The French operation – dubbed “Task Force Wagram” – is part of crucial backing provided by a US-led coalition to the Mosul offensive launched just over two weeks ago.
Air strikes against the jihadists have formed the backbone of that support, with thousands carried out since the anti-Isis coalition was launched two years ago.
But when the offensive to retake Mosul – the last major Iraqi city under Isis control – began in earnest, coalition ground forces started playing an increasingly important role.
“We are providing permanent support to the Iraqi troops, 24 hours a day,” says Captain Alexandre, whose full name is being withheld for security reasons.
The captain is in charge of five CAESAR artillery vehicles – trucks mounted with eight-metre-long 155mm howitzers, which have been deployed previously on French military operations in Afghanistan and Mali.
The guns are each operated by five soldiers and can fire up to six times a minute.
“We have different types of munitions: explosives that can neutralize or destroy; but also that can light up the battlefield or blind with a curtain of smoke,” the captain says.
About 100 French troops have been deployed since early September as part of the task force, mainly from artillery units. Its commander, Colonel Benoit, says the name of the task force is especially appropriate.
“Wagram is a reference to the Napoleonic battle of 1809, a victory in which the use of artillery was decisive and which was won by the Grande Armee, which was also a coalition,” the colonel says.
The French soldiers are based at Qayyarah, which lies about 60 kilometres (40 miles) south of Mosul and is the main staging point for the southern front.
Firing orders for the artillery are relayed by the coalition following requests from Iraqi soldiers, but every shot needs the approval of French officers.
“I have already said no to requests for supporting fire when they put civilian infrastructure or residents in danger,” Colonel Benoit says.
“But we have an excellent gun, which combines power, firing range and accuracy, which is important when you're in the middle of civilian populations. It is brutality combined with accuracy.”
Iraqi forces were able to push into Mosul city limits on Tuesday and as they progress into the city the French artillery support is expected to drop.
“The lead Iraqi elements have reached the maximum range of our guns, though there are still recessed pockets of resistance,” Colonel Benoit says.
But he is convinced his guns will not fall entirely silent. “The front is not well-defined, the enemy is everywhere and we will
continue to be very useful in the days to come.”
By Thibauld Malterre