French Infantry Training
Pre-War to 1914
On paper, new recruits were to serve their three-years in the active army undergoing a progressive training process. In theory, the first year was devoted to basic training (i.e. marching, drilling, physical training, target firing, field exercises), the second to appropriate specialist training and the third for supplemental training, including NCO courses for the best conscripts. Once a man was done with his active service, he became a reservist. In the active reserve, men were required to attend two training periods during their 11 years of service. The first period was a 23 day program and the second, 17 days. Following his reservist commitment, a man became a territorial. Men in the territorial army had to attend one 9 day training period during their 7 years of service while those of the territorial reserve mustered for only one day in their final 7 years.
While on paper men serving in the active army were to go through an intensive training process, lack of funding meant that recruits could do little else but spend their time drilling and performing menial work in garrisons. As late as 1912, only one-third of active troops and one-quarter of the reservists would visit a training camp in any given year. The tedium was generally only broken by military ritual. The soldiers would be made to parade or perform mock military engagements in large public spaces. Martial music would precede patriotic speeches by local notables.
Military maneuvers, supposedly the most realistic approximation of warfare in peace-time, were also highly ritualistic. Formations would close on each other, each staging an enthusiastic charge which were then called off at the last moment. Then bands would play and generals would flower their men with praise. The reservists program was largely constituted of drill and maneuvers as well. Nearly all emphasis was put on offensive tactics, with very little time spent on what the men were to do following a charge, and even less on what they were to do if it failed. When war came in August of 1914, two-thirds of the active army (the classes of 1912 and '13) had received only 10-11 months of training, respectively. The recruits had not undergone such basic instruction as shooting. For younger reservists, their military experience would have been a fading memory, only sparsely refurbished by refresher training courses.
Thus, at the outbreak of war in 1914, the French army was largely unprepared and underfunded for the fight that would follow. Each of the "war-time" classes (1914, 1915, 1916, 1918) were usually sent to the front after three months of training. The regimen changed very little for the first several years of the war. The spirit of the offensive and the superiority of human will over material was emphasized above all else. These would help very little in the waging of trench warfare. Only in 1916, did the training begin to reflect the reality of the war. This was brought about primarily by the introduction of more advanced and more powerful infantry arms, including the Chachat automatic-rifle, the VB grenade launcher, the 37 mm gun and improved models hand grenades and trench mortars.
A foot-soldier was no longer trained simply in the art of riflery but in all the assault weapons now available to the infantryman. The title of voltigeur (literally, "vaulter") was adopted to reflect the more multi-arms role assumed by the infantryman. Small-unit, storming tactics began to be emphasized. Meanwhile, certain groups of men were trained in specialties (e.g. automatic-rifleman, grenadier, mortarman, 37 mm gunner) and then formed into their own relatively autonomous units. By the end of 1916, these training programs began to show fruit in the actual assaults. As technologies continued to advance, so too did the training, but only gradually. By the end of 1917, the infantry was coordinating its attacks with the artillery, airforce and tanks, and the small-unit storming tactics had finally seem to take hold. By 1918, French infantry attacks resembled to a great degree those still practiced today, with an increased reliance on firepower and mobility.
For more detailed information on rifle and hang-grenade training, please see the School of the Rifle and School of the Grenade pages.