Without Firing a Shot – Part 3


The Charge of the 4e Zouaves at the Battle of Guise, 30 August 1914

Allan Lougheed

The battles of August 1914 are remembered for the costly tactics of massed bayonet charges, but it is worth taking a close look at the way these attacks unfolded. The popular image of fighting in August 1914 is that of men advancing in massed ranks, shoulder to shoulder as they charged into machine guns.  It is tempting to imagine that the men leading the soldiers were simply incompetent. The tactics of August 1914 had indeed been disastrous and the armies would have to learn a new way of fighting, but in the meantime they would have to do the best they could with the training they had.  In this article, I am going to focus on the leadership of one French officer, Captain Giraud, of the 4e Battalion, 4e Regiment de Marche de Zouaves, at the Battle of Guise, 30 August 1914. The attack led by Captain Giraud of the 14e Company ended in disaster, but the steps he took to give his men a fighting chance were the mark of a bold and imaginative leader.

The Battle of Guise, from 29 – 30 August 1914, was part of a larger counter attack of the French Ve Armée. The intention was to delay the German advance long enough to give other French armies and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) some more separation between themselves and the pursuing Germans. In that respect it had some limited success, but on the battlefield the French attacks were poorly co-ordinated and results were mixed. There were some local successes but there were also costly failures. On the front of the 38e Division, an attack made towards the village of Ribemont to the southwest of Guise went badly and the 4e Zouaves guarding the flank of the advance were called upon to break up a German counter-attack. The war diary of the 4e Zouaves is very well kept, and summarizes the activity on 30 August:

4e Zouaves
30 August 1914
The night passed without incident.
At 0h45’, the Regiment left its bivouacs and assembled at 2km to the south of Villers le Sec, in double column widely spaced.
The assembly was finished by 7h30.
The Regiment was resupplied at that point.
The men ate and took some coffee.
At 10h20’ offensive movement was resumed.
The 4e Bataillon received the order to move to the north of Villers le Sec while prolonging the right of the 4e Tirailleurs and to entrench strongly on its position.
The 11e Bataillon received a similar mission.
It must put itself in contact with the 4e Bataillon
The 3e and 5e Bataillons are in reserve.
The trenches were only scarcely finished when towards 14h30 the General of the Division made known that, taking the offensive with the troops of the 1st line, he ordered the 4e Bataillon (Dangau), to flank his attack to the right and to keep watch in the direction to the east where a counter attack could come.
The companies of the 4e Bataillon were deployed and concealed behind the embankment bordering the road leading to Pleine-Selve in a manner to shelter them from enemy shrapnel which systematically batters the ground.
The 14e Cie (Captain Giraud) received the order from Major Dangau to move towards Pleine Selve in support of a battery position (24e Regt).
Meanwhile Colonel Pichon came to give the order to the 11e Bataillon to support Bataillon Dangau.
While the Battalion Chief moved forward to reconnoitre the road and the emplacement to occupy and while the Cies formed themselves in open column by the flank to advance across country, a counter order followed.
It was now a matter of attacking Ribemont.
The 42e Cie (Capt Jacquot) remained at Viller le Sec station serving as a pivot to the change in direction performed by the battalion while deploying. The four Cies were in line, the 44e at right, then the 43e, 41e and 42e at the pivot.
The march forward was well underway. The Zouaves met and passed elements of the Tirailleurs thrown back from Ribemont on Pleine-Selve.
At 15h15 the Commander of the 4eBon was in turn advised that the whole line was moving forward, he would also have to push an offensive movement by keeping himself in echelon to the rear and to right.
The movement of the 4e Battalion was begun by the 13e Cie which moved in a dispersed formation up to a quarry where it sheltered from enemy artillery fire.
The 15e Cie (Lieutenant Rippert) came to place himself in line deployed along a raised slope, the 16e Cie (Capt Gavory) was at left in contact with the other battalions of the Regiment.
At 15h45 the 4e Bataillon heard a lively fusillade beside Ribemont. It was the 4e Tirailleurs and our 3e Bataillon heavily engaged with German infantry.
It was the moment where the 11e Bataillon intervened.
That battalion rapidly gained a ridge which dominated Ribemont, from where it directed violent fire on German elements occupying the cemetery and the mill to the right of the cemetery. From the beginning the combat was very hot and the losses serious. Captain Jacquot was wounded by a bullet in the knee, Captain Pujade received a shell burst to the loins. Lieutenant Guidet, of the 44e was also wounded a little later.
To the right, in order to support the offensive, or if necessary, to parry a counter attack, the 4e Bataillon pushed the 13e Cie (Baronnier) further forward. That Cie deployed itself in skirmish formation in a beet field, while the 14e Cie passed across woods and along the east edge. The artillery which that company was to support had disappeared.
In front of the 13e Cie at a distance of 1200 to 1800m, numerous German infantrymen appeared, advancing, en masse, from one haystack to another towards the flank of the Tirailleurs.
It was the awaited counter attack.
The 13e Cie and the machine gun section of the Battalion opened fire against the enemy infantry. The effects of that fire appeared satisfactory and the forward movement of the Germans was suspended.
However the supports and the reserves of the enemy advanced en masse.
It was a marvelous target for our artillery, which unfortunately was not there.1

In fact the French batteries that had been supporting the attack of the 38e Division had been heavily shelled and had pulled out along with much of the attacking force. The 4e Zouaves were now facing the pursuing Germans on their own, without artillery support while other units were falling back around them. It should be said though, that they were doing a creditable job of holding the Germans off. There was no reckless bayonet charge here. The Parisian reservists of the 11e Battalion took advantage of some high ground to exchange fire with the Germans.  The 4e Battalion took precautions against enemy artillery by using concealment offered by the ground. Here and at Charleroi they had dug trenches to resist attack. The 13e Company, in a skirmish formation, along with a machine gun section had successfully blunted the German pursuit. It is at this point that the war diary takes up the story of Captain Giraud and the 14e Company:

Meanwhile the 13e Cie moved forward of the 14e Cie which for its part gained the northeast edge of the woods. Its Chief, Captain Giraud, lost no time discovering an enemy company, established and already entrenched in the north edge.
Captain Giraud, who was separated from the rest of the Battalion decided to attack that company. Leading his company himself in Indian file along a hedge where it was perfectly concealed, up to about 50 metres from the ridge occupied by the enemy.  At that moment Giraud led his men with bayonet. They left with a magnificent élan and despite the deadly fusillade they ran straight to the trench.
The enemy evacuated but at that moment the German artillery opened a terrible fire on the Zouaves while the enemy infantry found shelter at the edge of a wood at 100m to the rear.
Giraud fell and with him Second Lieutenant Desbruères. Nearly all the NCOs and 150 Zouaves were strewn on the ground. The remnants of that company were brought back by Warrant Officer Richard.2

It was a costly assault, despite a stealthy approach that brought the company as close as possible before launching the attack. Yet they actually drove the Germans out of their trench and the severe casualties came from artillery fire. The experience at Guise supports the claim made in Part 1 of this series that bayonet charges rarely actually made contact with the enemy. In this case, it was the Germans who gave way, surprised by the ferocity of an attack coming from behind their position. Caught off guard, they weren’t going to prevent the Zouaves from reaching their trench and they retreated rather than wait to fight it out in close combat. The prospect of being bayoneted had a profound psychological effect.

