Category Archives: France

13 OCTOBER, 1915: La Différence

A hundred years ago today Théophile Delcassé, the French foreign minister, resigned. The architect of prewar French diplomacy as foreign minister from 1898 until 1905, and a former navy minister, Delcassé had been recalled to the foreign office by the new Viviani government in August 1914, and was one of its most prestigious figures, particularly on the international stage. A firm supporter of complete strategic focus on the Western Front, his departure came in protest at Anglo-French commitment of resources to Salonika, and was the substantial straw that broke the fragile back of the French government. Within a fortnight, the Viviani regime would be gone, and this seems a good time to dispel any easy assumptions that French democratic government bore much resemblance to its British counterpart in 1915.

In Britain, the elected government controlled the armed forces. In France, the armed forces controlled the elected government. I could just leave it at that, point simply made, but the difference made a difference to the big picture, so it merits a bit of explanation.

Where the British system of government was enshrined in tradition and had developed since the seventeenth century through reform rather than revolution, French democracy was a volatile beast, with a lively history of upheaval and overthrow since its birth in revolution. The assumptions, broadly speaking basic to the British political psyche, that patterns of power and the comfortable prestige of those wielding it were fixed, didn’t apply to politicians in France. They did apply to the French Army.

Like the Royal Navy in Britain, the French Army basked in the glories of its Napoleonic past, and was generally viewed as the foundation and spirit of the nation. But where the Royal Navy was part of, and committed to, the political status quo, the French Army (again broadly speaking) regarded democracy in general and the Republic’s constitution in particular with what can at best be described as suspicious tolerance. Meanwhile a substantial majority of the body politic regarded the Army as the nation’s sole credible authority in time of struggle – in particular, ever since the catastrophic defeat by Germany in the war of 1870–71 – and saw politicians as collectively to blame for any setbacks along the way, a point of view assiduously encouraged by the more politically inclined among the military.

The semi-permanent struggle in France between a strong military and a weak political establishment took a major turn in the summer of 1914. The outbreak of war inevitably strengthened the Army’s position, and while President Poincaré was no mere figurehead, the crisis found a novice premier, Viviani, at the helm of government. Viviani was serving his first stint in a job that most of the big hitters in French politics had occupied more than once. A compromise leader and nobody’s strong man, he could exert no more than marginal influence on the military juggernaut let loose in August, and the government’s only real role in the military disasters that followed was to take the blame.

Circumstances weakened the government’s position still further during the first months of the War. At the height of the invasion crisis, with Paris under threat, it had moved to Bordeaux. When it returned the nation was under martial law and the capital had been included in the ‘Zone of the Armies’, making it effectively part of the front line and subjecting the cabinet to military authority. It didn’t help that the ultimate authority was Joffre, whose contempt for all things political knew no bounds and whose word could not be challenged after his victory at the Marne.

By the autumn of 1915, the government had survived a year as the Army’s supply dogsbody, struggling to mobilise a nation that was industrially backward by Anglo-German standards and had lost its most productive region – including two-thirds of iron and steel capacity, forty percent of coal output and a sixth of the industrial workforce – to German occupation. As military demands mushroomed and the military failures piled up, Viviani’s cabinet absorbed blame from the military, the press and the populace, while Viviani himself stood accused of failure to control the Army on one hand, and failure to meet its needs on the other. With no obvious successor champing to receive the poisoned chalice of government, cabinet survival depended on an appearance of unity and the continued support of senior political figures. Obviously divided over strategic priorities and deprived of Delcassé, government authority dwindled beyond repair.

Very little changed when Viviani resigned in late October. His government was replaced by another coalition under the more prestigious figure of moderate socialist leader Aristide Briand, whose third term (of six) as premier would last for eighteen months. The military continued to dominate political authority in France, and although Joffre would eventually be out-manoeuvred and removed at the end of 1916, the repeated failure of his offensive tactics and the defensive carnage he supervised at Verdun had much more to do with his fall from grace than any strengthening of civilian authority.

A hundred years on, popular views of the First World War tend to assume that Britain and France – neighbours, democracies and allies – were cut from the same, essentially parliamentary, sociopolitical cloth. They weren’t then, and nobody with an eye on history thought they were. They aren’t now, but we’re not so good at history these days.

6 OCTOBER, 1915: Big Hammer, Small Nut

Now here’s a rarity for this stage in the War:  a plan that worked.  A hundred years ago today, as mentioned only yesterday, German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian forces invaded Serbia on two fronts. Within two months, the country had been conquered and most of the invasion’s limited objectives achieved, at which point the invaders secured their gains and redeployed resources back to other fronts. The attack’s only failure lay in allowing the remains of the Serbian Army to retreat into Albania, but chasing it across the mountains would have risked heavy casualties in a largely symbolic cause, and it would be a long time before Serbian forces troubled the Central Powers again.  So what was the secret of the year’s only complete offensive success?

