French military series of The First World War,  by Thierry Baudin                         

 Article published in Europlate 166 Newsletter, August 2013

  Most registration systems show a differentiation between various kinds of vehicles. The new French SIV system has eliminated many of the differences but far from all.  In earlier French systems there were certain invariables, e.g. that the last number on normal plates indicated the department in which it was registered, and that the first number on diplomatic plates indicated the country its owner represented. However, no information regarding the manufacturer of the vehicle or regarding which organization it belonged to was shown.  This was not the case for the military vehicle registrations during WW 1. At different times, marks indicated (i) the user, (ii) the organization which had delivered the vehicle, and (iii) the branch of the military using the vehicle.  As far as we know, not a single military plate from this period exists in any collection. This is mainly due to the fact that the registrations were painted directly on the body of the vehicles. Also, any French plate from before 1920, or even 1925, is very scarce in collections.  To describe the plates of that period is, however, easier, as we have photos from the extensive coverage of the war at hand. Thousands of photos of military vehicles are available.

 So, let us look at the details of these plates::

                  Coll. F. Vauvillier, GBM 98, © H&C 2011

The series we see on the photos is fully numeric. It started at 1 and had reached
around 235000 at the end of the war.
Higher numbers were assigned later – up into the 250000 series – until the end of 1922.
After that, the second French military registration system, which had the national flag
ahead of the registration, was introduced.

The registration 223114 shown by this Latil artillery tractor is typical
of the highest numbers reached by the all-numeral series at the end of the conflict, ca. 235000.

The situation before 1914
Before the “Great War” there was no military registration series. The few vehicles (less than 500) assigned to the army had normal civilian plates. This regards vehicles able to drive at speeds exceeding 30 km/h. Others, usually lorries, were not registered following the decree of 1901.  So, at the beginning of the war the vehicles used by the army still carried their normal civilian registrations. The unregistered vehicles often got some sort of military registrations of which very little is known. Then, from September 1914, and through the last quarter of that year, under the realization that the war would last longer than expected, the army had to acquire a large number of vehicles. These included the first French lorries in larger quantities as well as British and American lorries and the first armoured cars. It was now urgently necessary to be able to identify and register those vehicles.

Logistics for vehicles put in place, the all-numeric series

During the last quarter of 1914 the General Headquarters of General Joffre set up the logistics at three levels:

The CAMAs (Centre d'Approvisionnement de Matériel Automobile / Automotive Equipment Supply Centres), located in Vincennes (east of Paris) and Lyon (Lyons).
These ordered the vehicles from the manufacturers, followed up deliveries and arranged the distribution. The CAMA in Vincennes worked with manufacturers in the Paris area as well as with UK and US companies. The CAMA in Lyon worked with manufacturers in that area (the second most important French hub for the automotive industry), notably with Peugeot in Montbéliard and with Fiat in Torino (Turin).

The Mechanical Transport Organization centres (Parcs d'Organisation Automobiles), located in Dijon and in Versailles, received the vehicles from the CAMAs and formed complete motorized units which were then sent to the armies.

• The Mechanical Transport Units of the armies were the end-users of the vehicles. At this time, the French military was divided into eight armies (this being the highest level) and two army detachments. Each entity had its own Mechanical Transport Unit

Nonexistent before 1914, ambulances represented a large part of the specialised vehicles put in operation during the war; the serial 49233 of this Renault shows that it was delivered some time in 1915 by the MT organisation centre in Versailles.

              Coll. F. Vauvillier, GBM 98, © H&C 2011
The single army-wide all-numeric series was introduced at the end of November 1914. From then until the end of the first quarter of 1915 the first priority was to be able to identify all military vehicles in service, both existing and new ones. This was done at the lowest army levels with blocks of serial numbers allocated to each Mechanical Transport Unit.

 In mid-1915, the last re-registrations of former civilian vehicles and of various registrations haphazardly invented during the mobilization and the first months of the war had been completed. All military vehicles now had the all-numeric registrations.

Empowerment of the Mechanical Transport Organization centres (MTs)

At the same time – the first quarter of 1915- the MT's became operational enough in their role as suppliers of complete sets of vehicles to also be responsible for the registration of the vehicles. Different blocks were assigned to Versailles and Dijon. The importance of the latter was somewhat lower.

 From early 1916, the logistics situation was stabilized, and the CAMAs also handled the registration of the vehicles they delivered.
The blocks of numbers were large for Vincennes, and slightly smaller for Lyon.
The processes carried out by the CAMAs continued without change until the end of the war, and even until the end of the system in December 1922. 

100 years later, how can we understand the numbers we know ?
We can draw some conclusions based on the following remarks:

• As the registration numbers were allocated in large blocks, and as there were also two interruptions in the allocations and with different organizations in charge over time, not all numbers were used. Unused number ranges can be seen from the middle of the system (at around 140000) and particularly towards its end (beyond 200000).

• It is difficult to establish any connections between vehicle models and blocks:

 This is of course impossible in the first period, when MT services in the different armies registered their vehicles of various models already in use.

 During the period when the Mechanical Transport Organization centres registered the vehicles we can identify some clusters of specific models. This is because the vehicles were delivered in large lots and registered at the same time.

 Finally, the allocation of large blocks to the CAMA's makes the identification of certain models more difficult. This is also accentuated by the interruptions mentioned above. On the other hand, we can see “territorial” blocks from Vincennes and Lyon. For instance, all Renault vehicles, manufactured in Boulogne near Paris, are registered by the CAMA in Vincennes, and all Berliet lorries, from the factory in Venissieux near Lyon, are registered by the CAMA in Lyon.