The diary of the 4e Battalion provides the eye-witness report of Warrant Officer Richard, who had led the remnants of his company back to French lines. The regimental diary follows the battalion diary closely, so I will take it up at the point of the 14e Company advance:

4e Battalion, 4e Zouaves
30 August

While the 13e Cie executed its offensive movement, Captain Giraud, conformed to the forward movement of the 13e Cie on his part by following the N.E. edge of the woods.
He brought himself vigorously to the attack on an enemy company he discovered established about 200 m in front of him to the N of the woods.
That attack, from which the rest of the battalion was separated by a small wood, having passed out of view from the Battalion Chief, I leave to the words of Warrant Officer Richard who was with what remained of the 14e Cie after the retreat.
“The Captain, after having ordered the most absolute silence, left in front to reconnoitre the enemy position and the way to be followed; he returned after about a quarter of an hour to give his orders in view of a bayonet attack and ordered” In column by 1, behind me!” The Cie made its way concealed along the length of a hedge of brambles without having been spotted, neither by the enemy artillery nor the infantry; it continued along the edge of the woods to arrive behind the ridge occupied by the enemy concealed in trenches. Before making the assault Captain Giraud deployed the Cie in skirmish formation, climbed back up on the ridge to spot the exact position of the enemy, came back and addressed the Zouaves of the Cie in a low voice ‘the Prussians are barely 200m from us, 2e Section behind me and forward with bayonet.’ Everyone left for the assault. Arriving at the ridge, the Prussians opened fire on us at scarcely 50 metres. The Zouaves of the 14e Cie, always marching forward while firing, forced the enemy to abandon his trenches while causing considerable losses to him. The supports beat a retreat on a woods about 100m distant. At that moment we were thrown to the ground by the fire of German artillery which decimated us terribly and forced us to beat a retreat. Captain Giraud was one of the first to fall, hit by a bullet squarely in the chest while shouting ‘Forward!’”
That attack led brilliantly and with a rare energy by an elite officer who was brevet Captain Giraud cost us two officers (Captain Giraud and s/lieutenant Desbruères left for dead on the ground, a Chief Warrant Officer and the Sergeant Major were killed, two other Warrant Officers wounded, as well as 150 Zouaves killed wounded or missing. The absence of all French artillery on the ground did not permit firing to take advantage of the offensive movement of the 13e and 14e Cies, however a result was achieved, the German counter attack led on the flank of the line of attack of the 76e Brigade was clearly stopped, the fire ceased, that line was able to continue its retreat in good order.3

Giraud was a daring officer who led from the front. He scouted out the enemy position thoroughly and found a way of approaching by stealth. The attack was not made in massed ranks advancing shoulder to shoulder – they deployed in an open order skirmish formation. Unless the defenders aimed carefully, many of their shots would pass through the empty spaces between the men. Giraud seems to have achieved almost complete surprise. Richard reports that the Zouaves fired as they advanced; this was not an attack made without firing a shot. There are some strong indications here that Giraud was trying to apply the lessons of recent experience. The bayonet charge was what Giraud knew, yet even at this early stage of the war it must have been apparent from recent failures that the straight-forward charge was disastrous. Giraud did everything he could to give his men the best chance of success. Of course, it is plain that even that was not enough. The attack was somewhat foolhardy, made against a force of equal size without support. He was out of contact from the rest of his battalion, which in itself put his men in a dangerous situation. This too can be attributed to of years of indoctrination that taught the superiority of the attack over defense.

Although left for dead, that was not the end of Captain Giraud. He was captured by the Germans and recovered in hospital. Giraud would have the distinction of being captured and escaping in both world wars. Giraud would command a French battalion in 1917 after escaping through the Netherlands. He was a General in 1940, and after his capture managed to escape to North Africa.4

Thanks for reading! 


1 Source: http://www.memoiredeshommes.sga.defense.gouv.fr/jmo/img-viewer/26_N_839_001/viewer.html

2 Source: http://www.memoiredeshommes.sga.defense.gouv.fr/jmo/img-viewer/26_N_839_001/viewer.html

3 Source: http://www.memoiredeshommes.sga.defense.gouv.fr/jmo/img-viewer/26_N_840_05a/viewer.html

4 Jean-Louis Larcade, Zouaves & Tirailleurs: les régiments de marche et les régiments mixtes (1914-1918.) (Paris : Editions des Argonautes, 2000). 206.

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Without Firing a Shot – Part 2

Allan Lougheed

In Part 1 of this series I examined the charge of the 2e Zouaves of the 37e Division at the Battle of Charleroi. In that article I argued that the reckless bayonet charge was partly the product of inexperience. In this post, I will examine the attack of the Division Marocaine at Fosse-à-l’Eau on 28 August 1914. This was their first battle on the Western Front, but not their first time in a combat situation. The battalions of the Division Marocaine were drawn from units already on campaign in Morocco when the war began. Experience in Morocco did not result in adoption of open order tactics, but the soldiers did demonstrate some good operational proficiency. The soldiers knew how to move tactically through a battlefield and, perhaps most importantly, there was better coordination with artillery.

It should be emphasized that soldiers of the Division Marocaine were not from Morocco. The twelve battalions of the division included four battalions of Algerian Tirailleurs, one of Tunisian Tirailleurs, four battalions of French Zouaves, and a regiment with three battalions of the Colonial Infantry. In this post I will be focusing on one particular regiment of the Division Marocaine, the 1er Régiment Mixte de Zouaves et Tirailleurs (1RMZT), commanded by Colonel Cros. The 1RMZT, as the name suggests, was originally supposed to include a battalion of Zouaves, but such was the haste with which these units were formed that the regiment left for France before the Zouave battalion could be mobilized, and there actually never were any Zouaves in the Regiment. The regiment did include the 5e Battalion, 4e Tirailleurs Tunisiens, the 1er Battalion, 5e Tirailleurs Algériens, and the 4e Battalion, 7e Tirailleurs Algériens. By December 1914, the casualties suffered in the first months of the war forced a reorganization and the deeds of the regiment are recorded in the War Diary of 7e Régiment de Marche de Tirailleurs Algériens. Tirailleurs were soldiers of the French army recruited from the inhabitants of the French North African possessions. They were equipped and trained to the same standard as any other French soldier and more importantly, those of the Moroccan Division had already been deployed on an active campaign when the Great War began. As will see, that experience gave them an edge over the typical French soldier.

