The War of the Engineers III


In order to understand how that came to happen, and why it continued for the first part of the war, it is unfortunately necessary to peer into the labyrinth of the Third Republic, where basically, the army was run by a committee called the Conseil Supérieure de la Guerre. Although at first glance this seems a tedious detour, it helps to explain much of what was going on once the war began, and why the army was so woefully unprepared to fight it.

The CSG was composed of the five or six officers who would become army commanders if a war broke out. The chair, or president, was the minister of war. If there was an actual war, the vice chair would then become commander in chief of the general staff.

Given the revolving door at the ministry, this was a most unsatisfactory solution, one made all the worse by the fact that the vice chairmanship was almost as unstable as the ministry itself, as a brief account of the changes in 1910–1911 makes clear. In June 1911, Adolphe Messimy became minister of war, replacing François Louis Goiran (and not, as is sometimes said, Jean Brun).

The vice chair of the CSG was General Trémeau. But Trémeau was succeeded by General Michel, who was also president of the Haute-commission des Places Fortes, and thus presumably more interested in the continuous renovation and modernization of the forts than in dealing with the army’s many problems.

A month after becoming minister of war, Messimy tried to reorganize the command structure, although it was in such a bureaucratic muddle that it would be more correct to say he tried to create a command structure. He realized, correctly, that in order for the army to function properly, it needed an actual head, a chief of staff, not a rotating committee head. So Messimy was proposing the same model that existed in Germany and Austria-Hungary (and elsewhere). The chief of staff would be an actual position, held by a senior officer on a quasi-permanent basis. If there was a war, that man would become the overall commander in chief of the army.

Better late than never, one might say; at least Messimy was trying to create a coherent system of command and control for the army. Given the distrust and even fear that the parties of the left had for the army, this was a major step. The difficulty was finding a senior officer who would take the job, because the government was adamant that whoever this man was, he would not have the authority to recommend officers for promotions at the higher levels, that is, from colonel to general and thence on up the ranks to the level of the army commanders.

This demand was a considerable sticking point. The parties of the left had controlled the government since 1871, and they had never been enthusiastic about the army, an institution that in their view was controlled by generals whose politics were an anathema. Professional officers were monarchists, Roman Catholics, fundamentally opposed to the values of the Third Republic. The army had been the instrument that raised the two Napoleons to power, had massacred the Communards.

The somewhat mythical and certainly grossly exaggerated rise of General Georges-Ernest Boulanger in the 1880s had turned their fears into a sort of obsession. The idea of Boulangerisme, a military coup, haunted them, and, as a logical result, the government had insisted on making a political orientation the litmus test for promotion. Under Louis André, minister of war from 1900 to 1904, there was a real inquisition mounted to root out practicing Roman Catholics, as it was felt that those were the most politically unreliable.

Unfortunately, the four years of the André ministry was the most long lived of the group. From the end of the André ministry in November 1904 until the war began in August 1914, France had no less than fourteen ministers of war. André’s successors had hardly located their desks before they were out, so his policies had a much longer life than is suggested even by his comparatively long tenure: Of his 40 predecessors between 1871 and 1900(!), only one, Charle de Freycinet, had a longer tenure (nearly five years).

The politicization of promotion would have catastrophic consequences for the army, and for the country, once the fighting started. The process of promotion in peacetime armies is always suspect, because it tends to favor skills that have nothing much to do with fighting and winning wars. But demanding that only officers with certain political beliefs be put into leadership positions stacks the deck still further, not to mention destroying morale.

And in fact, Messimy had difficulty finding a senior officer who would take the job, given those conditions. The logical choice was General Paul Marie Pau, who, since he was born in 1848, was a safe choice, since at the age of 63, he’d be headed for retirement shortly, and wouldn’t cause any difficulties politically.

But Pau wasn’t about to accept the conditions imposed by the government, and turned the offer down. So Joffre, who was amenable, was given the post instead. The Third Republic wanted a politically aware general as chief, and they got one with a vengeance, as once the war began the one talent Joffre unquestionably had was in knowing how to get rid of possible rivals. It’s interesting how many of the senior generals whom Joffre sacked also happened to be men who in the normal course of things would have been in the group of possible replacements. Those who were too politically connected to sack, like Maurice Sarrail, Joffre managed to dispose of rather cleverly: Sarrail, who was the poster general for the left, was shipped off to command the Anglo-French expedition to the Balkans. A better dumping ground could hardly be imagined.

As a result, it took a very long time to force Joffre out, even after the unmitigated chain of setbacks and disasters of 1915. But at the same time, the generals who emerged, the few really successful men, like Pétain and Fayolle and even Foch, had all spent years watching helplessly as the government meddled and interfered in the army. As a result, they had no great love for their civilian overlords. One can imagine, for instance, how Ferdinand Foch, whose brother was a Jesuit, felt about André’s anti-Catholic inquisition. And when the time came, he repaid the favor with interest.

