France in WW1

France in WW1

Most histories concentrate on the experience of those nations supporting France in WW1. Little is said of the ordeal of those in France and Belgium whose armies struggled against a Germany that had already overrun large swathes of their countries. The French had good cause to distrust the new Germany, having lost the provinces of Alsace and Lorrain to Prussia on the Franco Prussian war of 1870/71.

France in 1914 had a population of just under 40 million and an army with a mobilised strength of 1.1m. By the end of the war France had mobilised 8.6m men and lost 1.39m dead and 4.25m wounded, almost 100% more dead and 150% more wounded than comparative figures for Great Britain, with a population of 45m.

The enormous sacrifices made stopping the Germans on the Marne, the appalling losses defending Verdun between Feb 21st and Dec 18th 1916, and the failed Nivelle offensive on the Chemin des Dames ridge in April 1917, are France’s equivilents of the British experience of Loos in 1915, the Somme in 1916 and Passchendaele in 1917.

A French Schneider medium tank. Relatively unsophisticated
it was known to it’s crews as “the mobile crematorium”

The partial collapse of the French army in 1917 is hardly surprising and it is only when the trials the French were undergoing at the time are considered that Haig’s prolonging of both the Somme offensive and the 3rd Battle of Ypres can be properly understood as successful efforts to reduce pressure on the French.

Despite their dreadful losses the French prosecuted the war tenaciously until the Germans were finally defeated, although in the scale of their sacrifice were sown the seeds of French capitulation in the early part of WW2. Can one really criticise the French government of Marchal Petain for trying to avoid a second decimation on their own soil at the hands of the German army in 1940?

French flamethrower teams supporting the AEF attack at Cantigny – Mar 1918

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