Blog Posts

(Very) Early ‘Pilgrimages’ to the Great War battlefields

The little-known story of the 1919 First World War Battlefield tours organised by a French railway company.

The three souvenir guides produced by the Chemin de Fer du Nord for the first three 1919 rail Pilgrimages to the World War One battlefields (from the author’s collection).

There has been recent good work produced in English on what is variously termed ‘battlefield tourism’, ‘pilgrimages to the Western Front’ and ‘remembrance tourism’. This has focused on both informal small groups and larger, formal tours – the latter arranged by organisations like the British Legion and the St. Barnabas Society. However, while there are several French language journal articles and blog posts on the subject of battlefield tourism by rail – an area in which La Compagnie du chemin de fer du Nord and, later, La Compagnie des chemins de fer de l’Est (also known as La Compagnie de l’Est) realised a potential commercial opportunity, there’s seemingly not much in English.

Right here, I’m going to make clear that the list of links at the end of this article points to more detailed studies in French that are thoroughly recommended. What follows is only an overview of the subject in part motivated by the acquisition of the three souvenir booklets shown in the slide show above (and other ephemera – which we will come to).

The French called these battlefield visits « pèlerinages » or ‘pilgrimages’ – a sympathetic term (despite the hard-nosed commercialism from the rail companies) in a predominantly-Catholic country that had the visit to a religious site in search of an answer, or a miracle, still deeply embedded in its national character at this time. The term « circuit touristique » (which you see in the Guide Michelin) was considered inappropriate.

The first rail excursions to the battlefields from Paris were made by groups of journalists and business people and civic dignitaries. But, starting from 11 May 1919, the first « train de pèlerinage » ran every Sunday and, soon, every Sunday and Thursday to Albert, Arras and Lens via the Ancre valley and Vimy. Aller-retour tickets between Paris and Albert were priced at 42,80 F (Francs) for 1e classe (I’d be really grateful if someone could reply with a reliable calculation of the equivalent amount in Euros, US Dollars or Pounds Sterling today) while 2e and 3e classe were, in turn, about ten francs cheaper than the higher class. Trains left Gare du Nord at 7.20 a.m. and arrived back at 7.45 p.m. Travel beyond Albert was by baladeuses – tram cars transformed specially-equipped open wagons.. Later tours sometimes included travel by buses. Travellers could pick up souvenirs of their trip at any of the stops and postcards and tourist guides like the examples above were available to buy.

From 15 June, a second “Battle of the Somme” pilgrimage ran on Sundays and Tuesdays, then from 9 October just on Sundays. The round trip from Paris went to Montdidier, Chaulnes, Péronne, Cléry and Maurepas in ten hours. In other words, quite clearly, the French Bataille de la Somme. The ticket costs between 18 and 35 F.

On 13 July, a “Chemin des Dames” pilgrimage commenced and ran on Sundays, Thursdays and holidays. This time the round trip from Paris, went via Coucy-le-Château, Anizy, Chailvet, the Chemin des Dames and Crouy to Soissons. This took twelve hours and cost between 35 and 51 F. To see the Chemins des Dames, passengers had to ride in the buses of the Société de construction et d’entretien de équipements industriels et agricoles (SCEMIA), which was contracted for the work.

Items from my collection relating to the 1919 « pèlerinages » : publicity leaflet for the 1st Pèlerinage including information on fast rail services to London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne and « les Pays Rhénans occupés » and this in July 1919 (left and centre) and 2nd class ticket to Péronne dated 28 August 1919 (right) found in a guidebook for the 2nd tour but, presumably, given the date was a Monday, not from the tour itself.

From July 1919, la Compagnie du chemin de fer du Nord took a significant step in introducing a fourth daily tour. Under the name « Une journée aux champs de bataille franco-anglais » (“A day in the Franco-English battlefields”) the tour, which had only two classes (1st and 2nd), took fifteen hours and ran from Paris to Albert or Arras, via Bapaume, Bullecourt, Vimy and Lens. Tickets cost between 85 and 99 F. Road transport from the Société française des auto-mails supplemented the rail element and offered a means for ‘pilgrims’ to join the tour from places outside Paris, or travel solely by road. The poster below from a later road tour of the battlefields of Alsace-Lorraine gives a good illustration of an ‘auto-mail’.

