A Guide to Collecting
A Collectors reference guide to French insignia!
Below you will some basic information for the collector to better understand French military unit insignia.
This in-depth 40-page primer gives vast detail to better understanding processes of dating and identifying insignia. This is the FIRST such general guide that has existed in English as of today! Most of this information has previously been available only in FRENCH.
The 40 page guide offers over 160 color illustrations of different insignia, markings and manufacture characteristics for the collector to better understand.
If you have any interest in French insignia, this will be a powerful reference for the English-speaking collector!
Why French Badges?
Collectors in the United States are most familiar with the infinite variety of unit distinctive insignia ("DIs") issued by our own military forces. Many focus on this area, or German World War 2 badges, or even the variety in Commonwealth (UK) unit insignia. However those that collect French insignia are a small group indeed!
Generally harder to find than similar US, German or British equivalents, a lack of collector knowledge makes the french insignia market and hobby a smaller one, but one with lots of potential! Interestingly, due to this apparent lack in interest, it is quite affordable to start a collection and find quality and uncommon pieces at a reasonable price.
Most modern issues can be found for $5, but a number of rare issues easily surpass the $500 or $600 range at times! In investor speak, there is 'tremendous value play' here! Finding a rare $80 or even $400 piece for $10 among a dealer's display case is not unheard of!
While a smaller niche group of hearty collectors such as myself dig for these uncommon pieces in the US, an enormous collector community exists in France and throughout Europe focused primarily on French insignia. Most badges were very beautifully made with exquisite detail and beautiful enamel work under often-difficult circumstances.
Further, many of these unit badges represent an incredible historical past - French unit badges can be sourced as part of German souvenirs from French units that surrendered under very difficult and bloody circumstances in the summer of 1940. Some African unit pieces are very rare, representing tribal units of the Sahara (very few in number) that fought the conflict under very desolate circumstances. Others representing French air units (such as that of Antoine St. Exupery!) are also highly desired. Other times, a few French pieces tracing their history to World War 2 Mediterranean action can be found among the bringback souvenirs of US veterans.
No matter your particular interest, the wide range of possibilities to collect by era (World War 2, Indochina, Algeria), by theme (French Foreign Legion, Army, Artillery, etc), or by unit (some enjoy collecting varieties of the different issues for a single regiment), create great potential to add a few French pieces to your collection!
French units began using distinctive insignia in the First World War - most famously in air force squadrons. As time progressed, the manufacture of metal insignia badges to represent a specific unit built momentum in the 1930s and was in full force by World War 2.
It could be argued that the effort preceeded US military attempts by a number of years - often US insignias will feature a motto in French as well!
A variety of suspension systems/methods of attachment are used on French badges depending on the manufacturing firm as well as the era of manufacture. As the years progressed post-World War 2, often these systems were simplified as multiple small firms progressively consolidated into the modern era.
The most common feature a: pinback or double loop style. Screwback and clutch attachment features were primarily adopted from American foces and began making an appearance in 1945. Whereas a vast majority of US badges, and especially following World War 2 use a clutch back attachment, this is not often found with French badges or French manufacture.
Sometimes a piece can easily be identified due to the unit being well known, or if the unit name/abbreviation features on the badge itself. If so, Congratulations!
Other times, a piece can be exceedingly difficult to research. Much of this owes to the enormous number of distinct designs and badges created since the 1930s for French units. On occassion a single unit may have modified their insignia multiple times over the course of the 1939-1946 era, let alone post war reincarnations of the same unit! Additionally, a badge run may have been extremely small for either a very obscure unit, or one that existed for only a short period.
It is important to remember that French forces during World War 2 were operating under exceedingly difficult circumstances and active in the Middle East, North Africa, United Kingdom, training in the United States, and eventually liberated French soil and occupied zones in Germany!
When more complex research is required, it is important to take an overall 'forensic' approach fo the piece: what is the patina of the badge? What is the suspension system? Are there any clues in the insignia symbols?
