Friday, 11 September 2015

A family album

Well, why not? Inspired by the Imperial War Museum exhibition and Twitter hashtag #WhatMyFamilyWore

My grandfather, called up into the Navy in 1918. Since he was an electrical apprentice in civvy street, they made him a hydrophone operator. He trained at HMS Victory II (Crystal Palace, London), was posted to the depot ship HMS Research at Portland, and served on the anti-submarine trawler David Buchan in the Western Approaches out of what was then Queenstown (and is now Cobh). One picture taken in the studio, another of him (bottom right) and the rest of the ship's company (mostly RNR ratings from the Aberdeen fishing industry) after coaling ship.

After the Great War, both my grandparents did a lot with St John's Ambulance. This is him with St John's Cadets at camp on Barton Moss (I think), just to the west of Manchester. What a uniform!

And my grandmother, on the right. It looks as it might be a cadet camp as well (though since the trees are in leaf here, not the same one).
My father, called up in 1942. He was bike-mad as a teenager, and so leapt at the chance to ride bikes in the Army, as a despatch rider with 56th Divisional Signals (and as a Mancunian, suffered severely in what was a London territorial unit!). The division served in Iraq, Tunisia, Salerno, Anzio, the Monte Cassino campaign, and the Gothic Line.

The first picture is him (second left) and his mates preferring comfort to smartness, outside their billet in Forli, Italy in 1944.

The City of London Signals had formed a motorcycle display team before the War, and reformed it for a display at a tattoo at Trieste in 1945. The team was the ancestor of the present-day White Helmets team. My father is standing second from the right.

My mother, likewise called up in 1942. She had worked in an advocate's office in Edinburgh, and so was posted to the Judge Advocate's section at 12 (Fighter) Group headquarters, Watnall, Nottinghamshire.

This is her and her friend Hazel, somwhere in the Nottinghamshire countryside.

And another of her and friends

St Mary Magdalen's, Winton, Eccles, 1948. That hat!! Those suits!

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Kings of the Air

In comparison to their British and German counterparts, the French airmen of the Great War are not well known. Yet their aerial exploits were just as remarkable, and their contribution to the war effort on the Western Front was equally important. That is why Ian Sumner's vivid history of the men of the French air force during the war is of such value. He tells their story using the words of the pioneering pilots and observers themselves, drawn from memoirs, diaries, letters, and contemporary newspapers, magazines and official documents. The recollections of the airmen give an authentic portrait of their role and their wartime careers. They cover recruitment and training, reconnaissance and artillery spotting, aerial combat, ground strafing and bombing, and squadron life. They also highlight the technical and tactical innovations made during those hectic years, as well as revealing the airmen's attitude to the enemy - and their thoughts about the ever-present threat of injury and death.

Kings of the Air is a very good narrative of the French air force during the Great War. The main argument, which emphasizes the power of French aviation and its major contribution to the defeat of the enemy, is convincing and supported by a good range of primary and secondary sources. This book fills a gap in the historiography of the First World War and aviation history. There are, however, a few points to keep in mind. Ian Sumner’s work is aimed at a broad public and, as such, lacks footnotes. A general conclusion should have been included. Despite these problems, Kings of the Air is a great addition to the field of First World War history. Its many details and accuracy should reveal a new side of the conflict previously reserved to those able to read French. - Bernard Wilkin, University of Exeter in French History 30 (3) September 2016 pp446-7
This book is simply superb! Am 82 pages into it, and it is easily the best book (in English) available on the French Air Service. ... The book is a gem. For anyone who has an interest in obtaining a broader understanding of the air conflict, a much better appreciation of the role and importance of the Aéronautique Militaire, and the exposure to a whole host of new men who fought in the skies over France; this book is a must read.  Pips on
And on This is a gem of a book. It's the only comprehensive account of the Aéronautique Militaire available in English. And it does a wonderful job, from it's earliest days to the formidable force it was by war's end. It's rich in information on all arms of the air service, eg reconnaissance, bomber, photography, balloons and artillery spotting; not simply restricted to the aces. It also contains marvellous detail on flight training and flight school organisation. And there are so many new faces brought to life, most names people will not have come across before. The use of many first hand accounts bring the French flyers to life, and they are every bit as formidable and brave as their British, American and German counterparts. This is a long overdue book, that finally does justice to the Aéronautique Militaire.

