The French Army: A Military Political History
Dare Call It Treason
It is almost a century since 1870, a year that marked a turning point in French, European and, thus, world history. That year the armies of France were beaten by the Prussians, and they have never since recovered their position as the principal military force on the continent (except perhaps for a few scattered years after the First World War). During the First World War, even with the aid of the allied British and Russian continental armies, they barely held their own; during the Second World War, with the British, they could not prevent the Germans from overrunning France; and for the last twenty years the French Army has been defeated and humiliated several times by Japanese and Indo-Chinese forces. Yet the history of its last hundred years is not simply one of deadening defeats and steady decline, but is often punctuated by inspiring feats of arms. On the one hand, there is Sedan, Metz, the Aisne, the collapse of 1940, Dienbienphu; on the other, Orléans, the Marne, Verdun, Bir Hakeim, Strasbourg (in 1944). On the one hand, the incompetence of Bazaine, Nivelle, Gamelin, Weygand; on the other, the astonishing, almost Pascalian insight and intelligence of certain rigid military figures, such as Lyautey, Galliéni, Leclerc and De Gaulle.
The history of the French Army is full of paradox. In 1870-71 a republican army based on universal conscription made its principal feast day the Quatorze Juillet, yet its officers became more aristocratic than any of their predecessors in the modern history of France. The former imperial army of Napoleon III followed a largely defensive strategy, while the republican army adopted an offensive strategy, which led to the tragic panache of the attack across the Alsace-Lorraine frontiers in 1914. The Army was involved in the conspiracy against Dreyfus, yet many officers of the same Army were profoundly imbued with a social consciousness which was unknown in Europe before 1914. After the First World War the victorious Army became the most hidebound and backward military organization in Europe; it also produced the most intelligent tacticians and prophets of modern mechanized warfare, whose writings were read with great attention…in Germany. And it was the recently demoralized and defeated French Army which produced some of the most advanced and ingenious infantry and air weapons in the 1950s.
The French Army by Paul Marie de la Gorce is a massive and ambitious history covering the last ninety-two years. (A large portion of it deals with events of the last fifteen years.) It is an intelligent account, written with considerable insight, by the bearer of a very distinguished family name in the history of French historiography. The translation seems to be more than adequate. The author’s attitude is profoundly moderate, republican, democratic; it is, by and large, in harmony with the ideology of L’Express, to which M. de la Gorce is a contributor. To some extent the book suffers from the inevitable overlapping of subjects. The French Army, unlike the German, was not a …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.