Here are a few clues to assist!
Does the badge feature any armored elements, an armored knight, or tank imagery? - armored unit!
Is there a crossed cannon image present? - likely artillery!
Is the badge circular with a cogwheel rim? - likely a transportation unit!
Is there arabic writing as a motto? - likely a North African unit!
Are there images of mountains, Edelweiss or birds? - this may be an Alpine unit
Is there imagery of fixed fortifications? - this may be a Maginot Line unit
Does the insigia feature a dragon, misty mountains or an outline of Vietnam - possibly an 'Indochine' piece
Is a 'Cross of Lorraine' featured in the design? Often this was an important symbol for France Libre/FFI/Liberation era units
Dating a French Badge
Disclaimer: It should be noted up front that unfortunately there is no fool-proof method to date a French insignia. Through a combined understanding of maker markings and the specific unit's history, we can make a solid guess (and at times an exact year of fabrication). The best and most direct way to do this is through an understanding of manufacturer hallmarks on the rear of a badge.
From the early days of badge manufacturer through modern times, there are three firms most well known for their quality and enormous output of unique designs for unit insignia: Drago, Augis and Arthus Bertrand. In approximately 1970, Augis went through a business conversion and later pieces are marked "FIA'. Drago, the most well-known name in French insignias, was purchased by the Arthus-Bertrand firm in 1993. In the early years, a vast array of smaller regional manufacturers (often using jewelers skills) crafted a wide range of artisinal designs for smaller run productions.
It should also be noted that badges for certain types of units tended to be manufactured often by certain firms. Nearly all 'Chasseur' badges were made by Arthus-Bertrand. Very often artillery and North African unit pieces are found with Drago markings. Augis was very commonly associated with wartime (1940-1944) issues, but also widely known for naval issues through the postwar period.
In this way we can see that simply understanding the manufacturer of one's piece can further help to associate an identity and time frame with a unit badge.
More specifically, all manufacturers went through a number of transitions from the mid-1930s through 1940, due to the vast constraints and complications a wartime occupation enforced. Some manufacturers closed up shop with the occupation, others continued to manufacture, and still others relocated. Drago, for example, relocated from Paris to Nice during this period to continue manufacture in the 'Zone Libre' - an unoccupied region per the 1940 Germany Treaty of Compiegne.
With these considerations, here are some basic rules of thumb for associating certain well-known manufacturer markings with a specific era.
Drago 25 R. Beranger Paris Depose (III)- often late 1930s
Drago Depose / Drago Paris Nice (Depose) - a bit more flexible - wartime to early postwar
Drago 43 R. Olivier Metra - immediate postwar (colonial) - late 1940s/Indochina
Drago 3. R. de Romainville Paris - Primarily 1950s
Drago Paris - most common and longest running marking - generally used from 1955
Arthus Bertrand Paris Depose - most widely known - prewar and wartime
Arthus Bertrand Paris / Arthus Bertrand 46 R. de Rennes - often postwar
Arthus Bertrand (Pour Editions Atlas) - this is a modern souvenir type that has no military issue - 2000s
NOTE: Arthus-Bertrand also made badges that feature simply a small square hallmark. Some of these are original pre-WW2 issue, others are post war restrikes.
A. Augis Lyon / 28 Mte St. Barthelemy Lyon - used from pre-1940 through the 1950s
Note: Unfortunately, as Augis did not vary markings often, it is difficult to date these through marking alone
Serializing / "Homologation"
In the post-1945 period, the french military administration accepted that individual unit insignia had become a staple of the organization and established a numbering system to allow for each design to be formally 'logged'. The numbers on the rear of these post-war badges (not all!) will start with an 'H' = Homologation, or a 'G'.
Numbering started in 1945 with the low two-digits and continued through the mid-1990s into the 4,XXX range. It should be noted that these numbers reflect the year the design/issue was first initiated; however, a piece could have been made much later with the initial number!