As chief of the general staff, Joffre would also serve as vice chair of the CSG, while General Auguste Dubail would continue his job as chief of the army staff, a confusing distinction. But Dubail was basically Joffre’s head of personnel, although without any actual authority (when the war began Dubail received an army command, and was then—according to him—made a scapegoat for one of the many failed offensives).

But Joffre soon found that his authority in peacetime was severely limited, not restricted just to promotions. He had no authority over the various bureaus overseeing the development of weapons, or for that matter any of what the ministry of war called the directions des armes du ministère. These were the specialists who decided what equipment the army needed. Given the revolving door at the ministry, they pretty much operated independently, as Joffre promptly discovered.

He had noticed what one would think was a rather blindingly obvious defect. On the one hand, the specialists at the artillery bureau had decided, along with a good many gunners, that the 75-millimeter gun was the only weapon the army needed. But as we have seen, geography dictated that the Germans would be forced into the Meuse valley, either above or below Verdun, or both. But in that case, the 75 was basically useless. That was because the barrel could be elevated to only 16 degrees from the horizontal, a typical design constraint for field guns of the period. But for the intended theater of operations, this was a serious drawback.

Because the defense of the heights of the Meuse posed a problem that could not be resolved by the flat trajectory of the 75: there existed, all along these steep heights, considerable numbers of dead angles that it would not be able to reach.

So Joffre, sensibly enough, suggested the need for a 105– or 120-millimeter howitzer like the Germans had. But General Michel, who was at that time still the vice chairman of the CSG, thought the older 155-millimeter Rimailho gun was fine, despite its limited traverse, so the matter was buried. But once he became chief of staff, Joffre brought the matter up again, and this time he got his way.

Sort of: The specialists at the bureau managed to delay the matter indefinitely. There were plenty of good designs, but for some reason none of them met the specifications—a dodge that everyone who has worked with a bureaucracy understands. Nor was there any money available. Eventually the French firm of Schneider came up with a design that was approved. But production, such as it was, proceeded at a dilatory pace.

The 155-millimeter gun that Michel had been so keen on hardly existed in any quantity: There were only 84 of them in service in 1912, hardly enough to equip an army corps, and by 1914, the army only had 104 of them.

Nor was it much of a weapon. As it weighed over 10,000 kilograms, it was hardly a mobile weapon; by contrast, its German counterpart, the 15-centimeter howitzer, weighed roughly a fifth of that, had a much greater angle of fire (43 degrees), and outranged the Rimailho by 2,500 meters. All in all, not much of a weapon.

Production of the 105-millimeter howitzer was going at a glacial pace. The army was supposed to begin taking the gun into service at the rate of 16 guns a month, with deliveries slated to start in October 1914. As the official British Army handbook issued to its officers in July 1914 put it, “it is probable, however, that the artillery of an army-corps will be eventually increased by 2 batteries of 4 guns each of 105 millimeter guns.”

Moreover, to add insult to injury, the Schneider howitzer, like the Rimailho, was not all that successful a design. The equivalent German gun was lighter, fired its shells at a higher angle, and its range was nearly the same. It was far too heavy and bulky for the projectile it fired. The impression one gets from these two weapons is that the French designers had failed to grasp a basic point about howitzer design: that to be useful as divisional artillery, they had to be just as mobile as the field guns.

Nor was this a difficult task. Since howitzers have a shorter range, the stresses exerted on the shell are much less, so not only can it contain more explosive, but the same gun carriage used for the standard field gun can handle the howitzer. In consequence, the German 10.5– and 15-centimeter howitzers used basically the same gun carriage as the 7.7-centimeter field gun. Fitted out for the field, the 10.5-centimeter howitzer weighed only 190 kilograms more than the field gun, and its explosive shell contained roughly ten times as much high explosive. So they were equally mobile, and could be deployed at the divisional level, as indeed they were.

The Schneider, however, was either deliberately designed so as not to be as mobile as the 75, or, perhaps more reasonably, was conceptualized as being a piece of heavy artillery, as the French simply refused to give the army corps anything besides the field guns; such heavy weapons as they had were all hoarded at the army group level.

General Fayolle noted in his diary how this worked out in practice, in his typically cheerful and nonjudgmental way.

One of the great faults that is clung to obstinately is the duality of the command of the artillery. The heavy guns are under the orders of the Army group; that is to say, of a general who is some kilometers from the field of battle and knows nothing of the realities of the locale. . . . It is completely insane.

