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This chapter discusses the study of tactics and modes of combat during the Great War. During the first phase of the war, the underestimation of the effects of firepower was particularly significant: it explains the terrible losses of the first weeks of combat. The trench system, the tactical representation of the superiority of defence over attack, formed one of the major features of the Great War. The growth and diversification of armaments and soldiers' equipment explains the immense development of combatant tactics between 1914 and 1918. In the trenches, actual combat was intermittent and even at times unusual. Modes of combat during the Great War were profoundly transformed, reflecting the new technologies which would ultimately transform Western warfare itself. It was, once again, on the Western Front that these new methods were taken to their maximum degree and developed their full range.
The year 1915 saw the gradual invention of a new kind of war activity which permanently transformed the actual image of the war. During 1915, the war cultures became enduringly crystallised around a body of mobilising themes, words and images which confirmed the meaning initially attributed to the war itself. The question of control of the seas was of central importance during the course of 1915. The blockade imposed on the Central Powers, and the submarine war designed in response to unlock its grip, were thus determining elements in totalisation of the conflict. The consequences of the blockade, in terms of food supply and the economy on the one hand and of military and diplomatic matters on the other, and, finally, of morale, were indeed considerable. They were to be an enduring burden throughout the rest of the war.
In The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856), Alexis de Tocqueville described the French as a people “talented enough at anything, but who excel only at war. They adore chance, force, success, flash and noise, more than true glory. More capable of heroism than virtue, of genius more than good sense, they are suited more to conceiving immense plans than to completing great enterprises.” Up to a point, Tocqueville knew his compatriots well. Over the course of the nineteenth century, France had gone to war many times and, in general, had fared poorly at it. The French had mainly themselves to blame. The century began in a blaze of Napoleonic glory, followed by complete national defeat in 1815. Not that this prevented the French from erecting to Napoleon their greatest military monument, the Arc du Triomphe, an unusual tribute to a defeated commander. Some victories came at mid-century, against the Russians in the Crimean War of 1853–6, and against the Habsburg Monarchy in Italy in 1859. Yet these were classic nineteenth-century “limited” wars, in which France ventured and gained relatively little. But the “immense plan” of Emperor Napoleon III (allegedly the illegitimate nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) to install his protégé, Archduke Maximilian (the brother of Habsburg Emperor Francis Joseph), as emperor of Mexico in 1861 ended in utter failure. France had nothing to show for it but the famous 1867 painting by Édouard Manet of Maximilian's execution by Mexican patriots.
France and the Great War tells the story of how the French community embarked upon, sustained, and in some ways prevailed in the Great War. In this 2003 book, Leonard Smith and his co-authors synthesize many years of scholarship, examining the origins of the war from a diplomatic and military viewpoint, before shifting their emphasis to socio-cultural and economic history when discussing the civilian and military war culture. They look at the 'total' mobilization of the French national community, as well as the military and civilian crises of 1917, and the ambiguous victory of 1918. The book concludes by revealing how traces of the Great War can still be found in the political and cultural life of the French national community. This lively, accessible and engaging book will be of enormous value to students of the Great War.
As France celebrated its triumph and continued to mourn its sacrifice in the victory parade of 1919 and the burial of the Unknown Soldier in 1920, it appeared as though the nation and the Third Republic had not only survived its supreme test, but had emerged from it stronger than ever. Alsace and Lorraine had again become wholly French. Through much of the interwar period, France had the most feared army in Europe. At least in terms of shaded areas on a map, the French Empire attained its zenith between the wars, through territories acquired with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the distribution of the German colonies in Africa and the Pacific. The German enemy lay disarmed and paying reparations to the victors.
Yet the limits of the bitter peace made at Versailles became clear within a few years. With the United States pointedly abstaining from postwar security arrangements in Europe, with Britain again holding affairs on the continent at arm's length, with the Soviet Union banned from the family of nations, and with Eastern Europe weak, embittered, and troubled, victorious France faced the future created at Versailles remarkably alone. The peace came to rest on a bluff – that Germany would accept defeat, disarmament, and reparations indefinitely, without an effective enforcement mechanism on the part of the Allies. The Versailles treaty had sought to delegitimize the enemy, as the party solely responsible for the war.
