The first permanent army, paid with regular wages, instead of feudal levies, was established under
Charles VII in the 1420–30s. The Kings of France needed reliable troops during and after the
Hundred Years' War. These units of troops were raised by issuing ordonnances to govern their length of service, composition and payment. These
Compagnies d'ordonnance formed the core of the Gendarme Cavalry into the sixteenth century. Stationed throughout France and summoned into larger armies as needed. There was also provision made for "Francs-archers" units of bowmen and foot soldiers raised from the non-noble classes but these units were disbanded once war ended.
The bulk of the infantry for warfare was still provided by urban or provincial militias, raised from an area or city to fight locally and named for their recruiting grounds. Gradually these units became more permanent, and in 1480s Swiss instructors were recruited and some of the 'Bandes' (Militia) were combined to form temporary 'Legions' of up to 9000 men. These men would be paid and contracted and receive training.
Henry II further regularised the French army by forming standing Infantry regiments to replace the Militia structure. The first of these the Régiments de Picardie,Piémont,Navarre and Champagne were called the Les Vieux Corps (The Old Corps). It was normal policy to disband regiments after a war was over as a cost saving measure with the Vieux Corps and the King's own Household Troops the
Maison du Roi being the only survivors.
Regiments could be raised directly by the King and so called after the region in which they were raised, or by the nobility and so called after the noble or his appointed colonel. When
Louis XIII came to the throne he disbanded most of the regiments in existence leaving only the Vieux and a handful of others which became known as the Petite Vieux and also gained the privilege of not being disbanded after a war.
In 1684 there was a major reorganisation of the French infantry and again in 1701 to fit in with
Louis XIV's plans and the War of the Spanish Succession. This reshuffle created many of the modern regiments of the French Army and standardised their equipment and tactics. The army of the Sun King tended to wear grey-white coats with
coloured linings. There were exceptions and the foreign troops, recruited from outside France, wore red (Swiss, Irish...) or blue (Germans, Scots...) while the
French Guards wore blue. In addition to these regiments of the line the Maison du Roi provided several elite units, the
Swiss Guards, French Guards and the Regiments of
Musketeers being the most famous. The white/grey coated French Infantry of the line Les Blancs with their Charleville muskets were a feared foe on the battlefields of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fighting in the
Nine Years' War, the Wars of
Austrian Succession, the
Seven Years' War and the
The revolution split the army with the main mass losing most of its officers to aristocratic flight or guillotine and becoming demoralised and ineffective. The French Guard joined the revolt and the Swiss Guards were massacred during the
storming of the Tuileries palace. The remnants of the royal army were then joined to the revolutionary militias known as
sans-culottes, and the "
National Guard" a more middle class militia and police force, to form the
French Revolutionary Army.
From 1792, the French Revolutionary Army fought against various combinations of European powers, initially reliant on large numbers and basic tactics, it was defeated bloodily but survived and drove its opponents first from French soil and then overran several countries creating client states.
Napoleon I, the French Army conquered most of Europe during the
Napoleonic Wars. Professionalising again from the Revolutionary forces and using columns of attack with heavy artillery support and swarms of pursuit cavalry the French army under Napoleon and his marshals was able to outmanoeuvre and destroy the allied armies repeatedly until 1812. Napoleon introduced the concept of all arms Corps, each one a traditional army 'in miniature', permitting the field force to be split across several lines of march and rejoin or to operate independently. The
Grande Armée operated by seeking a decisive battle with each enemy army and then destroying them in detail before rapidly occupying territory and forcing a peace.
After defeating Prussian forces at
entered Berlin on 27 October 1806
In 1812 Napoleon marched on Moscow seeking to remove Russian influence from eastern Europe and secure the frontiers of his empire and client states. The campaign initially went well but the vast distances of the Russian Steppe and the cold winter forced his army into a shambling retreat preyed on by Russian raids and pursuit. The Grand Army of the 1812 Campaign could not be replaced and with the "ulcer" of the ongoing peninsular war against Britain and Portugal in Spain the French army was badly short of trained troops and French manpower was almost exhausted.
After Napoleon's abdication and return, halted by an Anglo-Dutch and Prussian alliance at Waterloo, the French army was placed back under the restored Bourbon Monarchy. The structure remained largely unchanged and many officers of the Empire retained their positions.
The long 19th Century and the Second Empire
The Bourbon restoration was a time of political instability with the country constantly on the verge of political violence.