Noted TV documentary maker Ken Burn's first major work, The Civil War, astonished many viewers with several single but effective techniques that brought to life a war that predated the motion picture cameras. The most important of these procedures had well-known actors reading from diaries and other period accounts of events. This approach to history gave life and a sense of action to the images and the narration. In a similar manner Ian Sumner uses first-person accounts in his telling of French Air Service developments in World War 1. This new book is a superb narrative history of the French Air Force during the First World War. Also it is a pleasure to note that, while the dust jacket prominently features Georges Guynemer and René Fonck, the book itself is focussed on just about everyone other than the two high-scoring aces. The narrative provides a complete overview of developments in technology, service organisation, naval aviation and the principal missions of the French Air Service, all laced with first-person accounts. It includes sections on the high command and challenges within the French aircraft industry that, by 1917, left the service with inadequate reconnaissance aircraft types and what was done to correct that situation. Sumner's well-written narrative is woven with contemporary writings from sources including the weekly journal La Guerre Aérienne Illustrée, as well as first-person accounts from pilot memoirs and biographies. Most of the accounts appear in English for the first time. This form is very successful, as it gives readers a great sense of how French aviators viewed the air service and the war in which they fought. It becomes very apparent that the French attitude and voice is different than those found in British and German accounts. Given that the French Army and Air Service comprised the vast majority of the Allied strength along the Western Front, French airmen are underrepresented in World War 1 aviation histories. This book tells the grand story of the French Air Service with the voices of those who made it. Kings of the Air should be in the collection of any student of the first air war. Over The Front Winter 2015- David Layton 

I'm been reading aviation books on the Great War for over 50 years and this one has lots of new information. I initially thought it was a book covering the French aces but it a wonderful history of the French approach to military aviation before and during the war. It has a few photos the the strength of the book is how the French started observation of troops from the air, communications, photography from the air, etc. Charles Duckworth on

En lisant le titre de ce livre (les rois du ciel) on s'attend à un récit flamboyant de plus sur les nouveaux chevaliers du ciel, avec force anecdotes sur leurs exploits et leurs personnalités excentriques. Ceci occupe une petite partie du livre d'Ian Sumner. Le reste comprend, en autres, le développement de l'aéronautique militaire, les problèmes stratégiques et tactiques, la formation des pilotes, le quotidien de leur vie (et de leur mort) au combat. L'utilisation des ballons captifs, souvent négligée dans les récits historiques, est décrite en détail et est un des chapitres passionnants de ce livre. Je recommande fortement ce livre à tous ceux que l'histoire de l'aviation militaire française pendant la première guerre mondiale intéresse. / [my translation] Reading the title of this book (the kings of the air) you would expected a flamboyant story about the new knights of heaven with many anecdotes about their exploits and eccentric personalities. This occupies a small part of the book by Ian Sumner. The rest includes, among others, the development of military aircraft, strategic and tactical problems, pilot training, their daily life (and death) in combat. The use of captive balloons, often overlooked in historical accounts, is described in detail and is an exciting chapters of this book. I highly recommend this book to anyone that the history of the French Air Force during World War One interests. Giloup -

The wonderful dust jacket art featuring two of France’s leading World War I aces, George Guynemer and Rene Fonck above a French Spad would definitely entice any reader to pick up Kings of the Air. Those who then own the book are in for a real treat. At first glance this looks to be the story of the French airmen that everyone has heard of – not so. This is an informative, entertaining history of the French Air Service during World War I, encompassing fighter, observation, cooperation and bombardment squadrons and balloon units; the development of the service itself, including tactics, strategy, aircraft and equipment. The work is arranged chronologically, with each chapter’s theme describing the evolution of the aeroplane from the last decade of the nineteenth century to the close of the war in 1918. There is a lot of information here in just over two hundred pages but the pace is at just the right speed for the reader to keep up. The author relates the story using the words of the participants themselves through their letters, diaries, memoirs, official documents, contemporary newspapers and magazines. No stone unturned, well researched and well written, Kings of the Air should become the 'go to' title for information about the French contribution to the air war of the Great War.  David I. Poremba - and on his website

This is a vivid account of the leading French Aces and is a very valuable addition to the information on the first aerial war in history. Excellent. Firetrench

Very nicely done narrative of French aviators' accomplishments in the Great War. Additional illuminating insights from the aviators' letters and personal observations. An authoritative and well written work. Nancy Cartonis - 

 Ian Sumner has distilled from first hand accounts (primary sources) a terrific book which sheds light on the French aviation experience of World War One! All facets of French aviation are represented. While the dust jacket beautifully illustrates the great aces George Guynemer and Rene Fonck, it is the 'lesser paladins' that feature prominently. I enjoy reading about World War One aviation and French aviation has always been sort of sidelined by historians so this volume is important as it addresses this iniquity! I highly recommend this volume as well as Ian Sumner's They Shall Not Pass which sheds light on the French Army experience! P.A. Panozzo -

Full of quotes and stories available only in archives, old books and periodicals, all in French. Nearly all of the accounts are by ordinary airmen--the opposite of ace-driven narratives. This really is the starter narrative for French aviation in WW1. Tom Cervo on 

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Just published!

