The Berthier After World War One

In the aftermath of World War One, France would face the need to replace virtually all of its small arms, because nearly everything it had been using was either a wartime stopgap (like the Ruby, Chauchat, and Berthier 07/15) or had been obsolete before the war began (like the Lebel and Mle 1892 revolver). The first focus of the rearming was a new light machine gun, which would be adopted in the form of the Chatellerault M24/29. Plans were made to develop a semiautomatic infantry rifle and bolt action support troops’ rifle (both in the new 7.5mm rimless cartridge), but these would not prove to be as quickly realized. As a result, the Berthier Mle 1916 carbines would remain in major frontline service right up to the outbreak of World War Two.

During the twenty years between the wars, the Berthiers would see a series of changes and upgrades including:

  • Sling bars replacing swivels
  • Revised handguard profile
  • Raised sights
  • Removal of the clearing rods
  • Adoption of the 1932N cartridge and associated rechambering
  • New metal finishes

Production of new carbines in fact continued all the way until 1939, with at least 160,000 made in 1919 and later. Many of the alterations made during this postwar period are evident on examples found today, and there is a collecting premium on guns that do not exhibit these peacetime modifications. So, let’s have a look, shall we?


  1. It is amusing to remember that French tanks actually outnumbered German tanks in 1940. To add insult to injury the better French tanks meant for battle (not the light recon tanks) had thicker armor than the Panzer 3 and the Panzer 4. And even more ridiculous than the busted myth of “cheese-eating surrendering monkeys” was that Italy invaded southern France through the worst path possible (up the mountains without mountain gear) and 2151 Italian troops died by frostbite… but of course the French had the stupid logistics and command competence problems that ultimately resulted in utter defeat by blitzkrieg. Did I mess up?

    • “French had the stupid logistics and command competence problems that ultimately resulted in utter defeat by blitzkrieg”
      Big weakness of Armée de terre was small number of effective AA weapons.

      • Also anti-tank weapons. The main French AT gun was the 25mm SA 1934, which proved to be largely ineffective against the face-hardened armor of German medium tanks. While the gun had a fairly good performance on paper, the small diameter high velocity AP projectile would often shatter on impact. The British would later have similar problems with their 2-pounder (40mm) AT guns in North Africa.

        The French did have a small number of 47mm APX Mle 1938 guns, which were highlyeffective, and they also used 75mm 1897 field guns for anti-tank work. That did work, but the high carriage left the gun crews very vulnerable to return fire.

        • “25mm SA 1934”
          Do you know why they chose that caliber, rather than ~ 37 mm typical for other nations’ AA guns of that era?
          I would understand if it would result in lighter weapons, but this is not case – in combat position weight was 496 kg against 480 kg of German 3,7 cm Pak. Both have similar penetration (for 25mm I found 40 mm @ 400 m for 3,7 cm Panzergranate 39 36 mm @ 500). So why they chose 25 mm which must be less effective firing HE, which don’t give advantage in mass or penetration?

          • I don’t know why it was initially chosen. Weight of ammunition could be one reason, since the AT guns of this period were designed to be moved between tactical positions by manpower alone. Lighter ammunition would mean lighter load or more rounds carried for the same weight.

            The French seem to have been aware of the weight problem and the later Mle 37 had a redesigned carriage, which reduced weight to 310 kg. It seems to me that the original Mle 34 was simply a needlessly strong and heavy design for such a small caliber gun.

            As far as I know, no HE ammunition was available for this gun. The small caliber and high muzzle velocity would have made it difficult to design even a marginally effective HE shell.

          • “The small caliber and high muzzle velocity would have made it difficult to design even a marginally effective HE shell.”
            Yes, but nonetheless Germans did have HE for their 2,8 cm schwere Panzerbüchse 41 named 2,8 cm SprGr.41 loaded with 5 g of explosive.

        • “Also anti-tank weapons.”
          I would say, it is easier to improvise in AT defense than in AA. As you mentioned they also used 75mm 1897 field guns for anti-tank work even if was not designed for that role (as field gun it has limited traverse). Other field guns also can be used for firing at armored targets, even if they do not have special AP shells it is possible to damage/destroy given big enough caliber. Additionally artillery shells might be dig in and used in role of mines, see 4th image from top here:

          Molotov cocktail (or petrol bomb in U.S. parlance) might be also used.
          In case of AA defense situation is worse – it is possible to fire from rifles to low-flying aeroplane, but a lot of luck is needed to do something, considering 1940s aviation technology. Light machine gun might be also used as this, giving somewhat better chance, simply by firing more bullets per second, but would still net luck to hit something vulnerable.

