Ryan spent time in France as a teaching assistant. He has an interest in French history and warfare and likes to relay his knowledge.
The French Army in World War One
Few armies in the history of the world have undergone such a traumatic, bloody, and grueling experience as the French army of the First World War, whose desperate struggle on the Western Front of the conflict still evokes heart-wrenching images of soldiers charging through nightmarish lunar landscapes into machine guns, the horror of gas attacks, the constant, never-ending orchestra of shells that reduced men to mere targets in an inhuman, alien world.
And yet to some extent, the French army's struggle in the war is much less appreciated than the Anglo-American armies fighting on the Western Front: a comment which struck me was that the French view themselves as having fought on the Western front with the assistance of the British and Americans, while the British and Americans think of themselves having fought with the assistance of the French.
Relatively speaking, there are far fewer in the way of sources and documents available in English on the French army than there are on the Americans and British, despite the much larger contribution of France to the land war. But while there are fewer, that doesn't mean that the sources which do exist are lacking in quality: brilliant historians like Alistair Horne have left their imprint, and there are strong translations of works such as Goya's La Chair Et L'acier.
The French army was more than just the poor bloody poilus: it was a complex and technically advanced force that pioneered air warfare, tanks, and made tremendous strides in producing what by the end of the war had probably become the most powerful artillery force in the world.
All of these are features which must be discussed, as well as the heroic struggle of the army itself, and its turning points of the war: Marne which saved France, Verdun where the flower of France and Germany's youth perished on the hellish field of battle, the breaking of the army in the Nivelle Offensive, and the final, bitter, heroic stand of the Spring Offensive which crushed the last chance of Germany to win the war.
All of these books are English language sources, although some of them are translations of French ones. French scholarship still is the main driving force for the French army it seems, and so naturally English language sources tend to heavily rely either directly on French translations or, of course, on French primary sources. This article covers the following 10 significant books on the French Army during World War 1:
10. The French Army and the First World War by Elizabeth Greenhalgh
9. Marshal Joffre by Andre Bourachot
8. French Tanks of the Great War by Tim Gale
7. Flesh and Steel During the Great War by Michel Goya
6. Breaking Point of the French Army by David Murphy
5. Early Trench Warfare Tactics in the French Army by Jonathan Krause
4. The Marne by Georges Blond
3. Paths of Glory by Anthony Clayton
2. The Price of Glory by Alistair Horne
1. Pyrrhic Victory by Robert A. Dougty
#10 - The French Army and the First World War
Some books are excellent in and of themselves but have the unfortunate position of being overshadowed by other works. Elizabeth Greenhalgh's The French Army and the First World War is an excellent example of this, since it is a very thorough and well done military history of the French Army during the conflict, drawing on Greenhalgh's extensive research into coalition warfare by the WW1 allies, military leadership, and operations, but it is overshadowed as a general look at the army by Pyrrhic Victory. It is still worth the read, however, for Greenhalgh's diplomatic history side.
#9 - Marshal Joffre
Joseph Joffre, the commander in chief of the French Army at the start of the First World War and its leader during the first two years of the conflict, enjoys a mixed reputation. On one hand, the unflappable savior of France, who held firm at the Marne and directed French troops to victory, the comforting papa Joffre, the coordinator of the Allied war effort – but on the other, a man who lost the cream of France's youth in disastrous offensives, nearly lost the war in 1914, and who failed to fully put France in state to prosecute the war for final victory.
For a positive reading of Joffre, Bourachot's Marshal Joffre lays out the many crucial points of discussion about him, and while his hagiographic ideas must be taken with a pinch of salt, he helps give one view on the French general.
#8 - French Tanks of the Great War
By 1918, France could reasonably claim to have the most powerful armored force in the world, which had built massive numbers of the highly innovative Renault FT-17, the first truly modern tank, both for itself and its American allies, and developed a sophisticated doctrine for usage and extensive training.
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It had been a hard road, of working out the kinks of a radical new military force, one which required competing against alternate military visions, the intensely trying nature of a Great War battlefield, and technical challenges to arrive at a winning design. All of these facets and an excellent, highly detailed look at military engagements by the French tank force, the artillerie speciale, are part of Tim Gale's French Tanks of the Great War: Development, Tactics, and Operations.