I'm happy to announce that my book Kings of the Air: French aces and airmen of the Great War has just been published by Pen & Sword today. So get yourself down to your bookseller of choice, and buy, buy, buy :-)

My thanks go to everyone who has helped in the production - Maggie Sumner, Katherine Bracewell, Christina Holstein, Rupert Harding of Pen & Sword, the staffs of libraries and museums in the UK and in France, not mention friends on Twitter and Facebook who have Liked, Retweeted, Favourited, and otherwise encouraged me through what was at times a very hard slog.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Delvert in action: Ethe and afterwards

Ethe military cemetery, decorated for the centenary of the battle
In the days following the battle of Ethe, the regiment wandered back and forth for a few days, as the French tried to position themselves to halt the German advance.

The 101st's war diary does not make much of the regiment's casualties. The only references is a few days later on 27th August, when the strengths of the three battalions are given - 1st Battalion 9 officers, 701 men, 2nd Battalion 2 officers, 229 men and 3rd Battalion 9 officers, 760 men - a little over 1,700 men, instead of the wartime establishment of around 2,750. On the same day, Captain Lasnet arrived with four companies of replacements from the depot.

Major Louis Laplace
As a single battalion faced with a brigade, moving away from his supports, Major Louis Laplace and the 2nd Battalion were on a hiding to nothing. The commander of 2nd Battalion was a career soldier, who had joined as a volunteer in 1883, obtaining a commission in 1889 via Saint-Maixent, and served with 49th Infantry, 66th Infantry and 3rd Zouaves.

Thirty-two men from the regiment are buried in Bleid (including Laplace), and another man in Gomery. In Gomery is a memorial to 60 unnamed French soldiers, also buried there. The majority of the 101st's casualties were buried in a cemetery at Signeulx. But they were exhumed in 1921-22 when the cemetery was closed, and reburied in the cemetery at Rossignol. The names of the casualties occupy five melancholy pages in the regimental history.

The monument to the battle
The battle made little impact in the local newspapers back in Eure-et-Loir, even though it involved a local regiment. The Journal de Chartres of 23rd August reports that there were now no German soldiers on French territory, but that the build-up of enemy forces in Belgium continued - Brussels and Liége were occupied and Namur besieged. Meanwhile the Prefect of the département had banned the sale of alcohol. The following day's newspaper reports a battle in progress 'somewhere in Belgium', and wounded are being transported to Maubeuge. Meanwhile, four hospitals were being organised in Dreux - one in the rue Saint-Denis, a temporary one in the Collège des filles, place Mésirard, a Red Cross hospital at Mademoiselle Riberou's school, and a hospital of the Dames de France at the Collège des garçons. This amounted to 350 beds. 

Part of the centenary commemorations
Only on the 25th do we get a hint: under the sub-head 'Our troops have briefly abandoned their offensive' do we read, 'our losses have been severe. But it would be premature to count them up.' Every day, wounded men were arriving at the station in Chartres, but the paper didn't want to mention them for fear of upsetting people with relatives away in the Army. But prisoners, on their way to camps on the Atlantic coast, well, they could be mentioned. Readers were reminded to give them only what was strictly necessary, and not to forget that these were Germans, 'that is to say, savages, for whom we should just show pity.' So, just a mixture of official propaganda and press releases. The other main newspaper of the départment, Le Progrès, offered similar fare, its strapline 'The regional republican journal' the only clue that its politics might be any different from the Journal.

Casualty lists were not published as a matter of course, for fear of damaging civilian morale. Both Journal and Progrès tell anyone wanting news of a loved one in the Army to apply for news via the local mairie. But there were other, more informal means of obtaining news. Elsewhere in France, the prefect of the département of Vaucluse complained, 'personal letters arrive in the villages every day from soldiers telling their correspondents that comrades or neighbours have been killed or wounded. Families are plunged into despair by these roundabout, unofficial death notices and they complain vehemently either to the maires, or to their elected representatives, or to my administration.' And while the Journal had its own reasons for not mentioning convoys of wounded soldiers, these too could disturb the even tenor of a prefect's life, as the incumbent in Haute-Vienne found out: 'The wounded often spread alarming news and in this regard we need to take some extreme and urgent measures. Forbid anyone, whoever they may be, from entering hospitals or medical units, with the exception of medical staff. Forbid any of these staff from talking about what is happening and what is said inside. There are too many women in the hospitals and medical units. And wounded officers taken in by private individuals should also observe silence.'

Pictures of Ethe 2014 come from . The picture of Laplace comes from L'Illustration.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Delvert in action: 'Always aim for the foot of the target!'

While writing the previous post on the action at Ethe, I read a number of German accounts of the fighting drawn from regimental histories, and reprinted in English in Terence Zuber's Battle of the Frontiers. I was struck by the number of times the Germans report that the French shot high. At the same time, Charles Delvert describes his platoon in action during the battle, and several times he orders, 'Volley Fire'. To a British mind, this immediately brings to mind battles like Zulu, rather than the Great War. So I thought some investigation might be in order.

