The French Army:
Dr. Gavin Hughes

'With the whisk of black horsetails from their linen covered helmets, the red breeched troopers would take no denial.'
- N. Flower, History of the Great War, Vol. III [1917] on French Dragoon action outside Ercheu, 11th October 1914

EARLY WAR FRENCH CAVALRY UNITS 1914 - 1915

In 1914, France's splendidly dressed cavalry regiments were amongst the most colourful of any European power. Its famous light and heavy cavalry, resplendent in blue and red are a fascinating troop choice for any gamer wishing to recreate the early war actions in Belgium, France or Macedonia. Without doubt, adding French cavalry to your Great War army will add colour and spirit to any of your games and, given their impetuous nature, provide a challenge reigning them in!

In total, there were seventy-nine French cavalry regiments, which included twelve Cuirassier regiments, fourteen regiments of Hussars, twenty-one Chasseurs à Cheval and thirty-two regiments of Dragoons. There were also six regiments of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, the French European cavalry of the Armée d'Afrique, with further regiments raised for the war. A French Cavalry Division in August 1914 comprised of three cavalry brigades, an artillery brigade, a cyclist section and a telegraph detachment. A typical French cavalry brigade consisted of two regiments, each with a Headquarters squadron, four service squadrons and a machine-gun section. Generally speaking, Cuirassiers and Dragoons were organised into brigades of two regiments each and placed together, whilst the Chasseurs à Cheval and Hussars were formed into 'Light Brigades'. In November 1914, each cavalry brigade was to have a 'Light Group' within it, which was essentially a dismounted section, drawn from elements within the brigade. Those selected to serve in 'Light Groups' from Cuirassier regiments were officially designated as 'Cuirassiers à pied'.

The main difference between French cavalry and that of other nations was, of course, that their uniforms made little provision for the practicalities of modern warfare. Their uniform details were all of a very similar design and, as there are many excellent reference books available on them, only a brief overview is given here. The wearing of the 1874 'Grecian' style of helmet by the Cuirassiers and Dragoons (and the 5th Chasseurs à Cheval) was one of the most distinctive features of the early war French cavalry. In 1901, in token response to the practicalities of warfare, a cloth cover was introduced, specifically for wear on active service. For example, the Cuirassier regiments went to war in khaki or blue helmet covers and 'dulled' cuirasses, as a concession to modern warfare and there is some evidence to suggest that the cuirass was latterly abandoned altogether. Certainly in late 1915 all helmets (and the short shakos of light cavalry) were officially replaced by the new Adrian helmet, although older patterns of headgear were still worn. All regiments wore the 1883 tunic, in the distinctive colour of their units; sky blue for Chasseurs à Cheval and Hussars (officers wore tunics of very pale light-blue) and dark blue (black for officers) for Cuirassiers and Dragoons. Cavalry regiments were further distinguished by the colour of the facings on their cuffs, collars and shoulder straps, which were crimson for Chasseurs à Cheval, pale blue for Hussars, scarlet for Cuirassiers and white for Dragoons. Additionally, the colour of the piping braid for Hussars was white, whilst that of Chasseurs was black. Although the Chasseurs d'Afrique wore khaki for most of the war, prior to 1915, they had sky-blue tunics (with yellow collar and patches in sky-blue with yellow regimental number), voluminous red baggy trousers and a red cummerbund. They were also issued with the 'taconnet' (a form of shako cap) which, for the period of the war, was covered by a white linen cloth. These uniforms gave France's cavalry an immediately colourful appearance and, when joined by their North African troops, were highly visible on the battlefield. Ironically, the French cavalry adhered to their tradition of mounting all regimental trumpeters on grey horses although, bizarrely, they dyed them whilst on active service to make them less conspicuous.

