When German forces invaded France and Belgium in 1914 there were many in France that welcomed the opportunity to wipe away the humiliation of 1870-71. However it soon became evident that the Army, damaged by political agendas, weak governments and scandals such as the Dreyfus Affair, was not as powerful and impressive as many had expected, and the coming of war highlighted many deficiencies, as wars always do. An attack-minded attitude at the expense of common sense caused thousands of soldiers to die in brave but disastrous charges against machine guns and rifle fire, while old-fashioned uniforms and obsolescent weapons only added to the misery. The shock of war, and the inability to turn back the invader, would quickly bring much change to the French Army, and several sets of figures have been made covering the middle and later parts of the war. However this set from Caesar is only the second to depict the men who fought in the first year of the conflict, when many hopes for a short and decisive war were dashed.
What identifies these men as for 1914 is of course the uniform. The main problem was the bright colours, which looked ridiculous in a world with soldiers wearing practical drab clothing, though when advancing en masse in close-order against heavy enemy fire men would have died in droves regardless of the colour of their cloth. All these troops wear the standard French greatcoat, which was worn even in the exceptional heat of the summer of 1914, with skirts buttoned back to aid movement. Each wears the much-loved French kepi, which is shown here with a cover, though it is modelled a bit too tall. The famous red trousers are correctly shown, as are the leather gaiters and ankle boots; the former giving way to puttees around the end of the year. Although in time many officers dressed much like their men, partly out of self-preservation, in the early weeks of the war the desire to stand out would be strong, if at times fatal. The officer pose here wears the stiff version of the kepi much preferred by officers, and has a tunic or vareuse rather than the coat. He seems to wear long boots rather than gaiters, on which he has spurs, so presumably is often mounted. Officers had more leeway in terms of uniform anyway, but this one is very suitably dressed.
One thing that does not identify these men as for 1914 is the weapons they are using, because most French weapons of the time were already quite old, yet would continue to serve for the rest of the War. Most here carry a rifle, which would have been the venerable 1886 Model 93 ‘Lebel’ rifle, a poor weapon compared to that of the other major combatants. One problem with this rifle was its exceptional length, which made it difficult to handle, particularly when the long spike bayonet was also fixed. Those in this set are about 16mm in length, which works out to 115 cm, so when you consider the real thing was more like 130 cm these are really noticably too short. Just the two advancing poses have a bayonet attached, which is wrong already since bayonets were routinely fixed before any action so almost everyone should have them attached. These long slender bayonets (which were prone to snapping) measured 52cm and were more or less in line with the barrel, and have been quite well done here if perhaps also a little too short. The officer has a sword and pistol, the sword being a bit short too and having an odd guard we were not happy with. Officers quickly learned to stow their swords in the baggage rather than carry them into battle, though this certainly did happen on occasions even after 1914. However this man looks to be well back from the scene of any action so the sword is easier to understand here. His pistol holster is not regulation, so may well be a private purchase.
The crewed machine gun in the bottom row is the standard Hotchkiss Model 1914, and a pretty decent model of it too. Nicely detailed and slender, the tripod is equally slender, so prone to getting bent while in the box. Immersing the item in steam will return it to the intended shape. Assembly is simplicity itself, and the crew are using it correctly, with the number two in the process of presenting a rigid strip of ammunition to it. Since the HaT set had the St Etienne machine gun and the venerable Airfix set had none at all, the Hotchkiss is the perfect choice here. Unfortunately neither crewman has evidence of the revolver they would have been issued in place of a rifle.
Like the uniform the men’s kit looked little different to that of 1870. The supported waist belt held two cartridge pouches at the front and a third in the centre of the back, but as with the HaT set this third pouch is missing on everyone here. All have a haversack on the left hip, which is fine, but bizarrely not one of these men has the strap across the body and over the right shoulder which supported it. While a version held by the waist belt was tested it was never adopted, so this is a rather obvious omission. On the right hip is the water bottle, which unfortunately again is missing the strap by which it was held, passing over the left shoulder. However this item has another big problem. It is a simple bottle shape with a single neck, when the actual bidon had a two-spout design. In 1914 the early one-litre form should have been worn (later replaced with a two-litre version), but both were a similar shape with two spouts, so the one here looks like the cavalry version, which is wrong on these men (except for some colonial infantry). As an aside, it was usual to see a cup attached to these, but there are none here. Before we look round the back of these figures there is one item of kit missing in action. Not one man has a scabbard for his bayonet – not even the two that have them attached to the rifle!
Round the back, apart from the missing rear cartridge pouch, almost everyone has a full pack. In August 1914 this was worn with blanket and tent section rolled on top, like the HaT set, but here everyone has them rolled around the outside of the pack, a style that was used well before the outbreak of war, and would only be reintroduced at the very end of 1914, meaning it only just works for a set labelled as ‘1914’. Instead these men should have a spare pair of boots attached to the sides, which they do not (though admittedly hard to sculpt). On top sits the mess tin, which ideally should be tilted away from the head, though that is asking too much here. Also probably asking too much is to have had some of the range of tools, buckets and other impedimenta many such men had to carry in addition to their packs.
The set offers a modest collection of 12 poses, and really none of them could be criticised at all. Standing, marching, advancing, firing and crawling are all here, and all have been well done and look realistic. The crawling man is a standout piece, and looks like he is feeding rounds into his rifle. The machine gun crew in the bottom row are really using their weapon in just the kind of way many Airfix equivalents did not, and like some of the other poses they benefit from the sophisticated mould that allows genuinely three-dimensional poses without any assembly, yet produces great and natural posture. The penultimate man is a walking wounded, in full uniform but with his arm in a sling and with no kit or weapon. A nice figure, and reminiscent of the Airfix set again, but that set had 20 different poses and could afford to have poses of less value to some customers, particularly wargamers, so on balance we would have preferred a fighting pose here, although casualties are always important in any set of soldiers. The officer is simply standing holding a whistle to his mouth, and is a great figure. However again, given the aggressive nature of early war French tactics, and the propensity for officers to lead from the front, we thought that an officer running forward encouraging his troops might have been a better choice. Once trench warfare set in an officer standing and blowing a whistle would be perfect of course, so while there is nothing wrong with this pose we would have chosen differently. Of course many might well disagree.
There is much to like about this set, and some to love. The sculpting is first class, with terrific detail everywhere. The clever mould means there is no loss of detail anywhere, just great natural poses with no excess plastic or flash. The Hotchkiss gunner is a wonderful example of what Caesar can produce, but it also requires a skilled sculptor to produce product this good, and there too Caesar have delivered. The only assembly is the Hotchkiss/crew/base ensemble, which is very easy and a good precision fit. Poses are all superb and if a few are not what we would have chosen, then at least the choices they went with have been very well realised. Accuracy is fine for the uniform but patchy when it comes to the kit. Missing both cross straps is poor, as is the simplified water bottle and shortened weaponry, and missing all bayonet scabbards (and most bayonets) is hard to forgive. The pack is also not the best choice, though just works for the end of the year. The kit is the fly in an otherwise excellent soup, and for those seeking perfection the problems add up to quite a big fly, which is a great pity for such an attractive set of figures.