Picking the flowers while a motorized column is waiting on the road. A caricatural picture but somewhat representative for the French army of 1918-1940.



For military administration France was divided into 20 military districts, each corresponding to an army corps command:

Paris (singled out into a district of its own without a number)
  1. Lille
  2. Amiens
  3. Rouen
  4. Le Mans
  5. Orleans
  6. Metz
  7. Besancon
  8. Dijon
  9. Tours
  10. Rennes (later Strasbourg)
  1. Nantes
  2. Limoges (later Rheims)
  3. Clermont-Ferrand
  4. Lyon
  5. Marseilles
  6. Montpellier
  7. Toulouse
  8. Bordeaux
  9. Algiers
  10. Nancy
Military districts, due to the planned tripling of the number of mobilized units, constituted the mobilizational subsidiary of the standing army. They lost their combat character and became purely cadre formations prepared to absorb millions of reservists and recruits. Each military district possessed as a rule one infantry division with supporting and auxiliary units. Districts VI, VII and XX, on the eastern borders of the country, had two infantry divisions each. In 1920s three additional divisions used to be formed by the districts IV and X, IX and XII, and VII and XVII. Apart from the infantry divisions there were also six (since 1921 five) cavalry divisions. The number of active infantry divisions used to change with financial and recruitment capabilities of the army. During the Great Depression six divisions were disbanded: three from the eastern districts and three aforementioned mixed ones. The structure of the land army also gradually changed due to progressing motorization. In 1932-1939 two cavalry divisions and seven infantry divisions were motorized, and started the formation of armoured divisions, which were not ready yet until after the outbreak of the war. Construction of the Maginot Line also created necessity to form special units for service in fortified zones. There were created seven so-called "sectures", or fortified sectors, each covered by the forces equivalent to a brigade or light division.

Apart from the units formed in metropolitan France, also colonial troops were deployed there. They did not go to the composition of the military districts, but constituted the reserve of the supreme command. It came out of the idea of drawing on the human resources of the vast French colonies to increase the size of the standing army. So happened already during the First World War, when hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of the colonies were called to the arms. In 1930s colonial troops stationed in France included:
  • 2, later 4, North African infantry divisions;
  • 3, later 4, colonial infantry divisions;
  • 2 infantry brigades: one Indochinese, and one Malagasy;
  • 1 or 2 Spahi light cavalry brigades.
Simultaneously, forces deployed in the colonies were built up too, and in 1939 numbered:
  • in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco:
    • 8 or 9 equivalent infantry divisions,
    • up to 2 equivalent cavalry divisions.
  • in Indochina, Middle East and Africa:
    • 2 to 3 equivalent infantry divisions,
    • 2 to 4 equivalent infantry brigades.
After demobilization and switching to the peacetime service in 1921, the French army numbered 838 thousand soldiers, in this 514 thousand in metropolitan France and 324 thousand in the colonies. It was impossible to retain compulsory 3-years service, which in 1923 was reduced to 18 months, and conscription of one class was divided in two phases - one in April, and one in October. The size of the peacetime standing army was established at 685,000 soldiers. That establishment was never reached, and in 1925 the standing army had only 649,000 servicemen: 419,000 in France and 230,000 overseas. Pacifist campaigns and financial constraints caused further reduction of the manpower in the next years. In 1928 the new law on military service reduced the time of compulsory service to 12 months, which downsized the standing army to 608,000 men. Constant reductions and the system of twofold call-up of the same class caused decrease in the quality of the troops' training. One full class remained in the troops since April till October, and that limited the period of the proper training. For the rest of the year the troops were busy with maintaining their barracks and equipment. Unlike before the First World War, when peace-time establishments were comparable with the war-time ones, the standing army could not be engaged in fights immediately; mobilization required absorption of substantial contingents of reservists, which lowered the worthiness of the fighting troops, and menaced with so-called "mobilization crisis". It meant necessity of allocating several weeks for troops' training and teaming. Moreover, cadre divisions were obliged to staff reserve divisions of series A and B, and provide them with cadres.

In 1930s the French army faced another problem, which was shortage of conscripts in consecutive classes. It resulted from the demographic crisis as so-called wartime classes were reaching maturity age. Their numbers dropped dramatically from 225,000 in 1934 to 100,000 in 1936. To heal the situation the army tried to draw on the human resources of the colonies. In 1920s the compulsory military service was introduced in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco; in it was extended to all other colonies. So, in 1924 out of 322,000 recruits 221,00 were French, 42,000 came from North Africa, and the rest was provided by other territories. Such a situation caused significant degradation of the infantry, since colonial contingents were generally illiterate, while most skilled recruits went to armoured troops, artillery, engineers, signals, navy and air force.

It was not until the international political crisis of the late 1930s that the French authorities were forced to introduce radical changes. After the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 there was introduced the two-year compulsory military service. The standing army grew in numbers to 825,000 troops in 1938. The new system provided for 28 years of military duty (2 years in active service, 2 years on-call, 16 in reserve A, and 8 in reserve B.

After the mobilization the French armed forces were substantially enlarged. On 1 March 1940 they numbered 5,403 thousand troops, in this 3,075 thousand in the standing army: 150 thousand in the air force, 180 thousand in the navy, and the rest in the land forces. Territorial units numbered 2,328 thousand troops in the units under training, reserves, civil defence, and soldiers on leaves, sick leaves and detached to work in agriculture.

French forces on the north-eastern front
on 10 May 1940
Units
Divisions
Inf.
Cav.
Mot.
Mech.
Amd.
Total
Remarks
1st Army Group
7th Army
1st Army
9th Army
2nd Army
Reserve

4
5
6
5
1



2
2

2

1

3

1
2





1

7
7
9
7
5

+9 British mot.div.
(British Expeditionary Force)
total:
21
4
6
3
1
35

2nd Army Group
3rd Army
4th Army
5th Army
Reserve

9
7
11
6

1




10
7
11
6

+1 British mot.div.
total:
33
1



34

3rd Army Group
8th Army
Reserve

6
5





6
5

total:
11




11

Reserves
11

1

2
14

Total:
76
5
7
3
3
94
+1 British mot.div.