On November 6, 1915, Sarah Bernhardt performed a dramatic poem by Eugène Morand, Les Cathédrales, at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris. Even the “Divine Sarah,” then seventy-one years old and still the greatest actress of the French stage after a career spanning more than fifty years, had seldom taken to the stage under more remarkable circumstances. It was her first performance in Paris after her return from the Bordeaux region, where she had fled as the Germans approached Paris in August 1914. Bernhardt herself was no stranger to war. She had opened a hospital for the wounded at the Odéon theatre in Paris during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–1. According to legend, she left Paris in 1914 only after her friend and future wartime premier Georges Clemenceau told her she was on a list of hostages to be taken by the Germans if they captured the city. Moreover, the aging star was herself recuperating from major surgery – the amputation of her leg, which had finally become gangrenous after years of mistreatment of an old injury.
In itself, Les Cathédrales is a work remote in form and content from today's aesthetic sensibilities. It recounted the dream of a young and courageous French soldier who has grabbed a few moments of sleep near the front, in the department of the Nord, invaded by the Germans.
The victory of the Marne and the “race to the sea” left France triumphant, but gravely weakened. In stark contrast to 1870, the armies of the Republic had thrown back the invader in the greatest feat of French arms since Napoleon. But all or in part, the departments of the Nord, the Pas-de-Calais, the Somme, the Aisne, the Ardennes, the Marne, the Meuse, and the Meurthe et Moselle, had fallen into enemy hands, and with them hundreds of thousands of French citizens. France had lost some of its most productive agricultural lands and its second most industrialized region. The occupied territories set the stage for the “totalization” of the war. For those living under German rule, deportations, forced labor, and martial law quickly blurred the line between soldiers and civilians. Northeastern France and Belgium became virtual German colonies, governed by repressive regimes directed toward economic extraction rather than production. In the rest of France, expelling the invaders and making the nation whole came to justify unprecedented and open-ended national mobilization. As the war totalized, the French confronted the shift from “the imaginary war,” dreamed of and feared before August 1914, to the real war, here and now. They had to face up to an extended confrontation and to the immense war effort that it engendered.
As France celebrated its triumph and continued to mourn its sacrifice in the victory parade of 1919 and the burial of the Unknown Soldier in 1920, it appeared as though the nation and the Third Republic had not only survived its supreme test, but had emerged from it stronger than ever. Alsace and Lorraine had again become wholly French. Through much of the interwar period, France had the most feared army in Europe. At least in terms of shaded areas on a map, the French Empire attained its zenith between the wars, through territories acquired with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the distribution of the German colonies in Africa and the Pacific. The German enemy lay disarmed and paying reparations to the victors.
Yet the limits of the bitter peace made at Versailles became clear within a few years. With the United States pointedly abstaining from postwar security arrangements in Europe, with Britain again holding affairs on the continent at arm's length, with the Soviet Union banned from the family of nations, and with Eastern Europe weak, embittered, and troubled, victorious France faced the future created at Versailles remarkably alone. The peace came to rest on a bluff – that Germany would accept defeat, disarmament, and reparations indefinitely, without an effective enforcement mechanism on the part of the Allies. The Versailles treaty had sought to delegitimize the enemy, as the party solely responsible for the war.
The last year of the Great War proved the most paradoxical, and remains even today the year least understood by historians. Germany finalized its victory over Russia in March 1918, by concluding a harsh peace with the Bolshevik successors to the tsar's regime with the Treaty of Brest Litovsk. That same month, the Germans began a drive for total victory along the Western Front that again brought them within a two-day march of Paris. Yet at no time in the war would success prove so deceptive, or so perilous. By November, the Germans had to request an armistice, and it seemed as though the Allies had won. But to the end, the Great War remained a war of attrition. To the end, attrition weakened both sides. The Allies, and particularly France, had good reasons to stop the war when they did. No one could be sure just how long support for the war would hold up anywhere, and leaders through Europe feared that the communist revolution preached by the new regime in Russia might overwhelm them all. As hard as the French tried to make it look like one, the Armistice signed in November 1918 was not quite a German surrender. The German army returned home in good order, greeted by an explanation of what had happened that would come to haunt all of Europe – that the German army had not been defeated, but had been “stabbed in the back” on the home front, by socialists and by Jews.