Firstly, despite the number of references to shooting high that regimental histories contained, German casualties were sufficient on the day to discourage them from pursuing the retreating French closely, so perhaps not every Frenchman shot as high as all that.

What was musketry instruction like? The first part consisted of aiming exercises, with a rifle fixed to a frame. The target was a square, fixed to the barracks wall, and each recruit went through a number of exercises to get him used to aligning the sights on the target.

The next set of exercises were connected with holding the rifle correctly ('make sure the index finger on the right hand is free to move'). For range of 1,000m or more, the left hand was to be brought up to the trigger guard to support the right hand. To one who has never fired a rifle in anger, this seems a little strange - surely for longer ranges, the rifle needs to be at its steadiest, so holding further down the stock (where there are, after all, grooves for fingers to go) would be better? The men shown here are taking part in a skill-at-arms competition of 10th Division at Arcis-le-Ponsart in August 1917. The view from behind the firers shows how small the targets were.

The third set of exercises is connected with squeezing the trigger ('use the second joint of the index finger ... hold your breath ... squeeze the trigger firmly in a continuous movement without jerking').

Some recruits, it was noted, despite being well instructed, continued to fire badly. This was in general because of an 'insufficient education of their nervous system' - in others words, the report of the rifle going off, and the recoil into the firers' shoulder made them jump. The suggested remedy was to get the recruit used to firing blanks, and then for instructor to slip in a live round without the recruit noticing.

Some effort goes into getting the recruit to judge distances correctly. The normal battle range for an individual soldier was 400m for firing on individuals, and 600m for firing on groups; groups could open fire on infantry at 600m and at cavalry at 800m. For anything further away, the range had to be known with some exactitude.

The soldiers would be classified into poor, average, quite good and good, based not only on their range work, but on all their training, and this classification would be noted in their paybook. The best marksman in the regiment (line infantry) or battalion (chasseurs) received a silver-gilt hunting horn badge and chain, to be worn on the breast of his tunic for the next year. The nine next best soldiers and two sergeants received the badge in silver. 'Very good' marksmen received a badge of a hunting horn in the button colour to wear on the sleeve for the next year, but the number receiving the badge could not exceed thirty-six per regiment. The classification below wore the hunting horn badge in cloth (scarlet for infantry, yellow for chasseurs), up to one-fifth of the number of corporals and men armed with a rifle. It seems to me that while these badges were rewards for good marksmanship, they were prize badges, and not permanent skill-at-arms badges. The classification was only relative, compared to others in the regiment; there was no absolute measure of so many bulls / inners, etc etc.

German accounts speak of groups of French riflemen lying down, then springing up to fire a volley from a standing position, before dropping to the ground. Under those conditions, with virtual snap shots, perhaps it's not surprising that a lot of rounds went high. Soldiers were instructed on the ranges to keep their fire low. As Delvert went into action, a wounded hussar officer calls out, 'Go get them'; to which Delvert replies, 'We'll aim at the foot of the target.' - so, the tendency of soldiers to jerk the rifle upwards as they fired was known, and deliberately aiming low tried to compensate for this error. In action, he was ordering volley fire at 400m (although on one occasion at 1,000m!), then independent fire after that. Some good, accurate, German casualty figures would be good here, but we're not going to get them.

The methods of instruction come from the 1915 edition of the Manuel d'infanterie, on Gallica here. the picture of the 1886 Lebel rifle comes from the excellent Armement reglementaire française site; the pictures of the skill-at-arms competitions come from Collections BDIC.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Delvert in action: the battle of Ethe

General Edgard de Trentinian (1851-1942)
The 101st was part of 7th Infantry Division (IV Corps, Third Army), commanded by General Edgard de Trentinian. The division contained four infantry regiments (the 101st-104th), a squadron of 14th Hussars and three groups of 75s from 25th Artillery.

On 22nd August 1914, advancing northwards, the French knew the Germans were ahead of them somewhere, but because of thick fog were unable to ascertain the enemy's exact positions. The advanced guard consisted of the three battalions of the 104th, a group of artillery and two troops of the divisional cavalry; they were ordered to advance over a wooded ridge into the village of Ethe. The main body, the rest of the division, with extra artillery and cavalry, was to follow some 2,000 metres behind. A battalion of the 103rd was given the role of guarding the left flank; the 2nd Battalion of the 101st under Major Laplace, accompanied by half a troop of hussars, was ordered to the village of Bleid, on the column's right flank, and to maintain contact with V Corps.