Most French cavalry were lightly equipped in comparison to their infantry colleagues or other European cavalry. Their greatcoats and blankets were strapped across their saddles (front and back) and they carried a leather cartridge pouch, worn on a belt on the right side, a holstered revolver (on the same side) and a water-bottle worn over the right shoulder. The main weapons used were the sword and carbine, which were carried on either side of the saddle. Regardless of whether a trooper was Heavy or Light cavalry, the sword was carried on the left side, leaving the carbine in a 'rifle bucket' (muzzle downwards) on the right. Heavy and Light cavalry were also given distinctive patterns of sword; Dragoons and Cuirassiers used modified sabres from 1854, whilst Chasseurs à Cheval and Hussars carried the modified 1822 'light' sword. French cavalrymen were armed with a carbine (the 1890 pattern 8mm), which saw service until the end of the war and was renowned for its robust design. Although it had an accompanying bayonet, Dragoon regiments were not issued with these as, in 1883, they had been given lances. In line with many major European powers, France had returned to the use of the lance and, by 1912, it had begun to issue them to other branches of its cavalry. In addition to the Dragoons, some Chasseurs à Cheval regiments were given lances and a further five of their regiments are thought to have become 'lancers' in 1915. Originally, French lances were made from ash and bamboo but, in 1913, they were replaced by tubular steel. In all cavalry regiments, officers, trumpeters, machine-gunners and senior NCOs were only armed with a sabre (of heavy or light pattern dependent on unit) and 1892 revolver.

The French cavalry's role was, generally, to provide reconnaissance, screening, prisoner escorts and sentry or traffic duties. Whilst they often acted as a protective screen for their associated Corps or Divisions, another favoured tactic for French cavalry was the use of 'flying columns' to harass and disrupt the enemy's supply lines. As such, there were countless cavalry skirmishes between patrols of French and Germans, with both in forward areas searching for their enemy. Indeed, during this period of 'Uhlan hunting' in 1914, the cramped hedgerows and narrow country lanes of France and Flanders soon became violently bloody battle sites. Equally, in Macedonia in 1915, the French Cavalry Brigade commanded by Brigadier Jouinot-Gambetta saw much service, patrolling and fighting the Bulgarians high up in the hazardous mountain tracks.

On the Western Front, the French crammed roads with eager patrols of Dragoons, Cuirassiers, Hussars and Chasseurs - all jealously guarding their sectors and expectant of action. By the end of August 1914, French cavalry patrols were almost taking it upon themselves to ride to 'the sound of the guns' no matter where their original tactical duties lay. Whilst this was naturally part of their role as scouts, the first months of the war also ably demonstrated their unquenchable desire to fight. During the retreat from Mons, some French cavalry squadrons were even noted as riding in the opposite direction to the long lines of marching beleaguered British infantry - in the simple hope of engaging the enemy. On one occasion, a troop of French Dragoons galloped past a battalion of Royal Irish Fusiliers, who watched with admiration as they galloped up a hill, intent on charging the enemy. Once there, the Fusiliers watched as German shrapnel began to burst around them and they soon were forced to return the way they came - leaving the British troops to resume their weary march down the road. Like other aspects of French warfare, the cavalry regiments were imbued with the ethos of the 'furia francese' and the 'cult' of the offensive. One of the most dashing, and characteristically anachronistic, images of France's early war army was the sight of their Dragoon limbered machine-gun sections deploying at full gallop.

The zeal for 'revenge' against Germany for the 1871 settlement prompted the French to try and recapture Lorraine and Alsace. During the infamous 'Battle of the Frontiers' and fierce fighting in the Vosges, many 'meeting engagements' occurred between French and German patrols. French cavalrymen were heavily involved throughout this grim push across the northern frontier and, indeed, it was a French dragoon Sergeant called Escoffe who received the first Military Medal of the Vosges campaign. During one such skirmish amongst these mountain passes, Dragoon Lieutenant Bruyant and his small seven man patrol took on, and defeated, a thirty-strong German cavalry troop. Lieutenant Bruyant killed the Germans' officer in a bloody hand-to-hand on horseback, for which he was nominated for the Legion of Honour by General Joffre himself.

Following the battle of the Aisne, and solidification of the Soissons to Verdun line in September, a number of 'zigzag' engagements in the west resulted; each an attempt to outflank the other and, instead, pushing ever-closer to the coast. The period of fighting for the 'race to the sea' was comparatively short but notoriously far-reaching, as it secured the entrenched fault-line that became synonymous with the Western Front. All along the line of these battles, French cavalry were involved in lightning dashes for territory, holding them until reinforcement arrived or its strategic value changed. On the 19th September, a troop of French cavalry destroyed a railway line north of the Aisne, successfully cutting one of the Germans' main communication lines. In another incident, on the 22nd, Corporal Lebourq of the 4th Cuirassiers, captured (by himself!) four officers and twenty-three troopers of the 25th Wurtemberg Dragoons. By the end of September, a force of French cavalry held the shattered ancient town of Arras, which the Germans intended to use as another 'hinge' to outflank their enemy. Arras was subsequently reinforced by General Maud'huy's 10th Army and, whilst it was still a vital German objective, it was eventually by-passed and the 'race to the sea' continued.

