th armoured tank battalion (45 light tanks D1): Tunis

These three battalions were proposed and were reliant on delivery of new vehicles to Metropolitan battalions, so as to release them for service in Tunisia. Typically a few vehicles would be sent to units to allow for crew training, followed by whole companies as they became available..

→ Morocco:

62nd armoured tank battalion (45 light tanks FT): : Meknes

66th armoured tank battalion (45 light tanks FT): Meknes


→ Levant:

63rd armoured tank battalion (45 light tanks FT): Beyrouth


When it came to their armoured forces, the French were very hidebound and fussy about who had what. They even had a law that forbade the cavalry from possessing tanks. The D1 and the FT Renaults were fielded by BCCs – Bataillons de Chars de Combat and doled out in penny-packets to support the infantry. A division of 8 or so battalions might have a single battalion supporting them. Battalions were of one type of vehicle.

Infantry Divisions had GRDI (Groups de Reconnaissance de Division d’Infanterie) to do their recce work. These were;

Overseas Type

  • Two Cavalry Squadrons
  • One machine-gun group (pack horses)
  • One machine-gun platoon (lorries)
  • One anti-tank group with two 25mm AT guns (horse-drawn) or 37mm (pack horses)

Essentially these were half of a cavalry regiment. These operated as you might expect and it would be rare for them to be involved in infantry operations and likewise the D1 and FT tanks with them. With a road speed of only 18 km/h, even the D1 would have hampered mobility in any case. 

Armoured cars were the preserve of the cavalry outside of France (there were only a couple of motorized infantry divisions in France itself). These were divided into; auto-mitrailleuse de découverte (AMD – deep reconnaissance armoured car), and auto-mitrailleuse de combat (AMC – combat armoured car). Types were not mixed in units. 

The Chasseurs d’Afrique seem to have had one or two squadrons as motorised infantry in trucks, typically the unpopular Lorraine 28 trucks, one or two as horse cavalry and two in armoured cars.

it would appear that auto-mitrailleuse de reconnaissance (AMR – reconnaissance armoured car, i.e. AMR 33), or tracked AMC were not deployed outside France itself at this time and overseas vehicles where all wheeled.




Overseas territories

The French had significant forces deployed throughout their empire. For instance, they had as many as 28,000+ ‘Metropolitan’ and 29,000+ Indo-Chinese auxiliaries in three protectorates of Indochina. This was a very large force and reflected the seriousness with which it garrisoned its colonies, particularly when you consider her greatest colonial rival, Britain, who used meagre forces in comparison.

Further deployments closer to home included Equatorial Africa with forces in the Congo, West Africa, Dakar, Cameroon, Senegal, Sudan, French Mauritania, Niger, Guinea, Dahomey and off French Somaliland and Madagascar.

The number of the troops of the colonial units in French Equatorial Africa amounted to 5,000 men (Metropolitan and Senegalese troops) with those of French Western Africa amounting to 21,000+ men (Metropolitan and Senegalese troops). Troops stationed in the Indian Ocean amounted to 6,000+ men (Metropolitan and Malagasy).

More specifically, the following list shows the troops that France could call upon during The Abyssinian Crisis and provides players with many different options to portray their chosen force highlighting the shear diversity of the French military in the inter-war years.


→ French Equatorial Africa:

-Congo and Gabon:

Battalion of Senegalese tirailleurs from French Equatorial Africa


Regiment of Senegalese tirailleurs of Chad

Battalion of Senegalese tirailleurs of Oubangui-Chari


Regiment of Senegalese tirailleurs of Cameroon

→  French West Africa:


1st mobile regiment of Senegalese tirailleurs

7th mobile regiment of Senegalese tirailleurs

6th colonial artillery regiment

French West Africa colonial infantry battalion

7th Battalion of tirailleurs Sénégalais

-French Sudan:

2nd mobile regiment of Sénégalais tirailleurs

2nd Battalion of tirailleurs Sénégalais


1st Battalion of tirailleurs Sénégalais


3rd Battalion of tirailleurs Sénégalais


4th Battalion of tirailleurs Sénégalais

-Ivory Coast:

5th Battalion of tirailleurs Sénégalais

-High Volta:

6th Battalion of tirailleurs Sénégalais


8th Battalion of tirailleurs Sénégalais

9th Battalion of tirailleurs Sénégalais

→ Indian ocean:

-The Somali coast:

Senegalese tirailleurs of the French coast of the Somali battalion


1st regiment of Madagascan tirailleurs

2nd regiment of Madagascan tirailleurs

Madagascan tirailleurs battalion

Diego-Suarez Independent colonial artillery group

Emyne Independent colonial artillery group

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