The fightiing around Ethe and Bleid, 22 August 1914; French in white, Germans in black

Ethe after the battle, looking northwards
In a confused struggle in the fog, the hussars were engaged with uhlans in the streets of Ethe. The uhlans were driven out, but hussars and infantry now met advancing German infantry, and got involved in a heavy fire fight. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 104th, followed by the 2nd of the 103rd, were fed into the battle, but the French were largely unaware of the forces moving towards them, partly because of the fog, partly because of poor scouting by the cavalry. Trentinian joined his advanced guard to take charge. By the time the fog started clearing, at around 0830, most of the advance guard was engaged to the east of Ethe, leaving the village itself lightly held.

Two postcards of Bleid
It was against the village that the Germans moved next, from an unexpected direction, the north. Trying to cover the movement of an infantry battalion to met the new threat, the hussars charged, and, in what would become the standard for this war, were destroyed as a regiment; their CO, Lt Col de Hautecloque (the uncle of Marsal Leclerc of Second World War fame) was killed. The artillery was brought right forward into the village, but its caissons were left in the wood behind the village to the south, where they only served to block the road for the infantry.

What about the 101st in all this? The 2nd Battalion was marching, unsupported, towards Bleid, while the other two battalions (including Delvert's platoon) had not even come under fire. Arriving at the village, the 2nd suddenly found itself under heavy, accurate, fire. In fact, they were facing a brigade of Württembergers (amongst whom was a certain Lieutenant Erwin Rommel, serving with IR124 - whatever became of him?). The French battalion was overwhelmed.

Unaware of this disaster, Trentinian ordered his remaining infantry, the 101st and 102nd, to join him at Ethe at the double. But the main road was still blocked by the artillery trains, so the two regiments had to try and advance through Jeune Bois using tracks. But when they tried to exit the northern edge, they were driven back by accurate artillery fire from the north. Delvert managed to deploy his platoon on the forward slope of the ridge, and luckily most of the shells went over his head.

The Germans crossed the river to the west of Ethe, and began to threaten the French left. And when survivors of 2nd Battalion fell back to rejoin the rest of the regiment, the brigade commander, Colonel Georges Lacotte, ordered a retreat. At this moment, General Trentinian rejoined the rest of his command, and countermanded the orders.

By 1300, Ethe was in flames, the companies of the 103rd and 104th all mixed up; to the south of the village, the 101st and 102nd were in the process of forming a firing line on the left flank to try and prevent the Germans from cutting them off entirely. But despite the perilous position of the French, the Germans did not press their advantage in a serious way during the afternoon. Advances on the left and right were driven back by French musketry and artillery. A final attempt to drive the French from Ethe around 1700 was broken up by French machine guns located in Jeune Bois. The French withdrew southwards under the cover of darkness, with Delvert commanding a scratch formation as a rear guard.

Some French commentators, including - unsurprisingly - Trentinian, tried to claim Ethe as a victory, because they had not been forced out of the village, despite all the Germans could do. But it would be a black mark on Trentinian's career; he was sacked after the battle of the Marne ('we all cheered' when the news reached Delvert) and made to retire from active duty in the following year. After the war, with the opportunity to examine German records, it was revealed that 7th Division was outnumbered by five to one; he was rehabilitated and reinstated to active duty (although never given a command). Lacotte also suffered - although he became a général de brigade, he was removed from a combat command and made military governor of Compiègne. As for the 101st, the regimental history states the regiment's casualties numbered 1,100; the unfortunate 2nd Battalion was reduced to 2 officers and 229 men (ie about one-quarter of its strength).

The war diary of the 101st is here. Trentinian's account of the battle of the Frontiers is on Gallica here. Grasset's account of Ethe, which did so much to aid Trentinian's rehabilitation appeared in five parts in the Revue Militaire Française from the July 1923 issue; all are on Gallica, the first is here. A blog on the 103rd Infantry is here. Photos of the various French memorials to the battle are on Danny Delcambre's site here, and of the French military cemetery here.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Delvert's regiment goes to war

The 101st went to war on mobilisation on 2nd August. The regiment's three battalions were made up to their full strength with the younger and fitter, reservists, and it concentrated at its Saint-Cloud depot. After leaving the Army at the end of his conscription period, every man was given a booklet (the fascicule de mobilisation) that, amongst other things, specified on which day he was to report to his depot after general mobilisation was declared. The mobilisation notices tabulated these dates leaving no-one in any doubts as to when they should report. The older reservists formed a reserve regiment, the 301st Infantry (which served with VI Corps in Third Army). The oldest were directed into the 29th Territorials, which formed part of the Paris garrison.

The 101st formed part of 7th Division, part of IV Corps (Fourth Army). The corps concentration area was designated as Verdun, and the regiment proceeded there by railway, via Reims, Sainte-Menehould, Clermont-en-Argonne and Dugny, arriving there on the 8th. The regiment then marched to its billets in and around the villages to the north-west of the city: the 1st Battalion at Brabant-sur-Meuse (twenty-eight kilometres, that Delvert found 'very tough'), the 2nd Battalion and the regimental HQ at Samogneux, and the 3rd Battalion at Haumont-près-Samogneux.

