The French Army infantryman who fought on the Western Front in World War I (1914–1918) was a citizen-soldier, taught to regard service in the army as his duty to the republic and a source of patriotic pride. Despite immense losses and the demoralizing attrition of trench warfare, which reduced parts of the French army to mutiny in 1917, the “poilu” (French slang for “hairy one”) held firm in the great battles of the Marne and Verdun. Before the war, every young Frenchman was obliged to undertake national service lasting two years (raised to three in 1913), after which he passed into the reserve for the rest of his adult life. As a result, France could theoretically regard all of its male population as trained soldiers. More than 8 million served at some time in the war with 1.5 million Frenchmen in service at the peak.
The French infantryman began the war with an antiquated rifle, inadequate machine guns, little heavy artillery, and bright uniforms that made perfect targets. Thus equipped, soldiers were committed to the offensive against overwhelming German firepower. Approximately 1 million French casualties were suffered in the first three months of the war, although the defeat of the Germans at the First Battle of the Marne ensured France’s survival. Trench warfare followed, a natural consequence of the defensive superiority that rapidfire rifles and machine guns gave to entrenched troops. French infantry suffered even worse conditions than their British allies, subjected to artillery bombardment and poison gas in generally poor quality trenches. Morale survived the slaughter at Verdun, but futile offensives in early 1917 brought widespread unrest. The authorities were forced to improve food and leave, and be less wasteful of men’s lives. Morale recovered sufficiently for the French infantry to make a major contribution to victory in 1918.