Ah, the French. Famous for food and wine. Much maligned for military prowess.
Not that it mattered to Orson Welles, apparently on either count.
In terms of the latter, one could argue the French get a bad rap. After all, this is the country directly descended from the Gaul of Vercingetorix and the Frankish Kingdom of Charlemagne. No one would have accused the French of being wusses in 1812. Back then the guy in charge out in Paris was named Napoleon. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.
Still, more recently the French have been the victims of some pretty bad military leadership. That’s probably where the reputation comes from. The following is a prime example.
When World War I broke out in 1914, the leading French military mind was a guy named Joseph Joffre. By all accounts Joffre was a good commander, best known for halting the initial German offensive at the Marne, effectively dashing any Central Powers hopes of capturing Paris. However the war soon bogged down into trench warfare, with both sides locked in a seemingly never-ending stalemate.
Although the French Army held its ground at the epically brutal battles of Verdun and the Somme, it suffered horrific casualties in the process, very possibly numbering over one million. Both battles concluded in the closing weeks of 1916. Meanwhile the Germans were still well-entrenched on their side of the Western Front despite suffering obscenely high casualties of their own.
Soon after, Joffre was sent east to advise France’s ally, Romania. The Romanians just had their asses handed to them and were clearly in need of help. His successor as commander-in-chief, Robert Nivelle, was an accomplished artillery officer who wasn’t afraid to “go for broke,” as it were.
In color, no less.
Understandably, Nivelle was eager to end the war as quickly as possible. In his mind, that meant going on the offensive. However, it’s safe to say with both sides decimated by the major 1916 battles that neither was in a position to mount a major offensive only a few months later. Certainly not one designed to end the war in 48 hours as Nivelle proposed.
Nivelle was a proponent of a new military tactic known as the creeping barrage, which he had used with some success at the Somme. He also had the brand new Schneider CA 1 – the first-ever French tank – at his disposal. With these advantages, Nivelle believed he could bring the war to a quick conclusion. The French and British governments were eager to sign off on the plan, with the latter doing so over the objections of its own field commander. After all, Nivelle only projected 10,000 more casualties. In the event the offensive didn’t work after 48 hours, he promised to break off the attack. No big deal, right?
“Se détendre, we got this.”
While Nivelle surmised the Germans were war-weary, he apparently forgot about his own soldiers. Keep in mind in early 1917 the French Army had just finished fighting two long, inconclusive and extremely bloody battles which rank to this day among the worst in human history. It’s estimated five percent of the entire French male population had been killed in action by this point. Had PTSD been a diagnosis then, in 1917 France it probably would have been easier to say who didn’t have it. Even the toughest of military forces would have been well below full strength after such an ordeal. Needless to say, the French rank and file didn’t think too highly of Nivelle’s grand scheme.
When the offensive began on 16 April at a strategic position south of Laon known as the Chemin des Dames, it became instantly apparent there would be no quick victory. The French discovered they didn’t have sufficient artillery to effectively carry out the creeping barrage tactic. Meanwhile, German artillery managed to wipe out most of those newfangled tank things almost immediately. Worst of all, Nivelle’s 10,000-casualty projection ballooned to more like 100,000 after only one day of fighting. Medical staff – overwhelmed by Nivelle’s grossly inaccurate casualty estimate – were unable to evacuate many of the wounded, something which compounded the already serious French morale issues.
All this in a country where outrage is practically an art form.
Despite this and over the objections of military and political leaders alike, Nivelle ignored his 48-hour pledge and stubbornly continued the fruitless offensive for nearly a month. The operation resulted in few territorial gains, nearly 200,000 French casualties, an artillery shell shortage and an overwhelming sense of bitter disappointment nationwide. Nivelle was relieved as commander-in-chief shortly thereafter and reassigned to an out of the way post in Algeria.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. By the time Nivelle was removed from command on 15 May, large portions of the French military were in full and open mutiny. Desertions were widespread. Entire divisions refused orders to go to the front lines. In one particularly infamous incident, most of the French 2nd Division reported for duty drunk and without weapons.
By the time the French military – now led by Philippe Petain – put a lid on its internal unrest, it was well into summer. As a result among other things French officials were forced to pursue a “no offensives” policy in their military for the rest of the war, leaving much of the heavy lifting on the Allied side to the British and later the Americans.
Say, isn’t that the same Philippe Petain who led the pro-Nazi Vichy France government during World War II?
Why yes. Yes it is.