Life of a French NCO Before World War I

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Life of a French NCO Before World War I

While a blow-by-blow account detailing the lives of adjutants in the French military prior to World War I is a hard feat to achieve, this brief relies on a collection of credible historical sources to try to paint a picture of what the lives of these important officers looked like. The information we collected suggests these officers were special in their own way and enjoyed a slightly privileged life compared to other junior officers.

Hierarchical Structure of the French Military

  • To understand the life of a French military officer before World War I, it is vital that we provide an overview of the overall hierarchical structure of the French military so that we can imagine the position of an adjutant and his responsibilities. The highest rank in the French military was (and still is) the Marshall (Marshall of France). Below the Marshall are General Officers (Generaux). Here we have:
• Général d’armée — This rank is equivalent to Army General, in command senior officer of an army.
• Général de corps d’armée — This rank is equivalent to Corps General and in command officer of a corps.
• Général de division — This rank is assigned to the senior-most officer in a division.
• Général de brigade — This rank is assigned to the senior-most officer in a brigade.
  • After General Officer(s), the next rank is Senior Officer, which comprised Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel, and Commandant. Thereafter, we had the Junior Officers, which included Capitaine, Lieutenant, Sous-Lieutenant, and Aspirant. The lowest rank in the French military is Sub-Officer.

Responsibilities of an Adjutant

  • As a non-commissioned officer (NCO), an adjutant was most likely a junior officer who assisted the Commanding Officer with administrative matters. These mostly entailed managing human resources and providing support services. An adjutant is the equivalent of an office manager or a human resource officer in a corporate context.
  • The work of an adjutant in the military is to make combat operations run smoothly. Therefore, in a pre-war setting, they will mostly be concerned with ensuring soldiers are combat-ready, informationally aware (information management), and motivated. Staffing would have been a key responsibility for adjutants in the early times. It is also conceivable that in peace times, adjutants perform ceremonial duties such as overseeing funerals, award presentations, and farewells. Despite being NCOs, adjutants remained critical components of the French military, and it is safe to presume they were highly regarded in pre-War French times.

Life in Pre-War France

  • History tells us that life in France before WWI was not tranquil. After the French Revolution (1789 – 1799) that ended the reign of Louis XVI, France was never the same again. Constant power wrangles between various classes of the ruling elite ensured the nation was in a perpetual state of antagonism. As if this was not enough, France was embroiled in numerous cross-border altercations with its neighbors, most notably Germany. The sad state of affairs was compounded by a wave of toxic nationalism sweeping through Europe at the time, making it virtually impossible for France to settle. This is evidenced by the numerous treaties signed between European nations that eventually led to the formation of The Triple Alliance.
  • Between 1880 and 1905, the French military embarked on a mission to renovate itself. The creation of the French Staff College in 1880 heralded the intellectual renovation of the Army, where previous war strategies and tactics were questioned and military logistics greatly enhanced. As personnel tasked with helping commanders manage their armies, this period gives us valuable insights into how the lives of adjutants might have been.
  • For starters, the formation of the “Ecole Polytechnique” and the upgrading of the St. Cyr Academy to give artillery officers and engineers high-level scientific training meant adjutants were the first in line to be trained.
  • In the 1880s, these young officers presented a new profile hitherto not associated with military men. They were more focused on their professional duties and better integrated into society. As the pioneers of the new way of life, the military leadership envisaged for its servicemen; these officers became the poster boys for the revolution taking place in the French Army. The French military leadership was determined to shed the previous image of formalism and recklessness.
  • Evidence that adjutants played a prominent role in transforming the French Army is seen in the confidence with which the officers regarded themselves. In the 1900s, the French military regarded itself as ‘the best in the world’ — “confident in its weapons, staff, and the fighting spirit of its soldiers.”
  • Between 1880 and 1914, most of the officers in the French military were concerned with one task — training soldiers for war. Toward this end, the officers aligned new training methods with regulations issued by army staff and directions of various accredited schools and literature.
  • Looking into the private lives of military families is also a window to understanding the lives of French military officers. One aspect that historians unanimously agree on is that WWI severely disrupted people’s private lives by separating couples. It is noteworthy that when the war started, 80% of men between the ages of 18 and 48 enlisted in the military. It would therefore seem like before the war, French military men lived with their families.
  • The legislation passed by the French Parliament to cushion families affected by the enlisting also provides further insight into the way of life of French citizens. For example, the enactment of a bill that would provide allowances for families of soldiers for the duration of the war suggests that the French way of life was close-knit for both civilians and soldiers. The man was, in most cases, the authority figure, and daily interaction with his family was common. Further, the passing of the Proxy Marriage law in 1915 also shows the importance of marital affairs in French society. The war changed the previous dynamics of married life, separating couples and generally weakening the institution of marriage and society in general.
  • It is a safe assessment that as junior officers in the military, the lives of adjutants were more or less similar to that of other junior officers. However, with the added duties that they undertook, it is likely they did not have as much time with their families as other junior officers. This may have given a higher profile than traditional junior officers and the fact that they assisted senior officers in the military made their office much more demanding but exciting. Therefore, we would presume that they enjoyed minor perks and benefits here and there but which we cannot specifically ascertain.

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