Poster entitled « Visite des Champs de Bataille et de l'Alsace-Lorraine » showing a battlefield tour itinerary and travellers in a yellow 'auto-mail' or charabanc.

Image courtesy of Imperial War Museums (© IWM Art.IWM PST 12773)

A 5th rail tour beginning on 25 October 1919 entitled « Les Champs de bataille d’Ypres » ran daily from Paris to Lille, Armentières, Locre, Ypres and Gheluvelt and took 14 hours. Tickets were 93 F (2nd class) and 110 F (1st).

The rail tours ran again in 1920 on modified itineraries and to some new locations but at the end of the year, the rail company decided to discontinue them, in part, [perhaps because tours by road transport were offering greater flexibility and were proving more popular.

Finally, a short list of articles and websites in French that cover this subject in more detail. I recommend them all:

Journal article:

Gersende Piernas, « Les pèlerinages dans les régions dévastées du nord de la France organisés par la Compagnie du chemin de fer du Nord au lendemain de la Première Guerre mondiale », In Situ [En ligne], 25 | 2014, mis en ligne le 10 décembre 2014, consulté le 14 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

Blogs and Websites:

Les pèlerinages dans les régions dévastées de la France organisés par les Compagnies des chemin de fer du Nord et de l’Est – this covers battlefield tours by road and rail.

Promenons-nous aux champs … de bataille !

Georges Spitzmuller: A popular First World War writer you’ve probably never heard of …

« 15 octobre [1915] : Schmargult
La batterie de 95 de Schmargult tire sous la direction de Georges Spitzmuller romancier-feuilletoniste-librettiste et… capitaine d’artillerie ; elle bombarde le joli village de Mühlbach, entre Munster et Metzeral. Ah ! Détruire ces objets qui sont le régal de notre gourmandise patriotique !…. Pour Spitzmuller, Alsacien, quel drame intime. »

It’s a throwaway reference. It felt worth looking into. Who was this ‘novelist-journalist-librettist and… artillery captain’?

Born on the last day of 1866 at Épinal in the Vosges département, his early life was against the backdrop of the French defeat in the War of 1870 and, as a small child, he was one of those besieged in the fortress city of Belfort. Later, as a student in Belfort he volunteered for military service (engagé conditionnel) a little before his 20th birthday, when his period of obligatory military service would have begun. We can’t be absolutely sure why, but exploring the possible reasons gives a fascinating insight into French military conscription under the law of 1872. It was, quite literally, a lottery. Space here precludes detail but, in essence, to remove the risk of a long period of enlistment, a recruit could pay a sum of money ‘en droit d’acquittement‘ and, provided he had ‘irreproachable conduct’ during his period of service and had a good military education, he could serve for one year and avoid the possibility of five years’ service. Given the sum that had to be paid, this was insurance for the middle classes. The law of 1905, which reduced military service to 2 years and abolished all exemptions, except those for disability, finally ended this inequitable ‘conscription insurance’.

Of course, even those like Georges who took this option still had to complete their subsequent military service obligations. After a year with the 5e Régiment d’artillerie, he was placed « en disponibilité » until 1891 when he transitioned to the reserve as a sous-lieutenant de réserve. Numerous periods of training exercises with the artillery reserve between 1889 and 1896 followed, then in the territorial artillery in 1900, 1903 and 1905 during which time he was promoted to lieutenant, before service in the territorial reserve. By 1913, he was capitaine de réserve.

Outside his military service, Georges married and first developed a career as a journalist (he was editor of the short-lived Libéral de l’Est – a newspaper in Nancy). He also wrote the vocal scores for a number of operas and two plays. However, his main career was to develop as a romancier or novelist. His books were numerous and across a variety of genres: police and detective mysteries, romans d’amour, romans de cape et d’épée (for example, Le Capitaine Bel-Cœur : « aventures d’amour et d’épée sous Henri IV ») and historical novels. He had become ‘well-known’, but had not achieved notable success when war intervened.

