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601e Régiment de Circulation Routière

601e RCR on parade in Arras

Although the Regiment has been disbanded I have decided to keep their story because it adds some background to the events at Verdun and explains the link between the two towns.

It also explains something about how French society maintains its connection with its defence forces now that conscription has been done away with.

It all begins with Napoleon

On 27th March 1807 having become depressed with the civilian companies providing his army’s logistical services Napoleon created Le Train des Équipages Militaires.

Ne me parlez plus de ces compagnies. C’est un tas de gueux qui ne font pas le service… Je regrette l’argent que je leur ai donné. Nos armées ne seront organisées que lorsqu’il n’y aura plus un seul administrateur, que tout militaire sera militaire… sans quoi nous serons à la merci de fripons, comme nous en avons.

Not another word about these companies! They’re a shower of good for nothings who don’t help at all … I regret every penny given to them. Our armies wont be organised until there is just the one administrator, until everything military is in fact military … until then we will be at the mercy of rogues such as these.

From that moment on, soldiers of the service have served in every theatre of war and peace keeping force conducted by the French Army.

The creation of the Circulation Units in 1916

Monument to the French Train at Verdun

The monument to The Train at Verdun — note the winged wheel

At the outbreak of the First World War almost everything was of course still moved by horse but The Train now included a Motorised Section which started the war with less than 200 vehicles and finished it with 92,000 lorries alone.

On 21st February 1916 the Germans attacked the fortress town of Verdun with the intention of bleeding France to death. They didn’t want to capture it merely assure that the French kept pouring more and more men into the meat grinder in order to defend it.

By chance, on 20th February 1916 (the eve of battle) and realising the growing threat to Verdun, the French Army had created the first Traffic Regulation Units (Commission Régulatrice Automobile – CRA).

During the nightmare which Verdun would become the lorries and vehicles of The Train kept the army and town alive via the only road open to them: la Voie Sacrée linking Bar-le-Duc with Verdun.

The task was enormous.

Monument to the French Train at Verdun

Detail on the monument

Each week 90,000 soldiers coming to and from the front had to march in the fields so as to leave the road open to the 6,000 lorries which ran night and day.

If a lorry broke down it went into the ditch to get it off the road. All of this was done under the control of the CRA wearing their shoulder brassards of green and white.

In the modern French army the green furnishings worn by soldiers of the Train, the tringlots, is Imperial Green, as a reminder of their illustrious founder.

Arras Citadel

The Voie Sacrée route marker within the Citadel

Other such units were later created in other areas of the Western Front and it is to them that the 601e RCR could trace its history.

The Second World War

Following the return to active duty of the French Army two units were created at Rivoli in 1943 (521e Regt) and at Casablanca in 1944 (522e Regt).

I try to keep the names of French units in their natural form for clarity.
The – e – is the French equivalent of – th – etc. So, 5e = 5th.
It should be noted that 1st (but not, you will notice compounds such as 601st) can be noted as 1er or 1re according to gender.
1er bataillon (m) but 1re division (f).

The 521e was decorated at Acquafondata in Italy in January 1944 when the French Expeditionary Force stormed the mountain village driving the Germans before them. The 521e would then find themselves sign posting for the British 8th Army who were relieving them in the line.

On 16th August 1944 (Its first anniversary) the 521e was in St Tropez as part of the advance guard of General de Lattre de Tassigny’s 1st French Army.

From there they took part in the liberation of France and the drive across the Vosges and Alsace to the Rhine. At Germersheim on 31st March 1945 they won a second decoration for their part in the crossing of the river.

The Regiment: 1975-2009

The 601e was officially created in 1975 and was at that time stationed in Germany.

Times changed and the geopolitical make up of Europe suddenly changed over 1989/90. There was no longer any need for the French II Corps and they were stood down — the 601e with them — on 31st July 1993.

Less than six months later on 1st January 1994 the Regiment was recreated in Arras taking the place of the 625e RCR.

They quickly became part of the town and took on the nickname of the Arrageois after the immediate area.

Sadly for Arras the military dispositive of President Sarkozy sounded the death knell for the regiment — the only unit given solely to road circulation.

The Regiment carried out its task of routing the 14th July 2009 parade in Paris and was then disbanded. Its old barracks – la citadelle – being sold off for the token sum of one Euro.

The Colour of the 601e RCR

The Regimental Banner of the 601e RCR

The 601e RCR’s banner carries the two battle honours of Acquafondata 1944 and Germersheim 1945 as well as the 1939-45 Croix de Guerre in Silver. It is now in the keeping off the Invalides in Paris.

The Logistical Services in no matter whose army are often in the first wave of troops deployed, ensuring that railway platforms, air strips etc. are built in the right place and are then properly organised.

Like many units that once used horses they have stuck with cavalry terms for their ranks and structures. They have a regimental banner rather than a flag, sound trumpets rather than bugles, and a corporal is called a brigadier (a major being a senior sergeant — sergeant-major)

Which is why a Major General is outranked by a Lieutenant General.
The equivalent officer rank of Major is Commandant.

601e RCR at Vimy

The Regiment at Vimy: April 2007
Note the green and white brassards

Maintaining the link with the people

Now that France no-longer has conscription the Army is made up of professional volunteers and reservists.

601e RCR Portes Ouvertes

Removing conscription from the French way of life was not a simple thing. The defence of the Republic was always considered a duty that everybody should be required to undertake and was not to be abolished lightly.

The reality is of course that France simply did not need all its twenty year olds under arms.

601e RCR Portes Ouvertes

Although conscription has been done away with all French children on reaching 17 must carry out a Journée d’appelle as it is called. This day long seminar brings youngsters into contact with the Military of all arms so that they can be taught about the Defence Forces and instilled with a bit of patriotic spirit.

Those that wish to do so can undertake a period of a week or two with a fighting unit to see how they like the life.

An important point about this day with the military is that without the certificate of attendance you cannot work for the Civil Service, or obtain a driving licence. Thus, even if you have no interest at all in things military, you are still induced to spend a bit of time learning about what they do and why.