Book Review: March to the Marne by Douglas Porch
March to the Marne by Douglas Porch is a military history work, but it is first and foremost a history of the French army's relation to French society and the society's relationship to its army. It is decades old by now, having been published in 1981, but is still a critical book for examining the French military and its preparations leading up to the First World War, and the place of the army in the French nation. It contains a great wealth of information, both in political affairs - including liberal use of quotations from French political and military figures and French newspapers of the time (although it would be nice if there were the original quotes provided in French somewhere, since naturally any translation can only capture part of what they were saying) - which shows a vast amount of research which went into the book. It goes beyond simply a small story of petty details of the movement of troops and succession of commanders, to provide for a book with sweeping and insightful conclusions about the French military, focusing upon its bureaucratic struggles. Sometimes it is exaggerated, and sometimes partisan, but it provides a great wealth of information about the French army throughout the decades.
While the book doesn't provide the army's response to individual events, such as war scares - the Schnaebelé incident for example, or the individual responses in 1905 or 1911 in response to the Morocco crises, this after all, isn't really the point of the book. It aims to cover the French army's involvement in army-state relations, and it does this well in my opinion. It also doesn't ignore the French colonial army, which is valuable : indeed, the relation of the French colonial army to the fatherland is valuable and well discussed, and it does away with clichés such as the overseas army not being involved in politics to instead present that it was intimately involved in internal French disputes, using them for its own advantage in its missions. Like throughout the book, the detail on the social origins and thoughts of French officers is brilliant : the author provides what percentages came from the aristocracy and the "popular" classes, their reasons for coming, even their academic scores, and helps chart out the army's evolution well. This is done for the continental army as well, and this hard quantitative information is utilized well for making his points about the nature of the French army, such as it being a bourgeois, non-aristocratic army which wasn't "contaminated" by religious views of the Jesuits like its opponents claimed. Technical details about the development of artillery are well done, training standards and officers are discussed at length, and it provides what must have been a refreshing alternative at the time to the idea of a combat between the nation in arm's with its defensive school, and the professional army with its offensive thought, by focusing on torpid bureaucratic politics and high command disfunctionality,
Concerning the book's flaws however, I find the portrayal of the French Radicals (a French political party - more of a movement, a "frame of mind" as noted by the author) and their relationship to the army during and after the Dreyfus affair rather flat and one-sided. The author portrays the French Radicals as being opposed to an imaginary reactionary-theocratic control over the army exercised by a cabal of aristocratic and Jesuit-trained officers, but goes to great length to show that this did not really exist, and that if there were divisions in the army, they were social ones between the French High Command and the rest of the army. However, the book does not provide much detail and analysis of the Radicals and their policy in doing so, nor the attempts of their counterparts to respond to these charges. On page 73, the claim is made that "The ancien régime no longer existed, so they had to invent it: the Church and the army provided fodder for their political guillotine." Little is done to explain the sentiments behind this and why it had such a resonance with the nation as a whole that it enabled the Radicals to gain such power to carry out their (as the author claims) muddled program. The Radicals are portrayed in excruciatingly harsh and biased terms, and while this doesn't inherently reduce his argument (after all, perhaps they deserved such critique), the lack of additional detail to back it up leaves one uneasy and unable to shake the feeling that this is a vendetta instead of a historical work. Surely there was something more at stake in the Dreyfus affair than simply another sordid attempt to get votes, and even if there was, why did it achieve such important political capital for the French Radicals? While just one section of the book, the Radical interference with the military is a vital part of the author's thesis, and the lack a less one-sided and more detailed description of this conflict provides a sense of alienation and isolation in relation to understanding the military affairs occasioned by the Radicals in a shape more than simply their narrative. Overall, despite occasional flashes of brilliance, the relationship of the state to its army, as compared to the relationship of the army to its state, is something which I feel is ill covered after 1900.
Of course, it may have been the expectation of the author that naturally anyone reading this would be intimately familiar with the political program and ideals of the Radicals, which to an extent I personally am, although I have only an amateur's understanding of this era. But the author's lack of significant information to provide a balanced view of his charges means that instead of being a self-supported thesis, his work comes off as flat, one-sided, and although ambitious, leaving many crucial elements in the dark in this pivotal struggle. So too, the book fails to incorporate much in the way of international thinking into its analysis of the French army, beyond the pro forma notes of French influence by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War and increasing German artillery strength leading up to WW1 leading to (late and muddled) French reactions in response. By positioning itself purely into French domestic politics, a valuable additional area of analysis would be available.
March to the Marne is a good book, but not a great book. It should be properly situated in its time, when it led an innovative thesis against a binary of the Radical-led nation in arms and a conservative professional army, proposing instead a story of bureaucratic and political maneuverings, with an army that was less a product of striking grand battles of ideas and more of a sordid tale of bureaucracy and petty political squabbles. It fails however, in backing this up to the necessary extent and providing a complex view of the political struggles in French society upon which hinge the author's thesis.
© 2017 Ryan Thomas