A New Gun for a New Century

updated March 2004
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The French 75mm, found in ruins at Anniston Army Depot in 1999, and restored by the Historical Society, was placed on permanent display at Georgia Army Guard Headquarters in Ellenwood, Ga., in early March. Society members and Guardsmen rolled the piece, painted in French Camouflage on to its pedestal after a brief struggle to get the more than 1,000 pound artillery piece through the Oglethorpe Armory doors.

In May last year, the French 75mm was rolled out on a sunny day on the fields at Picketts Mill looking just as if it was rolling onto a battlefield in 1917. Reenactors clad in World War I uniforms surrounded the piece and fired a blank round to prove that its restoration was complete.

Total cost of the restoration borne soley by contriubtion by memebers of the Historical Society came to more than $8,000.

The 75mm's History

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Great Britain and France were nearly exhausted from more than three years of fighting and viewed the entry of America as a way to win the war over a weary Germany and Austria. As part of America's mobilization, the National Guard was called to active duty, though its preparedness was a question considering that its artillery units employed guns that had been obsolete for 20 years. Hence, National Guard units were issued French field pieces upon their arrival in France.

The weapon issued to the National Guard was a remarkable piece containing one of the most important developments in field artillery in the 20th century. The gun was called the French 75--officially known as the 75 mm Field Gun, Model of 1897 (French). Its innovative development was its recoil system consisting of two hydraulic cylinders, a floating piston, a connected piston, a head of gas and a reservoir of oil. This made for a soft, smooth operation and the gun was used as late as 1941 in World War II against the Japanese in the Philippines and in North Africa. The UP.S. Army's Field Artillery School used it for training long after it was rendered obsolete for combat use and some Third World armies used the French 75 into the 1970s.

One National Guard artillery unit to use the French 75 during "the Great War" was commanded by a future U. S. President. Captain Harry S. Truman commanded Battery D, 129th Field Artillery Regiment, 35th Division, Kansas and Missouri National Guards. The 35th Division arrived in France in May 1918 and was assigned along with its artillery to take part in the offensive, which marked the combat debut of the U.S. First Army.

As the time ticked off to begin the massive preparation that would herald the offensive, Captain Truman stood by the guns of Battery D. Truman told his men that he would, ". . . rather be right here than be President of the United States." When the order to commence firing was given, the guns hurled their 75 millimeter shells at the German positions at the rate of 30 rounds per minute. The fire was so rapid that wet blankets had to be wrapped around the gun barrels for ten minutes each hour to cool them off. After the barrage, Captain Truman said that ". . . it was as quiet as a church," although he could hear the rattle of machine guns firing in the distance. The 35th Division gained more than six kilometers of ground on the 26th of September and the Argonne offensive was so successful that Germany sued for peace on November 11, 1918.

After the gun served so well in combat and later as a training weapon, most of the 17,000 French 75s built were scrapped. Artillery purists are saddened that so few remain, as the 75 mm Field Gun, Model of 1897 (French), with its sweet recoil system, fathered numerous other modern systems which are served by artillerymen the world over.

When and Where the Society Found the French 75mm

The Georgia National Guard found the French 75 and the Historical Society of the Georgia National Guard acquired it from the U.S. Army's Center of Military History. The 106-inch tube, the breech and the trail were intact and in excellent condition. The wooden wheels had deteriorated, although some of the wood was salvaged to retain its original appearance and historical accuracy. The gun was brought home to Georgia and the restoration process begun.

The first part of the restoration phase required repair of the wheels which required at least $5,000 to restore.

The French 75 is the first gun displayed for the Georgia National Guard in what is envisioned as part of an 'Armaments Row'. Very few museums or National Guard armories can claim that their displays include the famous French 75--the staple of National Guard artillery for more than 40 years and the pride of our 33rd President.

As we found the French 75 at Anniston SFC Albert Mays and CW3 Rich Elwell prepare the wheels for their return to Georgia.

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