All images are  « Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France » 

As capitaine de réserve Georges began his war service in the 49e batterie of the 62e régiment d’artillerie de campagne (RAC). The batterie was equipped with the Canon de 95 modèle 1875 Lahitolle – the first French artillery piece manufactured from steel. Although still in use for fortress and coastal defences, these out-dated guns were brought back into service with the field artillery because of the inability of French industry to manufacture more modern guns in sufficient quantities early in the war. Over a thousand were used. Reserve artillery units were typically those equipped with these guns. It was with 62e RAC that Maurice Bedel encountered him in Autumn 1915 (although his regiment was re-organised as 101e Régiment d’Artillerie Lourde on 1 November 1915). Their friendship probably had its origins in their status as fellow writers and Bedel provides several stories from their time in the increasingly tough conditions as winter descended on their mountain positions. Just after Christmas 1915, Spitzmuller’s unit moved from the sector and their time and adventures together ended.

War in the mountains of Alsace in the depths of winter took their toll on the 49-year old Spitzmuller and at the beginning of February 1916 he was evacuated to hospital in Belfort then, on leave for seven days in Monéteau (Yonne), he was admitted to Nr 107 auxiliary hospital in Auxerre for bronchitis and emphysema. His regiment considered him as definitively evacuated i.e. unlikely to return. He had a period of convalescence in mid-1916 but any possibility of his return to front-line service was ended by a further period of convalescence after again being evacuated to hospital in July 1918. Meanwhile he was made chevalier de la Légion d’honneur on 5 January 1918.

It’s during this period he began his association with La Collection “Patrie” – a collection of fictionalised and very patriotic short stories published by Éditions Rouff based on various episodes of the war. Some examples of Spitzmuller’s works are shown (I’m torn between ‘To the Rescue’ and ‘The Ace of Searchlights’ as my favourite). One of the things that most attracts collectors to the series lies in the colour cover illustrations, many of which were the work of Gil Baer who, like Spitzmuller was an Alsatian and whose work was widely known from newspapers and postcards. You can see one of his works below.

The influence of these 24-page booklets on shaping popular knowledge of, and attitudes to, the war during, and immediately after, has been undervalued.² Printed on the poor quality paper available at that stage of the war, with their colour illustrated cover and priced at 20 centimes, they were intended to attract the errand boy and junior clerk, the schoolboy and all those who craved adventure and knowledge of what the war was really like.

Spitzmuller, continued to write other novels after the war’s end. By one account, he “contributed … to rehabilitate the popular novel. He liked to entertain a large and diverse audience, to involve it in adventures of tenderness and heroism…” and his death in October 1926 hurt “the anonymous general public to whom he provided, every morning, moments of joy or emotion.”³ In La Collection “Patrie” he found one creative outlet.

Gilles Berr dit Gil Baer, Carte postale depicting the countries of Europe as women (1901)

Perhaps in many ways a ‘minor character’ in the story of the war, researching Spitzmuller’s story provided a real insight into some less-well known aspects of the French military and society.

This blog post could not have been written without the generous help of Simon Godly, whose website is thoroughly recommended. Simon took on the task of tracking down Georges Spitzmuller’s service record with enthusiasm and determination and provided lots of other useful information – especially on the system of conscription in place under the law of 1872.

¹ Maurice Bedel, Journal de guerre (CONTEMPO.) (French Edition) (p. 318). Tallandier. Kindle Edition.

² Frederic, François, “Littérature populaire et témoignage : les livres que Norton Cru n’a pas lus” in : Madeleine Frederic& Patrick Lefevre, Actes du colloque : Sur les traces de Jean Norton Cru, colloque international 18-19 novembre 1999, Centre d’Histoire militaire – Musée Royal de l’Armée, Travaux, 32, Bruxelles, 2000, pp. 53-74.

³ From the web site

le « Système D »

A French postcard entitled 'Le Système D en Action' that shows a soldier in various situations - chiefly with women - where the ability to 'Débrouiller, Dégrouiller, Déméler or otherwise Dem...' (to sort out, to unravel, to untangle and to de...) come in useful in a non-military context.
« Le Système D en Action » Carte postale de ma collection.

