Heroic, blood-soaked and… er… what else does British heritage commemoration have to say about France in 1914? Not a lot. In the heritage story France is a mere sidekick, a sometimes clumsy, often pathos-laden second banana in Britain’s First Big War Against Germany. The French heritage industry – a lot like ours in most ways – takes a mirror-image view of Britain in 1914, as a minor co-star in the story of the Second-Last Big French War Against Germany. If any French people are reading this, I realise that fighting on home soil is a pretty good excuse and I’ll get around to talking about Britain one of these days, but for today here’s a quick sketch of France at the beginning of the Great War.
France today is the Fifth Republic, founded after De Gaulle’s coup d’état of 1958. France in 1914 was the Third Republic, founded in 1870 after the country’s crushing military defeat by Prussia and the overthrow of its last monarch, Napoleon III. Well equipped with railways, canals and shipping, it was one of the world’s most successful trading nations but lagged far behind Germany and Britain in industrial development. The vast majority of the population (40 million in 1911) depended on agriculture for a living, making the country self-sufficient in food, but the heavy industries concentrated in the northeast were relatively small and inefficient, and most manufacturing still took place at workshop level.
Unlike Germany, France was a genuine representative democracy, or at least what passed for one in the early twentieth century. A two-tier National Assembly controlled legislation and most adult males were entitled to vote in direct elections for the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, but the upper house, the Senate, was indirectly elected. The Assembly as a whole elected a president as head of state every seven years, and the president nominated a prime minister, who in turn occupied a ministry in the 12-man cabinet and selected the other eleven ministers. Before the election of moderate conservative Raymond Poincaré in 1912, the presidency had been a largely honorific office, but Poincaré took a much more active role in internal politics and was the guiding force in French conduct of foreign affairs.
The constitution was intended to provide France with a stable political base, something lacking since the Revolution of 1789 had inaugurated a century of serial regime change, and destined to prove elusive into the late 20th. It was working in 1914, but only just, and the broader political picture in France was hardly less polarised than in Germany.
At one end of the political and intellectual spectrum, French socialism was an important force at home and abroad. Though the country’s industrial workforce was smaller and less volatile than its German counterpart, French representatives formed the moderate heart of the global socialist organisation, the Second International, and socialists always mustered a substantial group in the Assembly. As pacifists and committed republicans, constantly alert to the possibility of a royalist revival, socialists provided rugged, sometimes bitter opposition to the other great extra-parliamentary political force in France – the Army.
Well-endowed with overt royalists and, inasmuch as its officers paid any attention to political opinion, the predominantly right-wing Army was hugely important to the Third Republic as the instrument of its manifest destiny: the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine, the rich eastern provinces ceded to the new Germany after the defeat of 1870. Another war between the two countries was regarded as inevitable by most informed opinion everywhere, and the question of how to create an army capable of winning it was the big issue in French politics before the War. It is hard to overstate the levels of mistrust between the Army and all but the right-wing of the political establishment (though a look at the long-running Dreyfus affair gives a flavour), and in the years before 1914 mutual antipathy crystallised around the question of conscription.
Conscription of all eligible males for a period of national service, as practiced in most mainland European countries of the day, went without saying, but Germany’s bigger manpower base left France at a disadvantage. Attempts by the Army and its political supporters to compensate by extending the term of conscription faced bitter socialist opposition, but finally bore fruit when the Three Year Law was passed in 1913. This apparent success soon backfired by persuading Berlin to fight sooner rather than later, but in the meantime it left many observers, military and otherwise, convinced that the political left would refuse to fight when war came.
Alsace and Lorraine were the defining aims of French foreign policy, and arguably of French society as a whole, but as a major colonial and trading power France did have other irons in foreign fires. Security of trade with colonies in Africa and Indo-China called for maintenance of a strong naval force in the Mediterranean, which brought potential conflict with Britain, Italy and Austria-Hungary, the other major powers with fleets in the theatre. And growing French commercial ambitions in the Middle East, as well as strong French ties with Serbia (an Ottoman province until l903), were straining historically good relations with the Turkey.
The obvious diplomatic move for France was sealed in 1892 by alliance with Russia, which could menace Germany from the east and was as yet no threat to the Mediterranean. The dream move from a French perspective, alliance with Britain as the ultimate protection against German dominance of mainland Europe, was never quite sealed before war broke out.
Informal arrangements had brought France much closer to her old enemy in the first years of the new century, culminating in a naval agreement that took pressure off both parties in northern and Mediterranean waters from 1912, while British agreements with Russia in 1907 had created a ‘Triple Entente’ to counterbalance the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. But try as they might, and they did try, successive French governments could not persuade Britain into a formal alliance.
This was the one dampener on French enthusiasm for an attack on Germany when the Austro-Serbian crisis of July 1914 brought war into prospect. The Army couldn’t wait to get started, the French government was ready to fight and the attack-minded optimism of the Army’s Plan 17 convinced both that a quick victory over Germany was all but guaranteed – but Poincaré and his inexperienced prime minister, Viviani, delayed in the hope of concrete British support.
When the shit hit the fan at the end of the month both men were in St. Petersburg, giving fateful guarantees of military support to Russia. They were able to hold off Army demands for immediate mobilisation, and on 30 July ordered a withdrawal of forces from the German frontier in an attempt to convince the British of their peaceful intentions. The following day, in a Paris café, a French nationalist who regarded pacifism as treason assassinated Jean Jaurès, far and away the most illustrious face and voice of French socialism. The government, afraid that the great man’s death would trigger a surge of pacifist dissent, or even a full-scale revolution, dared wait no longer.
French armed forces were mobilised on 1 August, with government and Army ready to conduct mass arrests of dissidents, only for the country’s internal problems to vanish the moment war was certain. The same thing happened in other belligerent countries, but nowhere was the surge of patriotic chauvinism triggered by war more pronounced or dramatic than in France. Pacifist opposition disappeared, instantly and completely, and the Assembly voted for an immediate political truce (the Union Sacrée). Within a few weeks some 2.5 million Frenchmen had answered the call-up, most with joy in their hearts, and the government was coping with manpower crises in crucial industrial and infrastructural sectors. After half a century of increasingly rabid internal division and uncertain legitimacy, the Third Republic was finally united, marching to war in confident pursuit of its lost provinces.
Shame about Plan 17.