Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War Review

Updated on September 8, 2018

It has been a very long time indeed since the First World War, which, as of September 2018, is approaching not just the 100th year anniversary of its start, but the 100th year anniversary of its end. Despite the increasing gulf of time which separates us from its bloodshed, in many ways the world we live in is still yet to escape from the shadow of the Great War: European borders have been largely defined by it, Western civilization has been both shaken to the core in its sense of self and worth, but also deeply modified in its geographic composition, and the roots of the modern post-imperial world hesitantly laid by it. If the Second World War attires more interest in movie and fiction, it is the First which created it, and which without doubt is the event which truly inauguratrice the short and vicious 20th century.

But one might note, in this entire list of effects from above, one thing which is not mentioned at all is the conflict itself, the war which has itself become less important in scholarship compared to the political, and above all else social, ramifications. While it might seem that the history of the military aspects of the conflict has been more than written by now, there are still always things to learn - especially when one traverses linguistic barriers. This problem has meant that Anglo-American scholars writing the history of the war have typically looked at their own archives and sources, which has tended to result in a skewed view of the war, one which has both complimented the British often, and always placed them as the center of the war, its unfolding being from the British perspective.

This is where Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War, by the respected military historian and specialist in French military history, Robert A. Doughty, emerges. It instead aims to cover what French strategy was during the war, and how the French military undertook its activities to attempt to fight it. In doing so it helps to enable one to much better understand France's military effort during the Great War, and to see it from the French perspective. A lengthy book, it contains an excellent level of detail about tactical operations, a comprehensive and thorough presentation of strategic conflicts, changes, and and a poignant touch in discussing the effects of the conflict on France.

Chapters

The Introduction lays out that the French took heavy casualties in the First World War, which has led to a dismissive view of their strategic and operational operations. Doughty claims that conversely the French had constantly been innovative and stuck to a common strategy of a multi-front war, and that their losses were due to the struggles of the conflict rather than stupidity or a hunt for glory.

Joseph Joffre, who did much to change the French army before the war, probably for the worse, but also had the needed resolve to keep it fighting in dark circumstances.
Joseph Joffre, who did much to change the French army before the war, probably for the worse, but also had the needed resolve to keep it fighting in dark circumstances.

Chapter 1, “The Transformation of the French Army”, covers the developments which occurred in the French army between 1871 and 1914, as the French formed a high command (although one with organizational problems due to the need to prevent an excessively powerful commander), led at the outbreak of the war by Joseph Joffre, drew up war plans, alternated in doctrine, and formed heavy artillery forces - although markedly inferior to the German ones. The French army had undergone a metamorphosis which would enable it to survive 1914, but which still left it cruelly unprepared for the long years of war to follow.

Chapter 2, “The War of Movement: 1914” concerns the initial Battle of the Frontiers, the Battle of the Marne, and the Race to the Sea. The French plan to attack in the Battle of the Frontiers aimed to strike at the vulnerable German center, but the Germans had more troops available than they expected, and the French offensives in the Lorraine, Luxembourg, and Belgium all failed. However, they did go on to win the Battle of the Marne, holding together under bad conditions. Both sides continued to contest victory, but ultimately after the advance to the Aisne river by the French the lines largely stabilized.

The infamous trenches of the Western Front.
The infamous trenches of the Western Front.

Chapter 3, “Siege Warfare, 1914-1915” details how the static warfare which happened at this point proceeded, as the French continued to press forwards constant attacks energetically, but with the problem of getting equipment adapted to these conditions. Industrial mobilization would take time to produce new material, and in the meantime the regular French field gun, the 75 mm, was ill adapted to trench warfare, and it took time to train artillery tactics for the new conditions. The French offensives failed, and generalissimo Joffre came under increasing criticism.

The 1915 offensives.
The 1915 offensives.

Chapter 4, “An Offensive Strategy: May-October 1915” relates how the French continued their strategy of launching offensives to attempt to keep up pressure on the Germans from all fronts, and to spare Russia the burden of the entirety of Central Powers attention. Casualties were once again, intense, despite steadily increasing amounts of heavy artillery. And once again, the offensives failed to breach the German lines, at most gaining a few kilometers.

The Salonika front, which came after the failure of Gallipoli, attempted to reinforce the Serbians, to little avail.
The Salonika front, which came after the failure of Gallipoli, attempted to reinforce the Serbians, to little avail. | Source

Chapter 5, “The Search for Strategic Alternatives: 1915-1916” sees the French trying to find a way to escape the bloody stalemate of the Western Front, either in the Balkans in trying to support Serbia, or in fighting against the Ottomans at Gallipoli to take Istanbul. When Bulgaria joined the Central Powers, this operation ceased in failure, and effort instead went to trying to support Serbia, which was insufficient to keep them in the war but did provide for a base of operations at Salonika in Greece. Joffrey continued to be opposed to diversion of excessive forces there which would detract from the Western front operations, but it was necessary for diplomatic reasons and to show solidarity with the Russians. However, he was more favorable towards offensives there than the British, who by this time decided to focus their activity on the Western Front. The Allies did their best to assist Romania when it entered the war, but failed and it collapsed, and after that point the Balkans lost its importance.

