For too long, the French have been derided as militarily incompetent cowards. The WWI Centennial is a chance to put that myth to rest.
“How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris? Nobody knows, it’s never been tried.”
– One of many jokes on French military cowardice
“France won the First World War. This simple fact is all but forgotten in the English-speaking world.” – Prof. William Philpott
Ever since the French (and British and Belgian) army was routed in 1940, every smart aleck on the planet has seen this as proof that the French were then, and perhaps were always a bunch of incompetent cowards on the battlefield. The last time the French knew how to fight was during Napoleon, they say. Ever since then, the French have been crushed time and again, whether in 1870-1 by Bismarck or in 1940 by Hitler.
Except in between those two wars was a minor historical episode called the First World War, or the Great War. In that war, the French did anything but surrender and run. They fought with a ferocity, tenacity and increasing sophistication that would impress anyone who has ever read a book on the French side of the trenches (unfortunately, not many).
The French not only held most of the line on the Western Front throughout the entire war – they also fought, died and killed in many offensives often thought of as specifically British or American – including the Somme, Gallipoli and the Meuse-Argonne. Almost a million and a half Frenchmen died in WWI, hundreds of thousands more than British and American losses combined.
Nor did the French contribution stop at casualties and manpower. America may have been the “arsenal of democracy” in WWII, but in WWI, the French did much more on that front. As Dr. Michael Nieberg points out in his lecture on the Battle of the Second Marne (a French victory) – almost all the weapons the Americans used were of French design.
The same goes for generalship. It was Joffre who engineered the “Miracle on the Marne” that prevented German Army’s first and perhaps only real chance to decisively win on the Western Front. Furthermore, it was Joffre who coordinated overall Allied strategy in 1915 and 1916. Petain, much derided for collaborating with the Nazis in WWII, helped save France at the Battle of Verdun and in devising careful tactics which reduced French casualties and increased German ones. Ferdinand Foch provided the skill, inspiration and strategic vision of the critical Hundred Days’ Offensive which forced the Germans to sue for an armistice.
The defeat of 1940 will forever remain a dark shadow hovering over France’s history. The fact that no army – British or Soviet – did substantially better against the Wehrmacht until 1942 is likely cold comfort. But I don’t want to hear one more word about how the French are all a bunch of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” The heroes of Verdun and the Marne deserve better.
For further reading:
Robert Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War
Anthony Clayton, Paths of Glory: The French Army 1914-18
Michael Nieberg, The Second Battle of the Marne