The answer is that there was no secret.  For once, the offensive tactics and technology of 1915, efficiently used, found circumstances ideal for their success.  The offensive method in question, breakthrough tactics, has been described before, and amounted to massive concentration of men and firepower against a single point of the enemy defence.  Breakthrough tactics had failed against well-prepared German defences on the Western Front and, after achieving initial successes during German offensives on the Eastern Front, they had fallen foul of extended supply lines and failed again.  Serbia was different.

First of all, Serbia was barely able to defend itself.  After the campaigns of 1914 had left its citizen army decimated, exhausted and short of every conceivable supply need, the country had been promised major reinforcement by Britain and France – but squabbles between the two had delayed help beyond usefulness. Serbian leaders had known for months that the invasion was coming, and that Bulgaria would take part, but Britain and France had also vetoed a Serbian plan for a preemptive summer strike against Bulgaria, which was still considered a potential ally in London and Paris.  So the Serbian Army – some 200,000 typhus-ridden, hungry troops, all desperately short of ammunition and artillery support – could only take up its positions and wait for the hammer to fall.

It was a big hammer, deployed for generally sound strategic reasons. Austria-Hungary wanted to finish the job so poorly begun in 1914, and Bulgaria wanted territory it had failed to secure at the end of the Balkan Wars, but German military involvement took a wider perspective.  German chief of staff Falkenhayn saw the removal of Serbia as a means to open up land communications with the Ottoman Empire and with its new Bulgarian allies.  Once the Pless Convention had committed Bulgaria to the attack, Falkenhayn overruled the inevitable protests from Ludendorff and transferred forces from the Eastern Front to the Balkans.  Come October, Serbia’s ragged defenders faced 300,000 efficiently concentrated, well-equipped and supported attackers, commanded by German Field Marshal Mackensen, star of the year’s Eastern Front offensives and the acknowledged master of breakthrough tactics.

When the hammer fell, with Austro-German attacks from the north and Bulgarian from the southeast, Serbian resistance crumbled very quickly.  Once the government realised that Allied help wasn’t going to arrive, and even before the failure of General Sarrail’s unconvincing attempt to intercept the Bulgarians from Salonika, the campaign as a whole became a matter of retreat and pursuit.  With no second line defences to overcome, and no problems with supply lines, the combined invasion force could deliver, within the limits of a relatively small theatre, the Holy Grail that had tormented Joffre and eluded Ludendorff – total victory through the shock and awe of breakthrough tactics.

The Serbian campaign of late 1915 makes a grimly fascinating story, and I’ll be having a word about it in weeks to come, but for now just an academic point: it took a small war within the War, in which defenders effectively fought with one hand tied behind their backs, for one of the period’s most efficient commanders to achieve the only clear-cut victory in Europe throughout 1915.  So today marks the centenary of the exception that proved the rule.

5 OCTOBER, 1915: Carry On Camping

Today was the day the first Anglo-French forces landed at Salonika, the port on the Aegean coast of Macedonia now known as Thessaloniki. If you’ve been getting your perspective on the First World War through the heritage window, don’t feel bad if this development seems a little puzzling. The three-year Salonika campaign was one of history’s head-scratchers, the kind of half-mad, half-sane enterprise that can give war leaders a bad name. I’ll try to let you to decide if they deserve a bad name, and aim for a dispassionate briefing on a campaign that involved some 600,000 Allied troops at its peak, yet somehow manages to justify the sobriquet ‘little known’.

Let’s start with the why. The French were obsessively piling up the manpower on the Western Front; the British were doing the same while committing substantial land forces at Gallipoli and in the Middle East. Why would they choose to open another front in the southern Balkans?

The first and stated reason was to come to the aid of their ally, Serbia. It was no secret that, once Bulgaria had joined the Central Powers, payback was coming to Serbia, which had barely survived the Austro-Hungarian invasion attempts of 1914, and had never received anything like the support necessary to promote a real recovery in the meantime. An invasion was imminent, Serbia’s prospects looked grim, and something had to be done – or at least seen to be done.