The Battle of the Frontiers was already playing out as elements of the Division Marocaine, commanded by General Humbert, began assembling to the northwest of Charleville, France, on 21 August 1914. The Division Marocaine had not been able to take any part in that opening battle of the war. Prior to the First World War, battalions of Zouaves and Tirailleurs of the French North African forces had been allocated to the 19e Corps d’Armée, which was intended to deploy two divisions to France in the event of a war with Germany. Those plans had to be adjusted because of an ongoing campaign in Morocco, which involved some 70,000 French soldiers. Units employed in Morocco were wanted for the campaign against Germany, but had to be replaced in the field by reserves before they could be mobilized. The delay prevented those units from joining the 37e and 38e Divisions as originally planned and, instead, a provisional division called the Division Marocaine was organized, which mobilized for France about a week behind most other forces of the French army. The week delay prevented the Division Marocaine from taking part in the catastrophic opening encounter between the massive French and German armies. The Division Marocaine was assigned to the 9e Corps d’Armée, which had been retreating along with the rest of the French IVe Armée since it’s defeat in the Battle of the Frontiers. On 28 August 1914, the IVe Armée was ordered to counter attack and the role of the 9e Corps was to protect the northwest flank of the IVe Armée. The War Diary of the Division Marocaine records the events of the day:

Division Marocaine
28 August
General Order No 25 of the General OC the 9e C.A. established the mission of the Division for the day.
It consists: 1. To cover the army in the direction of the area comprised between the wooded region of Froidemont and the forest of Signy
2. To push a Brigade and the A.C. towards Raillecourt at the disposition of the General OC the C.A.
By General Order No 18 the General OC the Division ordered the details of execution of those missions.
The movements were executed as prescribed.
The greater part of the elements of Brigade Blondat, established to the N.E. of Liberecy with Group Martin of the A.D. to protect the retreat of the advanced posts, were the target of an attack feebly pressed by the enemy.
The fusillade, very lively for about an hour, ceased towards 8h30 under the fire of our artillery. Our losses were tiny and the elements of Brigade Blondat were able to disengage easily and resumed their movement in the direction assigned.
When the elements of the 2e Brigade arrived at Launois the General OC the Division was stopped by an order from the General OC the 9e C.A. prescribing to him to move towards Perron woods to cooperate with an offensive of the 11e C.A. against the enemy crossing the Meuse at Jonchery
The movement was begun towards 11H30 when a new order from the OC of the 9e C.A. prescribed to the General OC the Division to move with the 2 regiments Cros and Fellert to the rescue of Brigade Blondat near Signy l’Abbaye, to eject the enemy from Fosse a l’Eau and to make themselves master of the highway from Rethel passing to Signy l’Abbaye.
In consequence The General OC the Division gave the following order.
The enemy is in the general direction of Thin le Moutiers – Mailly forest
The Division goes to meet and attack him.
Regiment Cros will move in the general direction of Jamoin – Fosse à l’Eau. Zone of march between that road and the Bellevue farm
Regiment Fellert: General direction of Laumois-Dommery – axis of movement by the highway passing to the environs of the bakeries, branch off towards [blank] to move.
Brigade Blondat will move in the general direction of Dommery
Corps Artillery; 1 group to the orders of Colonel Cros – 1 group to the orders of Colonel Fellert
Group Turpin will move in the direction of Dommery to put itself at the disposition of General Blondat.
Note: Conserve Signy if possible.
Those orders came to be transmitted when the General OC the Division learned that Brigade Blondat, that the General OC the 9e Corps believed was compromised, had, in fact, disengaged easily without losses and was continuing its movement, by Courcelle farm which it occupied, on Fosse à l’Eau to fulfil the mission which had been conferred to it.
The order given was nevertheless unmodified and the movement started was continued.
Towards the same time, it was reported to the General of the Division by the Colonel OC the 7e Hussards that the enemy came to occupy Dommery immediately behind Brigade Blondat.
The General OC the Division therefore gave the order to Battalion Lagrue, the rear Baton of the Brigade Blondat arrived and disembarked in the morning at Laumois, to move to attack Dommery and occupy that village.[1] 

As we can see from the entry above, the situation was changing faster than the 9e Corps headquarters could keep up. Orders given by the 9e Corps to General Humbert of the Division Marocaine were obsolete by the time they arrived. This was a recipe for disaster, but things started to come together when General Humbert acted on information from cavalry of the 7e Hussards and took the initiative to intervene. General Humbert’s allocation of his artillery is also interesting. Each of his principle units had an artillery group placed under its direct command. The 1st Brigade under General Blondat had Groupe Turpin in support. The 2nd Brigade actually had no General of its own; orders given to the 1RMZT (Colonel Cros) and 2RMZT (Colonel Fellert) were coming directly from General Humbert except whenever he delegated command to Blondat. Because of that situation, Cros and Fellert had direct command of their own artillery support.

The situation began to solidify, and the War Diary of the Division Marocaine continues:

 Brigade Blondat supported by a group is charged with holding the front Dommery – Courcelle farm.
Regt Fellert has as objective Courcelle farm exclusive, Vieux – Gravier inclusive; it is supported by a group of the A.D.
Regt Cros in echelon to the right and supported by the A.C. must continue its advance toward Fosse-a-l’Eau.
The struggle engaged violently on the whole front. Units of Bde Blondat which occupied Fosse-a-l’Eau could not hold before the push of significant enemy forces. Regt Cros is charged with retaking that locality.
Until night the battle had been of great violence.
At left Dommery had been occupied by Bon Lagrue which had come to reinforce Bon Lachese, but little supported by the Divisional Arty which, given the nature of the terrain, could only put one Battery in action, two battalions had had to abandon the village under the push of enemy Infantry which was perfectly supported by the artillery established to the west of Courcelle farm. Those batons coming back with a charge succeeded in reoccupying the village, but pushed back a 2nd time they had had to establish themselves in the orchard to the E where they held until night, further to the right the colonial battalions Garelly and Coup had organized Courcelle farm defensively and even launched an energetic offensive movement, but not supported by Div Artillery and hit on the other part by enemy Arty they suffered losses reaching nearly half of their strength struggling heroically until night – still further to the right the Regiments Fellert and Cros well supported by our Div Artillery and A.C. which took the advantage little by little could advance in the directions indicated, but not without serious losses caused by German machine guns.
Colonel Cros at the head of his men which he led with remarkable energy succeeded in enveloping the woods to the North of Fosse-a-l’Eau.
Towards 17H30 a German counter-attack broke out en masse from the notch between Maisonville and Fosse-a-l’Eau came down with all speed on Bon Sauvageot of Regiment Fellert which was coming to be very depleted. That strong counter attack of approximately a Baton, caught in the sights of a group of Arty, was absolutely annihilated.

