Holding the line: France in WW1

Peter Hart argues that France’s contribution to the early months of the First World War has too often been underestimated... This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine


Supreme commander Ferdinand Foch led the Allies to victory in 1918. (Getty) 
In recent times the French have been jocularly summed up by some as ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’. Amusing perhaps, but this is a travesty given the murderous fighting they endured during the battle of the Frontiers in August 1914 when Germany and France met head-on in a clash that sought to determine the future of Europe at the start of the First World War.
Germany, facing war on two fronts against France and Russia, had resolved to attack France first. Under the Schlieffen Plan they would hold firm along the Franco-German frontier, while sweeping a huge force through neutral Belgium to outflank the French army, only then looking east to deal with the Russians. It was essential for the Germans to get a quick result because they would be hopelessly outnumbered if the French and Russians could mobilise fully.
Poor diplomacy and the invasion of Belgium meant that the British empire had also entered the war on 4 August 1914. This did not greatly concern the German generals – in a clash between armies of millions, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 250,000 seemed of small importance.
Our perspective of 1914 is centred on the performance of the BEF on the far left of the French armies. Soon after moving into position, they became aware of the onrushing German advance through Belgium. Contact was made at the battle of Mons on 23 August and the legend persists of the ‘Tommies’ shooting down the Germans in their hordes.
“They went down like ninepins until all we could see in front of us was a regular wall of dead and wounded. Above the noise of rifle fire, you could hear a strange wailing sound and they turned and ran for the cover of the fir trees.” Private Tom Bradley, 4th Middlesex Regiment
In this version of history, the BEF only retreated because the French ‘gave way’ to their right and forced them to conform. The reality is very different – the British were outfought by the Germans at Mons. And this was a very minor part in a series of huge battles.
Under Plan XVII, the French army commanded by General Joseph Joffre had thrust across the German border into Alsace-Lorraine, believing that the Germans could not be strong everywhere. They were wrong. The Germans allowed the French to advance before striking back hard. The French infantrymen in their bright red and blue uniforms were led by officers confident in the spirit of the offensive. A future French leader summed the situation up.
“Suddenly the enemy’s fire became precise and concentrated. Second by second the hail of bullets and the thunder of the shells grew stronger. Those who survived lay flat on the ground, amid the screaming wounded and the humble corpses. In an instant it had become clear that not all the courage in the world could withstand this fire.” Lieutenant Charles De Gaulle, 33rd Régiment d’Infanterie

The arts of war

The Germans proved tactically astute, better equipped and well-drilled in the arts of war. The French fought hard, but they were overwhelmed.
“Little Bergeyre sprang up, shouted, ‘Vive la France!’ at the top of his voice and fell dead. Among the men lying on the ground one could no longer distinguish the living from the dead. Heart-rending cries, agonising appeals and horrible groans were intermingled with the sinister howling of projectiles. Furious contortions told of strong youthful bodies refusing to give up life. One man was trying to replace his bloody dangling hand to his shattered wrist. Another ran from the line holding the bowels falling out of his belly and through his tattered clothes. Before long a bullet struck him down.” Captain Alphonse Grasset, 103rd Régiment d’Infanterie
The tragic outcome was evident for all to see. French casualties during these failed offensives were excruciating: more than 200,000 – of whom over 75,000 were dead. The British have  rightly bemoaned the 20,000 dead suffered on the Somme on 1 July 1916. But on 22 August 1914, the French army lost a staggering 27,000 dead. The battlefields were places of horror.
“We wounded, are left without care, dying of thirst. What an awful night! Nothing but more shooting, every sound made triggered a resumption of fire. Machine guns swept the ground, bullets flying over my head. Thirst tortures me more. As I suffer, I think about my parents, especially my mother, remembering when I was sick and very young. It wasn’t only me thinking of my mother, for I could hear the wounded and dying calling out for their ‘Maman’”. Private Désireé Renault, 3/77th Régiment d’Infanterie
But the French in 1914 were not ‘surrender monkeys’. Joffre took stock and reacted speedily. Conscious at last of the threat to his left wing from the Germans pouring through Belgium, he sent French troops north, forming a new army to threaten the German flank as they turned east of Paris. As the crisis loomed, Joffre had a meeting with Field Marshal Sir John French, commanding the BEF.
“‘My orders are given, and, whatever may happen, I intend to throw my last company into the balance to win a victory and save France. It is in her name that I come to you to ask for British assistance, and I urge it with all the power I have in me. I cannot believe that the British Army will refuse to do its share in this supreme crisis – history would severely judge your absence.’ Then, as I finished, carried away by my convictions and the gravity of the moment, I remember bringing down my fist on a table which stood at my elbow, and crying, ‘Monsieur le Marshal, the honour of England is at stake!’” General Joseph Joffre, GHQ, French army
Sir John French could not resist and in the end the BEF advanced into a gap between the German armies during the battle of the Marne, which began on 6 September 1914. Hammered by the resurgent French, the German right wing crumbled and fell back to dig in along the river Aisne.
Trench warfare began and the whole character of the war changed. One thing was clear – the German plans had failed. There would be no quick end to the war and the French had bought vital time for the Russians and British to mobilise their resources.

France at war

France endured terrible hardships in the First World War. By 11 November 1918 some 1. 4 million Frenchmen had been killed and over four million wounded. Great swathes of the country had suffered occupation by the Germans and the devastation of war. The French Army had stood up to the brunt of the German assault in 1914. In 1915 they launched numerous offensives against the German lines on the western front. 
In 1916, the French faced the ultimate German challenge in the long horror of the battle of Verdun. Still the French fought on, playing a significant part in the battle of the Somme, before the failure of the Nivelle offensive in April 1917 triggered widespread mutinies. Even this did not mark the end and they recovered to help prop up the British line during the German offensives of spring 1918. During the final advance to victory they were crucial to the Allied successes – and in General Ferdinand Foch they provided the supreme commander. 
Without a knowledge of what the French were doing – and suffering – the British role on the western front is incomprehensible. The two armies were linked by a common front, a common enemy and had the same terrible challenges to overcome. 

Peter Hart is the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum. He is the author of The Great War, published by Profile in March 2013.