A second reason, also stated, was to provide support for pro-Allied factions in divided, still neutral Greece. Greece had taken that part of Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, but Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary harboured undisguised ambitions in the region. Partly as protection against their predations, and partly as a tactic in his ongoing power struggle with the pro-German monarch, King Constantine, Greek Prime Minister Venizelos had invited the Entente to send forces to Salonika – and failure to respond risked the unthinkable diplomatic crime of upsetting a potential ally,

Another reason – not stated at the time but much discussed since – was strategic confusion. The autumn’s big plan to smash through reduced German strength on the Western Front had manifestly failed, and Churchill’s big plan to win the war by coming through the back door of Constantinople was melting down into an epic shambles. Britain’s essentially accidental invasion of modern Iraq was making rapid, if incoherent progress towards Baghdad, but nobody expected it to win the war anytime soon. In Paris and above all in London, where ‘Easterners’ demanding an alternative strategy to the carnage in France remained an important political force, national morale at every level needed a rabbit out of a hat.

If you looked at it from that perspective, and squinted to avoid seeing the obstacles, Salonika might just be the place to provide one. This very simple map (nicked from the Net and removable at the drop of a complaint) goes most of the way to showing why Salonika seemed a good jumping off point for a new front. All that’s missing is the cherry on the cake, just beyond the northern borders of Serbia and Bulgaria – the prospect of striking at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


So much for the best-case scenario, but the conjuring trick went horribly wrong almost from the moment four French divisions and one British division arrived at Salonika on 5 October. The operation had been launched on the assumption that Greece was about to join the War on the Allied side, but Greek political squabbles were far from over. Venizelos resigned on the day the troops arrived, and French General Sarrail, c-in-c of the new ‘Army of the East’, began his preparations for an offensive in an atmosphere of mounting local mistrust. By the time Sarrail was able to send substantial forces north to its aid, the Serbian Army was in full retreat towards Albania, and by early November Sarrail was retreating back to his base. Threatened by both local hostility and hostile armies on the frontier, he turned Salonika into a massive fortified camp and waited for reinforcements.

Once the Gallipoli campaign was over, in early 1916, reinforcements duly arrived, with British forces under General Milne bringing total Allied strength up to around 160,000 men and the Royal Navy chipping in with a squadron of second-line warships. Sarrail, still in overall command, now considered his force under siege, cutting rail links with Constantinople, forcing the surrender of Greek artillery overlooking the harbour approaches, fortifying his small fiefdom to Western Front standards, and on the whole staying safely inside it. By the spring of 1916, a campaign that depended on swift exploitation of Salonika’s strategic location had found its own particular route to stalemate.

There would be further attempts to move north and achieve some sort of strategic impact from Salonika, but broadly speaking an ever-expanding Army of the East stayed holed up in its swampy, overcrowded encampments until the last weeks of the War – long after Greece had finally joined the Allies and when the enemy ahead of it was disintegrating. In the meantime, while Sarrail became embroiled in the equally swampy battleground of Greek politics, a total Allied commitment of more than a million troops over three years would suffer a relatively light 20,000 battle casualties – but disease would cause no less than 1.5 million hospital cases in Salonika, and almost 450,000 men would be invalided out of the theatre with malaria alone.

Hopeless strategic and tactical incompetence, or yet another example of the way offensive warfare simply didn’t work in 1915? Opinions differ, and I anticipate having a word or two about it later in the War, but the sickness rate at Salonika, like the horrifying deaths suffered by so many troops in Mesopotamia, is a reminder of another important factor often overlooked by the mocking voices of heritage commentators. Medical science, like so much contemporary human culture, simply wasn’t ready to fight efficiently on a global, or even continental scale during the First World War.

25 MAY, 1915: First Casualty In Ritual Killing Shock!

Britain’s national press hasn’t changed all that much over the last hundred years. The culture of public expression it feeds has evolved into something altogether less restrained, so the newspapers of 1915 were required to maintain an appearance of sobriety and reasonableness that makes them look dull and academic to the modern eye, but they were nonetheless inaccurate, self-important, propagandist and sensationalist – just the way we like them today.

A century ago today, the British daily press was on typical form. The most deadly rail crash in British history had taken place on 22 May, when a total of three passenger and two goods trains were involved in two collisions at Quintinshill, near Gretna Green, that culminated in a major fire. Most of the estimated 226 dead and a similar number of injured were Territorial troops on their way to Gallipoli, but the loss of regimental records in the fire meant that exact numbers were never established.

While the cause of the disaster was still being investigated (and would later be established as signalling error), it provided the newspapers with relatively little opportunity to produce propaganda or peddle political influence, so it had already been pushed into the background by a raft of more lively stories.

