Chain of Command:Abyssinia – French Infantry

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The Army

French organisation and tactics had progressed little from those of the Great War, other than to incorporate the use of motor vehicles and armoured fighting vehicles, such as they were at that time. While this might sound somewhat conservative to say the least, the French had effectively created the modern ‘fire and movement’ principle, which admittedly with some modification, is still largely used across the world in the present day.

France’s army was immense, even in peacetime, but with certain exceptions was primarily a training establishment designed to provide basic military instruction to its citizenry. Successive drafts of conscripts would complete their training and then form a huge reserve, the ‘citizen army’ which would fight France’s future conflicts. New weapons and equipment were planned in light of Germany’s re-armament, but in 1935 very little of that planning had been realised in terms of the actual re-equipping of the army. In any case such a roll-out of new materiel over so large a body would take time and money, neither of which the French enjoyed.

The army’s Instruction Provisoire sur l’Emploi tactique des Grandes Unités of 1921 had barely been modified since its inception. While a new doctrine guide was in preparation in 1935, it would be the following year before it was published and the army fully incorporated new unit types, such as mechanised infantry and anti-tank formations, into its operations. The Provisional Instructions stressed the primacy of infantry, the deliberate massing of artillery to prepare the ground they would be advancing over and very little on manoeuvring to deal with flank attacks and other scenarios.

French tactics were those of the steamroller; bombers targeted areas beyond the reach of artillery, the artillery prepared the immediate ground the infantry would advance over and would then move forwards themselves once the infantry had reached and taken their objectives; then the process would begin once more. Tanks were to be deployed as mobile pillboxes, supporting the infantry with their fire.

While seen as necessary, mechanisation was a means to an end. With the Franco-German border secured by the impenetrable Maginot Line, the Ardennes impassable, the only route for the Germans to invade (and there was no doubt that Germany would be the enemy) would be through Belgium once more. The rapid deployment of French troops into Belgium could only be achieved by reliance on motorised transport and initially five divisions were fully motorised with this end in mind.

Certain officers, such as Charles de Gaulle, were pushing an offensive role for a heavy armour force. For example the armour should advance alone in a linear fashion, with motorised infantry formations following behind to mop-up what remained after the tanks advanced; a theory previously advanced by tank corps head General Jean-Baptiste Estienne back in 1919. General Maxime Weygand on the other hand was proposing a generally defensive mechanised cavalry force, which would screen the army, carry out reconnaissance and provide flank and rear security. Weygand got his wish and the first Division Légère Mécanique (Light Mechanised Division) was formed in 1934.

In the colonies and the Syrian and Lebanese mandates, mechanisation was also begun. Besides that these were formations to be brought to France in the event of war, the motor vehicle offered considerable advantages over the horse as the main means of transportation. Motor vehicles might go ‘lame’ or become ‘sick’, just like horses, but the generally did not die as a result. Likewise they did not starve to death or die of thirst; they simply remained motionless until fuel was provided. While it was evident that animals generally provided superior march distances over vehicles, the vehicle was somewhat more efficient overall.

Unlike Britain who could send its military forces wherever it wished, France had some demarcation lines that inhibited the deployment of its military strength. Firstly French conscripts could not legally be sent overseas. A conscript could volunteer for overseas service, in which case he could be posted to the Zouaves, Chasseurs d’Afrique or the colonial artillery, where he would serve alongside conscripts drawn from the settler population of its colonies. Legally the cavalry could not include tanks within their formations (a not uncommon quirk of the times) and were confined to using armoured cars alongside the more usual horses and trucks.

Finally there was a line drawn between the Ministère de la guerre et de la défense nationale (War and National Defence Ministry) and the Ministère des colonies (Colonial Ministry) of the government. The forces in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and the Levant (Syria and Lebanon), all fell under the former Ministry. The remainder of the French colonies were administered by the Colonial Ministry, who also controlled the forces based within, or were raised within them. Principally these were the white Troupes Coloniale, the Tirailleurs sénégalais (who could in fact be drawn from any of France’s African colonies) and other Tirailleurs drawn from within their respective colonies.

This bi-lateral division of military responsibility led to there being effectively two general staffs, each pre-occupied with their own concerns and unwilling to cooperate with the other. The preoccupation of both was the maintenance of security and order in their respective colonies, but for the War Ministry the main focus was on the growing threat of a resurgent Germany. This focus had not yet grown to the point of paranoia it would reach in a few short years, but when the British were sounding the French out for support for potential military action against Italy, the War Ministry insisted it could not even spare one battalion for such an adventure.

The Infantry

The Infantry were the primary arm of the French Army and a universal structure across all types was followed; the only variation being in terms of the equipment available to individual formations. The newest and best equipment was issued to the five motorised divisions, followed by the other first line divisions, the Army of Africa, the second-line reserve divisions and finally the troupes coloniale.

