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Early Trench Tactics in the French Army Review


Early Trench Warfare Tactics in the French Army helps to fulfill a crucial gap in the literature available on the French army in WW1. There are a good number of English language books or translations on the French army, such as Flesh in Steel by Goya, Paths of Glory by Clayton, and The Price of Glory by Alistair Horne. But while these give a good overall impression of change, and in the case of Horne, a brilliant literary piece, they lack the intricate tactical detail of operations which is necessary for a full understanding of the army. Jonathan Krause’s work shows the Artois attacks of 1915 in his book Early Trench Tactics in the French Army: The Second Battle of Artois, May-June 1915 and has an incredibly detailed and extensive coverage of the battle, French plans, different leadership philosophies, units, and why attacks succeeded or failed. It helps to do a lot to connect a hole in the understanding of the army, and to salvage the French army from the reputation of futile, bloody, and inept offensives, showing that it learned and improved its tactical art through 1915, but that it confronted serious obstacles.

The coverage of these obstacles is one of the strongest suits of the book, since it shows why French assaults failed and what the problems behind storming positions were. A key example is the difficulty of reserves in a deep attack (although as the book notes, the French were not trying for a breakthrough as much oft claimed, but instead to gain tactically valuable land, in this case, Vimy Ridge), since these reserves had to sustain heavy German artillery fire and losses as they advanced into the conquered lines. This resulted in the failure of the First Battle of Vimy Ridge. Other elements included the problems of suppressing German defensive positions with inadequate artillery support. This was shown particularly during attacks on German positions, with multiple supporting elements where the inability to bring sufficient firepower to bear to suppress both elements resulted in heavy flanking fire and significant losses..

Perhaps a bit fanciful in its depiction of an attack, but in any case the French offensives in 1915 tended to be bloody failures

Perhaps a bit fanciful in its depiction of an attack, but in any case the French offensives in 1915 tended to be bloody failures

As another component of the French army’s deployment shows, there was a major split in the doctrine on the issue of attack, where one side, that of d'Urbal, was focused on the idea of a continuous battle, to deep objectives, while the other side, advocated by Foch, desired smaller, one step advances, bite and hold operations - very similar to his 1918 Hundred Day style offensives, where the attack was small, brutal, and followed up on another section of the front in rapid succession. It took a long time, past 1915, to realize that continuous battle would merely degenerate into an unproductive attritional war. This links into the other doctrinal disputes in the French army, such as shock vs. fire, showing the doctrinal divides.

The overview of conditions in the trenches is designed for the tactical effectiveness of French troops, instead of the humanitarian side, but it helps to understand the limitations of the battle, and the problems facing French troops in their difficult conditions. Brutally unhygienic in the trenches, the problems of housing, where troops were confronted with terrible rats, feces, and bad food, made life miserable, while among bad divisions, conditions could become positively demonic, with the only good notes tending to be that they would effectively deploy large amounts of barbed wire for their defense, showing their mentality as well. It helps to understand the organizational problems of moving troops through the intricate web of trenches, with the need for a careful organizational structure to provide for troops moving to the front.

Set as the main objective of the book is determining military effectiveness, which it is careful to separate from the subject of victory pure and simple. Effectiveness is a different question: it is possible for an effective army to still lose. Krause, the author, is able to demonstrate that the French army learned, but in light of its exceptionally heavy casualties, and the relative lack of success compared to Verdun where the Germans on the offensive were able to inflict disproportionate casualties, and to make more territorial gains than the French in 1915, it seems overstated as to insist on its effectiveness.

There are also fine technical features about the nature of artillery procedures the the infantry tactics used by the French soldiers. This makes the convincing argument that the French were already using infiltration tactics in 1915, with multiple waves of troops, and follow-on formations used for close-up fighting, to take strongpoints that the forward troops had advanced past. The discussion of whether rolling barrages were used is also fascinating, although it is hard to determine for sure when they made their appearance, since tir progressifs from 1914 represented an antecedent, but not quite for the same reason in employment. It seems to have been for basic bombardment reasons rather than sealing off the combat zone. This is noted by the book, the artillery expenditure of method was very high, and so the usage of it was prohibited. Related to this is a reasonably lengthy overview of the problems of artillery consumption and quality, and how this limited the usage of the guns and led to casualties in explosions by faulty ammo. Combined with the limited rate of fire of the French artillery, reliant on old guns with insufficient modern quick firing, heavy guns, and the necessary fire support for the French attack was completely absent.

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A micro-history of a singular year and two battles on the same ground, the book makes for a valuable resource for the otherwise little-covered year of 1915, and which tremendously helps to expand the tactical details of how a WW1 army fought. Commendable for its attention on firm military reality, and which much corrects the record of the French army and its leadership during the forgotten year

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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