The ongoing battles at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, neither proceeding remotely according to plan for the British, couldn’t be ignored and occupied a lot of column inches, most dedicated to looking on the bright side. Small victories and optimistic forecasts dominated coverage, along with reports of individual or collective bravery by British and colonial troops. This was simple propaganda for the sake of home front morale, and the disasters it masked encouraged newspaper editors and owners to play down military news in favour of more positive stories from the War’s peripheries. By 25 May they had two corkers to work with.

Italy had formally entered the War on 23 May, and two days later the British press was still in a ferment of triumphalism, lionising the Italian government and people as selfless defenders of civilisation and confidently predicting the imminent collapse of Austria-Hungary’s war effort.  Better yet, May 25 found British politics in the midst of a momentous upheaval that had been promoted and at least partly created by the national press, as Prime Minister Asquith completed negotiations to form a coalition government in place of his Liberal administration. Part of the political and strategic agenda pushed by the two most powerful press barons of the day – Lord Northcliffe and his brother Viscount Rothermere – the appointment of a new cabinet, along with optimistic predictions of its success and speculation about the few posts still unoccupied, pushed even the glories of Italy into second place when it came to column inches.

I mention the press that day because the way in which the First World War shaped a century of propaganda is often overlooked by a modern world steeped in its dark arts.

Propaganda wasn’t new in 1914, and was in no way a peculiarly British phenomenon. Every imperial state in the world, and for that matter any state with a literate population, had long been using every medium available to shape opinion by information design. Books, periodicals, poems, leaflets, paintings, monumental sculpture, posters, oratory and photographs, as well as the press, were all familiar tools used to influence popular opinion. Their use by governments and private interests proliferated during the immediate pre-War years, as burgeoning mass literacy was matched by mounting diplomatic tension in western and central Europe – and from the moment general war broke out in 1914, it was accompanied by a chorus of propaganda on an unprecedented scale.

All of the main belligerent states, especially the most economically developed among them, launched ambitious public information programmes as soon as war was declared, using every medium available to contemporary culture and technology. Within weeks, a pattern for wartime state propaganda was set by the British, French and German governments, which recruited eminent cultural figures from every field of the arts and (particularly in Germany’s case) the sciences to produce propaganda material. As anyone alive today should already be aware, the idea caught on, and was used with particular effect in the United States, both before and after its declarations of war in 1917.

From a racing start in 1914, the scale and importance of wartime propaganda just kept on growing. By the end of the War most belligerents sported huge, centralised information ministries that controlled propaganda for home, enemy and neutral audiences. These were responsible for everything from promotion of recruitment or funding drives, through the plausible nonsense that constituted what British authorities liked to call ‘propaganda of truth’ (i.e. leaving out all the bad news), to the ‘black’ propaganda designed to deceive or more often discredit the enemy with lies.

There’s a lot more to be said about the many forms of propaganda employed during the Great War, and about the systems and orthodoxies it spawned, but not here. This is just a reminder that Britain was, and presumably still is no better or worse than its peers among developed states in the matter of propaganda – and that propaganda did not, as heritage world might have you believe, begin with Goebbels. Like so much of our social architecture, it became what it is today during the First World War.

2 MAY, 1915: This Cannot Be Happening…

Thanks to extraordinary military conditions, underpinned by equally unprecedented social, economic and political upheavals, a war that couldn’t possibly last for more than a few weeks was still raging out of control nine months later.  It seemed reasonable to assume – no, it was reasonable to assume that it couldn’t last much longer, so when the main belligerents contemplated their big moves in spring 1915 they did so in a spirit of military optimism.  Whether pouring resources into existing fronts, widening their military horizons to take in less direct routes to victory or experimenting with new weapons and tactics, strategists everywhere operated in the understandable belief that one big push in the right place must bring an end to the War’s unnatural life, and planned accordingly.

A quick tour d’horizon should illustrate the point.

Let’s start with the exception to the rule, Serbia, which had survived three invasions in 1914 but had been completely exhausted by the effort, and was still deep in the process of licking its wounds and reorganising what was left of its army.  Quite incapable of any aggression and surrounded by enemies intent on its demise, Serbia was focused only on survival.

Serbia’s most powerful enemy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, wasn’t really focused at all.  Struggling to replace huge manpower losses during unsuccessful campaigns on two fronts, and facing a third on its Italian frontiers, the Empire was showing ominous signs of internal collapse.  As well as rising nationalist discontent among subject populations, especially Czechs and Slovaks, shambolic infrastructural management and Hungarian reluctance to share food supplies had left Vienna close to starvation.  Increasingly reliant on Germany to shore up its military position, and required to focus economic effort on its well-developed arms industry in accordance with German needs, the Austrian high command was nevertheless ignoring reality in favour of what might be called endgame optimism.  Having just abandoned a disastrous offensive in the Carpathian Mountains on the Eastern Front, Vienna was planning towards a renewed invasion of Serbia and offering support for further German offensives in the east.

At least Vienna planned to stick on good defensive positions against the Italians in the Alps. Italy, on the other hand, was preparing to ignore the depleted condition of its armed forces (after a war with the Ottoman Empire in 1911–12), its desperate wartime supply shortages of everything from ammunition to food, and the tactical realities of alpine warfare to launch attack after costly attack on those positions. The Ottoman Empire, under attack in modern Iraq, at Gallipoli and in the Caucasus, was meanwhile facing internal breakdown of supplies and sliding into dependence on German aid, but was planning a new offensive in the Causasus and further attacks on depleted British positions around Suez.

A similar disdain for reality infected planners in St. Petersburg. Having held off the Austrian spring offensive in the Carpathians and Turkish attacks in the Caucasus, they could call on all the manpower they needed but precious little else, not least because Russia possessed none of the state mechanisms that enabled its western allies to wage ‘total war’.   Designed by a general staff (Stavka) specialised in factional squabbling, Russian strategy in spring 1915 lacked coherence, took a very long time to get from drawing board to action, and ignored any lessons from recent failures.  The result was scattergun optimism, with massed offensives planned for both the northern and southern sectors of the Eastern Front.  Forces were being slowly built up for these as May got underway, a process that depleted defences in the centre of the front and weakened Russian armies in the Caucasus, where the need for a defensive posture, though unavoidable in the short term, was seen as no more than a temporary delay on the road to Constantinople and the Mediterranean.

You couldn’t accuse the French war effort of lacking focus in 1915. A single-minded national commitment to victory on the Western Front was backed by an economy capable of delivering total war (at least for the time being), and fuelled by the conviction that enough firepower, properly concentrated and deployed with sufficient offensive spirit, would soon drive the enemy from the gates. This had been the basis of all French military thinking since the autumn of 1914, and nothing had changed by the following spring, so C-in-C Joffre and his staff were simply planning bigger, more concentrated and more dashing attacks all along the front line until the predicted ‘breakthrough’ came to pass.

The British believed in breakthrough and, despite minor tactical differences, were following the French lead on the Western Front, but Britain controlled enough resources to indulge in plenty of aggressive optimism elsewhere. While men and materiel were still being poured into France, the Royal Navy was pursuing victory through blockade, an ill-conceived, under-resourced and ill-led attempt at decisive intervention was stuttering towards disaster at Gallipoli, and British Indian forces in Mesopotamia were advancing into serious trouble on the long road to Baghdad.  All these, along with a fistful of minor campaigns all over the Empire, combined to disperse and dilute the British war effort, and none of them came close to unlocking the stalemate in 1915, but within twelve months the British would be at it again in Salonika and Palestine

Like most other belligerents, even Austria-Hungary, the British had a choice about dividing their resources, but Germany was stuck with it.  Both its principal allies were in constant and growing need of economic, military and technical support, and it faced enormous demand for resources in both the War’s principal theatres.  The spring season of 1915 presented the High Command with a genuine dilemma: should Germany seek all-out victory on the Western Front and merely hold its own on the Eastern Front, or vice versa?  Chief of staff Falkenhayn wanted to concentrate on the west, but the need to support Austria and Turkey on other fronts, along with the combination of extravagant promises and relentless propaganda coming from the Eastern Front command team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, persuaded him to take the less expensive option, a major offensive against depleted Russian defences along the central sector of the Eastern Front.

Eight German divisions were moved east from France and two were transferred south from the Carpathians.  Equipped to western Front standards, they became the Eleventh Army under General Mackensen.  Supported by eight Austro-Hungarian divisions, and preceded by a four-hour artillery bombardment far bigger than anything yet seen in the east, they attacked along the Gorlice-Tarnow sector of the front on 2 May.  Russian defenders, outnumbered six to one, desperately short of even the most basic equipment and denied reinforcements while offensives were prepared elsewhere, simply ran away.  By 10 May a chaotic Russian retreat, punctuated by feeble counterattacks, had fallen back to the River San with losses of more than 200,000 men, almost three-quarters of them as prisoners, and by early June the central section of the Russian line was retreating towards Lvov.  The offensive eventually halted to consider future strategy in the last week of June, by which time Austro-German forces had occupied all of Galicia, crossed the River Dneister, taken almost a quarter of a million prisoners and captured 224 big guns for a total loss of 90,000 men.