In Life, it’s necessary to know how to sort things out, to unravel the knotty problem, to untangle complicated affairs, to de…mystify, declutter, deconstruct the problem. Le système D is all about resourcefulness.

In this carte postale humoristique, we see how a soldier makes use of these skills in a ‘non-military context’. The postcard was produced by A.H. Katz and was typical of the company’s output. Another example, A quoi elles rêvent : la midinette, la nourrice, la mondaine, la bourgeoise can be found here.

I was surprised to find that the term ‘système D‘ was more elusive in origin than I’d expected. It’s identified as a military term, and supposedly one from the Great War, la Grande Guerre, World War One, the First World War (take your pick). One or two websites place its origins ‘Vers 1916‘. It makes sense that it was military slang, along the lines of “improvise, adapt, overcome” but I’ve yet to find the circumstances in which it came into common usage.

What I did find, on the very interesting web site, MENUSTORY.COM :  L’Histoire des menus, les menus de l’Histoire created and developed by M. Yves Françoise and based on his collection, was this item (reproduced by kind permission of M Françoise):

In this menu from the 19e Régiment Territorial d’Infanterie for ‘Réveillon 1914’ – Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve – there are puns and references to events, places or people in the First World War. Examples are ‘Le Pudding Général French’ and ‘Le Potage à la Joffre’. Also featured is ‘Le Filet Système D’.

A reference to this term in a military context by a Territorial regiment at the end of 1914. It’s also reasonable to conclude from the context here that this was not by any means the first occasion of the use of the term. For the joke to be understood, système D needed to have been in common usage among those who sat down to enjoy this fine meal.

So, two (three?) mysteries remain: When and why was the term système D first used, and what was the origin of the meat in ‘le Filet Système D’ that gave this dish its name?! It may be best not to speculate too much.

A final note on ‘Do-Do’ and ‘Do-Due’. « Aller faire dodo » is to go to beddy-byes, « dodue » means plump, or chubby. Maybe they also had military connotations (although I doubt it)!

I hope you’ve found this interesting. If you have information to share on all this, or want to comment on this blog post, do feel free to get in touch using the ‘Contact’ form on the site.

« La Roumanie marche !…. » Romania enters the war – as seen from a French perspective

28 août 1916

Schluchtmatt, Alsace


Ce bruit vient de se glisser comme un murmure dans les lignes. Un ravitailleur l’a rapporté de Gérardmer… Puis un agent de liaison de la brigade, essoufflé, ruisselant de sueur et de pluie, jette en passant devant mon poste… « La Roumanie marche !…. » Alors le bruit prend de la consistance. De ruisseau qu’il était il devient torrent. Il se précipite des hauteurs de France dans les vallées d’Alsace. Il envahit les batteries, puis les postes de commandement, puis les tranchées, jusqu’aux postes d’écoute : « Ohé ! Les gars !…. Ça y est, la Roumanie marche !…. » Aussitôt une pancarte énorme est dressée au-dessus de la tranchée et annonce brutalement à l’ennemi cette nouvelle si grave pour lui. Je téléphone à Gaschney, à la brigade : on me confirme la nouvelle, qui vient d’être lancée par la tour Eiffel. La T.S.F. des postes d’artillerie l’a saisie au vol… Alors la joie est unanime, bruyante, délirante. Le plus abruti des troupiers en saisit l’importance. On ne saura jamais l’impatience avec laquelle dans notre solitude des tranchées nous attendions cette déclaration de guerre. Peut-être ne produira-t-elle pas l’effet attendu ?…. Peu importe, c’est une chance de plus de succès et, surtout, c’est une possibilité d’abréger la durée de la guerre.
Et ce soir dans toutes les popotes on débouche du champagne à la santé des Roumains. »

Bedel, Maurice. Journal de guerre (CONTEMPO.) (French Edition) (pp. 426-427). Tallandier. Kindle Edition.

