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The French Army Re-enactment Group

The French Army Re-enactment Group

hen military vehicle enthusiast Barriemore (Baz) England-Davis met Corin Engdahl, a collector of military weapons, the two men hit it off instantly and became firm friends. Through their common interest in things military, they decided to make a trip to visit the War & Peace Show when it was held at the Hop Farm. In 2006 they completed their trip from Somerset to Kent in the most appropriate way possible, by using Baz’s newly acquired French-built M201 Hotchkiss Jeep dated from 1962.

During their time together they got to talking things over between themselves and decided to combine their interests and formed the French Army Re-enactment Group (FARG) dedicated to depicting the French army from the last year of WW II through to the 1960s and 1970s. The unit they chose to depict was the 5eme Division Blindée (5th Armoured Division) which, during its formation, saw extensive service, including deployment to Algeria, where the National Liberation Army (ALN) was fighting for independence from France. This was a most controversial war, fought for more than ten years from November 1954 to March 1962.

During those eight years of troubles in Algeria the French suffered 23,635 casualties.

It was during this conflict the French army used helicopters to move troops quickly in response to action by the ALN and also to evacuate wounded. It was a groundbreaking tactic, leading the way for other armies to follow by example. Between the 1950s and 1960s the French army was also deployed to the Korean War, Suez Crisis and Indo-China. Among those troops deployed were men from the 5DB, who saw action in some of these operations. It was on 1st May 1943 that a new unit, known as the 2nd Armoured Division, was formed by French troops who had escaped to England from Dunkirk. However, when it was made active on 9th July 1943 it was renamed the 5DB. Commanded by General de Vernejoul, it went on to see action in Western Europe before the end of the war.

Following wartime operations and further deployments in the post war period, the 5DB was disbanded in May 1962, just two months after the end of operations in Algeria. It was reformed sixteen years later in 1978, seeing further action, before being disbanded for the final time in June 1992.

In choosing to depict the 5DB Baz and Corin had not only selected a highly experienced combat unit, they were paying tribute to it as a historical unit, even down to wearing the emblem of the rearing horse, which had been the 5DB’s badge. With such a varied history of combat experience to draw from, the FARG can depict a range of scenarios from Europe to Algeria and other areas such as Chad in Africa. Also, as Baz put it, “No one was doing it, so why not?” The 5DB being an armoured unit also gave wider scope for displays to show vehicles of the period along with standard weapons and other equipment.

Committed Members

Ten years on and the FARG remains a small but comprehensive unit whose members are committed to attending events across the southwest of England, but they also travel further afield to put on displays at W&PR in Kent. Between them they have amassed a collection of weapons, equipment and vehicles, ranging from 80cc Peugeot motorcycles, trucks and two Panhard AML 60 armoured cars armed with turretmounted 60mm mortars. Such a line-up allows them to put on static displays of equipment and also participate in mobility displays. For example, at the Dig For Victory Show at Wraxall in Somerset in 2015 they turned out with their Hotchkiss M201 Jeep, Renault 2087 truck and an AML 60.

I became aware of the FARG a couple of years ago when Baz contacted me with details of the unit. Since then our paths have crossed several times at events and I have always been impressed by their displays, which are of consistently high standard. First and foremost, the FARG is a re-enactment group, as the name says, but they as collectors of French militaria, weapons and vehicles, which encompasses everything of interest, that, between them, the members have built up a wide range of kit and weapons.

Impressive Backdrops

To my mind, anyway, I thought it would be a good idea to focus on this unusual group and their collection. Between us we managed to arrange a day when the group could turn out in strength to show the extent of the group’s collection. As a backdrop, for added realism, we asked the Helicopter Museum at Weston-super-Mare in Somerset (www.helicoptermuseum.co.uk) if we could use some of the French exhibits such as the Alouette helicopter. They agreed and it was a unique opportunity to get some atmospheric photographs, which related to Algeria. We were on-site for a couple of hours, during which time we used the French helicopters of the period as backdrops.

Once we were all done at the museum, Baz suggested we relocate to the nearby sand dunes at Weston, which would give us a setting to continue the theme of Algeria. It would also be a great opportunity to deploy the weapons properly. It turned out to be the perfect setting and the members of the FARG set about organising patrols through the dunes, much to the bemusement of onlookers out exercising their dogs on the Sunday afternoon. Curiosity got the better of some and a few came up and asked what was happening. Reenactment has that effect on people.

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The members of FARG were wearing French army TTA 47 uniforms, as standard infantry wore in Algeria, and webbing in keeping with the period. Steel helmets were based on the US Army wartime pattern, just as many armies at the time also used. Deploying from the vehicles they readied themselves to patrol as infantry, to recreate the operational role. Between them they had a good selection of weapons from the period including pistols, SMG, rifles and a machine gun as the section support weapon.

