French Military Memorabilia
French Military Memorabilia is comprised of collectible items from the history of the French armed forces.
Collectors usually focus on one of these particular genres when collecting French militaria, or concentrate on a particular era of military history.
Collectors amass this memorabilia at auctions, antique shows, flea markets, in military surplus stores, and via inheritance. A huge number of collectors travel to old battle grounds and army camps, and hunt around for discarded or buried items with metal detectors and excavations etc.
Notable events in French Military history
French military history stretches back over 2,000 years. From Gallo-Roman conflict to Middle Age rivalries, France was involved in numerous territorial skirmishes. The country emerged after the Middle Ages as the most powerful nation in Europe, only to be defeated in the Italian Wars and the Wars of Religion. Victory over Spain in the Thirty Years’ War brought them back to the forefront of military power, and France began developing its colonial empire. From the early 16th century, France directed its military efforts to securing overseas possessions and quashing dissent from French colonists and natives.
The French Revolution began in 1789, and vastly remodelled the French army from a rigid, static, and unmotivated group, into liberal assemblies obsessed with external threats. This period is often defined as the beginning of modern war, due to the great changes to warfare that occurred at this time. A mass conscription was called for the first time in human history as enemies began to converge on French borders. Armies during the revolution therefore became much larger than their Holy Roman counterparts. The enthusiasm that came with the young and idealistic soldiers, liberté égalité and fraternité, saw a creativity in tactics and strategy that benefited the army and laid the foundation for modern military theory. The old army of France, led by the aristocracy, was destroyed, and a new army of equality was established.
The Napoleonic Wars were possibly the most famous wars in French military history. France gained unprecedented dominance over much of Europe under Napoleon Bonaparte. The population had grown immensely and armies could be summoned in the blink of an eye. The military innovations during the revolutionary years meant that cavalry and artillery capabilities were the best in Europe. Napoleon himself was charismatic and extremely intelligent as a military leader, which made him respected and admired. He kept on top of the latest military developments and applied them in battle. While weapons and technology did not see much progress during Napoleon’s time, operational strategy advanced massively. By 1805, he had formed the army into a lethal force, and drilled them for an invasion of England. The Imperial Guard were a shining example to the rest of the army. Other countries began to imitate this impressive army. They seemed unstoppable until their defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, after which time they were confined once again to their original borders.
The French Foreign Legion was created in 1831, for foreign nationals willing to serve in the French Armed Forces. It is recognised now as an elite military unit, focusing on strong military skills coupled with a focus on building and maintaining good morale, esprit de corps.
The French Armée de l’Air was founded in 1909, and an active interest in developing an air force lead to the first fighter pilots of World War I.
World War I saw French involvement, holding the Western front and counterattacking on the Eastern front and in the colonies. The French army were a cohesive fighting force during this time, but by the end, with 1.3 million military fatalities, a large dent and much loss was created.
World War II therefore saw France’s army crippled by a low population growth and inexperienced conscripts, though they did possess superior equipment. Their main aim was to minimise casualties, and build up defence rather than to aggressively attack. They were defeated, and forced to co-operate with the invading German forces until the end of the war, although there were pockets of resistance across France.
Since the war, the French military has some of the best trained men and best equipment. They are utilised largely for coalition interventions, peacekeeping, and minor disputes.
Types of French Military Memorabilia
Swords have been part of French military history since time immemorial, and much sword development from small sword to rapier to duelling épées occurred in France. In the later 17th century, the sword was the primary weapon over firearms. It was tradition for soldiers to wear small swords throughout the 18th century, and this continued into the Napoleonic era. Some soldiers adopted the curved Mameluke scimitar sword after fighting in Egypt. Curved sabres were common weapons of cavalry during the Napoleonic wars, and swords, bayonets and pikes were carried by soldiers. They were often elegant, with decorative hilts. Swords are among the most valuable items of French military memorabilia.
While the seven years war had seen advances in weaponry, there was not much development of firearms in Napoleon’s time, though they were used. Cannons were significant, the Gribeauval gun in particular. Infantry soldiers carried Model 1777 Charleville muskets, a muzzle-loading, smoothbore musket. Troops were also armed with a .69 pistol. Rifles, despite advantages in accuracy, were not widely used due to being too expensive. Muskets were preferred.
During World War I, the primary French field gun was the French 75, which had been produced since 1897. There were around 4,000 of these guns in operation. French models of machine gun used included the Hotchkiss M1914, the Chauchat, and the St. Etienne Mle 1907. The primary weapon however, remained a rifle, generally the Lebel Model 1886, and later the 1916 Berthier rifle and Berthier carbine, also known as the Mousqueton modele 1916. Pistols such as the Ruby and the Star Model 1914 were also carried. Many of these models continued to be used in World War II.
Armour, Uniforms and Helmets
The French Cuirassiers, mounted cavalry soldiers who appeared in the later 15th century, were known for wearing armour as the successors of medieval armoured knights. This armour started out as providing three-quarter cover of the entire upper body and down to the knee, including a close helm, bugonet, or lobster tail pot helmet, plus a gorget to protect the neck. The torso had a breast and back plate, the arms and shoulders pauldrons, rerebraces, elbow couters and vambraces, and the thighs and knees tassets with cuisses. This body armour fell out of use in the 18th and 19th century, and when it reappeared it had evolved.
Napoleon Bonaparte brought back mounted cavalry. The Napoleonic era saw very decorative armour and helmets in widespread use.
Napoleon brought a whole troop of Egyptian Mamelukes to serve in his imperial guard, and French Mameluke uniforms are very collectible.
Other collectible items
Guide for collectors
Be wary of replicas in this area of collectibles. These may have been produced for innocent purposes like theatre, film, or re-enactments, but are often passed off as the real thing. It is worth buying a good reference work for your particular area of collectibles.
Items are more valuable with a notable provenance.
- French Cuirassier three-quarter armour, circa 1620-30, sold for £50,400 at Bonhams in July 2011
- French Hanger sword, 1780-3, sold for $80,000 at a Skinner auction in November 2010
- French sabre de Recompense, presented by Bonaparte Ier Consul to General de Brigade Jean Barthelemy-Clause-Toussaint D’Armagnac. Sold for £97,700 at Christie’s in May 2008
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