The reaction of French soldiers to Romania’s entry into the war on the Allied side in August 1916, as captured so well by Maurice Bedel in this extract from his Journal de guerre, seems completely at odds with how the events of Romania’s brief role as a fighting partner in the Allied Coalition appear to be consistently portrayed in English-language accounts of the war. The reasons behind it are complex, but there are a few things worthy of consideration.

Romania entered the war whilst the 1916 battle of the Somme was in full flow, with Germany’s recent attempts to destroy France’s fighting forces in the attritional fighting at Verdun seemingly foiled and Russia having conducted a successful offensive in June 1916 that still, at this time, in contrast to the reality on the ground, suggested the Russian armies might, after all, make an effective contribution to the Allied cause. Romania’s subsequent swift defeat is, in popular accounts at least, dismissed as almost inevitable and even of little relevance.

For France, however, Romania had held, and despite its subsequent defeat, continued to hold, a much greater significance. One very important but obvious factor (and yet easily overlooked from an island off mainland Europe or from places far away in other continents), was that events, and the war, in Eastern Europe had a greater immediacy for the French. France after all occupied the other side of the European land mass from Romania. This, in turn, helped to fuel the French politico-military view that drove the push after the failure of the British-led efforts to storm the Dardanelles and the Gallipoli disaster, for the joint Allied effort to switch to a French-inspired and -led campaign in Southeast Europe from Salonika.

Romania as a nation had only existed since 1861 and had been tied to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy by a secret treaty aimed at safeguarding the country against any act of aggression by Russia. The outbreak of war in 1914 split the country with the King, Carol I, in favour of honouring this treaty, but the government strongly in favour of siding with the Allies. The government’s view prevailed, the king abdicated, to be replaced by his son, Ferdinand I. Romania’s entry into the war was the culmination of French-led diplomacy that also saw France promise to provide equipment for the Romanian Army and a mission militaire was established under général Henri Berthelot – a substantial and experienced military commander. The promise of equipment was not honoured, however, until after the army was defeated and had been driven into exile in Russia. Only then did French equipment like the Mle.15 caisque Adrian (below) start to flow as part of the Romanian Army’s re-organisation. The results of this reorganisation were seen in August 1917 in a successful counterattack at Mărăşti and in the later battle of Mărăşeşti.

Romania steel helmet, Model 1915 Adrian type – National World War I Museum – Kansas City, MO.

The Romanian forces’ situation became more complicated still with Russia’s collapse and the rise of the Bolshevik revolutionary forces. Romania, surrounded by the Central Powers, had little choice but to sign an armistice in December 1917, followed by a peace treaty on 7 May 1918. The French were forced to withdraw their military presence and Berthelot went back to the Western Front, where he played a key and very successful part in the Second Battle of the Marne in July 1918.

Berthelot was back to lead an Army of the Danube in October 1918 advancing through defeated Bulgaria and aiming to draw Romania back into the war. This did, indeed, happen. On 10 November 1918, one day before the fighting stopped.

After the war, Romanian troops, like those of other European states or nascent states, were seen as a key part of the bulwark against the Bolshevik revolutionaries and France continued to maintain a strong military presence in support of Romanian forces in the complex situation in Eastern Europe, with French forces only being withdrawn from Odessa in April 1919. (For more on this, read Robert Gerwath’s excellent The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 (2016)).

Training and Competition in a French infantry regiment, November 1916

Here’s something rather nice that tells an interesting story. It’s the work of Pierre Perrin, whose letters and memoir of his war service you can read in « Un guerrier d’occasion, journal illustré du fantassin Pierre Perrin (1914-1918) » published by Editions Ouest-France in 2012.

It’s a poster or handbill for a Fête Sportive of the 27e régiment d’infanterie. But most of the ‘sport’ (Foot-ball [sic] apart) is really all about skill at arms.

27e Régiment d'Infanterie Fête Sportive (Sports Day) programme for 17 November 1916
27e Régiment d’Infanterie Fête Sportive (Sports Day), le 17 novembre 1916. From the collection of Pierre Perrin, agent de liaison et artiste au front, Archives départmentales de Saône-et-Loire Ref: FRAD071-008
CC-BY-SA 3.0

With First Prizes of 7 bottles of mousseux (sparkling wine), Second Prizes provided by the Comité Américain (which one – there were several – is not clear) and Third Prize in each competition of 4 bottles of mousseux, as well as a box of cigars for officer and for non-commissioned officer competitions’, the prizes were well-judged for the intended competitors.

