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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!


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