Contrary to belief, the French army has been extremely successful in battle over its history. Indeed the French have had to face extremely tough opposition in modern history, which other greater military nations have failed. The sweeping hoards of Germans, with new trench warfare in the first world war, Germany again with its devastating blitzkrieg, then the North Vietnamese forces in Indo China, and strong Muslim guerilla actions in Algeria, not to forget the ‘activities’ in Chad. France has been ostensibly ‘at war’ constantly from 1940 until the early 70’s!
The French forces have proved to be very competent in the face of such challenges, and it is these struggles the French Army Reenactment Group are attempting to portray. The FARG are attempting to deliver a realistic reenactment of French forces from the end of the war until the 1970’s. Currently they are focused on the period of the early 50’s until mid sixties – this easily encapsulates the Algerian conflict.
Why this period.
There is a great deal of World War and Indo China coverage of the French forces, but there seemed a lack of Algerian and early NATO involvement. The FARG was founded to primarily bring this period of history to life
Is it easy to collect period kit?
It is only recently that the French government has released any quantity of its obsolete equipment. In the past they would rather destroy or ‘recycle’ kit (with North African states!) This started with large auctions of materials and vehicles in the late 70’s. A good deal of this kit is still being released as we speak. This consequently makes collecting materials and vehicles relatively easy, and all kit (so far) seems to be original and of a sensible price. The bulk of the kit released is from the late 50’s to late 70’s so it is relatively easy to find period clothing, webbing and ancillaries for Algerian reenactment.
Contained below in the following text are the approximate costs of French equipment
The uniform was loosely based on the American WW2 designs, and from a distance seem to be identical – hence so much French kit actually ends up being used by WW2 reenactors and cost effective alternatives. There was a brown shirt with lapels and front pockets. (£5) The jacket was very similar to the American M43 and had four front button pockets, with waist drawstring and lapels. (£20) Unit markings were sometimes seen on the left arm and were mostly diamond in shape made of dark cloth.
The trousers (again based on M43 design) had two front two rear and two cargo pockets.(£20) The bottoms were tightened by a cloth tabard to allow them to be placed inside the buckle boots.
Boots were originally ankle high, but under influence from the American Paratrooper boot they soon grew to a hi-leg with two fastening buckles at the top, rubber stitched on soles and finished in a rough leather ‘suede’. (£25) This were often then polished - some times with black polish – and developed into the classic ‘ranger’ boot design of the 70’s.
Trousers were held up by leather belts with double rows of holes, and in the field the whole attire was often complimented by long cotton kaki scarves (for use as shemaghs)
Berets of many shape and colours were used, but mainly a cotton kaki type with leather headband, but unlike UK designs was sloped in the opposite direction and the badge was not over the right eye but round further towards the left ear. The rear tightening ribbon was also quite long and formed part of the ‘look’. The berets (including wool ones) (£15) were complimented by the use of side hats and also what looks like a bush hat with wide floppy brim.
The steel helmet was based on the American M1 design but is rather deeper in the crown and has a very straight ‘rim’. (£20) The helmets came with liners (as per the American counterparts) and some times were covered by hessian covers with sewn in bands. Paratrooper helmets had three attachment points on the helmet, but the straps and fasteners were copied from US WW2 designs.
It is in the webbing that you can see the strong French influence. Webbing was primarily made of leather and consisted of a wide belt, a yoke shaped suspender and two leather ammunition pouches to the front. (whole set approx. £50) Depending on what weapon you carried depended on what pouches you had on your webbing belt. If it was a rifle (MAS) this would be smaller pouches numbering 4, or if a submachine gun (MAT – or universal) these would be two longer types. Water bottles were copied from the aluminum American type but the necks are very much wider and hence bigger bottle caps usually made of brown bakelite.( £5) Other pouches are to be found – rifle cleaning kits etc and sometimes a bayonet, but the early French rifles had integral bayonets so scabbards were not needed.
The whole webbing ‘rig’ is held together by metal ‘toggles’ which were (and are) the scourge of the webbing as they fit awkwardly and rub over time. Sometimes webbing pouches were tied together around the belt as the whole rig would fall apart if taken off hastily. In later life the webbing was made of a leather that was lighter in colour or replaced by a canvas copy of the American design.