There are competitions to test the skills of machine-gunners, semi-automatic rifle teams, riflemen, rifle grenadiers and bombers. The last are to be marked based on accuracy and distance.

And the context for all this drive to motivate the men of the regiment in this way is provided by this short extract from the regimental history:

Extract from Historique du 27e R. I. pendant la guerre 1914-1918 published in 19?? by R. Thorey (Dijon), accessed at 6 Nov 2022.

Two months’ instruction for the division and then the corps at the Camp de Saffais (a large training area in the Meurthe-et-Moselle département to the SE of Nancy) where liaison in the attack (including with aircraft) was a key area of focus. Each infantry section was also provided with precisely the weapons in which the competitions would test the men’s newly-honed skills – the light machine-gun or automatic rifle, the rifle grenade (amusingly described as V[iven].B[essières] ‘blunderbusses’) and the 37mm canon – a close-support weapon.

In Depth Images (2)

A postcard (carte postale) showing ten men who are from various units of the First World War French Army. Two men in the front row have arms in slings, while another is clearly a doctor (médecin). Five men stand on a bench behind the other five. Behind the men are trees and this looks like a park as two other park benches are visible. 
Three of the men are black. One in khaki uniform stands proudly with a look of confidence and one arm by his side, his right arm on his hip.

Carte postale from my collection. It shows an unknown location with wounded and recuperating men and a surgeon. The postcard is badly damaged on the reverse but looks to be dated 25[9?].10.1916. The carte was manufactured by R. Guilleminot, Bœspflug et Cie, Paris.

*** This is not the work of an expert! ***

Ever since I bought this postcard, I’ve wanted to use it for a blog post. I’m fascinated by the image, and I hope you are too. Sadly, the back of the card is quite damaged (looks like it was stuck to something). Also, to be honest, I keep having doubts about its veracity. The image is ‘upside down’ for the reverse of the card and is there just something too ‘studied’ in the poses? Is it really what it seems? But then again, why would anyone fake it?
Anyway, to the detail!

Star of it all, for me, is ce gar exuding pride and confidence. He wears the darker uniform of khaki* cloth of the armée d’Afrique, the turned-down collar favoured by the tirailleurs sénégalais and a capote (maybe not his? Read on) at a rakish angle. His collar has what looks like the daffodil-yellow edgings.

His capote. His collar…
Neither seem to carry the ‘fouled anchor’ of the colonial troops – although every time I expand the image, it looks like there’s something on the collar. The capote like those worn by all the others is probably horizon blue. But look at the guy with the pipe in the back row. Has he and our man swapped hats? The double-breasted M.1914 tunic (paletot) looks right otherwise. It has the two pockets with outside flaps and the ‘pointed cuff’ made of more daffodil yellow braid (see below).

These details suggest we are looking at a fairly late war image. Also, it doesn’t appear cold and there are leaves on the trees. Late spring 1918? So, not 1916 as the message on the card suggests? Another doubt.

It’s interesting that the guy behind him doesn’t seem to be wearing the khaki colonial uniform. But there are several reasons for this that should be obvious.

And then there’s the man in the beret. We can clearly see his insignia. Should be easy to identify his unit, right? Notice, by the way, he wears his beret in the ‘opposite’ style to the chasseurs à pied.

It’s at this point I descended into the murky world of les crapouillots – the trench mortar units. They need a whole blog post of their own. But the bottom line is that he wears the insignia of a member of a batterie de 58 on his beret. A trench mortar battery. But it looks to be upside down! That’s not, I think, totally unusual. So, what about his collar tabs? Nice and clear.

