World War I Pistols: Trench Sweepers
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Elite Belgian and French “trench sweepers” used Browning-designed FN and Colt pistols in the perilous job of clearing the trenches of World War I battlefields.
In August 1914, German forces crossed into Belgium and France. Their objective was to reach Paris with unprecedented speed and outflank the French army by sweeping through Belgium. Almost immediately, the Germans encountered unforeseen resistance from the Belgians that jeopardized the Schlieffen Plan. The Germans, using their overwhelming manpower, managed to push forward into Belgium. The French, British and Belgians relied heavily on delaying tactics to gain the time needed to mass their troops and halt the German advance. The Germans met their first defeat within sight of Paris, as they underestimated the French Sixth Army and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at the Marne. From September 1914 on, the Allies and the Germans raced westward toward the North Sea, trying to outflank one another before the stalemate of trench warfare set in. By the time the front stabilized, the Germans had conquered most of Belgium and parts of northern France, both of which were heavily industrialized areas. In December 1914, the French and Belgian forces took stock of the state of their forces, their equipment and supplies; the results were grim. Troops were exhausted, equipment was worn and in short supply, and logistics were problematic. At first, the depleted Belgians relied on the French for arms, munitions and materiel. This proved to be a mistake, as the French could barely supply themselves.
A Shortage Of Handguns
Fabrique Nationale’s first production pistol was the John Browning-designed Model 1899, and the Belgian military adopted a variant of that gun as the Model 1900. By 1914, it was the only pistol in use by the Belgian military and was known for its reliability and durability. Because FN had been overrun and no new arms were available, the Belgian government wisely turned to England and the United States.
Rifles and carbines were made in England and the United States, and Colt was approached for machine guns and pistols. The Belgians insisted on the reliability of the Browning designs and purchased .32 ACP Colt Model 1903 pistols as the ammunition was readily interchangeable with the FN Browning 1900 pistols already in service. Both pistols were designed by John Browning; the FN Model 1900 pistol originating from an 1896-1897 design and the Colt Model 1903 from a 1901 design.
While the Belgians purchased pistols across the pond, the French turned primarily to Spain, more specifically the Basque region around the city of Eibar. France looked at the Spanish “Star” (a trademark of the Bonifacio Echevarria company) and “Ruby” (a trademark of the Gabilondo y Urresti company) pistols to alleviate their shortages. These were inexpensive and easily obtained. Foreign purchases alleviated pressure on the French domestic industry, which prioritized the manufacture of more vital arms.
Unlike the Belgians, who focused on purchasing one pistol model, the French bought and used just about anything they could get their hands on. As such, a myriad of handguns were used by the French throughout the war, including older 8 mm French revolvers, Spanish 8 mm revolvers and Spanish Ruby and Star pistols. In desperation, the French Purchasing Commission further acquired Savage 1907 pistols, Colt M1911 pistols and Colt Army Special .38 revolvers.
The French and Belgians also made attempts at obtaining arms from the commercial market and private citizens. The Belgians were even so bold as to smuggle pistols from their occupied land to the free Belgian forces. Most often, these guns had been removed from the Liège area factories at the time of the German invasion. The city of Liège, as the center of the Belgian arms industry, had suffered greatly in the first days of the war. Belgian armsmakers sent many of their employees home with as many guns as they could carry in order to avoid seizure by the invader. The guns were hidden in homes throughout the city. Many area armorers made their way to the Belgian free zone in order to work for the war effort, while other patriots worked as smugglers carrying not only arms but also tools, plans and even machinery.
The “Trench Sweepers”
All armies used “trench sweepers” in order to clear captured enemy trenches. The French and Belgian called them Nettoyeurs de Tranchées or “trench cleaners.” The French also called them Zigouilleurs, a term in Argot, a common French dialect, denoting “killers.” These daring men were usually volunteers. The work was extremely hazardous and odds of survival were slim. Most volunteers in these units were not afraid of hand-to-hand combat. They were resourceful and knew the front intimately, including the surrounding land and the maze of trenches. Their task was not limited to clearing the trenches after a successful advance: It also included raids to gather intelligence or capture an enemy soldier. Although the fighting was perilous, these French and Belgian volunteers enjoyed perks that few others had. They were most often exempt from fatigue chores or duties such as filling sand bags, repairing and draining trenches and installing or repairing barbed wire in no-man’s land. The French and Belgian trench sweepers often operated independently. Their orders were given, but the planning and execution of their tasks were left almost entirely up to them. Although they may have had an assigned leader, he was most often a non-commissioned officer. Those that volunteered often felt more in control of their own destiny. While facing the enemy, they relied upon themselves and their own skills for survival. Trench sweepers did not participate in frontal assaults and usually did not face the enemy’s machine guns on open ground like the common foot soldiers.
Another perk for the volunteer trench sweepers was the freedom to select and use their own arms. Long guns had proven early on to be cumbersome and ineffective. Instead, a trench sweeper carried a bag with three or more grenades, a trench knife and a pistol.
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