#7 - Flesh and Steel During the Great War: The French Army, 1914-1918
During the Great War, the French Army underwent a radical transformation in its operations and tactics. It started the war with battalions of troops in brilliant red trousers and blue jackets charging with shining bayonets, dismissive of cover and often neglecting its proud artillery. It ended the war with squads of troops festooned with automatic weapons and grenade launchers attacking under tightly synchronized barrages of artillery, machine guns and mortars, with waves of tanks and aircraft, or on the defense in carefully constructed defense-in-depth, entrenched positions.
The amount of firepower exploded exponentially and the way the army fought changed unrecognizably. This is the focus of Michel Goya's Flesh and Steel During the Great War, which lays out how this tactical transformation happened over the course of the war. It isn't quite as detailed at the minute lower levels as say, Early Trench Warfare Tactics in the French Army, but it is still a great general history.
#6 - Breaking Point of the French Army
If there is an inexplicable moment in the history of the French Army in the Great War, it is, without doubt, the Nivelle Offensive. How could the French Army, after three years of bloody failed offensives, but with steadily growing tactical competence and skill, seem to repeat all of the mistakes of the previous years of war and suffer such a blow to its morale that it came the closest that it would during the entire conflict to outright collapse?
There were a host of factors behind this often little-understood offensive and conflict, ones which are covered in David Murphy's Breaking Point of the French Army: The Nivelle Offensive of 1917, which sheds valuable light on the political-military relationship at this stage of the year, how Nivelle was able to and why he launched such a disastrous offensive, and how its surprisingly mixed, as opposed to purely disastrous, results led to such a collapse of morale.
#5 - Early Trench Warfare Tactics in the French Army
1915 is an often forgotten year for the French Army in WW1. it isn't the Marne, where France was saved from German invasion. It wasn't Verdun, the haunting battle which still holds such a place in French national memory. It wasn't the Nivelle Offensive on the Chemin des Dames, which nearly broke the back of France. And it wasn't the Spring Offensive and the Hundred Days of 1918, when France, exhausted, bloodied, but unbowed, won the war.
Instead, it was the brutal slogging of trench warfare at its purest, with dreadfully bloody futile offensives launched as the French sought to drive the Germans from their soil and support their Russian allies in the east. It would be crucial for the long-term transformation of the French military and its tactics, and this is covered in superb detail by Early Trench Tactics in the French Army: The Second Battle of Artois, May-June 1915 by Jonathan Krause.
#4 - The Marne: The Story of a Battle That Saved Paris and Marked a Turning Point of WW1
It is easy to lose track of the men, the poor bloody soldiers, who were the principal actors of the Great War, who laid down their lives by the hundreds of thousands for whatever cause motivated them – defending their homes, patriotism, for their comrades, discipline, punishment, hatred, propaganda.
More than any other book in this series, The Marne: The Story of a Battle that Saved Paris and Marked a Turning Point of WW1 by Georges Blond manages to bring the soldier's tale to life, and show what fighting felt like and how it was experienced during the crucial first months of the war that led up to the Battle of the Marne. It has a great description and overview of the battle itself, but it deserves its high ranking thanks to its excellent treatment of the men.
#3 - Paths of Glory: The French Army 1914-1918
Compared to some of the other works on this list, Anthony Clayton's Paths of Glory: The French Army, 1914-18 is rather short. But this doesn't take away from its value: Clayton manages to approach something of Alistair Horne's elegance in describing the war, in the lives and existence of the common soldiers, to approach why they fought and their thoughts: this makes it a stand-out social book.
It is also a great operational history which concisely recounts why certain operations succeeded or failed, and which gives a good history of the evolution of the army's structure. A superb general history of the French Army.
#2 - The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916
Few writers have managed to combine Alistair Horne's flair for brilliant literary talent and his superb historical inquiry. Such a masterful hand is called for writing the story of the horrific Battle of Verdun, a titanic struggle that stands as the longest battle of the Great War and which came to stand for butchery and suffering – it was an endless maw that sucked up the vital forces of both France and Germany.
Its epic saga of grandeur and misery is recounted in stunning prose by Horne in The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 which is both an incredible guide to the battle itself and shows its long-term effects on the French psyche.
#1 - Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War
What about for the penultimate book to cover the operations, strategy, and development of the army? This almost certainly must be Robert A. Doughty's Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War. Doughty shows that the French army had a genuine strategy to win the war, through a policy of attacks on multiple fronts to crush the Germans in between them.
It gives a great deal of technical detail and follows the French army entirely throughout the war. For an understanding of the military side of the war, it is the best bet, and forms a great framework for all others.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.