Not only did the French not have the right weapons, not only did they refuse to adopt them until well along in the war, but they absolutely refused to parcel them out to the control of the combat commanders, the divisional generals who were actually conducting the fighting.


After the two successive revolutions caused by the introduction of melinite and the creation of the long-recoil field gun, one faction in the army began to argue that technology had neutered the forts. That argument resonated with a gradual shift in the way the army was regarding its basic posture in the event of war.

Now, it is a capital error to assume that by August 1914 the army was committed to the principle of the offensive at all costs; it would be considerably more accurate to say that the professional officer corps, divided into various chapels, was unable to agree on any one doctrine. The situation was exacerbated by the relative powerlessness of the new chief of staff, and the newness of his position.

What actually happened in the fifteen years preceding the war was the rise of a chapel arguing for a fundamental change: that the army should move away from its late-nineteenth-century notion of strategic defense, to the idea of strategic offense. To them, the adoption of the 75-millimeter field gun, and the successful planning for a speedy mobilization, all seemed to point toward this idea. The idea of taking the war to the enemy, rather than waiting for him to invade, became more and more practicable.

But at the same time, the engineers who had built the forts continued to grapple with the problems caused by the new high-explosive shells. The committee charged with overseeing the forts was now firmly enshrined in the military bureaucracy of the Third Republic. It will be remembered that General Michel, who was chairing that committee, had also been the vice chairman of the CSG before the Messimy reform that resulted in the creation of an actual chief of staff. So as a result, the engineers continued to get money, and they continued to grapple with the problems posed by the new high-explosive shells.

The problems boiled down to two: how to armor the forts so they were proof against the new shells, and how to protect their guns.

These were two entirely separate issues. To simplify the problem considerably: The first simply involved pouring more concrete, covering over the largely brick and stone walls with a sandwich of earth and concrete, and then enclosing what lay inside the walls. So when a fort was upgraded, or modernized, it increasingly started to look like a quadrilateral mound, with very little of it being exposed.

There was not enough money to upgrade every fort, but then the engineers realized that the new shells meant that some forts were no longer doing their job, while others would clearly be in a secondary role.

Earlier, in tracking the construction of the forts at Verdun, their positions were explained by asking the reader to envision an imaginary circle, with the ancient citadel at the center. Invoking that same imaginary circle, all the forts in the northeast quadrant (0 to 90 degrees) and those in the northwest quadrant (270 to 360 degrees) were all upgraded. And, of course, the structures built after 1885 were already constructed according to the new principles.

But the forts in the southern half were largely left alone. So too with the two initial forts that were on the right bank nearest the city: Belleville and Saint Michel. And hardly anything was done to the forts de rideau, the line of forts running from Verdun down to Saint-Mihiel.

The reason seems fairly obvious: Given the heights of the Meuse below Verdun, it was hardly likely that an invading army would be able to get the 220– or 270-millimeter mortars close enough to the forts for their shells to reach them. These weapons all had a range of roughly 5,000 meters, and the terrain around those forts was such that it hardly seemed likely that it would be possible to wrestle a weapon weighing six or seven thousand kilograms up the steep slopes that were the norm in the southern reach of the heights, and get it within the required range.

So the first problem was relatively easy to solve simply by throwing money at it. But the other problem was more complicated. Forts were essentially protected gun platforms. But in order for its guns to be useful, they had to be sufficiently protected from enemy shell fire. Prior to the introduction of melinite, this had hardly been much of a consideration. The forts looked quite different from their seventeenth-century ancestors, but the gun emplacements were pretty much the same: large openings in the outer walls through which the gun fired, the only addition increasingly being that the gun was protected above as well as in front.

But a high-explosive shell exploding close by the opening would probably wreck the gun, even if it was a near miss.

The theoretical solution to the problem was to mount the weapon in a steel turret. Now that the forts were all going to be largely enclosed structures, you could envision one as being analogous to a battleship, where, increasingly, the guns were mounted on the deck in turrets, as opposed to the older, slab-sided approach.

So between 1885 and 1910, the engineers went through a whole series of progressively more sophisticated designs, as they created the perfect mechanism. What emerged by the start of the century was a truly ingenious system.

The turret was basically a steel cylinder with a rounded steel hat as a roof. When the fort was under fire, the turret was retracted down into the body of the carapace, so that all that was visible was the rounded top, a sort of flattened tortoise shell made of thick steel. When you needed to fire the gun, the cylinder was elevated, so the basic principle was what the French engineers called the tourelle à éclipse, the disappearing turret.

The engineers experimented with various configurations, and quickly discovered that although a spherical turret was better able to withstand shells than a cylindrical one, the best solution was to retract the turret entirely.

