Webbing of WWI: France
Edward Hallett covers the French Army’s personal gear in part three of the series on WWI accoutrements
The French were the first country in the world to adopt a smokeless powder repeating rifle in the form of the Lebel in 1886. This rifle was the first step in a gradual updating and replacement of France’s personal infantry equipment. Over the next 20 years a new set of equipment was introduced and modified to accompany the new rifle. By 1914, however, both the rifle and equipment were looking rather old fashioned. The rifle had a magazine, but it could only be reloaded one round at a time and the equipment produced was still made of leather. So, the design was modified during WWI to make it easier to manufacture and to rectify problems that had been discovered from field use. Individual items are still available on the collector’s market and generally garner less interest from British collectors that German or British equipment.
BELT (LE CEINTURON)
Two patterns of belt were seen most frequently in World War I, the 1845 and the 1903 models. The model 1845 belt was made of leather with the flesh side outwards and was 55mm wide. It was usually blackened, and its most distinctive feature was a large, square rectangular plate buckle. This buckle had a catch loop on the rear and the belt was doubled back on itself and secured with this catch loop to adjust the overall length. The buckle had a flat hook on the rear which engaged with a loop on the opposite side of the belt. This belt design was supposedly replaced by the 1903 pattern over a decade before World War I broke out, but a combination of shortages requiring older patterns to be used and a preference amongst the troops themselves for the flashier design ensured the 1845 pattern belt remained common throughout the early years of the war.
The 1903 was made of leather like its predecessor and shared the 55mm width. It was originally designed to be worn with the flesh side of the leather outermost and blackened. The belt had a brass twopronged buckle and eleven pairs of holes on the opposite end of the belt to use with it. There was a small leather keeper
to hold the loose end of the belt. The design was updated in 1914 to create the 1903/14 belt which was made of light brown leather, with the smooth side outermost and wartime economies would later see the buckles made of japanned steel rather than brass.
Early in the war, ersatz versions of both the 1903 and 1845 pattern belts were introduced made of canvas rather than leather but these patterns were dropped as soon as manufacturing could catch up with demand.
SUSPENDERS (LE BRETELLES DE SUSPENSION)
The suspenders used by the French were made of three lengths of leather, two that passed down the front of the wearer and a third that connected to the rear of the waist in the centre. The three straps were secured at the back by an iron ring.
Each of the straps were stamped with nine holes, 5mm apart, that allowed the straps to be adjusted for different heights. The holes attaching to the metal hooks on the rear of the different items of equipment. Officially troops were to fold the excess lengths of leather back on itself and secure with the hook, however many just cut off the excess. Experience showed that the stitching used to secure the leather straps to the ring was a weak point in the design and pairs of rivets were introduced to reinforce this part of the suspenders. As an economy method, some manufacturers did away with the stitching completely and used three rivets to secure the straps instead.
CARTRIDGE POUCHES (LES CARTOUCHIERES)
The most common cartridge pouch in French service was the M1888, a leather pouch introduced at the same time as the Lebel rifle. The pouch was based on the earlier M1869 pattern but made smaller to better fit the ammunition of the new rifle. The pouches were issued in sets of three, with one worn on each hip and one in the small of the back to give a total of 120 x 8mm rounds, each pouch holding five packets of eight rounds. The cartridge pouches were rectangular in shape, with two loops on the back to allow the belt to be passed through. They each had a large top flap secured with a stud rivetted to the main body of the pouch; to prevent the rear of this scratching the cartridges a small piece of leather was attached to the inside of the pouch to cover the rear of this fastener.
A wire loop to attach to the suspenders was provided at the top of the rear of each pouch. The M1888 was originally blackened like the other late 19th century items of equipment. The colour changed to a natural tan colour in 1914. The two leather belt loops on the rear were updated to a single
trapezoidal piece of leather in 1905 with the connection hook attacked to the top of this.
The design was modified again in 1916 to make it fit better on the belt with a wider loop and a change to the internal flaps that prevented cartridges from falling out moved it to the front of the pouch and a notch made it easier to retrieve cartridges. The internal tab over the back of the rivetted stud was also deleted as an unnecessary extravagance.
Early in the war a number of ersatz versions of the cartridge carrier were produced, some of these used a combination of stitching and iron rivets to construct the carrier, others used rivets exclusively. Still more were manufactured from canvas or a mixture
of canvas and leather. These substitute standard pouches tended to be issued to second line units or training battalions rather than frontline troops but were essential for quickly equipping a rapidly expanding army.
