The other day I was consuming some Twitter and read a tweet by Dan Snow, a historian who hosts on the BBC. It was the 100th anniversary of the Germans first aerial bombing of Paris during WW1 – five small bombs and some “Surrender!” leaflets. All the responses were some variant on “Hur-hur-hurrr, cowardly Frenchmen surrender!” This kind of sneering has become more common since the French took a pass on joining the invasion of Iraq.
Even the most minimal survey of military history will show that French soldiers have maintained, and suffered from, an excess of valor. The fatal flaw of the French military has been incompetence among the generals.
Writers as far back as Aristotle have commented on the excessive bravery of the Gauls. The Roman historian Polybius considered them braver soldiers than the Romans.
At the battle of Agincourt in 1415 mounted French knights charged into a hail of English arrows and perished by the hundreds. After witnessing this, thousands more French knights on foot immediately pressed another attack and were slaughtered as well. It was a case of pride leading to tactical incompetence, but the French had no lack of bravery.
During the Napoleonic wars at the turn of the 19th century French troops often advanced in column, that is, a mass of men perhaps 40 files wide. The 40 men in the front line, along with the two or three lines behind them, bore the brunt of enemy fire and had a low chance of survival. And yet they did bear it, and carried Napoleon almost as far as Moscow.
In the First World War the French command had a theory of the “offensive à outrance” or the “attaque à outrance,” which translates roughly as “attack to excess.” The French military operated by a handbook written by a misguided student of General Foch, which advocated constant massive attacks. The gallant French soldiers charged to their deaths again and again. Charles de Gaulle later wrote about the first French assault into Alsace:
“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. With affected calm, the officers let themselves be killed standing upright, some obstinate platoons stuck their bayonets in their rifles, bugles sounded the charge, isolated heroes made fantastic leaps, but all to no purpose. In an instant it had become clear that not all the courage in the world could withstand this fire.”
The story of the French 137th Regiment and the so-called Tranchée des Baionnettes (Bayonet Trench) is illustrative. During the fighting around Verdun in 1916, the 137th was surrounded and partially obliterated by German artillery. Quoting Alistair Horne from his book, The Price of Glory:
“It was not until after the war that French teams exploring the battlefield provided a clue as to the fate of 3 Company. The trench it had occupied was discovered completely filled in, but from a part of it at regular intervals protruded rifles, with bayonets still fixed to their twisted and rusty muzzles. On excavation, a corpse was found beneath each rifle. From that plus the testimony of survivors from nearby units, it was deduced that 3 Company had placed its rifles on the parapet ready to repel any attack and — rather than abandon their trench — had been buried alive to a man there by the German bombardment."
“Cheese eating surrender monkeys,” indeed.
Of course, what garners the most abuse for the French is their (temporary) defeat by the Nazis at the beginning of World War 2. Again, it was a case of bad strategy.
During the 1930s the French had committed much of their military budget to the static defenses of the Maginot Line along their border with Germany. Some members of the French general staff had advised against static defense, emphasizing tanks and air power. They were overruled by General Petain and other veterans of the failed attempts at dynamic warfare 25 years earlier.
The Wehrmacht did an end run around the strongest parts of the Maginot Line and the Luftwaffe flew over it. Still, French troops engaged in the tenacious defense of the strong points, some units fighting to the last man. The French were defeated in weeks, not due to any lack of courage, but adherence to outdated ideas.
The French weren’t even unique in their strategic errors. “The generals are always fighting the previous war” has been true for many nations in many conflicts. Considering that the most recent surge in anti-Gallic slander was prompted by their refusal to join in our invasion of Iraq, perhaps their strategic drought is over. So, I say, enough. Let’s stop this libel against the French.