French Infantry: 1914
On the 1st August the French Army and Navy began a general mobilisation that called up over 1 million Frenchmen. The French army used a system of conscription which saw men eligible for recall after their initial period of three years of conscription had ended. In 1914, men aged between men 20-23 were conscripted and serving, men aged between 24-35 formed the reserve of the active army - these men were immediately mobilised and mustered to active units. Older men aged between 35-41 years formed the Territorial Army and those aged 42-48 years make up the reserve of the Territorial Army Reserve. As a result of this system of conscription and reserves the French army had over 1,000 battalions forming 173 Infantry Regiments available for action in 1914.
While the French Army was one largest in Europe in 1914, the uniform at the outset of the Great War was possibly the most striking and arguably most archaic of all the major powers. The French infantryman or Poilu is famous for his red pantaloons which a French War Minister Eugène Étienne once described as quintessentially French. But along with the venerable red trousers he also wore the 1877 pattern greatcoat over a blue tunic, which was buttoned back when on the march. The average French infantryman also wore the traditional 1886 pattern red Kepi hat which was covered by a grey-blue cover when in the field.
The personal kit included the model 1852 mess tin and 1893 pattern pack, regulations stipulated that the mess tin be strapped in place on top of the pack above the soldier’s head. This did nothing to improve the already high profile of the Poilu in the field. Leather webbing supported two ammunition pouches and a bayonet frog. The standard issue rifle of the French army at the outbreak of war was the Lebel M1886/93 rifle, one of the longest rifles of the war measuring 1.3 metres long. It fed from an 8-round tube magazine beneath the barrel, firing a 8×50mm rimmed cartridge.
The French soldier looked much as he had during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and before. His colourful uniform fast became a liability during the early months of the war. The distinct red and blue uniforms made the troops highly conspicuous against the green fields and woodland of north eastern France. While it had been planned to adopt a blue-grey service dress in June 1914, the French would not switch to a less conspicuous uniform late 1915.
French Cuirassiers on the march (source)
Even more conspicuous were the uniforms of the French Cavalry and the Zouave Regiments whose clothing and equipment were even more archaic. The French Cuirassiers went to war wearing helmets and breastplates the likes of which had been worn since the Napoleonic era. However, they were issued with canvas breastplates and helmet covers in the field. They were not officially withdrawn from service until late 1915, by which time they had already stopped being worn in the field.
Men of the 4th Régiment de Zouaves, not the prominent position of their mess tins (source)
Similarly the Zouaves were uniformed in a gaudy arabian style which dated from the mid 19th century. The uniform was composed of a short embroidered tunic worn open over a vest with a pair of baggy trousers known as saroul. Around the waist a 13 foot long sash was wrapped and a chechia (a tasseled red cap) was worn on the head. Unsurprisingly the Zouaves outlandish uniform was abandoned by late 1914.
Image One Source - Artist’s impression of a French Infantryman, 1914
Image Two Source - Artist’s impression of a French Infantryman, 1914
Image Three Source - French Infantry c.1914
Image Four Source - French Infantry, Paris, c.1914
Military Uniforms in Colour, P. Kannik, (1968)
More on the French Army here