The French soldier, on mobilisation, was issued with two haversacks. One was to be worn across the chest and would hold his rations whilst the second was to carry small items of kit including eating utensils, rest shoes, clothing brushes etc. This second haversack was to be strapped to the outside of the knapsack. As war progressed the rest shoes were often discarded in favour of further rations and some troops even acquired a third haversack to increase their carrying capacity. By 1916 the haversack was also seeing service as a general munitions carrier and was often used to carry grenades in the front line.
The haversack had been introduced in 1892 and was originally manufactured of a single piece of canvas, 70cm x 40cm, folded on itself and sewn to create a simple bag. A simple strap, 3cm wide, and made of hemp webbing was sewn to this. The strap was adjusted using a two pronged ‘Malakoff’ buckle, although examples with buttons to adjust the strap length were also produced.
During World War I a wide range of materials in a variety of colours were used to construct the haversack, with commercial models in a lighter weight fabric also commonly purchased by individual troops. The haversack top flap was secured by a pair of buttons, most usually of stamped metal in both plain aluminium and japanned iron, but wooden examples were also seen on occasion and some commercial models used snap fasteners.
The vast majority of the Poilu’s personal items were carried in his knapsack, with specific packing arrangements set out by the army to ensure that everything fitted into the space allotted. Typical contents of the knapsack were a shirt, handkerchief, two days’ worth of spare rations, police bonnet, wash towel, extra socks, sewing kit, clothing brush, tent stakes, toiletries, 80 rounds of extra ammunition and the jacket. Strapped to the exterior of the knapsack were a blanket, tent canvas, entrenching tool, squad camping implement and an individual mess kit making the knapsack the most bulky and heavy item a soldier had to carry.
The knapsack itself was introduced in 1893 and consisted of a canvas covered wooden frame with six leather straps that secured to the knapsack through leather loops on the exterior of the pack and secured with buckles. These straps were used both to carry the knapsack on the shoulders, and to secure the exterior items. The canvas was unpainted and came in a variety of shades from beige to pea green, but many faded to a mustard colour quickly.
The knapsack had a top flap, with a pocket on the rear of the flap, and two internal weather flaps that folded over the contents and secured with a pair of leather straps and buckles. The 1893 knapsack was an awkward design, and even putting it on could be a trial as one shoulder strap was fastened and the
other left undone until it was actually on the shoulders when it could be secured. It was not possible to put it on in any other way! Securing the second shoulder strap could be difficult when the pack was particularly full and heavy, so a second soldier had to take the load whilst it was secured, or the soldier leaned against a useful vertical surface to take some of the load whilst he did up the buckle.
BAYONET CARRIER (LA PORTEBAÏONETTE)
The M1888 bayonet carrier was based on that for the earlier Gras bayonet but redesigned slightly for the Lebel bayonet. It was made of leather with two separated belt loops at the top: the gap between the two loops was to allow the belt loop for the greatcoat to pass between the two and prevent it from sliding up and down the belt. The bayonet scabbard based through the leather channel at the base of the carrier and was secured into
place using a leather tab and a buckle. Originally produced in blackened, flesh side out leather in 1914 this was changed to natural tan with the grain facing outwards although both patterns were seen throughout the war. An economised version was produced which replaced the exclusively sewn construction of pre-war models with a design that also used brass or japanned iron rivets. The brass buckle was also replaced with japanned iron by some manufacturers. Poor quality canvas versions were also manufactured early in the war, but these were quickly replaced with more traditional leather examples that were much more robust.
WATER BOTTLE (BIDON)
The 1877 pattern canteen was made of zinc-plated iron and had a distinctive shape with two spouts. The wider neck with a cork stopper made it easier to fill the bottle, whilst a narrower spout with a hard wooden plug was used to allow
a man to drink from the bottle. A blue cloth cover was provided that fitted over the bottle and was secured by a leather lacing going through 10 wire eyelets. A leather strap was provided to allow the bottle to be slung over the shoulder and this strap was adjustable using a rectangular brass buckle.
The bottle can be found in two sizes, one held two litres and was originally intended for use only in Africa, but experience showed it was of great utility to all troops, regardless of where a soldier was stationed. The smaller one litre model was for metropolitan troops, but both were issued widely throughout the war. Wartime economies were limited to alternative cloth for the cover and examples in tan and striped fabrics are all known to have been issued alongside the usual blue covers. It was not uncommon to see the soldier’s tin cup secured to the bidon so that it was readily accessible when a drink was required.