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.

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