The Identity Wars - Part Six
Foundlings - Les Enfants Trouvés

French Military Uniforms

French Army 1914

 A fair number of readers of this blog have written asking for help in identifying some patch of a French uniform, or a cap, or a jacket which belonged to a French ancestor. The lucky ones have a photograph of the ancestor in uniform. They hope, rightly, that if they can identify the rank and regiment of the ancestor, they may then be able to search for a military file on him.

There are many, many books and websites out there about French military uniforms, especially about the glorious stuff-strutters of the Napoleonic era. For tracing bits and pieces or a photograph of a uniform however, the grander books, works of art often, are not very helpful. They contain beautiful drawings and sometimes thorough histories of regiments, but that is of use in genealogy only when one has all ready identified the ancestor's rank and regiment.

The book above by André Jouineau, Officers and Soldiers of the French Army 1914 is the ideal find, as explained in the first sentence:

"Infantrymen on 2 August 1914 were not very different from their elder brothers of 1870, except for a few uniform details. The kepi changed its shape but not the colours it inherited from the Second Empire........The famous garance (madder red) trousers were worn by nearly all the soldiers in the French Army...."

The uniforms shown in this book were essentially those worn by French soldiers during one of the major periods of emigration from France: the second half of the nineteenth century. Thus, this is the book with which to start trying to identify a rank and regiment from an old bit of a uniform or from a photograph.

The colours are bright, the illustrations clear and easy on the eye. The computer-generated images make the soldiers look like toys. In fact, the whole book has the look of a children's picture book, which is a bit  fun and does nothing to detract from its wonderful usefulness. Whole pages are given over to the rank markings on sleeves, caps and collars, often the very uniform bits that a descendant may still have. Even buttons that indicate a regiment are depicted. Every part of the French Army is covered:

  • Infantry
  • Cavalry
  • Artillery
  • Engineers
  • Supply Train
  • Gendarmerie
  • Services
  • Army of Africa
  • Colonial Troops
  • Sailors
  • Marines

Those madder red trousers were a disaster that Barbara Tuchman moaned about in her magnificent, clarifying account of the beginning of World War One, The Guns of August. By December, the Army had modernized its uniforms completely. Jouineau's  Officers and Soldiers of the French Army 1915, identical in format and style, covers those and would be helpful to anyone tracing a World War One soldier by his uniform. Both books are published by Histoire & Collections (and are in the books column to the right on this blog), on the website of which it can be seen that three times as many similar books have been published on those snappy uniforms of the First Empire.

Excellent, useful books.

©2010 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy