French Infantry Kepis

French Infantry Kepis Prior to 1915

Line Infantry

In 1914, the line infantry made up the bulk of the French Army. Seventy five percent of the army’s strength came from the 173 active infantry regiments. These regiments consisted mainly of conscripts, or draftees, who were serving mandatory 36-month enlistments.1 Infantry kepis featured a blue and red color pattern from 1871 until 1915, after the start of the First World War in August, 1914.2 Enlisted men wore a kepi with a dark blue cap band and a madder-red turban (top part of the cap), while those worn by officers had a black cap band.3 The simple decoration of an enlisted man’s kepi consisted of dark-blue cord piping, a leather chinstrap, and a red unit number on a blue patch sewn to the front of the cap band. Both enlisted men and officers’ kepis featured gilt chinstrap buttons embossed with the infantry’s flaming-grenade insignia. Officers naturally received more ornate headgear. A gold-colored ribbon replaced the chinstrap worn by enlisted men, with smaller gilt buttons. Gold embroidery indicated the rank and unit of the kepi’s wearer. Rank stripes circled the turban, starting at one for a Sous-Lieutenant (2nd Lieutenant) and going up to five for a Colonel, with rows of oak leaves embroidered on the cap band to indicate General ranks. All officer caps also featured an embroidered Hungarian knot on the top; higher ranks received more elaborate knots. Unlike enlisted men, officer’s unit numbers were embroidered directly to the cap band in gilt thread, although gold-colored metal badges were used later.4 These brightly colored kepis lasted until 1915 when the French Army introduced a new, less conspicuous, horizon-blue uniform with a matching kepi.5

Territorial Infantry

Soldiers at least 34 years old and who had served eleven years in the reserves transferred to these reserve units. They were assigned to quiet areas on the front lines, or to support missions in areas with heavier fighting.6 The territorial infantry wore kepis of the same color pattern as the line infantry, with red top and blue or black cap band. Instead of the red-on-blue unit number patch, territorial infantry units used a white number on a red patch. Officers in these units wore kepis identical to their counterparts in the line infantry regiments.7

Chasseurs (Hunters)

These light infantry units developed a distinct uniform as a result of their specialized missions, which usually took place in mountainous regions or rough terrain. Their uniform lacked the madder-red trousers used by the infantry; instead, they wore dark blue breeches. Enlisted men wore the same style kepi as the infantry, but with dark blue top and cap band. The piping color was changed, since the infantry’s dark blue piping would not be visible. Chasseur units wore daffodil-yellow unit numbers, so this color was used for the kepi piping. The tin chinstrap buttons featured the chasseurs’ insignia, a curved hunting horn. Officers’ kepis also featured the chasseur color pattern, though their cap bands were made of black velvet. To match the silver buttons, chasseurs used silver as their branch color. Officer kepis were embroidered with silver rank stripes and Hungarian knots, and used silver false chinstraps.8

Zouaves

The zouaves served in North Africa, recruiting soldiers of European descent from France’s African colonies, as well as within France itself. Their traditional uniform, until the issue of the horizon-blue version, consisted of loose trousers, either white or madder-red, and a dark blue jacket called a tombô. Red embroidery, simple for lower ranks and very elaborate for NCOs, decorated the tombô, while a colored false pocked on the front denoted the regiment to which the soldier belonged. Enlisted men did not wear kepis, instead, they wore red fezzes to match the exotic style of their uniform.9 Zouave officers wore uniforms almost identical to those of the standard Line Infantry, with matching kepis. Only the chinstrap buttons distinguish the zouave kepi from the Line Infantry: the zouaves used a non-embossed, gilt half-ball button, instead of the infantry’s flaming grenade button.10

Tirailleurs Indigènes (Native Riflemen)

Tirailleur units recruited from the native population of France’s colonies, mainly Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. They wore the same style of uniform as the zouaves, but in a different color scheme. Instead of dark-blue and red, the tirailleurs wore a uniform of lighter blue with yellow decoration. They used the same red fez, however.11 Officers in these units also used the light-blue and yellow color pattern. Their uniforms consisted of light-blue jackets with yellow collar and trim, and madder-red trousers with light-blue stripes. Tirraileur officer kepis featured light-blue cap bands with the infantry’s madder-red turban and gold decoration, as well as the non-embossed, gilt half-ball chinstrap buttons used by zouave officers. In addition, many officers would often have an upward-pointing crescent embroidered under their unit number.12

Native Chasseurs à Pied (Moroccans) & Spahis

These units, also recruited from among the native population of the French colonies, wore similar uniforms to the zouaves and tirailleurs. Enlisted men wore fezzes, while officers wore light-blue and madder-red kepis. The Moroccan chasseurs and spahis, however, used a five-pointed star instead of a unit number on their kepi’s band, underlined by a crescent.13

African Light Infantry

Convicted criminals who had been sentenced to at least six months in prison were assigned to these special units. They wore the standard infantry uniform, but with silver buttons and trim. Enlisted men’s kepis featured black cap bands, with silver unit numbers and chinstrap buttons, and madder-red turbans with yellow piping. Officers wore the “polo” style, black-and-red infantry kepis, but with silver embroidery, false chinstrap, and buttons. The unit’s insignia is a hunting horn surrounded by a floral frieze. It is featured on both the kepi and uniform buttons. 14

Légion Étrangère (Foreign Legion)

The French Foreign Legion consisted of men of other nationalities who volunteered to serve in the French Army. They used the basic infantry kepi, with some notable distinctions. Enlisted men wore the Model 1884 kepi with dark-blue cap band and madder-red turban, with dark-blue piping. Instead of unit numbers, a red flaming-grenade patch adorned the cap band, and the chinstrap buttons were embossed with the words “Légion Étrangère.” Officers’ kepis featured gold embroidery on the red turban, with an embroidered grenade, the body of which circled the unit number, and the “Légion Étrangère” buttons.15

Marsouins (Colonial Infantry)

Assigned to arsenals, naval vessels, and colonies, these units resembled modern Marines. Their kepis match the dark-blue uniform, reflecting their origin as a Navy unit. Also evocative of the Navy, the unit’s fouled-anchor insignia adorned the cap band, as well as the chinstrap buttons. Officers wore solid dark-blue kepis with gold embroidery. A more elaborate version of the anchor insignia, also embroidered in gold, adorned the front of their cap bands.16

Kepi

Brian McInturf