At nightfall the German Arty was silenced completely and the fusillade progressively faded away.[2]

 The passage above illustrates just how decisive artillery could be. French infantry met with little success anywhere on the battlefield where artillery was unable to provide support because of conditions on the ground. The French 75mm gun was a field gun, not a howitzer. A Howitzer is designed to fire shells on a high, arcing trajectory, so that they plunge down onto enemy positions. Howitzers do not normally shoot at positions they can see; they fire by map coordinates. Field guns fired high velocity, flat trajectory shells; they can also fire on map coordinates but any intervening terrain features can block the line of fire and French doctrine emphasized firing directly at enemy positions at fairly close ranges. The guns supporting Blondat at Dommery were only able to put one battery into action because of the confined nature of the ground they deployed on and the French battalions there were forced to pull back. An attack by the Colonial Infantry at Courcelle farm was launched without artillery support and failed. On the other hand, attacks made by Cros and Fellert did achieve some success, but not without some hard fighting.

The War Diary of the 7e Tirailleurs records the battle from the perspective of the soldiers under Colonel Cros (1RMZT)

7e Tirailleurs
28 August
At 5h battalion Britsch went to take a fallback position to the west of Jandun facing north and at 8h45 the baton moved on Poix-Terron; the 2e brigade including the regiment made to leave, passed into reserve of the 9e Corps d’Armée, which had to move ultimately towards the Meuse in view of cooperating in the offensive taken by General Langle de Cary – at 10h30 information made known the presence of the enemy towards Thin to the N.W., the baton suspended its march and took and articulated formation facing N.W. – the baton at 11h marched towards Dommery where Brigade Blondat (1ere Brigade of the Division), strongly engaged, fell back. The direction of march is the Road Launois – Thin les Moutiers. The enemy being reported at Fosse-a-l’Eau, the 2e Brigade advanced in that direction, Baton Britsch is echeloned to the rear and to the right – at 16h30 the 1er Cie of the battalion left its 1er platoon to support the artillery, the 2e platoon remains in reserve at the disposition of the CO of the battalion. The 2e3e and 4e Cies passed the village and took position. – at 18h10 the offensive was ordered, the Baton seized the first ridge and charged with bayonet to clear the edge of the woods in which the enemy was concealed.[3]

Like the 2e Zouaves at Charleroi, the attack at Fosse-à-l’Eau was made by bayonet, but it met with much more success. The diary of the 7e Tirailleurs does not acknowledge it, but their success was due in large part to their supporting artillery, as the diary of the 3e Batterie Coloniale illustrates:

3e Batterie Coloniale
28 August
Departure from Librecy at 5h. Close to 5h30 position at 2k N of Signy l’Abbaye and at 500m from the Signy l’Abbaye – Rocroi road. Zone of surveillance 100 mils to right and to left of the clog factory. Cmd Post on the road, intercommunication by hand signals. No shooting. – At 9h left that position passing to Signy l’Abbaye – Dommery. Stopped in waiting position at 200m E of Plate-Pierre. At 15h the Battery put itself in position at 200 m N of Plate-Pierre on the road towards Fosse-a-l’Eau. Supported an attack in the direction NE of Dommery. – At 17h45 put in battery at the E edge of the village of Fosse-a-l’Eau under fire of enemy machineguns – Fired high explosive shell at 400m on the woods occupied by enemy infantry who had to abandon it.[4]

The success of the 3e Battery came at the cost of deploying to fire on the enemy at point blank range. With the enemy only 400 metres away, they were well within range of rifle and machinegun fire, but it was a bold move and the combination of Artillery fire and the bayonet charge against Germans in the woods to the N of Fosse was enough to drive them back. In contrast to the disaster at Charleroi described in Part 1, the 3re Battery changed position three times in order to aggressively support the attack. It should be said though, that howitzers could have done the same job without moving, and it highlights the restrictions the dependence on field guns imposed on French operations.

In addition to the French War Diaries, there is an eye-witness account of the attack at Fosse-à-l’Eau from Lieutenant Suffren of the 1RMZT, whose recollection was recorded in the 1917 book by Paul Ginisty, La Histoire de la Guerre par les Combattants. The book was subjected to censorship, and we have to expect that the account will be as rosy as possible. Nevertheless Lieutenant Suffren provides a unique perspective. In this first excerpt, Suffren begins by describing the march from Dommery towards Fosse-à-l’Eau:

The Regiment had to form up at the east exit of the village, defiladed by a ridge. But in that formation it came up against enclosures of barbed wire; it was necessary to make open numerous passages; fortunately the tools were in their packs and we had the regulation wire cutters available. Efforts were in vain, those beautiful peace-time tools were powerless to cut the enclosures.  We ended up giving the order to use hatchets, which gave more success. Our Tirailleurs were finally on their way, ready in case of alarm.[5]

The countryside the Tirailleurs had to advance through was crisscrossed with pastures enclosed with wire so tough that the issue wire-cutter couldn’t cut it. That government-issue tools don’t always work is a scenario rarely considered in peace-time manoeuvers. The dense, undulating ground was interrupted by hamlets and copses of wood; an enemy formation could appear close by with little warning. There was every possibility that the battalion could come under fire while fumbling to get past a fence, but these soldiers had been in combat before and their officers knew how to deal with this situation, as Suffern describes below:

New order. It was necessary to march on Signy l’Abbaye. The 1er Bataillon of the 5e Tirailleurs was in the lead; we cut across woods and enclosures. In front, patrols of sappers prepared the way, hacking through bush, cutting enclosures. The battalion followed; in each company, we put sections in column by 1, long formation, but very practical on an itinerary tormented and strewn with obstacles. We thus gained a small village where we were 2 kilometres to the south-east of Fosse-a-l’Eau.