    • The biggest weakness of the French Army was its command structure plus French chauvinism.

      Yes, they had more and more heavily armored tanks than the Wehrmacht, but they were slow and short-ranged, with low-velocity guns without effective AT rounds. They were designed as infantry support vehicles and simply were incapable of the kind of long-range, high speed actions that typified blitzkrieg.

      Also they were tied (more like “chained”) to infantry formations that moved on foot just as they had in 1871, the lessons of Napoleon III’s campaigns and the Marne having been written off as “aberrations”. “Combined arms” operations meant infantry assault on trench lines, backed up by artillery and infantry support armor and guns, period. When there were no trench lines, and the enemy was doing end run envelopments, the French command structure was paralyzed by literally not knowing what to do about it, as it had never been part of the training syllabus.

      As for chauvinism, anything non-French was decried, resulting in almost everything the French army had being domestically designed and built, and qualitatively inferior to foreign counterparts.

      Read Victory Through Air Power by Maj. Alexander P. de Seversky, specifically his experiences as Curtiss’ sales rep trying to sell the Hawk 75A-2 (P-36A) to the Armee de l’Air in 1938-39. With French test pilots deliberately playing “pulling jockey” on the Hawks in the air so they would not outperform the domestic French fighter prototypes, ground crew deliberately sabotaging things like tires and engine oil, and mechanics deliberately “misrepairing” things that didn’t need to be “repaired” to begin with. All on the orders of the French General Staff. As one pilot said to de Seversky in a private apology, “I know it was wrong, but we had orders”.

      Ironically, every French Air Force ace of the Battle of France in 1940 got all or at least most of his kills while flying a Curtiss Hawk. Final score; 800+ Luftwaffe planes shot down vs. loss of 14 Hawks of an original 83.

      As for French Tanks, those that survived were taken over by the Wehrmacht mainly for use as…supply carriers and infantry gun tractors.

      France’s loss in 1940 was a self-inflicted wound. They tried to fight a different war than the one the Germans were fighting. And believed that simply “being French” was all that was needed to win.



      • As I recall, the Char B1 was the one French tank that early Panzer crews really feared. One Char B1 (nicknamed Eure) was ambushed by 13 German tanks (Panzer III Ausf E and Panzer IV Ausf D at best) and responded by savagely perforating the Panzers AND their crews with the turret’s 47mm main gun (the hull-mounted howitzer had questionable usefulness against tanks since it would have been loaded with HE, but I’ll leave it to your imagination).

        Also, the French Army, despite having a very terrible command structure, had a better time against the Italian Army. The French units stationed in the Southern Alps were sitting in comfortable mountain forts while the attacking Italians were literally FREEZING TO DEATH on the advance.

      • “Yes, they had more and more heavily armored tanks than the Wehrmacht, but they were slow and short-ranged, with low-velocity guns without effective AT rounds. They were designed as infantry support vehicles and simply were incapable of the kind of long-range, high speed actions that typified blitzkrieg.”
        They have such tanks, but they also have cavalry tank like SOMUA S35:
        It was no uncommon in 1930s to have tank divided into infantry and cavalry (Cruiser in British parlance, fast-moving in Soviet parlance) categories.

      • “The biggest weakness of the French Army was its command structure plus French chauvinism.”
        After reading
        Despite reports of the build-up of German forces, and even knowing the date of the planned German attack, Gamelin did nothing until May 1940, stating that he would “await events”.
        Which would mean that he failed to accept (or process) data from Deuxième Bureau.

  2. I recall reading, some time back memories of foreign volunteer ranking in French army in May-June 1940. He mentioned conversion of old, not suitable rifles to new model. If it was from Berthier to MAS36 or Lebel to Berthier, I do not remember.

    However, in overall he painted pretty gloomy picture of French operations in that time. According to his account they were poorly co-ordinated, not sufficiently logistically secured defences, which turned to chaotic retreat and eventually ended into route.

    Extremely pitiful was situation for defenders of Maginot line; Germans did not spare any method to defeat them including flame throwers, gas and such. It always bring my thoughts back as to what would happen to Czechs if they resisted in fall of !938. Yeah sure, fortifications look impressive, just before first salvo is fired into them.

    • “Germans did not spare any method to defeat them including flame throwers, gas and such”
      They did consider using N-Stoff for that purpose, what N-Stoff is? It has simple chemical formula CIF3, but devastating ability high:
      It was planned to be incendiary weapon, various flame-immune materials are flammable for N-Stoff, like asbestos. It can’t be extinguished with water, CO2 or halon. Additionally if you try to use water, product of reaction will be corrosive to human tissue, is absorbed through skin, selectively attacks bone, interferes with nerve function, and causes often-fatal fluorine poisoning

      • That is beyond human, isn’t it; if there is anything human in war. One short recall of psychology I received from someone of German ethnicity (he was born after war, but he heard from his parents). It was intense dislike of French. Sad.

