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.