It was eleven hours; we heard a lively fusillade, but always no canon. Colonel Cros gave his orders to Major Britsch, of the 1er Bataillon, and we resumed across country, marching in diamond formation, that which Marshal Bugeaud affectionately called the “Boar’s Head”. It permits forming front rapidly in any direction.[6]

The reference to Marshal Bugeaud, remembered as the father of the Armée d’Afrique and affectionately called “Pere Bugeaud” by the troops, is a nod to Suffren’s North African experience. Having expertly advanced across country, the Tirailleurs were directed onto Fosse-à-l’Eau. Suffren describes an attack by a neighboring unit of the Colonial Infantry and a battalion of the 2RMZT under Major Clerc.  His account is overly-romantic :

It was sixteen hours 30. It was on those positions that a counter attack took place given by a colonial battalion to the left, and battalion Clerc to the right. That last having the wooded crest as its objective, put three companies in the first line and one in reserve. It came off cleanly; some men already fell behind him under the storm of bullets.  Not one hundred metres were run when he staggered and collapsed, struck by several projectiles while shouting: “En avant!” Our Tirailleurs yelled and rushed, many also fell; they continued to advance intrepidly. But those cursed enclosures of barbed wire. Vainly they tried to break them, to cut them, to knock down the posts. No use. So, with a sublime élan, under those implacable machine guns, those who remained, with packs on their backs, jumped the obstacle![7]

By Suffren’s account the initial attack went ahead before the 3e Battery had begun firing from Fosse-à-l’Eau. Despite Suffren’s version of events, the German machine guns and the wire fences must have held up the advance for a considerable period of time. Suffren fails to mention the French battery firing from Fosse-à-l’Eau as of 17:45, but goes on to say that at 18:00 (90 minutes after the attack started), “one by one the machine guns were silenced.” The 3e Batterie Coloniale was in action. At that point the advance must have resumed and the Tirailleurs reached the German positions in the woods to the north of Fosse-à-l’Eau. Suffren recalled seeing “hand to hand fighting” through his binoculars, but the enemy continued to hold out. At that point Colonel Cros committed one of his battalions under Major Britsch to the attack. Major Britsch made some good use of the ground in front of his battalion, but again the artillery preparation must have played an important role:

Major Britsch, using the road towards the east, by the embankment that I reported, brought us close up to the enemy, nearly without losses, occupied the quarry and gave, at 250 metres, an assault which would succeed in two bounds, despite the machine guns… We charged the enemy position with bayonet. Ah! The shouts of our Tirailleurs, and the fantastic bound of their first assault, that rush on the [forest] edge that the Germans deserted, terrified! That will remain, forever, engraved in my memory.[8]

In constrast to the attack of the 2e Zouaves at Charleroi, the casualties suffered under Major Britsch were far fewer; 7 killed, 2 missing and 21 wounded including Major Britsch himself. Casualties for Major Clerc’s battalion are not available, but the Division Marocaine did suffer some significant losses. Total losses for the division on 28 August were reported at 254 killed, 394 missing, and 1001 wounded; a high number, but not as catastrophic as many other divisions experienced in their first battle. Overall the Division had held its own, which was not a common experience for French divisions in August 1914. Ginisty wrote that the attack at Fosse-à-l’Eau “was one of the favourable episodes of the retreat.” There had been few indeed.

There is good evidence here that some lessons of operational experience in Morocco had been absorbed by those soldiers, but it needs to be said that their officers were still committed to use of the bayonet. Artillery support was better than usual but still not perfect. The experience of Major Clerc’s battalion shows that they had no qualms about launching a bayonet charge even if no support was available.  Yet artillery preparation and good use of ground mitigated the cost of those tactics in many cases that day.

Thanks for reading! In Part 3 I will examine the charge of the 4e Zouaves on 30 August 1914, at the Battle of Guise.


[2] Ibid.
[5]Paul Ginisty and Maurice Gagneur, Histoire de la Guerre par les Combattants, Vol 1 (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1917), 184-185.
[6] Ibid. 185.
[7] Ibid. 188-189.
[8] Ibid. 189-190.
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Without Firing a Shot – Part 1

The Charge of the 2e Zouaves at Charleroi, 22 August 1914

Allan Lougheed

     The battles of August 1914 are infamous for the carnage caused by out-dated tactics such as massed infantry assaults with bayonet. Many years ago, my first foray into the history of the French army in the First World War came from one of the redoubtable Osprey books on the subject.1 “There was to be no firing in the advance” records the section on tactics in The French Army 1914-18, “the first order was to fix bayonets, the second to charge.” Charging without firing a shot was by no means a universal experience during the Battle of the Frontiers during August 1914. Other tactics, such as attacking by bounds of fire and movement were available to the infantry commander, but bayonet charges were frequently used and examples from the pages of French war diaries are easy to find. Those early battles are worth looking at from a soldiers’-eye view. The first battles of August 1914 offer a glimpse into the mentality of the time and are the starting place for the changes in tactics and organization that followed. What is more, although things invariably went terribly wrong, the actual circumstances varied considerably. In this series, I am going to look at examples of French bayonet charges and the ways that they unfolded.

     During the research for my recent book, Too Many Heroes, Volume 1, I came across an example of a bayonet charge executed by the 2e Zouaves of the 37e Division during the Battle of Charleroi, on 22 August 1914. The War Diary of the 37e Division contains the following entry:

22 August 1914
9 h[ours]
Order to the 2e Zouaves to engage itself to the left of the 19e Division.
The Zouaves advanced and disappeared behind the ridge to the North East of Arsimont.
At 10H30 a movement of retreat brought them back to that ridge.
They have suffered important losses while attacking Auvelais and the bridges of the Sambre to the East.2

The entry is terse, but it is clear that a devastating tragedy had occurred. The diarist watched the Zouaves advance towards their first battle of the war and disappear over the crest of a ridge into the unknown. An hour and a half later they were in full retreat having suffered heavy losses. What happened?

     For the 2e Zouaves of the 37e Division, the advance on Auvelais, near Charleroi, was the first time that years of preparation would be put to the test against a real enemy. There were four Zouave Regiments in 1914, each with 8 battalions (including both active and reserve).3 Most of the battalions of the Zouave regiments were dispersed in garrisons throughout North Africa, but the 5e and 11e Battalions of each regiment were stationed in France. Each 5e Battalion was invariably comprised of conscripts and volunteers of the active army, while the 11e Battalion of a Zouave regiment was comprised of local reservists from either Paris or Lyon, depending on their regiment. The Zouaves of the reserve battalions in France were “Zouaves” simply because this was the closest reserve battalion to their place of residence; during their period of active service they may have belonged to any of the ordinary infantry regiments. The four Zouave regiments were administrative not combat formations; on campaign, ad hoc régiments de marche were formed from available battalions to take to the field. In fact, in August 1914 nine battalions of Zouaves were already on campaign in Morocco and could not be immediately spared for the war against Germany.  The régiments de marche that were initially contributed to the Western Front were improvised from battalions not already committed to the Moroccan campaign.