Amazingly, both sides only initially held the area from Lille to the coast by mounted patrols, roving the forward areas, ever-watchful of a potential outflanking movement and ready to stop any envelopment. Whilst the days of cavalry actions were coming to an abrupt end, the confused fluidity of the western flank meant that the waiting German cavalry still threatened the Channel ports and Calais. Yet, any opportunistic advance by the Germans was halted by the French cavalry generals Conneau, De Mitry and Moussy almost as soon as it began. As the Germans tested the Allies defences, the combined French light and heavy cavalry regiments found themselves particularly committed in multiple skirmishes along the Lille line. For example, at Lassigny in mid-October, French Chasseurs à Cheval charged German gun and infantry positions, overrunning them and inflicting heavy casualties. Whilst these actions were hugely important, they were perhaps eclipsed by the massed cavalry battle on the river Lys. On October 5th, 12,000 French, Belgian and British cavalry rode eastwards to block 15,000 German cavalry who had been sent there to take and hold the territory until reinforcement. At the ruined village of Laventie, a force of French Cuirassiers managed to cross the Lys and take the German cavalry by complete surprise. All along the river banks, a series of hand-to-hand engagements took place in which the German cavalry were eventually overwhelmed and forced to withdraw.

Opportunities to game French cavalry actions are, like most Great War cavalry battles, greatly rewarding. The 'meeting engagements' between French Dragoons and German Uhlans along the cramped Belgian roads in the summer of August 1914, or the massed action on the Lys give plenty of scope to gamers. Yet, perhaps, a potential scenario might revolve around one of the most unusual mounted French actions of the war. On the 11th October, French mobile batteries were shelling a village north of Ercheu (between Roye and Noyon), supported by French Dragoons. However, when the Germans brought up larger batteries supported by a massed infantry assault, the French guns were forced to retire, under a protective screen of Dragoons. The German 6th Pomeranians, thinking that the French were retreating, then launched a full regimental pursuit - only to be caught in the range of their own heavy guns. From the cover of the surrounding small wood, French infantry opened fire on them and, caught between the two barrages and with the Dragoons wheeling around towards them, the Pomeranians were actually ordered to 'form square'. As they did so, the French Dragoons unslung their lances and charged the German infantry. Several volleys were fired into the charging Dragoons but the impetus and fury of their attack shattered the German square. The resultant slaughter prompted those 6th Pomeranians who survived the initial shock of the charge into headlong flight. A small group of Germans, led by a Captain and senior sergeant, managed to reach a knot of nearby pine trees, where they tried to defend one of the Regiment's Colours. The pursuing Dragoons reigned up before them and called for their surrender, to which the reply was a ragged volley of revolver shots. The Dragoons unhesitatingly charged the German survivors and, in a brutal few minutes of sabring and stabbing, the Pomeranian Captain was cut down and the standard passed to the senior sergeant. In the final moments of the fight, this veteran sergeant was pinned to a pine tree by a French lance and the German Colour was subsequently captured. Ironically, as the Dragoons triumphantly rode away with the flag, it was noticed that, in addition to bullet holes, it bore the battle-honour of 'Champigny 1871'. The thirst of at least one French cavalry unit for 'revenge' had been at last satisfied.

Suggested further reading:

Hopefully the following brief list will be helpful - it includes some of the most entertaining, accessible and informative works on early-war French cavalry:

  • Anon. - Les Armées Français dans la Grande Guerre (Paris, 1919?)
  • de la Gorce, P.M. - The French Army (London 1963)
  • Mollo, A. - Army Uniforms of World War 1, (Blandford, 1977)
  • Powell, E.O. - Vive La France, (London, 1916)
  • Summer, I. - The French Army, 1914-1918, (Osprey No. 286, 1995)

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