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French Metropolitan Infantry Engineer in Assault Order – Winter circa 1917 – 18

This display presents the French “Poilu” as he appeared late in the war with his kit organized for the assault. These photographs, like the others in this series with the black backdrop, were originally taken for an article that appeared in GUNS Magazine. In this particular case, the article covered the Berthier rifles and carbines.

The basis of our “Poilu’s” uniform is the Mle 1915 greatcoat known to the French soldier as a “capote”, produced from heavy Horizon Blue wool. The long skirt of the greatcoat was designed to be buttoned back when in action to provide better freedom of movement without the coat restricting the soldier's legs. The greatcoat was the primary uniform worn in the field, without the tunic underneath, excepting in extremely cold weather. The tunic was generally reserved for the barracks or when off duty behind the lines. The Mle 1915 greatcoat saw a return to the double-breasted style of the earlier Mle 1877 greatcoat. The simplified Mle 1914/15 version had been single breasted in order to save material. The regimental insignia, in this case the 4th Regiment, is the late war style that was introduced in January of 1917. The collar of the tunic can be seen just above the fold down collar of the greatcoat.


Next we have the Mle 1914 semi-breeches, also in Horizon blue, which are cut like the jodhpur style riding trousers. The pant legs flair at the knee, but are laced tight at the calves underneath the Horizon Blue puttees. Beginning in April of 1915, yellow piping was added to the outside pant leg seems of the Infantry trousers, however many of the wartime produced trousers lacked the piping, as is the case with this pair.

The helmet is the Mle 1915 Adrian, with the flaming bomb of the Infantry mounted on the obverse of the crown in stamped sheet metal with the letters “RF” emblazoned on the bomb. The “RF” stands for “République Française”. The Mle 15 Adrian helmets were painted in a variety of different shades of Horizon Blue and later in the war, in Artillery gray. This particular example if painted with what is today referred to as “Dark Horizon Blue” by helmet collectors. The French Adrian was the first helmet issued in large numbers to an entire army during the war, however it was one of the least effective helmets at stopping shrapnel. The helmet was produced in four pieces, i.e. the crown, front and rear visors and the comb that reinforced the crown. The pieces were riveted together.

 

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Moving on to the equipment, the belt is the wartime single-prong variation of the Mle 1903 equipment belt. The belt is supported by the Mle 1892 Y-strap braces which hook to the back of the three Mle 1905 cartridge pouches. Each pouch was originally intended to carry four packets of eight lose cartridges, however by this point in the war, the standard issue was 120 rounds per man with the ammunition divided equally between the three pouches with the remainder carried in the bread-bag. Prior to an assault, additional packets of ammunition were issued to the troops. These cartridges were also carried in the bread-bag along with hand grenades. On the left hip is the Mle 1888/14 bayonet frog, which is obscured by the bread-bag. The two belt loops of the Y-shaped frog are just visible on the belt. Effective December of 1914, all of the issue leather accouterments were dyed brown rather than the pre-war black. Existing supplies of black dyed equipment continued in use and the occasion wartime photo shows mixed combinations of black and brown leather gear in use together by the same soldier.

Suspended from the front of his belt, our soldier carries a “homemade” trench knife that has been fashioned out of a sharpening steel. The needle-pointed dagger is carried in a riveted sheath. Standard issue knives were available as the war progressed, however to combat boredom when not in the line, soldiers quite frequently fabricated knives and other weapons of their own design based on what ever materials were at hand. Needle pointed knives or daggers were generally preferred over the thicker blades of some of the issue knives. This was due to the various layers of heavy woolen tunic and greatcoats which proved difficult at times to force a blade through. A needle pointed device such as this parted the material easily.

Slung over the right shoulder and resting on the left hip is the Mle 1892 haversack commonly referred to as a bread-bag. The haversack did not change through the course of the war, however the specified brownish-khaki color changed with every dye lot and resulted in a wide array of color variations from cream colored to brown to the occasional grayish color. The “Poilu” carried his rations, eating utensils, spare ammunition and grenades along with a hand-full of small personal items. The strap of the bread-bag was adjustable for length.

