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Webmatters : 1914: The French Regiment

The French Regiment

The great majority of conscripted soldiers went into the infantry:

  • either ordinary regiments (Régiment d’infanterie — RI) or
  • light infantry (Bataillon de chasseurs à pied — BCP).

Regiments were simply numbered off: 128e RI (128th Regiment) or 18e BCP (18th Chasseurs). Each regiment however had its own particular barracks/location and would tend to draw on the conscripts from that area.

In historical accounts a regiment can thus be referred to as, for example, the 128e RI (Abbeville) which gives a rough indication to the reader that this is a regiment made up of the lads from the Somme.

An active Regiment consisted of three battalions which would serve together as a unit. In this they mirror the German pattern but differ greatly from the British Regimental tradition where battalions served under a parent organisation but not necessarily together.

In addition to the three battalions there would be an administrative company (CHR). The infantry companies were numbered straight through the three battalions so the 5th Company was the first in the 2nd Battalion.

Each battalion would have two machine guns; exactly the same number as the Germans and British. The difference was in the organisation with the Germans grouping their six (to the regiment) into one unit as opposed to having them scattered.

The regiment was commanded by a (Lt) Colonel and each battalion by a Commandant (British Major) who would have four Capitaines (Captain) as Company commanders.

The Light Infantry battalions — Chasseurs à pied — consisted of just the one battalion of eight companies.

In theory a company would be about 250 men including 4 officers giving a theoretical regimental war time strength of about 3,000 men (evidently it was often a lot less).

At mobilisation this was achieved by sending the reservists to bolster the regiment. In addition the Reserve Regiments, of just two battalions, would be organised.

The Reserve Regiment

Each reserve regiment was numbered 200 plus its mother unit’s number. Thus the 128e RI was the active regiment and the 328e RI was the reserve regiment. The reserve regiment’s battalions were usually numbered the 4e and 5e and their company numbers followed on from the original regiment (Thus, often starting at the 13th Company as the first unit in the 4th Battalion)

The French Division

Approximately speaking a French Division consisted of two Brigades. Each of these counted two Regiments (Reserve Divisions would be three to bring the Brigade up to the same strength of 12 battalions). A squadron of light cavalry (reservists) would act as their scouts whilst a regiment of field artillery would provide the guns.

The divisional artillery (Régiment d’artillerie de campagne – RAC) comprised of three groups, each of three batteries. A battery was made up of four of the famous 75mm quick firing field guns, giving a total of 36 for the regiment. To confuse matters it should be pointed out that whilst each regiment had its own title: 42e RAC for example, it was often referred to by a Divisional notation such as: AD4 (Artillery of the 4th Division).

With a company of engineers, medical staff, and other organisational staff this would give a divisional strength of about 16,000 men.

Like the regiment, the divisions were regionally organised and this followed into Corps level. The 2e Corps (Amiens) consisted of the 3e DI (Amiens) and the 4e DI (Compiègne), creating a Corps which would be predominately made up of Picards (folk from Picardie).

Referring to units

To assist in highlighting the fact that the narrative refers to a French unit I have for the most part used French abbreviations — 128e RI, or 14e Hussards (Hussars). A frequent complication in French accounts is the habit of referring to units by their commanding officer. If the moment merits I have used the name, if not, the unit.

For the sake of ease I have used I/xx RI etc to refer to the battalions where a simple title is required.

128 eNote : 1 er (m) or 1 re (f) = 1 stEquates to the 128 th etc
BCPBataillon de chasseurs à piedChasseurs — Light Infantry
BCABataillon de chasseurs AlpinsAlpine Chasseurs — Mountain Infantry
RIRégiment d’infanterieInfantry Regiment
RITRégiment d’infanterie territorialTerritorial Infantry Regiment
RACRégiment d’artillerie de campagneField Artillery Regiment
DIDivision d’infanterieInfantry Division
DCDivision de cavalerieCavalry Division
CACorps d’armée (2 divisions)Army Corps