If the numbers (’49’) on his collar are in light blue on red cloth, they say he’s a member of the 49e régiment d’artillerie de campagne – which means he’d be on the ‘bigger’ mortars – by 1918, the 150 mm T Modèle 1917 Fabry, 240 mm LT Modèle 1916 or 370 mm Filloux. That doesn’t work. But the alternative – that he served in a trench mortar battery as part of the 49e régiment d’infanterie – only works if the collar tabs are light blue with dark blue numbers and dark blue braid. They aren’t. Chasseurs à pied? daffodil yellow on light blue. And remember the beret?

Ah, but during March 1918, the trench mortars of the French Army were reorganised into régiments d’artillerie de tranchée. Each régiment had 10 Groupes de 4 Batteries: 1 or 2 of 58 mm, 2 or 1 of 150 mm, 1 of 240 mm so … Doesn’t work. The regiments were numbered 175, 176, 177, 178 and 179ème. So, I can’t make his ’49’ map to a trench mortar regiment in 1918. Is there more insignia/headgear confusion (fun for them, confusing for us!) going on, or this is not taken at the time I thought.

Or we’re back to the question: Is it really what it seems?

The last bit’s going to be hard to write but … if someone colorized [that’s one ugly word] the image, that might offer clues. What am I writing?! Usually, unless in the hands of someone really skilled, the results are dreadful. Kill the thought. Admit it. This one’s got you beat!

Get in touch if you have knowledge, ideas or expertise. Let me know your thoughts. Feel free to tell me where you think I’m right or wrong. Also, tell me your sources and I’ll share the information here.

I hope you enjoyed the post.

* Although frequently described as drap moutarde by English-language sources, I’ve only seen this cloth (so far!) described as kaki, with some references to drap de jaune moutarde (cloth of a mustard yellow colour). Maybe it’s the influence of Second World War French Army uniforms that encourages this.

In Depth Images (1)

22 juillet 1916 – Bois de Lachalade (Meuse)
Au lieu-dit du Ravin du Triage, un barbier du 82e régiment d'infanterie rase ses camarades.
Réf. : SPA 8 N 221
© Pierre Pansier/ECPAD/Défense

22 juillet 1916 – Bois de Lachalade (Meuse) Au lieu-dit du Ravin du Triage, un barbier du 82e régiment d’infanterie rase ses camarades. Réf. : SPA 8 N 221 © Pierre Pansier/ECPAD/Défense

I really liked this photograph. There’s lots going on. So, I set myself the task of studying it in detail. Not as an expert or collector of militaria, but a learner. I came up with this list of things to draw attention to, and maybe hazard some informed guesses about. I shared what I found on Twitter. This post is an expanded version of what I shared there.

I wanted to show the richness of evidence in a single photograph and see the paths the details would take me on to build layers of knowledge. I think that part was a success and, like exercise, it’ll get easier the more you do it.

Let’s start with the unit: This information in the caption is confirmed by the collar insignia of the ‘headless’ man standing on the right – the 82e régiment d’infanterie (RI). Meanwhile, his left sleeve insignia (« chevrons d’ancienneté de presence ») (see below) say he’s had more than 18 months’ front-line service. These length of service chevrons had only been approved in April 1916 and just introduced in July – so they are very new here. His trade badge beneath the chevrons is difficult to be sure about – ‘Canonier-observateur’ or perhaps a ‘télégraphiste’ (were the latter engineers?).

He wears the ‘reduced’ style rank insignia on his lower sleeve and is a ‘Caporal’. There don’t seem to be any other signs of rank on other tunics but there’s another length of service chevron on the jacket that’s hung up. Intriguingly, the man being shaved is wearing gaiters.

This is a really good photo to see the M 1912 Other Ranks’ Boots as modified in 1916. The additional row of hobnails on the heel are visible in this expanded image.