Small Arms

One of the weapon types was the MAT 49 sub-machine gun, which entered service with the French army in 1949 and subsequently used in many conflicts, including Suez, Indo-China and Africa. Fitted with a collapsible wire-frame rear stock and a hinged magazine well, which allowed the weapon to be compacted; it was ideal for carrying in either a vehicle or helicopter. It was box-like in shape and produced using stampings, to reduce the number of machined parts. The MAT 49 was a rugged weapon and well-suited to the different terrain in which it would be used. Weighing eight pounds exactly, it measured only 16-inches in length when folded. It fired a 9mm cartridge with a cyclic rate of 600rpm at 1200fps muzzle velocity, making it a useful close quarter weapon. When France withdrew from Indo-China following its defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the North Vietnamese captured large numbers which they converted to fire the 7.62mm Tokarev pistol round.

Baz carried a MAC 50 pistol, which was standard in the French army, firing a 9mm round from a nine round capacity magazine. Weighing 1.5-pounds, the weapon was based on the Colt M1911A1/Mle 1935S and in that respect not an unremarkable design, but it was reliable and useful as a close personal weapon. A couple of the group were armed with the MAS 36 bolt-action rifle, as used by the French army during WWII and the weapon remained in service until the late 1970s. This makes it perfect for the FARG to use because it fits in with all the post-war conflicts the group depicts. Measuring just over 40-inches in length and weighing eight pounds and five ounces, the MAS 36 fired a 7.5mm round with a muzzle velocity of 2700fps. It served well and many conscripts undergoing National Service carried the weapon during Suez, Indo China and Algeria.

The FARG also had the AAT 52 (Arme Automatique Transformable Modèle 52) also known as the MAS 52 machine gun. Originally chambered to fire the standard 7.5mm calibre round as used by the French army, some were later converted to fire the NATO 7.62mm calibre round. The AAT52 was, indeed still is, a versatile weapon. Introduced into service in 1952, known to the troops by the nickname ‘La Nana’, it is still in service today. Weighing almost 22-pounds, the AAT 52 light machine gun is capable of being fired from its own bipod, mounted on a tripod for sustained fire or a pintel mounting for use from a vehicle. The weapon fires at 700rpm, using disintegrating link belts with a muzzle velocity of 2700fps. The FARG demonstrated it in all versions, to show its versatility as a true GPMG and although old it is still used by many armies around the world.

Small But Perfectly Formed

All members of the FARG are deeply committed and extremely enthusiastic. There are no half measures with these guys and they know because they are a small group they will come under close scrutiny. This means they have to be correct with everything and from what I have seen they look convincing. As with re-enactment of all periods, the FARG are not content to leave their display to the standard they have reached. They are looking to the next project, and without spoiling it for anyone, from what they have told me it is going to be big. When they are ready, they will give me the news to pass on.

The vehicles held by the group allow them to show a broad span in the timeline of the French army since 1945. France opted out of NATO in the 1980s, but returned to being a member state in 2009. The country also deploys troops to support UN Operations, which is another avenue of displays, which the FARG can demonstrate. For this they would require Blue Berets, but everything else would remain the same. Just looking back very quickly over a few decades, the French army has been involved in operations in Kolwezi in the former state of Zaire during the 1970s, Chad in the 1980s and the Lebanon in the 1990s. So, there is no shortage of subjects from which the FARG can choose for a scenario to depict.

They are fortunate that the trucks they have can be used to transport their equipment for a full weekend event and the Jeep with all its radio equipment can be driven on the road, also. The AML 60 armoured cars have to be transported on trailers and once on-site the whole lot comes together as a great display. The radio equipment in the rear of the Hotchkiss Jeep allows them to demonstrate how communications worked during the period of the 1960s and 1970s.

This is a most unusual portrayal, but that is the exciting thing about re-enactment, being different. With their depiction, the FARG have closed another gap in the timeline of military history. Gradually more and more of these blank spaces are being filled in because people like Baz and Corin, along with other like-minded people, know the importance of doing something different. The French army has long been underrated and the FARG are setting the record straight. Using their research, combined with their collections, they are able to present excellent static displays. Their range of vehicles gives them mobility and the chance to work with other groups depicting the same period, such as UN operations, should the FARG wish to, and providing they prove compatible.

French Lessons

Members of the FARG are always adding to their collections and researching the history of the French army from the period. Whether small items of personal equipment or something larger, it is all relative in telling the history of the French army. Research reveals all manner of interesting items, which can be put to use when presenting static displays and talks on the subject.

Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, France has suffered many casualties among its armed forces, which were deployed in post war conflicts. For example, in Madagascar in 1947, 242 French troops were killed or wounded. Between 1945 and 1954 almost 58,000 French troops were killed or wounded during the fighting in Indo-China. This is comparable to the number of American servicemen killed during the Vietnam War, but somehow, this fact has become overlooked – I wonder why? During their time fighting in the Korean War, the French suffered 283 casualties and in Morocco they lost another 753 killed and wounded between 1953 and 1955.

It is this history, which the FARG is helping to remind people about with their displays. Like other similar re-enactment groups they hope that people will go away with a different opinion after having seen their display.

If you are interested in knowing more about the FARG, or joining the group, you can contact Baz by Email at: [email protected].