Gorlice-Tarnow was a German victory, no doubt about that, and on a scale that very nearly matched Ludendorff’s sales pitch, but it completely failed to achieve the prime objective of every major offensive conceived and carried out that spring because it didn’t end, shrink or even noticeably shorten the War.  Russia wasn’t knocked out of the fight, the two things it had lost in large measure – men and territory – were the things it could most afford to lose, and the main practical effect of the success was to extend Austro-German supply lines for further operations.

In failing to end the War, much of the season’s military endeavour was ruined by flawed planning, refusal to recognise reality or command incompetence, but even when the optimists of 1915 avoided all those pitfalls – as Gorlice-Tarnow did – their hopes were wrecked by a historical coincidence of military, technological and social conditions that rendered outright victory all but impossible. Deride First World War leaders for their efforts if you will, join me in condemning the egoists and fantasists among them, but they were dealing with a world that defied all contemporary logic in sustaining a conflict it lacked the technology to end.

10 DECEMBER, 1914: Fame, Faith and Failure

A week or two back, I mentioned that winter warfare in Europe was restricted by weather conditions, an obvious fact illustrated by the entrenched stalemate that had infested both the Western and Eastern Fronts by mid-December 1914. There were many good reasons for this – weather-related transport problems, the battlefield chaos caused by mud and shortage of daylight hours, to name just a few – but one man was determined to ignore them all. That man was Marshal Joseph Joffre, the French Army’s Chief of Staff and de facto field commander, and he chose 10 December 1914 as the opening day of the biggest Allied offensive of the War to date.

Generally known as the First Champagne Offensive (two more were to follow in 1915 and 1918), it began around the town of Perthes but eventually spread all along the northern and central sections of the Western Front. Intended to remove two German-held bulges (or salients) from the front line, the campaign achieved absolutely nothing during four months of attrition, and cost the French army some 90,000 men. It did provide conclusive evidence that well-constructed defensive positions held an unbeatable advantage in the contemporary technological climate, a fact already quite clear to many observers, but Joffre went on to mount similar offensives with grimly similar results all through 1915.  Why?

Warfare could get slow in the snow…

On the whole I don’t subscribe to the ‘lions led by donkeys’ school of remembrance. Most generals on the Western Front and elsewhere were not brilliant but nor were they stupid. Commanders on both sides were dealing with unprecedentedly huge conscript armies in unprecedented conditions that demanded attack, when the state of military and infrastructural technology made defence the only sustainable option. On the other hand, and particularly during the War’s early stages, some important commanders can be accused of blind faith in military theory, of refusal to accept its manifest failure and of autocratic deafness to alternatives. Nobody fits this unfortunate bill more completely than Joffre.

An engineer with an unspectacular career in colonial warfare behind him, Joffre was a consensus choice as Chief of Staff in 1911. Already approaching sixty, he proved a true, arguably fanatical believer in the French Army’s sacred role as the sword of national redemption, and in its prevailing military doctrine of attack, attack and attack. A stern, magisterial presence, armoured by an utter contempt for politicians and politics, he lobbied aggressively for increased military budgets, purged the Army of ‘defensively minded’ officers and developed an unshakeable faith in the prospects of the Army’s offensive strategy for the inevitable war against Germany, Plan Seventeen.

A natural offspring of fanatically attack-minded strategists, Plan Seventeen assumed that all-out, passionate offensive spirit was the key to victory, and came a spectacular cropper in the early weeks of August 1914. True to his faith, Joffre kept driving his generals forward into Germany, convinced that sweeping conquest was only a sufficiently dashing attack away, until the German invasion of France had all but succeeded to his rear. Luck and German mistakes, along with his attack-minded opportunism and that of senior subordinates, enabled Joffre to save Paris and his job at the Marne in September, a victory for which he took full credit and the mantle of national hero.

After the Marne Joffre was untouchable, and knew it. He dropped any pretext at consulting civilian authorities, deliberately kept politicians and the public uninformed about the military position or his own plans, and took complete control of the French struggle on the Western Front. Charging up and down the front line in his high-powered automobile, swooping on individual units without warning (and often staying for a full, two-hour lunch), he was an autocrat unfettered – and he still believed that total victory was just a matter of attacking the enemy with sufficient verve and audacity. The French term for this was élan, and through the succession of failed attacks that saw fixed trench lines established from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier, Joffre remained convinced that a little more of it would do the trick next time. This was still his view in December.