The stalemate produced by the battles of August and September 1914 transformed the character of warfare in Europe, for generals as much as for common soldiers. Throughout the nineteenth century, military theory had rested on the assumption of decisive battle. Battle had been conceived as having a definite beginning and end. Most importantly, it had long been held that battle produced clear winners and losers. Certainly, the war plans of 1914 rested on the assumption of battles that would prove nasty and brutish, but also decisive and short. But as the war on the Western Front descended into the trench system, the very meanings of “battle” and “the front” changed. Pitched battle in its conventional sense proved relatively rare in the conflict of 1914–18, mostly because of its horrendous cost in men and materiel when it did occur. But in the trenches, a grinding and inherently indecisive form of “combat” was supposed to be constant. The spatial configuration of warfare changed radically as well. Millions of men fought for four years along hundreds of kilometers of trenches, a far longer front than had ever existed in European military history.
On November 20, 1917, George Clemenceau gave the customary speech of investiture in the Chamber of Deputies preceding the vote of confidence in his newly formed government. Never in more than three years of war had the prospects for victory seemed so dim. In March, the tsar's regime had fallen in Russia, inaugurating what would become Russia's year-long collapse into revolution and defeat by Germany. In April, the French would launch the last of their major “over-the-top” offensives against entrenched German positions this time along the Chemin des Dames. Following the dissipation of this offensive would come the most serious mutiny among troops on the Western Front. Also in the grim spring of 1917, strikes simmering since the winter came to a boil, some of them in key armaments factories. The autumn brought still more bad news – the slaughter of British and Dominion troops to no effect at Passchendaele, the defeat of the Italians at Caporetto in October, and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in November. Increasingly, signs of disunion appeared within French politics. Socialist Albert Thomas had resigned as minister of armaments in September 1917, thereby ending Socialist participation in wartime governments. The Left in France became more and more divided as to how and whether to go on.
In The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856), Alexis de Tocqueville described the French as a people “talented enough at anything, but who excel only at war. They adore chance, force, success, flash and noise, more than true glory. More capable of heroism than virtue, of genius more than good sense, they are suited more to conceiving immense plans than to completing great enterprises.” Up to a point, Tocqueville knew his compatriots well. Over the course of the nineteenth century, France had gone to war many times and, in general, had fared poorly at it. The French had mainly themselves to blame. The century began in a blaze of Napoleonic glory, followed by complete national defeat in 1815. Not that this prevented the French from erecting to Napoleon their greatest military monument, the Arc du Triomphe, an unusual tribute to a defeated commander. Some victories came at mid-century, against the Russians in the Crimean War of 1853–6, and against the Habsburg Monarchy in Italy in 1859. Yet these were classic nineteenth-century “limited” wars, in which France ventured and gained relatively little. But the “immense plan” of Emperor Napoleon III (allegedly the illegitimate nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) to install his protégé, Archduke Maximilian (the brother of Habsburg Emperor Francis Joseph), as emperor of Mexico in 1861 ended in utter failure. France had nothing to show for it but the famous 1867 painting by Édouard Manet of Maximilian's execution by Mexican patriots.
This book is a work of synthesis rather than original research, in which we tell the story of France and the French in the Great War in the context of a huge and mostly new historiographical literature. The elements of “conventional” history are all here – diplomacy, strategy, battles, and the “high politics” of the National Assembly and prime ministers. But we focus more on the society and culture of the French at war. What, throughout the book, we call “war culture” refers to a broad-based system of representations through which the French made sense of the war, and persuaded themselves to continue fighting it. Much of this book recounts the social and cultural history of a national community that mobilized, remobilized, suffered, mourned its sacrifices, and in the end “won,” or at least failed to lose the most terrible war in its long history. We argue that traces of the Great War are still visible in France today. We note aspects of the war still not well understood by historians, and thus in a general way point to directions for future research.
In keeping with the practice of the New Approaches to European History series, we have kept footnotes to a minimum. We include a comprehensive bibliography of works in French and in English. Most of our footnotes are there to avoid disruption of the main body of the text.
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