The stalemate produced by the battles of August and September 1914 transformed the character of warfare in Europe, for generals as much as for common soldiers. Throughout the nineteenth century, military theory had rested on the assumption of decisive battle. Battle had been conceived as having a definite beginning and end. Most importantly, it had long been held that battle produced clear winners and losers. Certainly, the war plans of 1914 rested on the assumption of battles that would prove nasty and brutish, but also decisive and short. But as the war on the Western Front descended into the trench system, the very meanings of “battle” and “the front” changed. Pitched battle in its conventional sense proved relatively rare in the conflict of 1914–18, mostly because of its horrendous cost in men and materiel when it did occur. But in the trenches, a grinding and inherently indecisive form of “combat” was supposed to be constant. The spatial configuration of warfare changed radically as well. Millions of men fought for four years along hundreds of kilometers of trenches, a far longer front than had ever existed in European military history.
This book is a work of synthesis rather than original research, in which we tell the story of France and the French in the Great War in the context of a huge and mostly new historiographical literature. The elements of “conventional” history are all here – diplomacy, strategy, battles, and the “high politics” of the National Assembly and prime ministers. But we focus more on the society and culture of the French at war. What, throughout the book, we call “war culture” refers to a broad-based system of representations through which the French made sense of the war, and persuaded themselves to continue fighting it. Much of this book recounts the social and cultural history of a national community that mobilized, remobilized, suffered, mourned its sacrifices, and in the end “won,” or at least failed to lose the most terrible war in its long history. We argue that traces of the Great War are still visible in France today. We note aspects of the war still not well understood by historians, and thus in a general way point to directions for future research.
In keeping with the practice of the New Approaches to European History series, we have kept footnotes to a minimum. We include a comprehensive bibliography of works in French and in English. Most of our footnotes are there to avoid disruption of the main body of the text.
The last year of the Great War proved the most paradoxical, and remains even today the year least understood by historians. Germany finalized its victory over Russia in March 1918, by concluding a harsh peace with the Bolshevik successors to the tsar's regime with the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. That same month, the Germans began a drive for total victory along the Western Front that again brought them within a two-day march of Paris. Yet at no time in the war would success prove so deceptive, or so perilous. By November, the Germans had to request an armistice, and it seemed as though the Allies had won. But to the end, the Great War remained a war of attrition. To the end, attrition weakened both sides. The Allies, and particularly France, had good reasons to stop the war when they did. No one could be sure just how long support for the war would hold up anywhere, and leaders through Europe feared that the communist revolution preached by the new regime in Russia might overwhelm them all. As hard as the French tried to make it look like one, the Armistice signed in November 1918 was not quite a German surrender. The German army returned home in good order, greeted by an explanation of what had happened that would come to haunt all of Europe – that the German army had not been defeated, but had been “stabbed in the back” on the home front, by socialists and by Jews.
On November 6, 1915, Sarah Bernhardt performed a dramatic poem by Eugène Morand, Les Cathédrales, at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris. Even the “Divine Sarah,” then seventy-one years old and still the greatest actress of the French stage after a career spanning more than fifty years, had seldom taken to the stage under more remarkable circumstances. It was her first performance in Paris after her return from the Bordeaux region, where she had fled as the Germans approached Paris in August 1914. Bernhardt herself was no stranger to war. She had opened a hospital for the wounded at the Odéon theatre in Paris during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–1. According to legend, she left Paris in 1914 only after her friend and future wartime premier Georges Clemenceau told her she was on a list of hostages to be taken by the Germans if they captured the city. Moreover, the aging star was herself recuperating from major surgery – the amputation of her leg, which had finally become gangrenous after years of mistreatment of an old injury.
In itself, Les Cathédrales is a work remote in form and content from today's aesthetic sensibilities. It recounted the dream of a young and courageous French soldier who has grabbed a few moments of sleep near the front, in the department of the Nord, invaded by the Germans.