The mainstay of the French forces through out this period was the bolt action MAS (Manufacture d'Armes de St. Etienne) rifle. It existed in various guises with grenade launching barrels, folding aluminium stocks and later a gas operated model. Later again new life was breathed into the MAS design with a carbine gas operated model that carried on in use until the introduction of the familiar bull pup design FAMAS.
Submachine guns were originally wartime versions, but was replaced by the MAT 49, a small heavy ‘blow back’ operated 9mm gun with folding stock and retractable magazine housing. This design influenced the development of a totally collapsible airborne version (the Hotchkiss Universal 9mm) but this was only used a few times in anger as it proved to be poorly designed and broke easily – I know I have broken one in a simulated parachute drop!
Light machine guns were in this period left over from the pre war era. The mainstay was the FM 24/29, a weapon based loosely on the American BAR rifle but with vertical magazine. This went on to influence the Bren Gun and the two look very similar. The FM is a very heavy weapon with the cartridge ejection port on the side on the weapon allowing for a foregrip under the barrel. It also had two triggers, one for single and one for automatic fire. This weapon was slowly replaced by the AA52, a belt fed GPMG look alike, mush lighter and easier to use.
Heavy machine guns were provided buy the Browning range of .30 and .50 calibre guns.
Grenades were ‘base ball’ in design with external release paddle. The French also enjoyed an extensive use of the rifle fired grenade in both flare and HE derivatives.
Hand guns were mostly smaller MAB PA 7.5mm pistols with a migration to the larger 9mm PA-15 in the 60’s
It is with weapons and weapon ancillaries that the greatest challenge comes for the collector. The French gave all their weapons a nomenclature of ‘MA’(S,T.B etc) and it was deemed that none should reach the hands of the public (incase they would be used in another revolution?) and most were destroyed over the last 30 years.
The easiest rifle type to find in the more common bolt action MAS36 and prices range from £200 to £400 not depending on quality, but availability!! Later MAS rifles (e.g. 44, 49, 49/56) are extremely hard to find and command prices nearer £800!
The MAT49 machine guns are available, but again they are few and far between fetching £600 when available.
The FM 24/29 are extremely rare in private hands and only three are known of in the uk and prices are easily in excess of £1000.
The strange fact is that the extremely rare Hotchkiss Universal gun can be found at very good prices – and make a very good starter weapon.
Some members of the FARG have resorted to constructing their own ‘mock ups’ of weapons as strangely all parts (stocks, sights, furniture and bayonets) are easily and cheaply available. Some iron bar, imagination and a mig welder and the results have been very realistic!!
The French army used a great deal of old US stock at the end of the war. The persevered with their own armoured car development (Panhard AML and EBR’s), but heavy armour they relied on Sherman/ Chaffee, and pressed into service many US halftracks.
Light vehicle development was stifled (the Delahaye) and contracts were given to the Hotchkiss company to produce Willys jeeps under licence well into the 60’s. These vehicles were rebuilt over their lives and many were still to be seen in service well into the 1980’s. Dodges WC series vehicles were also used, but in lorry development the French complimented the many GMCs with the development of a Simca lorry fleet.
Finding French softskin is relatively easy – there is a large following of the Hotchkiss M201 jeep, and indeed many ‘yankee jeeps’ are these disguised to look war time. Large lorries are easily obtainable in the UK, although Panhard armour is near impossible.
Prices range from a 1950’s SUMB lorry as low as £700, to GMCs at approx £3000, then Hotchkiss jeeps at £5000 up to £12000, and then the armour, ranging from £15,000 upwards…
Interestingly the French used UK series one land rovers and ferret armoured cars in Indochina / Algeria – perhaps a very cost effective way into French Military vehicles (?)
The FARG were formed about 2 years ago and has slowly been building its knowledge, kit repertoire over the last year. It has a few military advisors (ex service men) and now has the confidence to present reenactment scenarios to the public. This year 2010 is an important year for the movement as it increases its membership and commits to the larger reenactment displays in the UK. FARG also has strong links with French reenactment groups in France who are able to offer advice and tip offs of where to find the elusive bits of kit (e.g. helmet covers and dog tags!).
FARG are currently recruiting and need help both behind the scenes (with organization) and with members to help recreate the reenactment scenarios. If you are interested in joining please contact the group on the email/ contact number given below.