There can come a point when belief in a theory is no longer a matter of choice, because the consequences of disproving the theory are too terrible to contemplate. It may well be that, having already sacrificed so many lives, Joffre was psychologically incapable of writing them off as a mistake, and it was certainly the case that nobody in Paris or the Army possessed the authority to prevent the Saviour of France from a policy of semi-permanent, all-out offensive warfare.  Joffre would fling his troops at German defences again and again, winning nothing and learning nothing, until he was eventually replaced in late 1916, after the ghastly, ten-month carnage of Verdun had exposed his neglect of defensive preparations.  Even then his public popularity required the government to promote him to the largely honorific post of Marshal of France.

So yes, the generals deserve at least some of the blame they’ve been taking from posterity, but men like Joffre were a type of officer found at the start of every major conflict: commanders unable to forget lessons from the last war. Their infamy has been compounded by the facts that the previous major war had been forty years ago, that technology had transformed the battlefield in the meantime, and that sociopolitical changes had drastically raised the numbers of potential casualties involved. Even the big difference between Joffre and his peers at the Great War’s command posts – his absolute power to apply the wrong lessons on a stupendously grand scale – was as much a product of peculiarities in French society as of one man’s personal failings.


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.

30 AUGUST, 1914: THE BOMB!

During its early phases, the war in France generally stopped for lunch, a national habit personified by Army c-in-c Joffre, who always insisted on a full, uninterrupted midday meal wherever he happened to be on the Western Front.  Today in 1914, Sunday lunch was well underway all over Paris when, at 12.45, a lone German aircraft flew over the city.

The aircraft was a Taube , a little reconnaissance monoplane, already in service for four years and appropriately slow, that was known for its stable flight and therefore considered ideal for bombing experiments.  Parisians, who at this stage called any German aircraft a Taube, watched as it circled the city centre and tossed five small objects over the side

Four were bombs, small four-pounders designed for anti-personnel use, and the fifth was a propaganda message to Parisians, advising surrender in the face of the impending German Army onslaught.  The bombs killed two people, injuring two more, and the propaganda had no discernible effect, but both were global firsts with long-term implications.

There’s never been the slightest proof that dropping propaganda leaflets on enemy civilians has any effect on anything, but air forces still do it today.  Nor, nuclear madness aside, has there ever been any evidence that large-scale bombing of civilian targets can deliver a knockout blow to an enemy, or even significantly shorten a major war – but the bombs dropped on Paris a century ago were the first, small expression of a theory that went on to blight the twentieth century in defiance of logic.

The theory that massed fleets of aircraft could bomb cities and nations into submission, even instant submission, was popular with a few military theorists and many more fiction writers even before powered flight had been achieved.  Informed observers at the start of the War were well aware that aircraft technology couldn’t yet deliver this ‘war-winning weapon’, but experiments began nonetheless and development of heavier, long-range machines soon followed.

Paris, within easy reach of German forces at the front line, bore witness to the wartime escalation this entailed.  The raids by single Taube machines continued in 1914, arriving at about five o’clock each evening and killing a few civilians but occasioning more curiosity than panic.  Zeppelin raids would follow, spreading greater destruction and fear but remaining no more than a minor nuisance to the city, and as the War grew old fleets of German heavy bombers – the Gothas – would deliver smaller loads in greater numbers and with more destructive power.  By the end of the War German bombs had killed 275 Parisians, injured more than six hundred and achieved nothing of military value.

The story was the same elsewhere.  German raids on other cities and countries (including Britain), Allied reprisal raids on more distant German targets and, ultimately, a major British experiment in massed bombing, all failed on a number of levels.  Lumbering bombers were easy meat in daylight for improving defence systems, night raids were hopelessly inaccurate, and even when targets were hit civilian populations showed no sign of the morale meltdown predicted by strategists.  At the end of the War, their case still unproven, the disciples of ‘strategic bombing’ in Britain, Germany, Italy and elsewhere went right on believing that all they needed to win future wars at a stroke were aircraft that were big enough, fast enough and numerous enough.

History records that they were given their chance to prove it and that, until Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the rules, they kept on trying in the face of repeated and ghastly failure.  Even now, conventional bombing of civilians is used to create ‘shock and awe’ on the grounds that raining death on people makes them stop wanting to fight.  As Parisians gathered each evening to watch the daily Taube in 1914 they surely knew something new had come into the world.  They couldn’t know they were witnessing the birth of the twentieth century’s most monstrous chimera.