The colonel of the 101st in 1914 was Léon Gaston Jean-Baptiste Farret (1861-1928). He was a hugely experienced officer, much of it spent in the colonies - summed up by Delvert as 'short, fat, pince-nez, a former colonial'. He was commissioned into 1st Zouaves in 1881; as a lieutenant, he subsequently served with 136th Infantry, 1st Zouaves, both Annamite and Tonkinois tirailleurs, and 141st Infantry. Promoted to captain, he served with 162nd and 45th Infantry before going to 1st Etranger. He served with both the 1st and 2nd Regiments of the Foreign Legion, before getting his majority (CO of a battalion) in 1900, serving first with 3rd Zouaves, then back to 1st Etranger. He took command of the 101st in 1913. After less than four weeks at war, he took command of his brigade, which he continued to lead until February 1917. Following the reorganisation of each infantry division and the abolition of brigade-level commands, he was made infantry commander of 7th Division, then in April 1918, of 165th Division. That was his last front-line command; after the war, he was given 11th Colonial Division (1918-19) serving with the occupation forces in the disputed Banat region of the former Austria-Hungary, then after a spell of leave, of 27th Division (1919-23). He then retired from active service. His Légion d'Honneur file is here.

The regiment's second-in-command was Lieutenant Colonel François Marc Celestin Ferran (1865-1914). He was a thorough infantryman, graduating from Saint-Cyr in 1883. He served with the 12th Infantry, 24th Chasseurs, 9th, 40th and 118th Infantry, 6th Chasseurs, 134th, 59th and 25th Infantry Regiments, as well spending time on the staff of XV Corps, and as assistant lecturer in applied tactics at the staff college, the Ecole Supérieure de Guerre. Delvert describes him as 'tall ... angular features, small ... moustache'. His Légion d'Honneur file is here; his MPLF card is here.

After spending 9th August in place, the regiment headed north, in the direction of Mangiennes and the Belgian frontier. The next few days were spent in and around Mangiennes and Pillon. Gunfire was heard in the distance, and on the 15th some shots were exchanged between patrols of the regiment's 3rd Battalion, supported by a troop of 14th Hussars and three batteries of 26th Artillery, and German patrols.

On 21st August, the regiment was on the move again, to the north-east, towards the Belgian town of Virton.

Photos: the mobilisation poster from Wikipedia; Colonel Farret (shown in October 1916 outside his HQ in Redoubt MF4 (near the Ouvrage de Froideterre) at Verdun, from Collections BDIC; Lt. Colonel Ferran from a genealogy site here.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Delvert's men - training the recruits

'Here are the first group of arrivals at the gate, led by Corporal Bougonneau, whose dress was precisely according to regulation; he had been especially careful because he was representing the French Army, and more particularly the regiment, before this mob of civilian recruits. At a signal from the sergeant of the guard, Bourgonneau bawled out at the top of his voice, as if he was commanding the whole regiment, "Halt!"'

In depots all over the country, similar events were taking place every October as groups of new recruits reported to their regiments. Once entered on the regiment's books, the quartermaster, 'surrounded by a pile of képis, judged the hat size of each man at a glance, and after a token attempt at a fitting, got for every man a worn, but clean, cap.' Every man then reported to their barrack-room, where their new bed, complete with straw mattress, awaited.

Recruits were placed in a mixed platoon with serving soldiers, 'who, under the vigilant eye of the corporals, offer the benefits of their experience' to the new men.

But for basic training, recruits were kept apart from older soldiers. The recruits' training programme was divided into several 'schools':
 - the School of the Soldier, in which every man learnt basic drill movements, with and without weapons. There was also some basic instruction on service in the field and in musketry. Its purpose was to develop habits of order, precision and discipline. The sergeant instructors were to be firm but patient and to always appeal to the intelligence of the individual.
- the School of the Platoon, in which the men of two sections learnt to manoeuvre together. Normally, this would begin in mid-December.
- the School of the Company, in which the men of four platoons learnt to behave as part of a larger unit; and
- the School of the Battalion, in which the companies manoeuvred together.

Physical conditioning was compulsory. The first two months concentrated on individual skills in order to get all the recruits fit. From the third month, these exercises were increased in intensity in order to make the men fit for campaigning. Under normal circumstances, by the end of their basic training, recruits should have completed the Platoon elements by 15 March, and be able to undertaken marches of 'medium' length, ready for summer manoeuvres.