     The Zouaves were considered to be elite regiments of the French army, but that was a reputation based largely on exploits of the 19th century. By 1914 the Zouave regiments were composed of conscripts just like the vast majority of soldiers in the French army, with perhaps a slightly higher proportion of volunteers. The 2e Régiment de marche de Zouaves of the 37e Division were comprised of the 1er Battalion stationed at Oran, Algeria, and the 5e and 11e battalions stationed at Sathonay, near Lyon in France. Although Zouave battalions on campaign in Morocco were among the few soldiers of the French army that had ever actually been under fire when the First World War broke out, few if any of the Zouaves stationed in France had ever seen action before. Yet with their elite reputation, it is likely that few French soldiers were as deeply imbued with “élan” as the Zouaves. French battle doctrine of August 1914 was dominated by the notion of the superiority of attack over defense – a notion that machine guns, trenches and indirect artillery fire would soon dispel. The 2e Zouaves at Auvelais had never been under fire before and their first attack would be a shocking initiation. 

     The advance on the village of Auvelais on 22 August 1914, part of the larger Battle of Charleroi, was just one small engagement in a massive struggle remembered as the Battle of the Frontiers. When the 37e Division was attached to the Ve Armée on 17 August it was with the expectation that they were part of the important French offensive.4 According to Plan XVII the French Ve Armée was originally intended to join the IIIe and IVe Armées in their thrust through the centre of the German army in the Ardennes, but by 22 August it found itself wrong-footed and desperately on the defensive. Together, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French Ve Armée found themselves facing the main assault wing of the German army which was forcing its way through Belgium. With the German 2nd Army approaching from the North, and the 3rd Army advancing from the East, Lanrezac positioned his Ve Armée to face both of them at the confluence of the Sambre and the Meuse rivers. Lanrezac did not take adequate steps to guard his position holding the banks of the Sambre and the Meuse. Two bridges over the Sambre were unguarded, and on 21 August the Prussian Guards of the German 2nd Army began crossing the Sambre between Charleroi and Namur. By the morning of 22 August, the German 2ndArmy had a solid bridgehead across the Sambre.5

      Having received no orders from Lanrezac, his Corps commanders took matters into their own hands by launching a counter-attack early on 22 August. When the attack of the 19e Division faltered, its commander, General Bonnier, asked the 37e Division for help. General Comby of the 37e responded by ordering the 2e Zouaves to support the 19e Division and place itself under Bonnier’s orders. Regrettably, there is no war diary for the 2e Zouaves, but a regimental history published in 1921 fills in some of the details of what followed:

 The great Battle of Charleroi, where the enemy hoped to carry off the first decisive blow, was engaged. The 2e Zouaves, who received a new chief, Lieutenant Colonel TROUSSEL, was put at the disposition of the General Commanding the 19eme Division and received, on 22 August in the morning, the order to capture the village of AUVELAIS.
The task was formidable and worthy of the 2e Zouaves. The village, solidly defended, armed with numerous machine guns and protected by powerful artillery, was held by the elite of the German army: the Imperial Guard. The ground, flat and bare, descended in a gentle slope towards the SAMBRE. Impossible to escape on that glacis in view of the enemy and the inexorable fire of machine guns.
The 5ème Battalion, Colonel in the lead, left nonetheless for the assault, heads high. The bullets and shells tore bloody gaps in the ranks. Colonel TROUSSEL fell mortally struck, but, following close behind, the Zouaves advanced even so.
At 9 hours 30, the 5ème Bataillon reached a slag heap at only 150 metres from the village and drove a wedge between the first houses of AUVELAIS and the hamlet of ALLEUX, protected by a trench. The 1er and 11ème Battalions did not delay to prolong the 5ème, facing the village.
But the machine guns raged. The Germans, hidden in the houses, suffered little. The French artillery, taken violently, in part, by large calibre guns, remained silent. The regiment exhausted itself and ammunition became scarce. Major DECHERF understood that to continue the struggle to the death was useless and towards 12 hours 30, by small units, the Zouaves regained their starting positions.6

Of course, the regimental history attempts to put a brave face on things, but the attack had been a disaster. The 2e Zouaves suffered 689 casualties, mostly from the 5e Battalion. They were pinned down in the open and by 12:30 they were in retreat. Another version of what transpired can be found in the diary of the 73e Brigade:

21 August, at 21 hours, order No 46/3 of the Don
The 37e Don goes to bring itself immediately on the front Pontaury (N. of Mettet) – St. Gerard in 2 columns:
Left Column (General Blanc OC the 73e Bde) comprising the 73e Bde, the Engineer Coy, 2 groups of Artillery, the Divisional squadron, by Mettet on Pontaury.
Right Column (Colonel Taupin of the 74e Bde) comprising the 74e Bde and 1 gr of Artillery by Rosée, Flavion, Trimeton sur Biert on Cottaprez.
Departure of the 1st element (2e Zouaves) from Florennes at 23H30
The 2eTirailleurs, delayed, only passed the I.P.[7] at 2H.
The 6e Tirailleurs brought themselves by itinerary directly on Cottaprez.
On arriving at Pontaury, the battle was already engaged in strength on the Sambre. The Brigade was brought to the S. of Fosse, forming up covered to the N. of Fosse by 1 Bon of the 2e Zouaves.
Then towards 5H, it received the order to form up to the N of Fosse where the 6e Tirailleurs joined.
Division Bonnier of the 10e C.A. was strongly engaged on the Sambre in front of Auvelais and Ham sur Sambre. Its Chief asked General Comby of the 37e Don to give him a regiment to support Bde Rogerie. The 2e Zouaves were designated.
At 8 hours, its chief received from the General OC the 19e Don the following order: “Seize the rest of the village of Auvelais occupied by the Germans and throw them into the
Sambre. You have the Guard[8] facing you.”
The 2e Zouaves marched on their objective. Bon Decherf was directed to the left supported on the FosseArzimont road; the other Bons were echeloned at 500m to the right.
The regiment progressed rapidly, joined by remnants of the 48e, badly depleted, seized a copse of woods situated 1km S.W. of Auvelais with bayonet without firing a rifle shot, then fell under the fire of the defenders of the village, at distances from 150 to 300m. The enemy occupied strong trenches provided with machine guns. Their artillery, which was not counter-battered, held nothing back; The Zouaves were pinned down to the ground and suffered severe losses.
They struggled up to 12H30 without support of our artillery, and at that moment, had to beat a retreat.
That commenced by the right by successive echelons at the cost of enormous losses, the enemy contented himself to pursue by fire.
Certain remnants held up very close to some houses of Auvelaiscould not execute their withdrawal until night.9

 The two accounts agree on all of the major points, but each offers some unique insights. It was the comment about advancing “with bayonet without firing a rifle shot” that really caught my attention. It is tempting to imagine that the charge was inevitably suicidal, yet Major Decherf was evidently able to size up the strength of the enemy in front of him, and accurately judged that he would be able to simply drive them out of their position. The first contact with the German forces near the copse of wood was only a skirmish screen, and not the main enemy line. There is no indication that the German skirmishers attempted to hold their ground against the initial bayonet charge. Bayonet charges seldom did result in contact with the enemy. Instead, one of two things would typically happen; either the defender would give way, or the charging troops would come under heavy fire and go to ground or retreat. Jean-Norton Cru, a veteran of the Great War, attempted to dispel many of the myths about the war in his writings. On bayonet charges, he cited another veteran Henry Morel-Journel, in Journal d’un Officier

 “A bayonet charge” an officer who has led several was telling me, “is a band of frightened men who rush forward closing their eyes and pressing their weapons against their chests. That goes on for a bit, until a volley makes them crouch or a shell has scattered them or they reach the enemy. The real hand to hand encounter is extremely rare; that one of the two adversaries who has the less confidence in his strength surrenders or runs away several seconds before contact.”10

The charging Zouaves gained the copse of wood, but it is likely that the German skirmishers were long gone by the time they arrived. 

