Military terms such as bivouac, infiltration, flanking, and reconnaissance come from the French language. These terms represent important contributions made by French military tacticians to modern warfare. Another such word is camouflage, which comes from “camoufler” (to disguise). The French Army first adopted camouflage uniforms during World War I.
Select trench units wore the early French camouflage uniform of World War. Since then, French military uniform design has influenced other military forces. Since then, French military uniforms have evolved across a modern history timeline:
The French Army Uniform of World War II
During the Great War, French military garments were color-coded to a certain extent. For example, infantry units wore light-blue field coats when they started building trenches. All khaki uniforms made with fabric imported from the United Kingdom were later adopted.
The Section de Camouflage du 4e Génie in 1915 designed the first French camouflage uniform. Their base garments were British khaki battle dress trousers and a blouse. This development marked the end of color-coding military units through their attire. It also sparked a new era of uniforms that were either khaki or camouflage.
More than 21 years passed between the Armistice and World War II. During this time, the French Army uniform did not change much. It resembled fatigues worn by British and American forces in the Great War, except for:
French Foreign Legion troops deployed in Northern Africa wore different uniforms. Their fatigues had a distinct fabric that resembled desert colors. They wore this instead of the mustard-toned French Army field uniforms.
Many Vichy French Army units, continued to wear their blue uniforms. These were infantry regiments with heraldry dating back to the Napoleonic era.
In essence, the field uniforms of French ground forces in World War II were
Mustard-colored khaki with loose-fitting trousers and a long-sleeved tunic. The capote for winter operations was the same color. The exception was French units that insisted on keeping their beloved blue overcoats.
French naval infantry wore the same khaki as the army. They added distinctive anchor insignia. The overcoat was dark blue with red cuffs and a crimson collar.
French Foreign Legion
While deployed in Northern Africa, the Legionnaires wore a tan uniform. It consisted of a blouse instead of a tunic, and it featured short trousers. The pocket, collar, and sleeve configurations of these desert uniforms were practical. These details were later adopted by many other military forces.
Free French Forces
The French resistance was under the command of Allied forces. Their uniforms came from American, British, and Canadian soldiers. Sometimes they mixed trousers from one country with blouses from another. There was a slight development of French military uniforms during World War II.
The Red Army stormed the Reichstag in 1945. In the following years, modernization of forces took place. This resulted in major changes to their uniforms.
The Indochina and Algerian Wars (1946 to 1962)
American and British forces established military bases in France after WWII. This was when French uniforms began to undergo a redesign process. The goal was to respond to challenges in the flashpoints of Indochina and Algeria. In 1947, the Ministère de la Défense Nationale revisited the camouflage uniform project of the Great War. This resulted in the creation of the legendary TAP47 leopard or lizard pattern.
French troops fighting in Indochina (now Vietnam) first wore mustard-colored khaki uniforms. They later changed to dark olive green. Some units wore a field jacket with a disruptive camouflage pattern. These jackets provided concealment in tropical jungle terrain. In essence, the pattern has brown and green print and gaps. The lizard camo pattern jumped from field jackets to trousers and blouses for some units.
The Denison smock worn by British commando units inspired the TAP47 field jacket. Certain details such as angled cargo pockets and Nehru collars were adopted for blouse and trouser combinations that came to be known as the Modèle 47. The first modern French combat uniform. The Modèle 47 formed the basis of the camo F1 style uniform. French paratroopers and later the French Foreign Legion started wearing these uniforms.
The Cold War (1948 to 1991)
The F1 style uniform was predominant through the first three decades of the Cold War. Not all units wore the same camouflage pattern. Many French Army soldiers wore plain olive green fatigues until retirement.
The TAP47 pattern morphed into vertical and forest prints. The fabric of the emerging F2 style uniform used this pattern. The new uniform borrowed some practical design elements from other military forces. The U.S. Army battle dress uniforms from the Vietnam War era served as inspiration.
Most French Army units wore the olive green F2 style uniform well into the 1980s. Foreign Legion units deployed in Africa during this time preferred the F2 uniform. They preferred it to their camouflage versions. Legionnaires felt that the traditional F2 was more comfortable and versatile. The button-down blouse and button-fly trousers were versatile and comfortable. They allowed the full range of motion. The cargo pocket configuration was ideal for carrying everything. From maps to ammunition and from rations to bandages; everything fit in these pockets.
Modern Era (Global War on Terror)
Just when the Defense Ministry was planning to issue standard camouflage fatigues to all French ground forces. The late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Only a few French units deployed with the new camo version of the F2 uniform. Most of them fought through Opération Daguet (Desert Storm) wearing the olive green version in 1991. The F2 uniform lasted even longer than many other military forces in Africa and Asia adopted the F1 style uniform and its design.
When French forces became part of the GWOT coalition in Afghanistan and later Iraq, camouflage patterns were similar to the woodland prints of the U.S. Army, which had already been phased out. In 2003, a few special forces units on deployment began testing new battle dress designs that were prototypes for the Tenue de Combat de l’Armée de Terre (TCAT), which came into service in 2010 with a digital camouflage pattern that looked even more like the old woodland pattern. These uniforms are made of advanced cotton-polyester blend fabrics; they cut down on the buttons and added plastic zippers to the pockets.
France plans to replace the TCAT of the GWOT era in 2024 with a new version featuring F3 fatigues and the six-colored BME camouflage patterns used by American and British forces. This new uniform initiative is part of the SCORPION program of the Ministère des Armées, and it will resemble the battle dress of various NATO nations. The advanced Ripstop fabric is flame retardant, and the buttons are replaced with zipper and Velcro fastening systems; moreover, the F3 uniform is more practical in the sense that the blouse can accommodate body armor plates, and the trousers have inserts for knee pads.