Soldiers in the second or third year of their service were to be trained in duties such as scout or runner, in more specialist roles such as machine-gunner, forward observer, signaller, telephonist, pioneer. The men described as by Infantry Manual as 'the more intelligent and energetic' were to be given the position of section leader. Men who had the necessary character and physical energy, and who could read and write, were to be selected by their company commanders as candidates for promotion to corporal. Preference was to be given to those whose wished to become regular soldiers.

Wartime training differed very little from this, allowing for the new specialities of machine-guns, hand-grenades and gas. But in February 1915, attempts were made to streamline the system. While basic training was still done at the depots, further training was made the responsibility of a newly-created 9th Battalion of one regiment within the division. This was amended again in December, with the creation of Divisional Training Centres in every Army. Every regiment contributed a cadre to undertake the training, and the effect was to create a pool of replacements, sent to whichever unit had the vacancies, rather than trying to ensure those from the Eure-et-Loir for example, went only to the 101st. This is not to say that the training period itself was shortened: men of the Class of 1916, for example, were taking nine months to a year to reach front-line regiments.

The war diaries of these training units have not fared well over the years. No diary of a 9th Battalion of any of the regiments in 7th Division (in which the 101st served in 1914-15) or in 124th Division (to which the regiment transferred in June 1915) has survived. The diary of the 2nd Divisional Training Centre within Fourth Army has survived (the 101st served with Fourth Army for most of the War), but not that of the 1st Centre, which provided the men for the 101st. Looking at the career of some the sample mentioned in the last post gives us some clues. François Poussin (Class of 1916, born in Chancé (Ille-et-Vilaine)) was called up into the 136th Infantry in April 1915 before spending a period of time with the 142nd, before joining the 101st in October 1916. René Damiens (Class of 1916, born Andainville (Somme)) was called up into the 54th, before going to the 124th, before reaching the 101st. Both the 124th and 142nd were serving alongside the 101st. Equally, some Eure-et-Loir men fought, and died, with other regiments in the division - like Elie Abajol (Class of 1917, born Vitray-en-Beauc), killed whilst serving with the 130th, another regiment in the same division. But the overall picture will remain confused until further data mining can be done. An analysis of these training arrangements, based on some of the rare surviving war diaries from Third Army, can be found here.
The quotes and line drawings (by Frédéric Régamey) come from a book by L. Picard, Soldat: les débuts militaires, published in 1913, designed to calm the fears of the recruit (and his parents) of the strange new world of the Army. From the top, the arrival at the barracks, the issue of uniform, and the first steps in marksmanship, using a rifle fixed to a frame.

The photo of rope exercises comes from a photo album of an un-named Burgundian conscript on Gallica. And despite the fine words of the training manuals, one suspects that a lot of time was spent wielding a broom, clearing up the barracks (author's postcard).

The standards and training syllabi are contained in a number of pre-war and wartime publications. The 1915 Infantry Manual is on Gallica here; a 1912 manual for prospective NCOs, Le Livre du Gradé, is on Gallica here, the 1914 edition is here; a 1914 manual intended for prospective NCOs and officer cadets, L'Infanterie en un volume is here.

The next post may even find the 101st at the Front!

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Delvert's men - recruits for the 101st

The previous posts described the process of calling men up into the Army. What kind of men were obtained for the 101st in this way? Where did they come from, and what did they do for a living before they joined up? I took a sample of 248 men from the names of those killed whilst serving with the regiment. Of these, some came from départements whose registres matricules have not yet been digitized, so information on them is limited, but basic information on their place and date of birth is also contained on the Mémoires des Hommes site. Errors in transcription, making some records unfindable, have also reduced the size of the sample.

Birthplace of men serving in the 101st 1914-18
Plotting the birthplace of each man results in the map on the left. By far the largest number of recruits were born in the Eure-et-Loir, where the regimental depot was located, but with significant contingents from the Orne to the west, the Sarthe to the south-west, and Yvelines (then called Seine-et-Oise) to the east, where the regiment's second depot at Saint-Cloud was located. Small numbers were, however, drawn from most of the départements of the north.

Of the 58 men in the sample born in Eure-et-Loire, most were the only man to come from his commune. Only six communes sent more than one man - Chartres (2), Chaudon (2), Frazé (5), Orruer (2), Saint-Bomer (4) and Villemeux-sur-Eure (3). One might have expected more from the two major communities, Dreux and Chartres - something for further investigation, perhaps.








