Tag Archives: French Poilu

Gentleman Wormwood

Here we see a bespoke U.S. Army cavalry officer, leaning on his French-style soldier’s cane, somewhere in Europe during the Great War. He is sporting the latest in chemical warfare fashion to include a British Small Box Respirator, M1917 “Brodie” helmet, and a gun belt with an M1911 pistol in a Model 1912 Mounted (Cavalry) holster with the tie cord wrapped around the bottom. He completes the ensemble with 1908 Pattern breeches (Jodhpurs) and officer’s riding boots while a Model 1918 Mackinaw coat keeps him as warm as German artillery fire.

He seems strangely relevant today.

Making like the Civil War, 50 years after the fact

At first glance, with the kepis, droopy mustaches, buttoned-backed greatcoats, sword bayonets, and square tarred knapsacks with blanket bedrolls strapped tightly on top, I thought these troops were blue-coated Union volunteers mugging for Matthew Brady around the 1860s.

Turns out they are soldiers of the French Republic’s 124th Infantry Regiment de Laval posing in Pierrefonds, Oise Department, Northern France, in early 1915 with 8x50mmR Lebel Fusil Modèle 1886/M93 rifles. Notably, by mid-1915 the French Army uniform got a lot more modern to included the Adrian helmet and “horizon-blue” uniforms of a simpler cut.

On that note, here is Sgt. Joseph Dore, 7th New York State Militia. Carrying full Government-Issued kit in 1862, via the Library of Congress, for comparison.

The Cannes de Poilus

French Poilu 1918 by Stcyr74 Via Deviant Art

French Poilu 1918 by Stcyr74 Via Deviant Art

In showing a photo montage of the Great War era infantryman’s typical loadout last week, it was interesting to note the non-standard equipment each often carried. While the Doughboy could be expected to have a domino set and the Tommy a trench mace, the French soldier’s kit was shown with a walking cane.

Yup, the canne de marche or cannes de poilus was very popular with the average French soldier of the period. Going back to the time of the little Emperor, senior sergeants in the Grand Armee often carried their own thick canes for correcting disciplinary problems and there was evidence this practice continued through the 1870s.

By the time of the Great War, the elite “blue devils” of the French Chasseurs Alpins and les troupes alpine were issued long-handled walking sticks for use in skiing and mountaineering.

Nos diables bleus en reconnaissance

Nos diables bleus en reconnaissance





Then came the average soldier, or poilus (bearded ones) who often carried their own non-standard walking sticks to help during marches–especially along muddy roads of the era– or to kill rats in bivouac. As imagery from the time shows, these sticks were widespread and varied from soldier to soldier. Functional trench art if you will.

World War I Poilu French Infantry Soldiers groupe de poilus le 24 eme en 1916 Poilus-et-leurs-cannes-en-1916 cannes de poilus gasmask school Transport-de-pains-enfilés-sur-un-bâton edmond lajoux cannes de poilus 1915 poilus poilu cane

French soldiers and officers outside of Fort Vaux, Verdun, December 1916– with canes

Some examples of walking sticks have even been found made from legacy infantry sabers.

There is some evidence the practice outlived the trenches of the Great War.

This image from 1919 portrays a soldier on occupation duty in Germany, his kit carried by a local German boy.

Alsatian Schoolboy carrying the haversack of a hairy bâton-de-poilu-par-Hansi-1919
Here are a set of French soldiers in 1939 with their own very well-made walking sticks:
cannes de poilus 1939

WWII Free French icon Gen. Philippe de Hauteclocque (aka Leclerc) was often seen with a cane though he may have used it honestly– as he broke his leg in two places in a fall from his horse in 1936– although in this 1947 image he seems to get along just fine without it.

Général Leclerc de Hauteclocque was often seen with a cane though

Further, tributes such as postage stamps and monuments across France all show Leclerc with his ever-present canne, though rarely showing him actually using it, giving even more credence to the fact that it was his own marshal baton throwback to the time when he commanded  First World War veteran poilus as a young sous-lieutenant with the 5e Régiment de Cuirassiers on occupation duty in the Ruhr.


The cane even appeared in Indochina in the 1950s, possibly its last hurrah.

2e BEP Plaine des Jarres, Laos 1953 opération Muguet

The French Musee d’la Armee has the circa 1940 canes of both General Weygand and Giraud on display.


Weygand’s canne

For more information and the source of many of these images, please refer to the excellent (French) site Centre de Recherche sur la Canne et le Bâton.