We can know, even should know, but somehow our commemorative obsession with the Western Front manages to bypass some of its most far-reaching consequences.  The heritage story sees the air war over France as a support act for the futility of trench warfare.  In many ways it was, and air forces did get tangled up in their own private war, well documented and essentially pointless.  History can show us there’s more to it, stretching the story across time to reveal hidden punchlines and make direct connections with our modern experience.  Strategic bombing is a huge story, casting a giant shadow across the last hundred years and worth a lot more than a few hundred words.  Any version of the War that ignores its first chapter is sadly incomplete.

7 AUGUST, 1914: France Invades Germany

We are generally quite well informed about Germany’s attack on Luxembourg, Belgium and France in early August.  For the purposes of British heritage commemorations it serves as the act that triggered Europe’s plunge into war, and its adherence to the Schlieffen Plan – a precisely timetabled blueprint for a swift, knockout punch against France that dated back to the 1890s – is seen as evidence of Germany’s prime responsibility for the catastrophe.  The story has less to say about French aggression.  France had been preparing an attack on Germany since ceding territory to a victorious Prussia in 1871.  It possessed its own plan to deliver a knockout blow, and it could hardly wait to get an invasion started.

Plan 17, the French strategic blueprint for war, was the brainchild of Ferdinand Foch, the general destined to end the war as commander-in-chief of allied forces on the Western Front.  Adopted in 1913 by the then c-in-c of French forces, Joffre, it was more flexible (and a lot less precise) than the Schlieffen Plan, and reflected the French Army’s dogmatic commitment to offensive warfare as the key to military success.  A radical departure from previous plans, which had been focused on defence of the Belgian frontier in response to a German attack, it called for French forces to retake Alsace and Lorraine, the eastern provinces lost in 1871, and then to push further east into Germany through the Ardennes forests.

With hindsight, the greatest weakness of Plan 17 was that it was based on a giant miscalculation.  French leaders had spent a decade trying and failing to get a British commitment to defending France if Germany attacked.  Joffre and most of his senior commanders refused to believe that Germany would force Britain off the fence by invading Belgium, and steadfastly ignored the possibility that Berlin might interpret Britain’s deeply opaque diplomatic fudging as licence to get away with just that.

Plan 17 did allow for a turn north to protect Belgium and Luxembourg, but this was an afterthought and treated as such, so that even an ominous build-up of German forces around the Belgian frontier in the summer of 1914 was interpreted as good news because it weakened defences in Alsace and Lorraine.  With or without hindsight, the fact that well-trained German reserve forces could be brought up to plug any gaps in Alsace and Lorraine might have worried French commanders, but they weren’t the first or last powerful men to see the world as they wanted it to be.

After a delay to be sure the British saw France as victim rather than aggressor, Plan 17 swept into action with a preliminary attack into Alsace on 7 August, its planners confident that an invasion carried out with sufficient élan (by which they meant attack-minded verve and flair) would carry all before it.

It didn’t.  German forces withdrew from Alsace to await reinforcements, and although France erupted with joy as the major town of Mulhouse was ‘liberated’ without a fight (and with most of its German-speaking citizens notably absent), a German counter-attack arrived two days later and drove the French slowly back.  A change of commander and belated reinforcement did enable the French to regain Mulhouse later in the month, but by that time part two of Plan 17, a full-scale attack into Lorraine, had run into serious trouble.

It was the kind of trouble soon to become familiar on the Western Front.  Two French armies advanced into Lorraine from the north on 14 August and attacked the towns of Sarrebourg and Morhange, coming up against the German Sixth Army, a largely Bavarian force deployed along a line protecting the towns.  French infantry charges were easy meat for entrenched troops armed with machine guns and artillery, and attack-minded French forces had no trenches of their own in place when German commander Crown Prince Rupprecht (the heir to the Bavarian throne) launched a counterattack on 20 August.

Within two days French forces had been driven back to a line of fortified bases on high ground east of Nancy.  Two days after that, on 24 August, the invasion of Germany was officially called off, by which time French, British and Belgian forces were manifestly on the defensive all along the northwestern frontiers of France.  On the same day Rupprecht, having persuaded his High Command to divert strength from the drive on Paris further north, launched a major offensive against the French line, only for roles to be reversed as three days of German assaults failed against well-prepared trenches.  The sector then subsided into armed stalemate for most of the next four years.

Heritage has pretty much forgotten about the French invasion of 1914, and that means its inadvertent contribution to the defeat of Germany’s invasion is also left out of the story.  If the French attack on Lorraine hadn’t failed badly enough to give Prince Rupprecht visions of glory and massive reinforcement to carry them out, the German thrust further north towards Paris would have been considerably, perhaps decisively stronger.  That’s history for you – everything connected up in ways heritage, with its perceived need for simple straight lines, finds inconvenient.