Slung over his left shoulder are two Mle 1877 two-liter water bottles. While the normal issue was one water-bottle per soldier, most front line “Poilu’s” scrounged up a second water-bottle, particularly in advance of a major attack. Potable water was scarce in “No-Man’s-Land” and the likelihood of timely re-supply was always in doubt. Invariably, the French soldier carried wine or a mixture of water and wine in one water bottle and a variety of other liquids in the second bottle. This might include water, coffee, cognac or a combination of one or more of these “refreshing” liquids. The water bottles were produced with a wide variety of colored wool and corduroy, including but not limited to varying shades of Horizon Blue, dark blue, khaki, mustard yellow, brown and just about every shade you could imagine in between. Suspended from the stopper retaining string on one of the water bottles is carried the issue drinking cup.
 

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Over his left shoulder we find the ubiquitous blanket roll in lieu of the standard issue pack. The blanket roll was composed of one or more military issue woolen blankets rolled up in the canvas shelter-half. Personal items were rolled up in the center of the blanket prior to rolling the blanket inside of the shelter-half. The ends were brought together and the entire affair was strapped together in a horseshoe shape with a leather equipment straps or whatever else might be handy. To the rear portion of the blanket roll, our “Poilu” has strapped his Mle 1852 mess tin. While the mess tin was never painted during the war, the pre-war practice of polishing it to a bright luster was done away with and the mess kits rapidly oxidized into a less conspicuous slate gray color as is seen here with this example.

Carried in the ready position suspended on the chest is the Mle 1917 ARS gasmask, which was introduced in November of 1917. The “ARS” stand for “appareil respiratoire special” and was copied from captured examples of the German M1917 "Lederschutzmaske”. This was the most effective pattern used by the French during WWI. The metal canister is slung over the right shoulder and pushed to the rear where it would be out of the way. The canister was always carried in front unless the mask was deployed in the ready position.
 

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This brings us to the last item, the Model 1907-15 Berthier Infantry Rifle. The Mle 1907-15 was a slightly altered version of the full length Fusil de Tirailleur Senegalais Colonial Mle 1907. The Berthier rifles were less expensive as well as faster to produce than the standard issue Mle 1886 Lebel Rifle. The Mle 1907-15 was approved for service in February of 1915, but did not appear on the battlefield in large numbers until the end of the year. The Mle 1907-15 had a straight bolt handle as opposed to the turned down bolt handle of the original Mle 1907 “Colonial” Rifle. The top barrel band, stacking hook and bayonet mounting system were changed to allow the rifles to be issued with standard Mle 1886 or Mle 1886/16 Lebel Bayonets. The Mle 1907-15, like it’s predecessor, was loaded with 3 round Mannlicher en-bloc clips. When the last round was fired, the empty clip dropped out of the action via an open port on the bottom of the magazine well.
 

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Top - Mle 1890 Gendarmerie epee Bayonet
2nd down - Mle 1886 Lebel epee Bayonet
3rd down - Mle 1886/16 epee Bayonet with German silver grip
4th down - Mle 1886/16 epee Bayonet with brass grip
5th down - Mle 1886/16 epee Bayonet with steel grip
Bottom - Mle 1916 Bayonet with knife blade
 

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The French Army bore the brunt of the fighting on the Western Front during WWI. In addition, French troops took part in the fighting on nearly every other front during the war, with the exception of the Eastern Front. French forces took part in the Gallipoli Campaign, in Mesopotamia, in central Africa, on the Salonika Front and on the Italian Front following the disaster at Caparetto. But of all the battles of WWI, no action brings forth the association with the sacrifice of the French Army during the Battle of Verdun! Due to the French system of rotation, nearly every soldier in the French Army served in one capacity or another at some point during the near yearlong battle. The “Poilu” is synonymous with courage, determination and sacrifice that was Verdun.
 
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