Of interest to military history buffs, the 4,400-strong French military parade down les champs Élysée to celebrate the 232nd anniversary of Bastille Day yesterday was led by a 232-member company of the famed “Les marsouins de Leclerc” of the Régiment de Marche du Tchad or RMT.
Régiment de marche du Tchad leading the parade. Respect aux anciens, et vive la France!
The full, 2 hour parade:
As discussed before here, today’s RMT shares the lineage of the old Senegalese colonial infantry regiment of Chad (Régiment de Tirailleurs Sénégalais du Tchad, RTST), from which a young Major Philippe Hauteclocque (under the nom de guerre, Leclerc) handpicked a column of 400 to strike out from that rare Free French colony against the key oasis of Koufra in Italian Libya in January 1941. They went on to win other honors fighting alongside the Allies at Fezzan (1942), Tunisia (1943) Alençon (1944), Paris (1944), and Strasbourg (1944).
Les marsouins de Leclerc is also the name of a popular French military graphic novel series covering the regiment’s history, from “Koufra to Kabul.”
Those who are students of military history will also appreciate the irony that the RMT is carrying France’s new infantry rifle, the Heckler und Koch HK416. Seen here in rehearsals last week:
Also note they wear the fouled anchor badge of the Troupes de Marine on their kepi, although they are a mechanized infantry regiment in the French Army, another throwback to the old colonial days. Their unit patch is the old Free French Lorraine Cross.
The Chadian government last week reported that recently reelected six-time president (!) Idriss Déby, 68, died of injuries following clashes with rebels in the north of the country at the weekend. Deby’s son, leader of the Presidental Guard, has been installed as the country’s leader.
The Deby government came to power in 1990 as part of a military coup while he was head of the military. Although we aren’t in the habit of celebrating African authoritarian strongmen, it should be noted that Deby was a legend of asymmetric warfare.
He was the head of the Chadian National Armed Forces (FANT) during the Toyota Wars of the 1980s.
Trained in a series of French officer schools to include the prestigious École de Guerre, Deby’s Mad Max-style troopers pulled off a French-funded Deserts Rats-esque campaign against Gaddafi’s set-piece Libyan armored columns in Chad’s northern deserts, pitting 400 Milan- and machine gun-armed technicals against T-54s– and coming out on top.
Since literally taking office 30 years ago, Deby has remained a big friend to Paris in backing up the old colonizer’s fight against Islamists on the Continent and setting up Chad as the model of stability in the region.
With that, there should be no surprise that France– who has long looked the other way on Chad’s intermittent border clashes with Nigeria– is supporting the Chadian military’s seizure of power following Deby’s death on the battlefield.
Speaking of which…
Chad and France have a unique bond that goes back to WWII.
On 26 August 1940, just two months after the fall of metropolitan France to the Axis, Chad was the first French territory in Africa to break with the Vichy government and join De Gaulle’s Free French movement.
With the blessing of colonial governor Felix Ebouse and Lt. Col Pierre Marchand, commander of the Senegalese infantry regiment of Chad (Régiment de Tirailleurs Sénégalais du Tchad, RTST), the local unit, DeGaulle sent a young Major Philippe Hauteclocque (under the nom de guerre, Leclerc) who handpicked a column of 400 to strike out from the colony against the key oasis of Koufra in Italian Libya in January 1941 to aid the British push in the Western Desert.
1940 uniform of Régiment de Tirailleurs Sénégalais du Tchad, via the Musee d’la Armee
Free French infantryman, a native of the Chad colony, who was awarded the Croix de Guerre, 1942 for combat in North Africa. Note the tribal face scars, British helmet, and fouled anchor insignia common to French colonial troops (NARA)
Leclerc’s truck-borne unit, augmented by some old armored cars and a couple of 75mm guns, kicked the Italian Sahariana di Cufra around the desert for two months and, upon victory, which was hugely symbolic to the Free French, Leclerc and his men (some 3/4ths were Africans from Chad), took the so-called “Koufra Oath,” promising not to lay down their arms until the Free French flag flew from the Strasbourg Cathedral.
Fast forward to 23 November 1944 and Leclerc, then general in charge of his own armored division of Sherman tanks and on his way to becoming a Marshal of France, liberated Strasbourg.
The Régiment de Marche du Tchad still exists in the modern French Army today, based in Meyenheim in Alsace, as a mechanized infantry unit of some 1,200 soldiers.
Keeping that in mind, the odds of the French ever quitting Chad are somewhat lower than zero.
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.
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
Carte Postale DESSIN JULLIAN – CHASSEUR ALPIN
Carte Postale DESSIN JULLIAN – CHASSEUR ALPIN
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.
French soldiers and officers outside of Fort Vaux, Verdun, December 1916– with canes
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.
Here are a set of French soldiers in 1939 with their own very well-made walking sticks:
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.
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.
French General Leclerc, canne in hand, with a group of captured Waffen-SS Frenchmen of the Waffen-Grenadier-Brigade der SS “Charlemagne” May 1945. The unit, made up largely of anti-Bolshevik French collaborationists, many of whom were already serving in various other German units, was all but annihilated in Berlin in April 1945. A dozen survivors, captured by the Soviets in the ruins of the German capital, were handed over to the Free French. “How could you wear someone else’s uniform?” the general was reported to have asked. One of them replied by asking why Leclerc wore an American one. The prisoners were executed the next day without trial.
He wasn’t the only one.
With “le canne” in hand, Maj. Gen. Claude Philippe Armand Chaillet inspects the citadel of Belfort on 25 November 1944 after the 1ère Armée française retook the city from the Germans. Born in 1893, he was in the last pre-1914 St.Cyr class and had risen to the rank of colonel in the professional army by 1938 when he retired to a desk in the Ministry of War after 25 years of service. He joined De Gaulle in 1941, led a West African Division then the artillery of the Corps Expéditionnaire Français in Italy before his promotion to the staff of the 1st French Army late in the war, and rejoined the reserve list in 1946.
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.