From August 1914 to early 1917, the French Army shouldered much of the the fighting on the Western Front – and with astonishing endurance. In one two-week period – August 16-31, 1914 – they suffered 210,993 casualties. By comparison, British casualties numbered 164,709 in the opening month – July 1916 – of the Somme offensive.
The French Army also adapted very well to the difficulties that trench warfare presented. They perfected the art of artillery “barrage” fire and they pioneered new & fresh platoon-level infantry tactics, focused on automatic weapons and rifle grenades. While the first day of the Somme – July 1, 1916 – was a disaster for the British, the French took all of their objectives.
In early 1917, 68 French divisions suffered mutinies. But the soldiers taking part in what were effectively military strikes neither refused to defend their trenches nor abandoned France’s war aims. The army itself would rally magnificently from this near collapse and would play a critical role in the coming Allied victory of 1918. From July to November 1918, French troops would capture 139,000 German prisoners. During the same period, the American Expeditionary Force would capture 44,142 Germans.
(Photos colorized by Frederic Duriez)