     That is not to say that hand-to-hand fighting never occurred (later posts in this series will provide some examples), and it may be that some of the German skirmishers were run through, but the Zouaves’ real problems began once they cleared the woods and began advancing on the main German line. The advance drove the Zouaves deeper into the German positions where resistance quickly mounted. Within a short time the Zouaves came up against entrenched positions and machine guns. The initial force of the bayonet charge was now spent and the Zouaves found themselves in a kill zone, pinned down in open ground and completely unsupported by artillery. 

     It is equally interesting that one of the complaints about the French artillery is the lack of counter-battery against the German guns. The spearhead of the Zouaves’ advance was undertaken by the 5e Battalion of the 2e Zouaves, from Sathonay, France. Both opponents would have regarded themselves as the elite of their own forces; it was Guard against Guard. There seems to be a feeling that, man for man, the Zouaves might have been the equal of the Prussian Guards if only the German artillery had been neutralized. But counter-battery against German guns was not an easy thing to achieve during the mobile phase of the war. First the German guns had to be located, but the German use of high trajectory howitzers allowed them to place their batteries out of direct line of sight. If they had counted on being able to knock out German guns ahead of the infantry attack, it proved a difficult job in practice. 

     If the Zouaves had wanted artillery support, there were about three hours between the initial contact at 9:30 and the retreat at 12:30 where artillery could have turned the situation around. Colonel Troussel had died leading the attack, but any of the Battalion commanders could have asked for artillery. The war diary of the 37e Artillerie Divisional (AD 37e) records that they were indeed ready for action:  

22 August
The 3 groups at 4 hours were put in column in the middle of the division on the road from Mettet to Fosse at the ridge of the hamlet of Haman. The fusillade extended towards Arsimont. The 20e Division held the knoll of Arsimont, the Germans only held Auvelais. Order was given to the 37e to engage. The artillery of the 20e Division and a part of the corps artillery were engaged. There remained few places for the AD 37e. The groups were put in battery nevertheless, and fired on the zone of ground descending from Arsimont on Auvelais. No German offensive was launched.11

 The timing is unclear and one wonders what they were shooting at, but the batteries of the 37e were in action and if orders had been given they would have been in position to respond. Even without telephone communications, three hours was conceivably enough time for runners from the 2e Zouaves to reach their Brigade Headquarters and pass orders to their artillery. But there is little indication that staff from the Brigade or Divisional Headquarters were keeping in communication with the Zouaves as they advanced. It was also well within the purview of the artillery to observe the situation at the front. The last comment in the AD 37e diary, that no German offensive was launched, suggests that they were not even very well informed about the nature of the tactical situation; it was the French who were supposed to be on the offensive. French infantry and artillery regarded themselves as independent arms on the battlefield; each located and engaged the enemy on their own. An almost total lack of coordination between French infantry and artillery was one of the hallmark failures of the opening campaign of the war.

     The 2e Zouaves had gone into battle believing that they were among the best troops in the French army, that the enemy in front of them was “worthy” of their fighting prowess. If they couldn’t achieve such a formidable task then who could? But the first real experience of total war had shattered those ideas. No amount of élan had been enough to drive the Prussian Guard out of Auvelais. Everything they thought they knew about fighting would have to be re-examined.

     Thanks for reading! In Part 2 of this series I will examine the charge of the 7e Tirailleurs Algériens at Fosse-a-l’Eau, 28 August 1914. For the 2e Zouaves the charge at Auvelais had been their first experience under fire. The 7e Tirailleurs Algériens had been sent to France straight from the campaign in Morocco, how would that experience influence events?

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[1] Ian Sumner, The French Army, 1914-18. (London:Osprey Publishing, 1995).
[3] The reserve battalions of a Zouave regiment were numbered-off beginning with 11e, though curiously, none had a 13e battalion, apparently due to superstition. The three reserve battalions of the 2e Zouaves were numbered 11e, 12e, and 14e. For an excellent reference on the Zouave regiments see: Jean-Louis Larcade, Zouaves & Tirailleurs: les régiments de marche et les régiments mixtes (1914-1918.) (Paris : Editions des Argonautes, 2000).
[4] Holger Herwig, The Marne (New York: Random House, 2009). 135.
[5] Ibid. 143.
[7] I.P. = Initial Point, or start line.
[8] The order is referring to the German Imperial Guard, elite troops of the German army.
[10] Jean-Norton Cru, War Books (San Diego: San Diego University Press, 1976). 84.
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Sources on the Infanterie Légère d’Afrique – Part 1

In my introduction to Too Many Heroes, Volume 1, I quote a statement of Pierre Mac Orlan from 1933, in which he remarked on the scarcity of books that had been written on soldiers of the Infanterie Légère d’Afrique – nicknamed the Joyeux. Pierre Mac Orlan’s complaint needs to be qualified, because in many ways we have more written on the Bataillons Infanterie Légère d’Afrique (BILA) than most other individual units of the French Army. What we do not really have is a personal memoir written by an actual private soldier of the BILA (not an Officer, NCO, or a civilian) who served before the Second World War. We have a mountain of outside opinions to sift through, but very little direct evidence specifically for those Joyeux who fought the First World War. The sources that do exist need to be treated carefully, because everyone who wrote of the Joyeux did so with an agenda. We need to understand what those agendas were. I also tried to avoid applying comments recorded in eras such as the 1840’s or 1940’s to the First World War period, though there is often little alternative.

