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They Shall Not Pass

They Shall Not Pass

Ian Sumner
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
The French Army on the Western front 1914 to 1918

To most British people the actions and endeavours of the French Army and later the Americans are little known, against our knowledge of the Somme and Flanders, so this book aims to fill this void. The Author has researched and translated a great many personal letters and documents hitherto unseen to bring us the feelings and emotions of the men at the front, as opposed to the generals and the historians view more normally seen

The Book tells us about the state of France at the beginning of the war, and her somewhat antiquated military structure still living in the great Napoleonic age, this allows him to tell the story from the fighting man's point of view; the losses, the defeats, the poor materials and poor weapons, and in many cases very poor leadership of the troops

Although I have visited these areas and read a great deal about it, one thing I had not realised was the wide range of regions that the troops were from, this brought its own problems with such things as different dialects and customs, and regional patios, allied to loyalties to a region and families. The majority of the French army were conscripts and it is illuminating to here read how little they were paid compared to civilians working in factories and unskilled labour in general , women working in the factories earned in one hour the average weekly wage of the infantry soldier, even when combat pay was added ( only when in the front line).

The French Soldiers served for 3 years with the active army, followed by 11 years in the reserves, after which they still had to serve 7 years in the territorial regiments, followed by a final 7 years in the territorial reserves, 28 years service !!
This goes some way to explaining their acceptance of military doctrine and regime as this would become a major part of most peoples lives.

A peacetime army contained 817,000 men this was suddenly increased to 2.9 million men on the outbreak of war and in total 8 million men were called to fight.

A difficulty not apparent to most English speakers is is that many French men spoke a Patois or had a strong regional dialect, this often caused other French troops to to mistake them for the enemy or they were just unable to comprehend simple orders. Trench newspapers were likewise printed in patois , but some soldiers only had the language of the Basque and had to learn French as they went along, these differences often led to deep mistrust and many misunderstandings between regiments, coupled with the introduction of troops from Africa, who could neither speak nor understand the Patois or cope with the extremes of temperature and change of diet.

The book is filled with many personal vignettes, stories and letters home, often heart rending and full of despair and deep seated criticism of the leadership, this gives the reader a much better understanding of the morale and views of the troops on general.

The French cavalry is written about and the way in which their senior officers, deeply entrenched in a Napoleonic system of warfare, refused to budge or change to cope with modern fixed trench warfare; they shunned using dismounted troops insisting on cavalry charges with shining Cuirasiers polished breastplates and bright plumes upon their helmets, even after the vast slaughter, it took much time for them to change from their old fashioned dictum's and training and allow their men to dull their weapons with urine, wear overcoats to conceal their bright brassards or using old sacking and waste materials to effect a form of camouflage.

The Battle of the Marne is well illustrated here, one which I had only read about through its connection with the Taxicab (a hobby of mine) , however the French were fighting over open ground against a well entrenched enemy who held the upper ground, and it was only through the use of motor transport that a total retreat was avoided.

The Supply lines for both food and water and wine ( many troops did not drink wine at this time) and ammunition broke down frequently after being targeted by the German army or just because of poor organisation, however sterling work was carried out under arduous conditions by the drivers, leading to the naming of the Via Sacra, something I had noticed but had not realised the significance of. The effect upon morale of the troops is very clear from the letters home and letters to the regional newspapers of their home towns, of course the censor eventually caught up and little negative criticism ever entered print, but still letters home and occasional short periods of leave allowed the information to filter back.

Eventually the fighting troops learnt that the Heroic charges so beloved of the senior officers were a sure fire way to a glorious death or mutilation, they started to adapt and learn to use natural cover, and to camouflage their clothing and weapons to avoid the German guns, using whatever they could scrounge or steal.

Government censorship of newspapers was very strong often requiring as many as three censors to moderate articles before they could proceed to the printing stage.
Many brave and heroic stories filled the daily and regional newspapers about the poor fighting ability of the Boche and the bravery and panache of the French troops, the trouble was the fighting men saw right through the lies as did their families back home

Another thing I had not read about was the German habit of using captured troops and civilians as forced labour, French troops caught behind the lines in the Belgian sector were threatened with execution, although one brave captain managed to compose a guerrilla army of some 300 men and strike by fighting under their own rules against the Boche until the last of them were either killed or captured

Atrocities were committed by the Boche and these are recorded, one case came to light when a group of soldiers who surrendered were told to lie down, thinking that a battle was about to start, they surrendered and did as they were told, only for the German troops to slaughter them first using bullets and then bayonets until the screaming stopped; one soldier was shielded behind the corpses of his comrades, and although injured he lay still as the Boche covered the bodies with twigs and loose soil and leaves, eventually after some time he freed himself and made his way back to his own lines to tell his story, records show how many other captured or surrendered troops were murdered in the same manner.

The conditions of the troops at the front were so bad that moral suffered badly, lack of proper clothing, poor weapons, shortage of ammunition, and leave constantly being cancelled, eventually this built up and many troops mutinied and refused to fight under such conditions, , senior officers were warned of the signs to look for , and it began to look as if the line of defence might start to crumble if this spread. However a change of leadership brought in Petain whose views on leadership were markedly different to many of his superiors and he was also well respected by the men, organisation improved, food and munitions and clothing, and leave was granted and not cancelled resulting in increased morale amongst the troops, lice and rats however were a constant irritation to the men at the front.

The Battle of Verdun is covered well, with many first hand accounts of the battle and the conditions encountered, the view of the men fighting, the shells and the Gas.

The officers embedded with the infantry soon learnt to adapt and to change or alter orders from above, they became pragmatic and realised that many of the orders could be altered or misinterpreted to avoid needless glorious deaths for little gain, many of them altered the schedule and timing of patrols and this resulted in the men trusting their officers instincts and bonding as a team it also allowed them some respite from the constant brutal battle and time to recover

Of course martinets still existed in this old fashioned army and even at the front the facile orders and instructions from some officers was noted and its effect on morale, often these brave officers rarely left their dugouts and occupied their time with reams of paperwork and petty bureaucracy,
as if the fighting men at the front had little else to do with their time.

This is a well researched book, full of new material and provides the reader with an insight into the French mind of this period

220 pages along with 30 origional black and white images and maps

A most excellent book and well worth reading

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