If, however, we look at men who originally served in the 101st in peacetime, and those who only joined after the outbreak of war, a slightly different picture emerges. Unfortunately, because of the limitations of the available registres, noted above, it is impossible to use exactly the same sized sample - we certainly know the regiment with which each man was serving at the time of his death, but, in the absence of the registre, not his complete service history. Nevertheless, even with a smaller sample, a pattern emerges.
Birthplace of men serving with the 101st in peacetime

The map of the birthplace of men killed in 1914-18 who had previously served with the 101st in peacetime (n=78) shows that the men came from a very narrow range of départements, almost exclusively the Eure-et-Loir and the Orne. The presence of those from further afield can perhaps be attributed to men who had entered the 101st's recruitment area in search of work - the farms of the countryside around Paris would always be busy supplying the capital (and to this day the Beauce remains an important farming area). The one southerner was Lieutenant-colonel François Ferran, born in the coastal town of Gruissan in 1865, who was killed in the first weeks of the war.







Birthplace of men serving with the 101st only in wartime
The places of birth of men who only served with the 101st in wartime (n=69), are much more geographically dispersed. The Eure-et-Loir remains the core of the regiment's recruiting area, but it now includes many more men from Brittany and Normandy, and from the départements of the northern frontier, which had been disrupted by the war. Much of this can be attributed to the exigencies of war - regiments serving in the same division tended to acquire men from a common divisional pool, rather than try to maintain regimental distinctions. In 1917, for example, a typical section in a nominally Picard regiment, the 128th Infantry, was led by a corporal from just outside Paris, who commanded two Charentais from western France, a Picard, a Norman, a Breton, and one man from the Ardennes.

Some men were also transferred in as surplus from their previous regiments: the cavalry only had a small reserve component, and in any case was of little value in trench warfare. For example, Victor Cardin (Class of 1913, from Braffais (Manche)) did his original service with the 12th Cuirassiers, but joined the 101st in 1914; Norbert Ruelle (Class of 1910, from Soligny-la-Trappe (Orne)) served with the 13th Cuirassiers in 1911, but transferred to the 101st in the following year. Equally, Louis Vergès (Class of 1908, from Saint-Vigor-le-Grand (Calvados)) was an employee of the State railway company, the Chemins de Fer d'Etat, and performed his original national service with the 101st, but then transferred to one of the railway operating companies of 8th Engineers, the Army's railway regiment. But when he was recalled in 1914, he was directed back into the Infantry, rather than use his specialised skills on the railways. Had he lived (he was posted as missing in October 1914) perhaps he might have found his way back to the railways, given their greatly expanded role on the Western Front.

Cross-posting was also used for disciplinary reasons. Paul Satgé (Class of 1904, from Vabre (Tarn)) served with a variety of dragoon regiments before deserting in 1916; brought back, he was sentenced to three years' hard labour, before refusing to obey orders and getting another five years. The sentence was seemingly commuted to a transfer to the front-line infantry. He died from the effects of gas in October 1918. Another man, Marcel Darche (Class of 1917, from Lézy-sur-Ourcq (Seine-et-Marne)), arrived at the 101st from the 2nd Chasseurs à pied in June 1917 for disciplinary reasons, although the full details of his case are not given ('extenuating circumstances' are mentioned, but not detailed). But he would be 'distinguished by his elan, courage and an eye for ground in a bold trench raid on the German lines' in October 1917. And again in December of the same year he would be mentioned in regimental orders for his outstanding courage in two more trench raids.

The occupation of every man was noted in the registre matricule. By far the largest number (75) of the men in the sample were associated with agriculture, either as small-scale farmers (48 were described as cultivateur) or as farm workers of different kinds (aide de culture, garçon de culture, journalier or manoeuvrier). Anyone wanting to find out about the conditions of work of these men should read Emile Zola's novel La Terre. Although set in the mid-nineteenth century, it was inspired by the Eure-et-Loir village of Romilly-sur-Aigre. The next largest category was transport (20 men, of whom 14 were waggoners). Smaller numbers came from the domestic, commercial, industrial, retail and building sectors, covering a wide range of occupations from cheese-maker, wig-maker, lawyer's clerk and waiter to stone mason, blacksmith, miner and mechanic.

Every man's page of the registre matricule also contained information on the level of his educational attainment, and he was graded between 0 (illiterate) and 5 (degree-level). Unfortunately only roughly half of the men (121) in the sample had this information recorded. Of these, 94 could read, write and number (grade 3); 22 could read and write (grade 2); 4 could read (grade 1); and one man could neither read nor write. No man was assessed at level 4 (possessing a school-leaving certificate) or at 5. Certainly many men at this higher level were often creamed off by the 'technical arms' such as the Artillery and Engineers, and the presence of a major Engineers' depot close at hand at Versailles may be significant here, but the numbers at that level were small to start with. The number of grade 3 recruits is particularly high - according to the Ministry's own reports on the Army, published in 1912, the national figure at this grade was 56.37%; grade 2 27.21%; grade 1 1.33%; and grade 0 2.74%. A tribute to the département's primary school teachers! The national figures for grades 4 and 5 were 2.5% and 2.2%

Now we've got the men to the regiment, the next post will look at training.

Base maps by Daniel Dalet.