A comprehensive new account of the French Army's critical contribution to the Great War. Elizabeth Greenhalgh revises our understanding not only of wartime strategy and fighting, but also of other crucial aspects of France's war, from mutinies and mail censorship to medical services, railways and weapons development.
Elizabeth Greenhalgh graduated from the Victoria University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, and arrived in Australia in 1987. She worked as a research assistant in the Department, then School, of History, UNSW @ ADFA and, after completing her PhD, edited the international journal War & Society between 2005 and 2010. She then became a full-time researcher, being awarded a UNSW postdoctoral fellowship and then an Australian Research Coucil Fellowship (2010-2014).
In most English-language histories of the First World War, the part played in it by the French Army is typically told in terms of episodes. There are the initial battles in 1914 leading up to the famous stand at the Marne, then the iconic clash at Verdun two years later followed by the 1917 Nivelle Offensive and the mutinies that followed. What these events all have in common is a relevancy to British operations on the Western Front, which has ensured that they receive due attention from writers chronicling their participation in the war. But they are far from the complete story of France’s military efforts in the conflict.
This is one of the reasons why Elizabeth Greenhalgh’s book is so valuable. Her contribution to Cambridge University Press’s “Armies of the Great War” series provides an English-language history of the war from the perspective of the French Army. While it’s not the first to do so, it’s by far the best one available, thanks in no small part to Greenhalgh’s expertise on the subject which, coupled with her familiarity with French-language sources and works about the war, serves as a valuable corrective to the British-centric narratives of French Army operations.
Greenhalgh begins by examining the army’s often divisive and controversial pre-war background. After its humiliating defeat at the hands of Prussian-led German forces in 1870, the French Army sought to recover its reputation and reverse the losses suffered in that war. Conscription was central to this, yet the need for it entangled the French army in the often-volatile politics of the Third Republic. This was reflected in the highest ranks, as the selection of generals was shaped as much by their political views as it was by their record of service. Yet all were aware that not even the mass mobilization of the French populace would be enough to offset the numerical advantage enjoyed by their German adversary, which made the cultivation of allies – most notably Russia – vital to France’s strategy.
Nevertheless, when war broke out in 1914 France fully expected its forces to shoulder the brunt of the fighting from the start. Greenhalgh credits the army with mobilizing effectively, though the opening of hostilities quickly exposed the challenges of waging war with a conscript army. As she notes, one of the earliest problems the army faced was with indiscipline among their rapidly-enlarged ranks, with three times as many soldiers executed in October 1914 alone as were shot in the aftermath of the Nivelle offensive. Equally dramatic was the purge of aged and incompetent commanders, which Joseph Joffre undertook ruthlessly over the course of the initial battles.
Such draconian measures were understandable given the situation, as German forces had invaded France and were now occupying a large amount of French territory. After halting the German advance in 1914, the French conducted a series of offensives in 1915 to drive them back. While concentrated in the Champagne and Artois sectors, fighting took place all along the front, reflecting Joffre’s belief that constant activity was necessary to demonstrate France’s determination. Though this was primarily for the benefit of France’s British and (especially) Russian allies, French parliamentarians increasingly voiced their concern as the loss of life in operations too poorly supported to have any chance of success. Joffre detested this political interference, but the fact that the fighting was taking place on French soil made it impossible to ignore.
In many respects the crucible of both the French army and the republic it represented came at Verdun. Its success after months of attritional warfare came at an enormous cost, one that further eroded army morale and civil-military relations. Robert Nivelle’s appointment as the army’s chief of staff came with his assurances that the lessons learned from the battle of Verdun and the Somme would bring victory in 1917, only for further frustration to follow. Greenhalgh sees Nivelle as a victim of both coalition politics and his own overpromises, and her analysis of the protests that followed is one of the best parts of the book. Though Nivelle’s successor Philippe Pétain did much to restore the demoralized forces, the politicians’ preference for Ferdinand Foch’s more offensive-minded approach gave him the supreme command that was established in 1918, and with it the credit for the final victory over the German army.
Judicious and comprehensive, Greenhalgh’s book offers a superb overview of the French army’s performance in the First World War. While she plays to her strengths by focusing primarily on operations and command-level relationships, her book addresses everything from the medical services to the employment of air power and the morale of the front-line soldiers. Nor does she neglect France’s operations outside of the Western Front, with sections that cover deployments to the Dardanelles, Salonika, and Italy as well. From it she makes a convincing argument for the French army as a force that, though strained to its limits by the enormous losses it suffered, nevertheless adapted successfully over time to the challenges of modern warfare to emerge from the conflict as a modernized and powerful army that was the best in the world. Though some may argue with this conclusion, nobody interested in the Western Front and the First World War more generally can afford to ignore this book, if only for her success in restoring the French Army to the center of the story of the war.
Interesting operational history of the French army in WWI corrects the misconceptions that result from Anglocentric histories and memoirs of the war. Greenhalgh makes a good case for the adaptability of the French and their huge contribution to victory--in manpower, materiel, and developing understanding of the nature of modern warfare. French Intelligence gets its due as well, including a lot of information derived from censors' summaries and quotations from poilu's letters home from the front.
My only quibbles are (1) while the included maps are good, I would have liked a map every few pages to support understanding of the very detailed analyses of battle action and (2) almost everything in this book could have been handled in greater detail. This latter quibble really isn't a complaint about Greenhalgh, who does quite a good job, but my desire to read another five or ten detailed studies of some of the aspects of the French war that she uncovers. For example a history of French intelligence, which I already mentioned.
The French Army was underdeveloped in 1914, but by 1918 had risen as the most fierce land force up to that point. At first, the book goes into detail about the background to the Great War, about French military planning, mobilization plans and the status of the French Armed Forces. The book goes into detail about the French alliances with Russia and Great Britain and the escalation, for example the Second Moroccan Crisis and so on. The French Army starts in chaos, similar to the Russian Imperial Army. Both armies had planned for a joint offensive after roughly a 2 week mobilization and equipping the forces, thus proving that not only the political but military leaders as well thought, that the war would be over by Christmas 1914. This did not come however, because of the immense fighting on the fronts, the supposed 'Great Russian Offensive' was to take place and took place in August-September, but the forces under Rennenkampf, but their forces were annihilated by Max Hoffmann, Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg's contemporary tactical thinking. The French army also suffered immensely in August and the Belgians were forced retreat nearly completely from Belgian territory. The British professional and non-conscript army was annihilated in mere months and had to be replaced and the entire British position had to be rethought. This book is a very detailed interpretation of the French(and Allied) armies in the Great War and shows French contributions from the Western Front to the Alpes, Balkans, Dardanelles, West Africa and the Middle East.