The principle is simple, but the technology involved is anything but. First of all, the barrel of the gun has to be contained completely inside the steel cylinder. A turret that would contain the entire gun—and its crew—would be impossibly large, so enormous, so heavy, it would be impossible to retract it and then raise it up again.

The engineers got around this problem by the simple expedient of sawing off a piece of the barrel, a sort of aftermarket modification that enabled them to take the existing (at the time) 120– or 155-millimeter gun and fit it entirely inside the turret. That, of course, reduced the range of the gun considerably, but given the range of the heavy mortars, they reckoned, sensibly enough, that 5,000 meters was perfectly adequate.

But protecting the gun tube was only half the battle. Since the turret had to be raised and lowered, the recoil of the gun had to be absorbed somehow. Otherwise, the first time the gun was fired, the relatively delicate mechanism that raised and lowered the turret would be damaged.

The solution to that was simple as well: a hydraulic buffering system. So, although the 75-millimeter gun was the first field gun using this principle, it was already being employed in the guns mounted in the turrets—some ten years, roughly, before the advent of the field gun.

The gun the engineers picked was the 155-millimeter weapon from 1878. So the army could have easily converted this gun, put a wheeled carriage on it, and had reasonably modern heavy artillery. The system De Bange guns were excellent weapons, in terms of range and hitting power. Their only defect was the lack of a recoil mechanism, something that the fort engineers had already solved.

So basically, one branch of the army was developing a weapon that would have been a perfect fit for another part of the army—but the two sailed along in perfect disharmony. The artillery bureau had no interest in developing any other gun, or in modernizing any of their existing weapons, just like the army commands had no intention of giving heavy artillery to the local commanders.

This was, as Fayolle pointed out, crazy. Particularly because, as we shall see in the next chapter, the Germans did precisely that. Superiority in combat is not simply a function of having weapons that are better or the same as your enemy possesses. Using them efficiently on the battlefield is the key. To do that means decentralization, delegating command down to lower levels, which in turn requires highly trained officers farther down the chain of command. In another bitter passage, Fayolle writes why he believed the Germans were better. “They don’t have as many mediocre and ignorant company officers as we do,” he confided to his diary, and, much later in the war: “The great superiority of the German army is in training and instruction.”

But the two groups proceeded in immaculate independence and mutual disdain. Although the disappearing turrets were expensive propositions to build and mount, the French built some 60 of them, some with one 155-millimeter gun, others with two.

The chief difficulty with the turrets was that the gun was fixed. The gunners could make changes in elevation, but, by comparison with other mounts, their field of fire was extremely restricted. Think of the field of fire as being a triangle, with the apex sited at the point where the gun barrel was attached to the mount. The greater the angle of the apex, the more useful the gun. Of course, guns mounted in a fort by definition had a smaller field of fire—i.e., a narrower angle—because of the embrasure, but the disappearing turret restricted that angle enormously.

The engineers were well aware of this, and came up with various solutions. In certain angles of the forts, those where they judged the emplacement would not be susceptible to enemy artillery fire of the sort that would destroy the position, they placed pairs of guns in protected casemates, called casements de Bourges.

Although the new 75-millimeter gun had basically the same range as the older 155-millimeter weapon, it had a much smaller footprint. It weighed only about a third as much, had a lower profile, and was smaller all the way around, so it made these installations much more practicable. The 75 became the basis for all the fixed armaments of the forts designed after 1904 (although the older gun turrets were still being built and put in place right up until the start of the war).

The smaller size meant that the guns could sit comfortably back inside the protecting wall, shielded to a certain extent by an overhang, and their position made the openings extremely hard to hit. But the embrasure was such that the guns had a wide field of fire.

So the next logical step was to design a turret that not only could be raised and lowered, but also be rotated on its mount. In theory, this turret was the ideal solution, and the lighter 75-millimeter gun, coupled with its more compact shape, made the notion of a rotating turret much more practical. The smaller the weapon, the smaller the turret; the smaller the turret, the less weight, and that in turn reduced the motive power required to move it. In the years before 1914, motive power was a major issue, as the idea of diesel-powered generators was still simply an idea.

The idea was even more practicable if machine guns were used instead of field guns, so those were built as well. So now the engineers felt they had devised a set of complete solutions to their original problem. The upgraded forts were basically shellproof. The new turrets and casemates gave them integral firepower that would largely be immune to enemy bombardment. Meanwhile, the emplaced batteries that were shielded by the forts would be able to shatter the attacking forces.

Now, since almost everyone who has any familiarity with the opening of the First World War knows that the Germans overpowered the Belgian forts rather quickly, an account of these expensive engineering efforts seems pointless. And indeed, as we noticed earlier, at the same time as the engineers were solving the problems posed by the new shells, other factions in the army were increasingly restive about the whole concept of the forts.