The army was committed to a
defense of the Spanish monarchy in 1824, achieving it's aims in six months, but did not fully withdraw until 1828, in contrast to the earlier Napoleonic invasion this expedition was rapid and successful.
Taking advantage of the weakness of the bey of Algiers France
invaded in 1830 and again rapidly overcame initial resistance, the French government formally
annexed Algeria but it took nearly 45 year to fully pacify the country. This period of French history saw the creation of the
Armée d’Afrique, which included the
French Foreign Legion. The Army was now uniformed in dark blue coats and red trousers, which it would retain until the First World War.
The news of the fall of Algiers had barely reached Paris in 1830 when the Bourbon Monarchy was
overthrown and replaced by the constitutional Orleans Monarchy, the mobs proved too much for the troops of the Maison du Roi and the main body of the French Army, sympathetic to the crowds, did not become heavily involved.
In 1848 a wave of revolutions swept Europe and
brought an end to the Bourbon monarcy. The army was large uninvolved in the street fighting in Paris which overthew the King but later in the year troops were used in the suppression of the more
radical elements of the new Republic which led to the election of Napoleon's nephew as president.
The Pope had been forced out of Rome as part of the Revolutions of 1848, and Louis Napoleon sent a 14,000 man expeditionary force of troops to the Papal State under General Nicolas Charles Victor Oudinot to restore him. In late April 1849, it was defeated and pushed back from Rome by Giuseppi Garibaldi's volunteer corps, but then recovered and recaptured Rome.
The French army was among the first in the world to be issued with
Minié rifles, just in time for the Crimean War against Russia, allied with Britain. This invention gave line infantry a much longer ranged and more accurate weapon and would lead to new looser tactics. The French army was more experienced at mass manoeuvre and war fighting than the British and the reputation of the French army was greatly enhanced.
A series of colonial expeditions followed and in 1856 France joined the
Second Opium War on the British side against China; obtaining concessions. French troops were deployed into
Italy against the Austrians, the first use of railways for mass movement.
The French army was now considered to be an example to others and military missions to
Japan and the emulation of French
Zouaves in other militaries added to this prestige. However an
expedition to Mexico failed to create a stable puppet.
In 1870 France was humiliated by defeat in the
Franco-Prussian war. The army had far superior infantry weapons in the form of the
Chassepot and an early type of
machine-gun but its tactics were inferior and by allowing the invading German force the initiative the army was rapidly bottled up into its fortress towns and defeated. The loss of prestige within the army lead to a great emphasis on aggression and close quarter tactics.
Early 20th century
In August 1914, the
French Armed Forces numbered 1,300,000 soldiers. During the
Great War the French Armed Forces reached a size of 8,300,000 soldiers, of which about 300,000 came from the colonies. During the war around 1,397,000 French soldiers were killed in action, mostly on the
Western Front. It was the most deadly conflict in French history. The main generals were:
Franchet d'Esperey and
Maurice Sarrail (See
French Army in World War I).
At the beginning of the war, the French Army was wearing the uniform of the
Franco-Prussian War of 1870, but the uniform was unsuited to the trenches, and so in 1915 the French Army replaced the uniform, with the
Adrian helmet replacing the
képi. A uniform with a
capote, of bleu-horizon colour adopted to the trenches, was adopted, and the uniform for colonial soldiers coloured khaki.
At the beginning of
World War II the French Army deployed 2,240,000 combatants grouped into 94
divisions (of which 20 were active and 74 were
reservists) from the Swiss border to the
North Sea. These numbers did not include the Army of the Alps facing Italy and 600,000 men dispersed through the
French colonial empire are not included in this figure. After
defeat in 1940, the
Vichy French regime was allowed to retain 100–120,000 personnel in unoccupied France, and larger forces in the
French Empire: more than 220,000 in Africa (including 140,000 in
French North Africa),
 and forces in Mandate Syria and
After 1945, despite enormous efforts in the
First Indochina War of 1945–54 and the
Algerian War of 1954–62, both lands eventually left French control. French units stayed in Germany after 1945, forming the
French Forces in Germany.
5th Armored Division stayed on in Germany after 1945, while 1st and 3rd Armoured Divisions were established in Germany in 1951. However
NATO-assigned formations were withdrawn to fight in Algeria; 5th Armoured Division was withdrawn in 1956. From 1948 to 1966, many French Army units fell under the integrated
NATO Military Command Structure.
Allied Forces Central Europe was a French Army officer, and many key NATO staff positions were filled by Frenchmen. While an upper limit of 14 French divisions committed to NATO had been set by the Treaty of Paris, the total did not exceed six divisions during the Indochina War, and during the Algerian War the total fell as low as two divisions.
