Sangamon County Rifle Association
Right Reason on Second Amendment Rights
Springfield, Illinois

Phil Davis

 WWI French Rifles
History comes to Life

Phil Davis
SCRA meeting September 2010
October 2010 GunNews

[Editor's note:  History indeed came to life in

Davis' presentation and we're condensing it
aggressively because of space constraints.]

Phil Davis, our history aficionado extraordinaire and re-enactor, brought something unusual to our September meeting, French rifles.

With the 100th anniversary of the first World War coming around Davis wanted to try to expand his collection a little bit to other nations.  So when he got the opportunity to pick up a French rifle he did.  Of course he hears the "never shot and only dropped once" joke plenty.

Of course, the nine million French who fought in WWI might disagree.  In one battle alone, the Battle of Verdun, over a quarter million Frenchmen died.  It was called Paris' Stalingrad.

Davis described the colorful uniforms worn by the French at the outset of the war, to the chuckles of those present.

Their rifle initially was the 8mm Lebel and Davis showed a specimen and passed around a cartridge.  The rifle was developed in 1886 and the bolt was improved in 1893.  This was the preferred rifle of French infantry during the first World War.  It had a tubular magazine with a capacity of eight rounds.   With some finagling, you can load it with nine rounds plus one in the chamber.  The only other weapon in WWI that could match them was the British Lee Enfield.

The Lebel was designed as most rifles were at the time period to load the magazine, then to engage the magazine cutoff switch.  What that does is it keeps the follower from going down and picking up a round.  It's designed to just keep firing single shot.  This is what is they called the musketure standard. If you had to repulse an attack or a charge, you'd simply flick this switch back and that gave you access to the magazine.

There was no safety on this rifle.

This rifle did not have the best sights in the world.  It has a broad post about an eighth of an inch or more in width.

The bayonet itself was a cruciform long slim bayonet - a very wicked piercing weapon.  If you look at this one here its got a rather uniform dark staining down to here and the rest of it is kind of clear.  You can probably just about guess what caused that uniform dark staining. 

There is one famous place on the Verdun National Battlefield in France where the tip of this bayonet is featured prominently, a place that's known as the Bayonet Trench.  If you look there you'll see this much (4 inches or so) of ten bayonets sticking out of the ground approximately 24 inches apart.  They did an excavation and found that a German 420 mm shell had landed directly in front of a French trench.  That  huge shell had dumped somewhere in the neighborhood of six tons of dirt on them out of the air instantly and buried them there.  The only thing sticking out was the tips of their bayonets. 

Getting back to the cartridge.  Why was it so important to have that groove around the primer?  That keeps you from having an accidental multiple discharge in the magazine tube as the rifle recoiled from the bullet point banging into the primer of the cartridge in front of it.  That's the reason why you don't use pointed bullets in a lever action rifle like the 94 Winchester. The French didn't do that for their trials. . . oops.

This particular rifle is a rifle that was manufactured at the French factory at Chateauroux.  But it was re-barreled in 1917 at the army plant in Paris.  This rifle had been shot so many times that they'd worn the bore out on it or it had been damaged in action.  They reissued it.

You may think a rifle that was designed in 1886 would be obsolete and that no army would use this past about the beginning of WWI.  Not hardly.  The last time that these rifles were issued to an active military organization was in 1952 to the French foreign legion and they were were happy to get them as opposed to another rifle they were offered.  By that time they had shortened them.
Before WWII in the late 1930's the French finally started to realize, "Hey, these guys next door don't like us very much.  They're about ready to come visit us again."  Since they had 2.8 million Lebel rifles in stock they decided they would shorten a good number of them down to make what they called the R35 rifle.  They shortened them down to about here and reduced the magazine capacity to five and made a carbine out of them.  These were being used by French police forces up until the 1980's.  They still took the same long bayonet.  They did make a shorter bayonet, they would cut these down shorter to go with the carbine length rifle.

In 1915 the war had been going for about six months and all of the hopes the the French army was going to beat the Germans within two months and be home had gone out the window.

As the spring of 1915 came around several changes started happened in the French Army.  First of all they realized that these great big red pantaloons and shako type hats were not conducive to living very long on a battlefield with Maxim machine guns.

They may have been impressive to watch, troops with their long bayonets, etc. marching in nice lines.  The French army's got some of the best marching soldiers in the world especially some of their native units from Africa and their Foreign Legion.  They were some of the best marching regiments in the world.  Believe it or not, some of the French field marshals believed that any inadequacy of ammunition, equipment or uniform, could be made up with the spirit of a fighting soldier and a bayonet.  "Don't worry, it's fine.  We don't care that you're facing two to one odds and that you're going to have to cross an open field that's six-hundred yards wide and you're wearing these uniforms that make you stand out like a sore thumb.  That's okay.  "Go do it for France!" and give them the bayonet.

It didn't work real well in the early years of the war so in the spring of 1915, they changed the uniform color to a pulverizing blue.  Their uniform was sky blue.  That blended in really well with the horizon but it didn't blend in well with the mud, but that's okay because mud takes care of mud.  If you were in the trenches no matter what color you were wearing, it looked like mud after about a half-hour. 

As a short aside, Davis wrote a paper one time titled "Napoleonic Darwinism".  Before Napoleon came to power in France and if you measured the height of the average French male it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 5'10".  At the end of his campaigns after Waterloo, if you took a survey of the average height of the French male it was 5'4".  All of the biggest and all of the strongest were dead.

The same thing happened in the first World War.  Davis directly accredits France's poor performance in the second World War with their fighting spirit and fighting tenacity in the first World war.  A whole generation of boys and young men who were being raised by widows and people who had lost brothers and fathers, were telling their sons, "Don't be a soldier, don't fight."

Whereas the Germans for a whole generation were being raised on, "You will never let them do that to you again!"

See where the change of personality might be coming from.  France lost an entire generation in the soil that is now the French-German border.  A vast number of those were never recovered because artillery literally churned them into the ground.

Americans, we had our nicknames, we were the "Doughboys".  The British had "Tommy Adkins."  Australians were "Diggers".   The French were "Poilu" which means "the hairy ones".  They were the men who lived in the trenches.  They didn't have time to shave their faces or to do anything else.  They were too busy fighting.

These are the weapons of the "Poilu".

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