        • Albert Einstein said when he published his General Theory of Relativity, “If in the future it is proven I am right, the Germans will say I was a German and the French will say I was a Jew. If I am proven wrong, the Germans will say I was a Jew and the French will say I was a German”.

          It’s a two-way street between those two cultures, and about the only thing they agree on is their dislike of anybody whose primary language is English.



          • In all movie comedies I’ve seen in past it was the Germans who were detested by both French and English. If there was no German on scene, then they poked fun at each other. Interestingly, Germans do not have this trait (poking fun at others) – they are dead serious with almost everything and it shows.

            My favoured saying goes: it you want to know someone, ask his neighbours.

          • “poked fun at each other”
            There is even book titled 1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke

        • “That is beyond human, isn’t it; if there is anything human in war.”
          Depend on point of view, you might call it inhumane weapon someone other effective at breaking enemy morale

      • Fluorine exposure BAD. Very, very, BAD. Back in my university days, certain fluorine compounds were used to etch mineral specimens. The recommended treatment for skin exposure was amputation…..

    • Actually, while surrounded Maginot “ouvrages” sometimes succumbed to 88mm artillery firing over open sights, flamethrowers, satchel charges and the like, many surrendered after the armistice and the announcement that France would seek terms with Germany under Marshal Petain. The “super trench” Maginot ouvrages were intended to allow France to use its under-strength armed forces against the numerically superior Germans, so they might block access to Alsace-Lorraine and throw an offensive through Belgium… Which is what got them into bad trouble from Fall Gelb’s “sickle cut/schnitt” through the Ardennes.

      The biggest problems with the French effort in 1940 included 1) communications, 2) command and control, 3) super-secrecy to the extent that it hindered No. 1, communications and also response times.

      The French army had “infantry support” tanks that were on par with a good many German designs–particularly the trainers pressed into service like the Mk.I and Mk.IIs, and also some “cavalry” tanks like the Somua, that were qualitatively better than the better German tanks of the time, like the Czech 1938 that was later used as the basis for the Hetzer tank destroyer.

      The German army of 1940 simply used the materiel it had much more audaciously and innovatively than the casualty-averse post-WWI BEF and French army. Had Dunkirk ended in a debacle, something that hinged on Gerd von Rundstedt keeping the tanks reserved for what was feared might be stiffer French resistance, and Hermann Goering’s promises that the Luftwaffe could crush the last remaining evacuation ports, then Britain very likely would have sought terms with Adolf Hitler.

      Ian Kershaw’s “nightmare scenario” what if?

    • It looks as if the anti-Spanish rebels were using weapons purloined from the French in Morocco or Algeria. As well as the Berthier, I think I saw an M1 carbine, a couple of MP28s and a Chatellerault LMG.

      • Mostly from Morocco, since it was an “undercover war”. Or a “communist plot”, if you believe the propaganda of the era.

        The problema is getting real useful information, besides glimpses in those old newsreels. Censorship and propaganda were full swing in that era of the dictatorship.
        For instance, the clip says all ammo was of spanish manufacture, which is highly dubious for the french calibres shown.

          • Arguably Françafrique never went away and is still very much alive. There has not been a decade since the last world war when the French Army has not been fighting somewhere in their old African empire. Wiki lists 3 of the countries with French military (presumably Sovereign) bases, and another 5 where the French Army are deployed. In comparison the British have had almost no direct military involvement in Africa since the end of their Empire.

            As a side note: the French in India-china were also beaten by Thailand in 1940-41.

  3. You have to distinguish Françafrique which describes French “covert” involvement and wheeling-dealing usually to France’s advantage (Gabon, Niger …, as the CIA did in Latin America since the 1950s) and visible, large-scale military intervention, usually at the request of the countries (Mali and Centrafrique recently, Tchad in the 1980s).
    Françafrique has not gone away but is a pale shadow of what it was under the presidencies of De Gaulle, Giscard or Mitterrand.
    Military intervention, however, has developed in Sahelian countries and Libya, as did US military intervention in Africa and UK intervention with other allies in the Middle-East.
    As a side-note: the French indeed took a beating after Thailand somewhat sided with the Axes in 1940 and killed quite a few soldiers. That “war” was lost by the Thai after the only (solely) French naval victory during WWII, off the coast of Koh Chang, by a small French naval group which was sent from Saigon. It was then either withdrawal and peace or the bombing of Bangkok.

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