The Army created two parachute divisions in 1956, the
10th Parachute Division under the command of General
Jacques Massu and the
25th Parachute Division under the command of General Sauvagnac.
 After the
Algiers putsch, the two divisions, with the
11th Infantry Division, were merged into a new light intervention division, the 11th Light Intervention Division, on 1 May 1961.
At the end of World War II France was immediately confronted with the beginnings of the
decolonisation movement. The French army was the leading force in opposition to decolonization, which is interpreted as a humiliation.
 In Algeria the Army repressed the first demonstrations in May 1945 with heavy fire; 45,000 Algerians were killed.
 Maintaining control of Algeria, where 1 million Frenchmen had settled alongside 9 million natives was a high priority for the Army. When it decided that politicians were about to sell them out and give independence to Algeria, it engineered a military coup that toppled the civilian government and put General de Gaulle back in power in the
May 1958 crisis. De Gaulle, however, recognized that Algeria was a dead weight and had to be cut free. The Army then planned a military coup against de Gaulle himself in 1961, but it failed. After 400,000 deaths, Algeria finally became independent. Hundreds of thousands of Moslems who were loyal to Paris (also known as
Harkis), went into exile in France, where they and their children and grandchildren remain in poorly assimilated
The Army repressed the
Malagasy Uprising in Madagascar in 1947. French officials estimated the number of Malagasy killed from a low of 11,000 to a French Army estimate of 89,000.
Cold War era
Cold War, the French Army, though not part of NATO's military command structure, planned for the defence of Western Europe.
 In 1977 the French Army switched from multi-brigade divisions to smaller divisions of about four to five battalions/regiments each. From the early 1970s,
2nd Army Corps was stationed in South Germany, and effectively formed a reserve for NATO's
Central Army Group. In the 1980s,
3rd Army Corps headquarters was moved to
Lille and planning started for its use in support of NATO's
Northern Army Group. The Rapid Action Force of five light divisions was also intended as a NATO reinforcement force. In addition, the
152nd Infantry Division was maintained to guard the
intercontinental ballistic missile bases on the
In the 1970s–1980s, two light armoured divisions were planned to be formed from school staffs (the 12th and 14th). The 12th Light Armoured Division (12 DLB) was to have its headquarters to be formed on the basis of the staff of the
Armoured and Cavalry Branch Training School (French acronym EAABC) at
In the late 1970s an attempt was made to form 14 reserve light infantry divisions, but this plan, which included the recreation of the
109th Infantry Division, was too ambitious. The planned divisions included the
102nd, 104e, 107e, 108e, 109e, 110e, 111e, 112e, 114e, 115th, and 127th Infantry Divisions. From June 1984, the French Army reserve consisted of 22 military divisions, administering all reserve units in a certain area, seven brigades de zone de defence, 22 regiments interarmees divisionnaires, and the 152nd Infantry Division, defending the ICBM launch sites.
 The plan was put into action from 1985, and brigades de zone, such as the 107th Brigade de Zone, were created. But with the putting-in-place of the "Réserves 2000" plan, the brigades de zone were finally disbanded by mid-1993.
Post Cold War era
1st Army Corps was disbanded on 1 July 1990.
In February 1996 the President of the Republic decided on a transition to a professional service force, and as part of the resulting changes, ten regiments were dissolved in 1997.
 The specialized support brigades were transferred on 1 July 1997 to Lunéville for the signals, Haguenau (the artillery brigade) and Strasbourg (engineers). The 2nd Armoured Division left Versailles on 1 September 1997 and was installed at Châlons-en-Champagne in place of the disbanding 10th Armoured Division. On 5 March 1998, in view of the ongoing structural adoptions of the French Army, the Minister of Defence decided to disband III Corps, and the dissolution became effective 1 July 1998. The headquarters transitioned to become Headquarters
Commandement de la force d'action terrestre (CFAT) (the Land Forces Action Command).
During the late 1990s, during the professionalisation process, numbers dropped from the 236,000 (132,000 conscripts) in 1996 to around 140,000.
 By June 1999, the Army's strength had dropped to 186,000, including around 70,000 conscripts. 38 of 129 regiments were planned to be stood down from 1997–99. The previous structure's nine 'small' divisions and sundry separate combat and combat support brigades were replaced by nine combat and four combat support brigades. The Rapid Action Force, a corps of five small rapid-intervention divisions formed in 1983, was also disbanded, though several of its divisions were re-subordinated.