Ostensibly the French used the regimental system, with each possessing three fighting battalions and a fourth ‘depot’ battalion, which primarily existed as a recruit training and replacement depot. The needs of garrisoning its colonial possessions invariably led to the battalions of regiments deploying far from their bases and on occasion in separate colonies. Rather than return them to them prior to a large operation, the French merely amalgamated disparate battalions of the same type into régiments de marche (provisional regiments). When two battalions were combined instead of three, or when an infantry battalion was combined with another troop type, the term demi-brigade was used instead.

Each infantry regiment consisted of three battalions, a headquarters element which contained the usual administrative, supply, pioneer, communications and medical elements, plus a two-squad reconnaissance platoon on motorcycles. There was also a weapons company with two anti-tank platoons, each with three of the new canon de 25 anti-tank guns and a mortar platoon with two sections of two 81mm mortars.

Each battalion had its own headquarters elements as above, barring the reconnaissance platoon. There was a support company of four machine gun platoons (one of which specialised in anti-aircraft fire) each with two sections of two Hotchkiss mle 1914 machine guns and a heavy weapons platoon with an anti-tank section of two 25mm anti-tank guns and a mortar section with two 81mm mortars. All of these elements operated to support the three infantry companies, which were composed of four platoons and a two-tube 60mm mortar section.

Within the formations outside of France itself a greater variety of equipment could be found. With most elements in France itself short of 25mm anti-tank guns, very few of those in the colonies had received them either. The Canon d’Infanterie de 37 modèle 1916 TRP, better known as the Puteaux remained in service in lieu of the 25mm at battalion level. Instead of the mortar and anti-tank units Regiments usually had a six-gun regimental artillery company, equipped with either; Canon de 65 M modèle 1906, Canon de 75 M modèle 1919 Schneider, Canon de 76 M modèle 1909 Schneider, or even Canon Court de 105 M modèle 1919 Schneider guns in some cases. In terms of the expected opposition in their usual operations however, these weapons were perhaps far more suitable in any case.

The Zouaves and regiments d’infanterie colonial were primarily drawn from amongst the colonial settler population, which allowed them to perform their conscription period in their native region. Added to their number were those Frenchmen who had made the military their career and who had also volunteered for foreign service. Such men invariably rose to the higher non-commissioned ranks, while the rank and file and junior leaders were almost wholly conscripts.

The Tirailleurs algériens, marocaine and tunisiens, collectively termed ‘Turcos’, were indigenous volunteers drawn from the Moslem population of the respective colonies. Their officers and senior non-commissioned officers were almost invariably French, the NCOs being the same long-service volunteers as could be found in the Zouaves and Colonial Infantry. The rank and file were all volunteers on long-service contracts and collectively possessed far more combat experience than the French colonial and Zouave units they supplemented. The Tirailleurs Sénégalais were the African equivalent of the Turcos and were likewise long-service volunteers led by career French officers and senior NCOs.

The exception to the above was the Régiment de tirailleurs sénégalais de la Côte française des Somalis, who were a new formation created in 1935 for the defence of Djibouti and its hinterland, the Côte française des Somalis. It incorporated an original independent company of tirailleurs with local, African and Malagasy recruits, along with a Bataillon du Marche (provisional battalion) of the 8e Régiment de Tirailleurs Sénégalais  as the core of the new formation. As such it contained a spread of experience across its seven battalions (four Senegalese, one Somali and two provisional Bataillons du Marche).

In terms of its demographic composition there were 1,500 Europeans, 6,500 sénégalais et malgaches (Africans and Malagasies) and a mere 2,500 Somalis. The original company was virtually disbanded so as to provide NCOs with some experience for the new formations. The formation lacked integral heavy weapons beyond machine guns and instead had two 75mm mountain gun batteries supporting it. Light machine guns were likewise in short supply outside of the regular units composing the force.

Armoured elements within the colonies were entirely composed of bataillons de chars de combat (BCC), equipped with three companies, each of three platoons of five Renault FT tanks. In some cases these battalions were dispersed into company units, such as the one that was based in Djibouti. By the end of 1936 it had been planned to ship three battalions of obsolete Char D1 tanks to North Africa as BCCs, but the Abyssinian Crisis and impending French action there prompted the early release of one battalion, which were shipped directly to Djibouti, along with more Renault FTs. These never operated as whole battalions, but were divided into company and platoon-sized detachments to support infantry operations.

Chain of Command:Abyssinia French Infantry army list

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One thought on “Chain of Command:Abyssinia – French Infantry

  1. Pingback: Chain of Command Abyssinia: The French Arrive – Lard Island News

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