Lots of questions remain. I need to do more learning about tunics and jackets. Is that dark piping on the breeches or the shadow of the seam? Is there more to learn about the officer? Dr Sarah Ashridge, a respected authority on such things, in response to my query, confirms that our man being shaved looks like he may be wearing the thin chain of a plaque d’identité – as is the man in the foreground. From 1915, the French identity tag system included discs to be worn around the neck & on the wrist, so that would fit. More info on French discs here:

I’ve not commented on the location: Bois de Lachalade in the Argonne and what might have been happening in this sector at the time: the 82e RI was part of 9e division d’infanterie (DI) and had been in this part of the Argonne for over 18 months. The sector of the Haute Chevauchée had seen considerable mining activity and significant fighting in mid-1915. By 1916, it had notionally become a purely defensive sector, although mine warfare continued, broken only by a local truce lasting two months in Spring 1916. Nevertheless, the regiment had recently had to retake la crête de la FilleMorte, the name giving some indication of the closeness of the opposing trenches in the sector. However, the Journal des Marches et des Opérations (JMO) of the regiment on this day captures well the situation in a defensive sector:

« 22 Juillet. Même situation, mêmes emplacements. Pertes 2 blessés. »

But a change was coming and, in September 1916, the regiment was drawn northwards into the maelstrom of Verdun.

Google Map Resources: Les Régiments d’Infanterie Territoriale [RIT]

The fourth resource using Google Maps – a visual reference resource to make some of the ‘core information’ on the French Army in the First World War easily accessible.

Les Régiments d’Infanterie Territoriale shows the location of the Territorial* Infantry Regiments by their Base HQs. It also includes the Régiment d’Infanterie Territoriale (RIT) and Battalions Territorial de Chasseurs à Pied [BTCP or BTCA (they were all Chasseurs Alpin units)].

(* NB NOT the equivalent of the British Territorials! (The differences will be explained in a blog post).

As with previous maps, this map is embedded as a link and immediately available ‘on click’ in a new tab:

Les Régiments d’Infanterie Territoriale by Home HQ, 1914

Feedback on the value and accuracy of these is always welcome so do send a comment.

Google Map Resource: Les Régiments d’infanterie 1914-1918

The third of my Google Maps – a visual reference resource to make some of the ‘core information’ on the French Army in the First World War easily accessible.

Les Régiments d’infanterie 1914-1918 shows the location of active Infantry Regiments by their Base HQs. It also includes the Bataillons de Chasseurs à pied (BCP) and Bataillons Chasseurs Alpins (BCA). As with previous maps, this map is embedded as a link and immediately available ‘on click’ in a new tab:

Feedback on the value and accuracy of these is welcome so do send a comment.

A few military medical abbreviations

The following is a (by no means exhaustive) list of acronyms and abbreviations associated with French Army military medicine terminology in La Grande Guerre. If you have further example, or can otherwise improve on what’s here, please feel free to comment and make suggestions.

  • ACA : Ambulance chirurgicale automobile – (Mobile) ambulance unit (‘MASH’?!)
  • CF : ‘coup de feu’ (wound) – gunshot
  • EO : éclat d’obus (for a wound) Shrapnel
  • GBD / GBS : groupe de brancardiers divisionnaire / corps – divisional/corps stretcher-bearer company
  • GS : Groupe de secours
  • HOE : l’hôpital d’orientation des étapes (d’évacuation) – Casualty Clearing Station?
  • l’ESSM : École supérieure du Service de santé militaire – school in Lyon which trained military doctors and pharmacists.
  • PS : poste de secours (? ou santé) – Aid Post
  • PSD : Poste de Secours Divisionnaire – divisional aid post
  • PSR : Poste de Secours Régimentaire – regimental aid post
  • SH : section d’hospitalisation
  • SIM : Section d’infirmiers militaires
  • SS : le Service de Santé – medical service
  • SS : Section sanitaire
  • SSA : Section sanitaire automobile
  • SSAA : Section sanitaire automobile anglaise
  • SSU : Section sanitaire automobile américaine

To add to this, David O’Mara has provided the following useful guideance:

Officiers [médecins] served in the ‘service de santé‘ [SS] … Sous-officiers, caporals et ‘hommes de troupe‘ [médecins auxiliaires & infirmiers – of varying degree] served in the ‘sections d’infirmiers militaires‘ [SIM].

A section d’hospitalisation [SH] (4 orderlies, 4 drivers & 3 2-horsed wagons carrying medical stores). There were 6 per corps d’armée & another 6 in reserve. Combined with the ambulances (active & reserve), these become the Groupe de secours [GS]