Other war series 
Even though the all-numeric series described above is the most widely known and photographed one, there were also some other series used during the war. The all-numeric series was at the time only used in the so-called war zone. This is the area of the actual fighting and the area close to it. The responsibility for this zone was in the hands of the commander-in-chief. The rest of the country was the so-called interior zone, governed by the civil authority.

 Different registration series were used in the interior zone until the end of January 1916:

The requisition series
With requisition we understand forced purchases at fixed prices of e.g. civilian vehicles by the army at mobilization or during the war. This was first introduced in 1877 for animal-drawn vehicles and extended to motorized vehicles in 1909.
Following a selection process the requisitioned vehicles were gathered and, if necessary, modified prior to their delivery to the units in the war zone or in the interior zone. The organization was handled by the military regions; in 1914 France had 20 such regions.

 The requisitioned vehicles got a registration consisting of a letter denoting the military region followed by a serial number.
At the outbreak of the war, however, this was not always the case due to lack of time.

 In the interior zone the procedure was usually enforced, although in various degrees depending on the military region. A few vehicles even kept their civilian registrations.
The re-registrations in the interior zone were completed by mid-1915. Only six months later they were, however, ordered to abandon the special requisition series and start using the all-numeric series also for these vehicles.
Each military region received a specific block for this purpose.

Prefix Military region
C Rouen
D Le Mans
E Orléans
G Besançon
H Bourges
L Tours
M Rennes
N Nantes
P Limoges
R Clermont-Ferrand
S Grenoble
T Marseille
U Montpellier
V Toulouse
X Bordeaux
Z Paris (Military Government)

This rare photo card dated late 1914 pictures the Berliet closed car allocated to a general, a member of the French War Council; the number R 413 is partially hidden.

                      Coll. F. Vauvillier, extrait de GBM 98, © H&C 2011


Again a rare shot, an example of the RM series assigned to the Ministerial
reserve at the beginning of the war; although hardly legible, the low number
RM 201 (just in front of the windscreen) indicates that this pricey Peugeot open tourer was incorporated into the reserve as soon as August 1914.

Coll. F. Vauvillier, extrait de GBM 98, © H&C 2011

The ministerial reserve series
In parallel with the vehicles requisitioned for army use it was also necessary to reserve other ones for civilian official use in ministries and car pools. These requisitions were carried out in Paris and started as early as August 1914. This series was called the Ministerial Reserve (Réserve Ministérielle) and got registrations with the letters RM followed by a serial number.

 In early September, in view of the German offensive which threatened the capital, the government had to transfer to Bordeaux taking along most of its reserve. More vehicles were added in Bordeaux, as well as to the pool still in Paris, so RM duplicates were unavoidable. To counter this problem the following prefixes were then used: RM for vehicles still in Paris, RMB for vehicles in Bordeaux and RMP for vehicles in Bordeaux which had been transferred from Paris.

 When the German threat ceased, the government returned to Paris in the end of December 1914. The Ministerial Reserve was succeeded by the General Automobile Reserve (Réserve Générale Automobile) in March 1915. The vehicles were then soon re-registered with RGA followed by a serial number.

 In parallel with other organizations in the interior zone, the RGA was also, in early 1916, assigned a rather large block in the all-numeric series to be used for re-registering its vehicles.

The DMAP series
DMAP stands for the ”Dépot de Matériel Automobile et de Personnel” (Automotive and Staff Depot), an entity in charge of heavy repairs and reconditioning of used vehicles as well as of driver training.
The DMAP was located in Boulogne, near Paris, in the first quarter of 1915. The area had recently been transferred to the interior zone, and the vehicles consequently got special registrations. These had the letters DMAP followed by a serial number.

 Again, in early 1916, the DMAP was assigned an all-numeric block for the re-registration of its entire fleet.

With the mark DMAP 1022, this British Star is typical of the trucks used for training drivers, depicted some time in 1915; the serials that they show always come from the blocks 1,000 or 2,000.

            Coll. F. Vauvillier, extrait de GBM 98, © H&C 2011
Snapped in the courtyard of the Invalides hospital in Paris, this Lancia ambulance with the mark Z 21438 perfectly illustrates the reintroduction of letter Z for identifying the vehicles of GMP, from the moment the Paris area was no longer in the war zone, i.e. starting January 1915.

                        Coll. F. Vauvillier, extrait de GBM 98, © H&C 2011MP

The special case of the GMP
The Military Government of Paris (Gouvernement Militaire de Paris / GMP), encompassing the departments of Seine and Seine-et-Oise, never used specific registrations. In view of changes between war zone and interior zone the following registrations were used:

 In the beginning of August 1914 the vehicles requisitioned within the perimeter of the GMP were assigned normal requisition registrations with the letter Z followed by a serial number.

 In November 1914, as the area had become part of the war zone since late August, a block was assigned from the all-numeric series.

 During the first quarter of 1915 the area again became part of the interior zone, and the vehicles were again registered using Z prefix numbers, but this time the all-numeric registrations from a few months earlier were retained but with the Z added before the number.

 As for other entities, in early 1916, the GMP was assigned an all-numeric block for the re-registration of its vehicles.

 In the course of 1916, when all re-registrations had been completed in the interior zone, all military vehicles in both the war zone and the interior zone had all-numeric registrations.

A few registrations at the margin
In addition to the military series described above, which are well documented in photos, official documents etc, there were also a few others. However, the knowledge of these is indeed fragmentary. Only very few photos are known, and no official documents:

 Vehicles belonging to the Automobile Training Centres (Centres d'Instruction Automobile / CIA), located in the interior zone, used registrations with the prefix CIA.
This series was probably used until early 1916. The CIAs trained personnel from the colonies.

 Vehicles of the General Headquarters had an MT of its own. Early in the war it used special prefixes for various categories of service, personnel etc. A special block in the lower part of the all-numeric series was assigned to this MT.