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 state within a state. On the contrary, the history of the French Army is inseparable from the history of the French State, not only in wartime, but in peacetime as well. Consequently a large, and perhaps unduly large, portion of this book has to do with politics and diplomacy, i.e., M. de la Gorce deals with the Quai d’Orsay even more than with the rue St.-Dominique, with decisions emanating from the Foreign Ministry rather than from the War Ministry. This condition circumscribes somewhat the value of this book, otherwise a very accurate piece of work, even though it does not have the customary American scholarly equipment. (On page 285, for instance, the author mentions a very significant dispatch from the French Ambassador to Moscow in December 1939 which is generally unknown to diplomatic historians of the period: it would be agreeable to know its source.)
De la Gorce gives an excellent account of the malaise of the last colonial campaigns; and he is especially judicious when he attributes the defeatism among certain Army circles to the anti-Communist propaganda current in France in the 1930s. His attitude to De Gaulle is somewhat ambiguous; he evidently does not share the General-President’s view of Europe. In this respect alone his thesis does not hold up—particularly in the last, political, pages of the book. De la Gorce does not sufficiently emphasize what was clear to certain shrewd observers more than a year before De Gaulle’s historic statement of January 1963, that he wanted to wind up the Algerian business because of his conviction that the French Army had a most important role to play in the immediate future in Europe. De la Gorce describes very well how the Rightist Generals during the Algierian crises believed that their defense of a French Algeria was part of a great international effort against world Communism (this led to the abortive but disastrous conversations between OAS and CIA elements in 1960); but, then, De la Gorce himself ends by suggesting that the era of patriotism is past “now that all the great states of the West have subordinated their national interests to the collective preservation of their economic concepts and their social structures.” But have they? During the First World War, as poor Edith Cavell wrote, patriotism was not enough. Now Charles de Gaulle says that Atlantic internationalism isn’t enough either. In the United States the ideas of Adlai Stevenson surely represent some kind of advance over those of, say, General Edwin Walker; but can one really say that, compared to Mendes-France, for example, De Gaulle is a mere reactionary, a trumpeteer like Walker from the past?
One of the gravest crises in the history of the French Army was the outbrust of mutinies in 1917. After the disastrous Nivelle offensive on the Aisne, coming after the Battle of Vimy Ridge on the British-Canadian section of the front, a number of French units refused to fight; a few of them even attempted a pathetic revolutionary advance backwards, in the direction of Paris. After a month of secret and profound shuddering and alarm, the Government replaced Nivelle by Pétain. The latter attacked the army problem with intelligent and conservative measures. By July, order was restored everywhere; the mutinies were over. They had broken out in response partly to the circulation of radical pacifist sheets by unscrupulous adventurers (among them Almereyda’s Bonnet Rouge was the most famous), which were tolerated by a curiously permissive government. The mutinies were connected with the more serious collapse of the discipline and morale of the Russian troops who had been shipped to France in 1916 and early 1917. The Russian mutineers had to be suppressed later by something like a minor siege of their camp at La Courtine. Richard M. Watt, a young American writer, has put together the story of this often obscured and difficult subchapter of military history with great care and commendable accuracy. This was an exacting task for an historian, since the French have been rather secretive about the episode; but Mr. Watt has read everything worth reading on the subject. The few errors are all minor ones; Pétain’s record in 1918 was not that good; Clemenceau, whose merits in 1917 were indisputable, was surely not so much the Grand Old Man as the Victor Hugo of the Third Republic; Ybamégaray, whose name is misspelled in the book, was a defeatist in 1940; curiously, Mr. Watt glosses over the connection of Mata Hari, the famous woman spy, with the underhand espionage business of 1917; and he does not seem to be aware of the condition that the Russians had already begun to mutiny before the Nivelle offensive, in fact as early as their disembarkation at Marseille in February. But these are historical curiosities rather than omissions from an unusually accurate and thoughtful book.
The crisis of the French Army in 1917 was an episode, not a chapter in the history of the First World War. Admittedly it was a dangerous, dark, frightening episode; but an episode nonetheless. It is exaggerated to say, as Colonel John R. Elting of West Point says in the Introduction, that “in the spring of 1917 the French Army collapsed in despair, confusion and mutiny.” Too much should not be made of the co-incidences and occasional connections of French and Russian events in 1917. The Russian Army as well as the Russian state collapsed; the French did not. True: it was on April 16, the first day of the disastrous Nivelle offensive, that Lenin arrived in Petrograd. But two weeks before that tragic day the United States had declared war on Germany. It is unlikely that France would have collapsed in May 1917; unlike Russia, the fabric of France’s army and state somehow held together. Malvy was a corrupt nonentity and Caillaux a Germanophile but it is doubtful, Clemenceau notwithstanding, that Caillaux was a traitor. “Maybe,” Watt writes, “it is unfair to label this convulsion of exhausted troops a ‘mutiny’. At any rate, none dare call it treason.” Yes: the revolutionary mutiny in 1917 was that of the Russian rather than that of the French soldiery; the French radicals’ hour of treason came in 1940, not in 1917. By that time, however, the radicals and pacifists were a different breed their inclinations were Fascist rather than Germanophile, even though they included some of the military and political personages who had been conservative patriots in 1917.
But that is another story: for the collapse of 1940 was the collapse of a state even more than the collapse of an army. In 1870 the existence of a French republican state kept the army from dissolving altogether: it resuscitated the army’s will to fight on the Loire. In 1940, on the contrary, the existence of French armies fighting somewhere (France Combattante before the maquis and the F.F.I.) was to resuscitate the prestige and later the presence of an independent French state. Pétain and Vichy after 1940 were what Bazaine and Metz were in 1870, symbols of national shame, amounting to something close to treason: but Bazaine’s surrender was military, whereas Pétain’s was political. In this respect there is, curiously enough, a certain consistency in the history of the French Army during the last hundred years. It is that, even during the modern period of universal conscription, the French Army remained essentially a professional army, with a strong esprit de corps. Even during its worst times, it was not a political army of the South American kind—not at the time of Boulanger, nor at the time of Dreyfus, certainly not in 1940 and not even in 1960 and 1961 in Algiers where, amidst scenes of feverish dissolution and extreme local pressure, the mass of troops and the great majority of officers remained loyal, after all.
Will there be a French Army in a united Europe? M. de la Gorce does not speak much of 1954, when Dulles’ concept of a “European Defense Community” was torpedoed by a concerted political effort inside France, by Gaullists and Leftists alike—a political turning-point comparable to the events of 1958 involving De Gaulle. Had the Dulles Plan succeeded, Western Europe would look very different now: it may have meant the establishment of American-German military predominance over the continent. “Thank God for the French Army!” said the then maverick Churchill in the House of Commons in 1934, and he found the stupefied and disagreeable reaction of the Hon. Members sufficiently symptomatic to include that small episode in his memoirs of the Second World War. Twenty-five years later De Gaulle became the President of France, to preside over the liquidation of the remnants of the French Empire. But, unlike Britain, France has always been principally a European rather than a World Power: De Gaulle, whatever his European plans, certainly does not intend to preside over the liquidation of the French Army; he sees it, still, as the principal instrument of the destiny of the French nation.
June 1, 1963