While my introduction explored much of the early history of the BILA – from 1832 onwards – Too Many Heroes, Volume One focuses on the Joyeux who fought in the First World War. The BILA changed considerably as an organization over its roughly 150 year history, so I attempted to draw on sources as close as possible to 1914. Fortunately, the period from 1900 to 1914 was one of the most prolific for writings on the BILA. I drew heavily on the writings of two medical doctors in particular, namely Louis Combe and Raoul Jude. The writings of Jude and Combe provide some useful insights into the BILA; however, these are something of a mixed blessing because of their connection to degeneracy theory. Degeneracy theory was a pseudo-science that gained influence after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, which contrary to Darwin’s own views held that individuals and societies could become degenerate. Degeneracy theorists believed that the human species could devolve as well as evolve, resulting in physical defects, mental inferiority and a tendency to anti-social behaviour. In the decade preceding the First World War, some French medical doctors such as Louis Combe and Raoul Jude reasoned that since the Joyeux were recruited from the petty criminals of French society, they must be degenerate. The BILA, they believed, made an ideal test case in degeneracy theory. The Joyeux were examined mentally and physically in order to build profiles of degenerate individuals, including the kinds of physical and character defects that supposedly resulted from a degenerate condition. There was also the question of whether the supposed degeneracy could be reversed through military discipline, and if there would be a resulting improvement in physique or character.

Doctor Raoul Jude served as a doctor at the military hospital at Gabès, Tunisia, and therefor had an opportunity to examine Joyeux when they were treated at his hospital. The title of Jude’s 1907 book, Les Dégénérés dans les Bataillons d’Afrique, reflects his preoccupation with degeneracy. Because the Joyeux he examined were those passing through the hospital there is an emphasis on malingerers – those faking illness to escape military duty. Consequently, Jude’s view of the BILA is somewhat narrow. The strength of Jude’s writing is that he was the first to provide some concrete statistics on the social background of the Joyeux, though his sample sizes are very small and it is often unclear whether he is referring to soldiers of the BILA or soldiers of Disciplinary Companies.

Jude’s insights into the relationship between the Joyeux and their officers and NCOs are an important aspect of his writing but cannot be taken in isolation; his observations do seem to compare favourably with the high calibre of leadership seen in the war diaries, but the officers and NCOs sent to the Western Front were probably the best available. Jude seems to argue that the leadership of the BILA needed to take an even firmer hand than they did. Indeed he remarks that the discipline in the BILA could be somewhat lenient. He observed that recruits often arrived on their best behaviour, having heard about the harsh reputation of the BILA, but began to slack off and get into trouble when they realized that the regime was not that harsh. He also remarked upon the dangers of giving them the freedom to go into town on their off-duty hours, where they would be exposed to vice and get into trouble that would result in punishment. In that regard, we can see how Jude’s preoccupation with degeneracy influences his conclusions. Since he assumed that the Joyeux were degenerate, he frowned upon any freedom that would provide an opportunity for bad behavior to come out, though it should be emphasised that he did not advocate any form of abusiveness. The Joyeux, he argued, could be kept in line if their leaders were consistently firm from the beginning. Yet there is certainly no evidence that the disciplinary regime in the BILA was any less harsh than that of a regular regiment, quite the opposite in fact. Nevertheless, because he advocated strict limitations on the freedoms granted to the Joyeux, there is some credence to his assertion that Joyeux were not treated too badly, which I think – based on sources taken together –  was likely the case for those who took to their training quickly and did not cause trouble.

Doctor Louis Combe followed up on Jude’s writing with his own book published in 1912, entitled, Le Soldat d’Afrique – 1. His first volume was intended to be part of a three volume series. A subsequent volume on the Foreign Legion and the Algerian Tirailleurs was published in 1921, but it seems he never completed a volume on the Zouaves. Combe’s first volume covered the BILA as well as the Disciplinary Companies, the North African military penitentiaries and forced labour units. Combe did visit North Africa though it is not clear whether he did so as an observer or as part of his military service. As with Jude, Combe’s concern was with degeneracy among the Joyeux, and observable physical and mental traits of the supposed degeneracy. Consequently, he comes to some egregious conclusions. Combe states, for example, that the Joyeux were ugly and universally homosexual, neither of which is to be believed. To a greater degree than Jude, Combe concerned himself with whether or not service in the BILA had a rehabilitative influence on the Joyeux. The strongest evidence he seems to have been able to muster, was that the Joyeux finished their North African service with a good sun tan. Combe regarded degeneracy as a contagion that could be spread through contact, and for that reason advised that the worst criminals in the BILA be separated out. Nevertheless, Combe’s writing is useful for some of the statistics he provides and the anecdotes of day to day life in the BILA, and his opinions are valuable as a glimpse into the attitudes of an outsider who expressed ideas about the Joyeux that may have been prevalent in the public at large.

Also interesting are Les Bataillons d’Afrique et leur organisation actuelle, published anonymously by the Journal des Sciences Militaires in 1903, and La Réorganisation des Bataillons d’Infanterie Légère d’Afrique written by Commandant Ordioni (likely a pseudonym) in 1911. They are similar enough in nature that one wonders if they were written by the same person. There is also no indication of whether either author had any direct experience with the BILA – Oridioni is said to have been from the 4th Infantry Regiment, which did not serve in North Africa. Despite their titles, both actually contain recommendations for reorganizing the BILA, and in the process, provide some useful details about the composition of the battalions that are included in my introduction. I place these two sources in the same category as Jude and Combe, because even though there is no indication that the authors were degeneracy theorists, Ordioni appears to have drawn heavily from the writings of Jude; many of the statistics he provides are found in Jude as well. Ordioni also shares the concern that salvageable Joyeux should not be “contaminated” by contact with more hardened criminals. Ordioni’s recommendations to limit the number of convictions a potential recruit could have do not appear to have been taken up as policy by the French government. Ordioni’s work reflects the seemingly paradoxical tensions of building an elite corps out of ex-convicts. Ordioni does offer readers some of the problems he saw with regard to the Infanterie Légère d’Afrique, which is useful in its own right.

Thanks for reading! In Part 2, I will take a look at sources that come from the post war period.

Allan Lougheed

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Introducing the Great War History Blog!

Welcome to the Great War History Blog!

I have some big plans for this site, but as you can see, I am still getting things off the ground. If you have come here to learn about the First World War, I want this site to be a resource for you. I want Great War History to be a place where independent researchers like myself can showcase their work on the First World War.  

Some introductions are in order. My name is Allan Lougheed and I graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in History and Literary Studies in 1995. I have been a Master Bombardier in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, and I am an historical re-enactor of the loyalist experience of the American War of Independence. I am not an academic. The research I do on the First World War comes from a life-long passion for military history and a dedication to remembering the soldiers who fought that terrible war.

I have seen the internet flourish as a research tool over the past years. I recall embarking on a research project in 2005, wondering how I would ever find the research materials I needed and whether I would be able to find a publisher. Now in 2012, the materials are more accessible than ever and self-publishing options have exploded. This blog will give me a chance to share some of the experience I have gained about how to research as well as the ups and downs of publishing my own work. I will also take the opportunity to share research that I will not have a chance to include in my published work.

That’s all for now. There will be more to come soon.

Allan Lougheed


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