Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Delvert's men - Vive la Classe!

Who were the men that made up the 101st? In France, every adult male was liable for call up. The total population of France at the most recent census before the war, that of 1911, was 39.7 million people, of whom 19.54 million were men. Of these, 12.644 million men were of working age. In the course of the war, 7.935 million men were called up - the equivalent of 20% of the 1911 population, 40.6% of the male population, or 62.7% of the male working population.

Every December in peacetime, a census was compiled of every young man aged twenty in each department. The information obtained - address, appearance, educational level and special skills, parents' occupation - was inscribed into the registres matricules, a major source of information on the personal condition of each soldier (normally held by the departmental archives - those from the Eure-et-Loir are here). Each man was summoned to a call-up board (conseil de révision) which moved through each department between February and April the following year. In 1914, the board met at Dreux on Friday 13th (!) March.

The call-up board normally included the prefect of the departement or one of his officials, one of the departement's legal officers, two elected representatives (one from the departement, one from the arrondissement), a general, a supply officer, the commander of the local recruitment office and a doctor, either military or civilian. The local mayor could also have his say, even though he was not on the board. The board was escorted by a detachment of gendarmerie.

Every young man of the right age was summoned to appear. Every man was medically examined and interviewed. The result was to divide the men into four categories:
1 - fit for front-line service;
2 - fit for military service, but because of a pre-existing medical condition, unfit for front-line service;
3 - not fit for service because of poor physical condition, whose call-up was therefore postponed; and
4 - physically unable to undertake service, and therefore exempt from all military service.

Failure to answer the summons was a criminal offence. An inability to answer the summons by virtue of being in prison was dealt with as a special case - those convicted of a serious offence were normally directed into the African Light Infantry upon their release from jail. Men convicted of petty offences were usually sent to their regiment in the normal way: for example, Charles Septier of Saint-Nazaire (Loire-Atlantique) had been convicted of public drunken-ness, the 'degradation of an object of public utility', the destruction of a fence and of resisting arrest, but was given an amnesty for the degradation and resisting arrest charges, and given time served for the others, and then sent on his way to the 65th Infantry (he would be posted to the 101st in 1914, hence his inclusion here).

Others could request a postponement because of family circumstances - if the man was the family breadwinner, or if an elder brother was already serving, for example. But it was only a postponement, not a full exemption. For example, Julien La Gallou, a painter from Maintenon (Eure-et-Loir) was given an exemption in 1909 for 'faiblesse' - probably the affect effects of a recent illness - but was called up in the following year, even though he claimed to be the family breadwinner. Achille Martin, an agricultural labourer from Ardelle (Eure-et-Loir) was passed fit by the Board, but was rejected by the 101st for 'insufficient muscular development', and was sent home; called up again in 1910, this time he was accepted into the regiment. Even in the rather lower standards of wartime, men would still be rejected - André Jouvin, a shoemaker of Montilly-sur-Noireau (Orne) was rejected for faiblesse twice, in 1914 and 1915, before finally being accepted for the Class of 1916.

 When the board has finished its work in each town, the men were released to great celebrations, with special flags and costumes. Unfortunately for this particular project, such customs were not common in Normandy and the Ile de France, so were probably unknown to the men of the 101st. But I've included some photos anyway!

Such a celebration is perhaps unusual to British eyes, where conscription was performed only grudgingly, but at that time, and in that place, not only was it a patriotic duty, it also marked the passage of the conscripts from being children (as the ribbons on the rosette (left) say, the enfants de la classe) to becoming men.

The numbers in the various categories were passed to the Ministry. Here, the number of men was matched against the number of vacancies in the various arms of service that recruited in that departement, and the men were allocated to fill the gaps accordingly.

Every man selected as fit for service reported to his regimental depot in October for three years' service. One month before the completion of his active service, each soldier would be granted one month's demobilisation leave.

At the end of this, he would be transferred to the reserves. Each man spent ten years in the reserves before being transferred to a territorial regiment. He would spend seven years in the territorials, and then spend a further seven years in the territorial reserves before finally being discharged of all obligations.

The war spoilt this neat arrangement. The men of the class of 1911 were due for discharge in October 1914, but they were enlisted for the duration of the conflict. The class of 1914 was called up in September; that of 1915 in December 1914; that of 1916 in April 1915; that of 1917 in January 1916; that of 1918 in April 1917; that of 1919 in April 1918; and preparations were well under way for the class of 1920 when the war ended.

At the outbreak of war, the men of the classes of 1911, 1912 and 1913 were already with the colours. These amounted to 90,000 officers and 817,000 men. Those of the classes of 1900-1910 were directed into reserves; those of 1893-99 went into the territorial regiments; while the oldest men, those of the classes of 1887-92, went into the territorial reserve. Each class produced between 230,000 and 325,000 men (237,000 in 1888; 325,000 in 1913).

Photos: a painting by Pierre Georges Jeanniot (1848-1934), currently in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau, showing a conseil de révision at work; a postcard showing the conseil de révision leaving the town hall in Casevecchie (Haut-Corse); cap (Vive la Classe) and rosette (Honneur aux Enfants de la Classe) from the collections of the Historial in Péronne; postcard of recruits from the author's collection

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