Part of the lengthy and bloody battle of Verdun
Part of the lengthy and bloody battle of Verdun

With the failure of alternatives the focus once more returns to the Western front in Chapter 6, “A Strategy of Attrition: 1916”, where the French sought through improved tactics and material equipment to launch a methodical battle which would inflict greater casualties upon the Germans, leading to their collapse - in effect abandoning their earlier attempts at breakthroughs. The Germans aimed to do much the same at Verdun, but Joffre failed to recognize their intentions until it was too late. The French fought grimly at Verdun, but were near the breaking point by summer, requiring a Franco-British offensive at the Somme to relieve pressure. French operations there went relatively well but cooperation with the Briish was always unsatisfactory. There were hopes that 1916 might topple the Central Powers as offensives hit them on all sides, but the Austrians survived and Romania was knocked out of the war: although the French ultimately won at Verdun and they did not lose hope in ultimate victory, the high commander Joffre lost at last political support.

Chapter 7, “A Strategy of Decisive Battle: Early 1917”, shows a continuation of strategies from the prior year, aiming to crush the Central Powers with united actions on many fronts. Joffre however, was de-facto dismissed by being assigned differing responsibilities that removed him from military command. Nivelle became the new French commander-in-chief, an experienced and successful artilleryman who had been successful in the Battle of Verdun, but without Joffre’s prestige and influence, limited command experience at the army level, and without any strategic experience. The “Nivelle Offensive” against the Chemin-de-Dames, aiming to win the war in the West with a decisive breakthrough, failed to achieve its hope for success, crushing morale and leading to the appointment of general Philippine Pétain as chief of staff.

A mutineer executed
A mutineer executed

After the failure of the Nivelle Offensive, Chapter 8, “A Strategy of ‘Healing’ and Defense: Late 1917” the French went about restoring morale in the armies which had suffered from major mutinies. Pétain improved conditions and reinspired confidence, but most importantly he cased major offensives, opting purely for limited and carefully prepared attacks which proved mostly successful, achieving much more objectives at lower casualties. Strategically the situation became worse, for although the Americans entered the war, Russia left it, and Italy suffered decisive defeat. The challenges did lead the French and British to coordinate their activities more, although they continued to disagree, the British now complaining of French inactivity in an amusing contrast to the early war French complaints of British.

The moment of decisive decision of the war happens in Chapter 9, “Responding to a German Offensive: Spring 1918”, when the German Spring Offensive aimed to knock the allies out of the war through victory on the Western Front. There were extensive discussions between the French and British about how to achieve cooperation for their forces, and for how the Americans. When the German attack actually came, it had dangerous successes at multiple points on the front, prompting Foch to be elevated to Allied commander, but also leading to tensions between Pétain, commander of French forces, and Foch, the general Allied commander.

The Hundreds Day Offensive which knocked the Germans out of the war.
The Hundreds Day Offensive which knocked the Germans out of the war.

Chapter 10, a “Strategy of Opportunism” relates how Foch took advantage of the increasing strength of the Allies and the declining position of Germany to launch relentless attacks along the Western Front, while simultaneously at last the multi-front strategy paid off with victories along the Italian, Balkan, and Ottoman fronts. The German army did not collapse, despite initial bleakness, but it was evidently defeated, and revolution broke out in Germany. The war was won.

With the end of the war, Chapter 11, “Conclusion: The ‘Misery’ of Victory”, tells the woeful tale of the immense cost that the French had paid for victory, the tremendous determination and fortitude that had been displayed during the war, and how it shaped the French army and nation, for better or worse, for a future conflict. Victory in 1918 did not mean defeat in 1940, but the cost that the French had paid for victory would forever haunt them.

Review

Doughty’s book is without doubt one of the most useful, well researched, and important books for understanding how the French military fought the First World War at the strategic and operational level. Since, as noted, this subject has been very much influenced by Anglophone histories which have been biased against France due to relying upon British records, language problems, and lack of archival material, Pyrrhic victory corrects this splendidly with its lengthy amount of archival research, showing the war in detail over its four years as well as the state in which it had existed in 1914, and the transformations which had shaped it before the year. The various operations which the French conducted are described in depth, principally at the operational level of course rather than the tactical level, but still sufficiently to provide an excellent view of the war and how it was fought. Reading the dates and the length of time which operations fought can lead one to a feeling of horror, realizing how slow, creeping, and futile so much of the fighting was, which is brought to its pinnacle with the rare tactical description of the nightmare of Verdun.In addition there are excellent maps and sketches to illuminate the work. While more are always welcome, the significant number does help to understand the operations.

The book makes an excellent case for French strategy being in no way haphazard, incompetent, or thoughtless, but instead a logical, and perhaps inevitable, response to the challenges of waging a multi-front war, and one which the French consistently stuck to for years - the idea that by exerting pressure on multiple fronts they could force the Central Powers to cave. Similarly, French operational thought evolved constantly, ranging from mobile warfare, to siege warfare, to attrition warfare, to decisive battle, then to careful husbanding of forces and methodical attack, and the book explains in a comprehensible and detailed way.

This also serves as an important way to balance the image of French generals during the period, who are shown as not being simple incompetent butchers, but rather soldiers who were adapting to unprecedented conditions and trying to match a steep learning curve in unfavorable conditions. They made mistakes, disastrous ones along the way, and they were anything but perfect, but they were far from the hackneyed caricature portrayed of them.

At the same time, it clearly shows the limitations of the French army, its problems, defeats, and the terrible price that it paid. If it is to be compared to a eulogy of the French army, it is definitely one which ranges itself in the sense of a tribute to the dead. At the same time that it demonstrates that during the last year of the war the French army continued to perform its operations and fight, throwing everything into the desperate struggle of the German Spring Offensives, it simultaneously acknowledges the deep exhaustion and fatigue that had seized French forces by the time of the Armistice, after years of constant bloodletting and fighting. This balanced picture is important for both respecting the sacrifices made, and understanding that they had limits.

There are times when one might have wished for more details. For example Chapter 4 covers the failure of French offensives in 1915, when despite more methodical approaches and constantly increasing amounts of French artillery, French offensives still failed with heavy casualties. The book doesn’t explain why, and while it is after all, a strategic and operational history rather than a tactical history, and the tactical aspects are doubtless well covered elsewhere, a small section detailing the reasons would have been useful without adding extra length of any note to the book. Notably, later chapters, such as that on Verdun (chapter 6), cover in much more detail the tactical considerations. Furthermore, while the book notes that the British were opposed to the Balkans strategy that the French preferred along the Salonika front, that they found the strategy of attacks on all fronts a waste, and yet simultaneously the French were dissatisfied about their role on the Eastern Front, it doesn’t note exactly what they proposed instead…. a concentration of all assets against the Ottoman Empire? Over time it does provide a varying level of detail for the allies’ strategies, but it is an unfortunate omission. The same can be said about the Germans, who are entirely absent in their thinking. Of course, this book is fundamentally about the French army, but the milieu in which it operated is critically important.

Similarly, there is some critical context which is missing in some sections. Yes, Foch might have been a competent and capable general who was important in enabling the final offensives, as compared to Pétain (also a very capable and competent general, and rightfully given credit for the survival of the French army during its darkest hours in 1917, but very pessimistic and cautious), but the Allies also enjoyed a potent advantage in material and men by 1918, the exhaustion of the French army asides. This is not mentioned as much as it should be in my opinion, placing victory principally upon Foch’s mantle rather than in terms of the advantages he enjoyed and admittedly, skillfully exploited.

There are also things which are ignored as part of the evolution of affairs in relation to strategy and operations. Intelligence and its functioning received limited attention, outside of some tactical intelligence and occasional information on pre-warnings of where enemy attacks would come, when there were notable French failures in this regard, particularly concerning casualties. While production receives constant reports, logistics and supplies do not. Meanwhile the very top branches of the French High Command receives plenty of attention, but its organization and operating outside of figures of the Chief of the General Staff and Generalissimos like Joffrey, Nivelle, Pétain, and Foch, does not receive nearly the same degree of attention, on how the High Command operated as a whole and its effectiveness.

Overall however, the book makes for a tremendously useful source and for anybody interested in French general strategy in the Great War, and for their operations in the broader scope on the Western Front, there are few better tomes. It is of course, a specialized book which focuses purely on the military side of affairs and attempts to be as clinical and matter-of-fact as possible (sometimes to excess: French commander Joffre comes off with insufficient critique in my opinion), not one just for pop history and so the prose can be dry at time albeit with a graceful conclusion, but it sets the strategy and operations of the French army into context, and is excellent for seeing the war from their view - one which makes one ponder to see the critiques that they raised against the British for example, when Anglo-American historiography has naturally been biased towards them. With a book which is already almost 600 pages in length, Doughty had obviously to make some concessions to space, which some of the limitations that I find for the novel would obviously have required much more page length to solve. For those interested in French military history, the First World War, strategy in the First World War, operational conduct in the First World War, and to some extent production and politics, the book is highly useful - useful not just to those interested in France, but also in a better balanced perspective of how the First World War was fought and shaped by and for the Allies.

4 stars for Pyrrhic Victory

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    © 2018 Ryan Thomas

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