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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2017 10:44 am 
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‘Cheese-eating surrender monkeys’? It’s time to give the French Army the credit it deserves
August 1, 2017 12.15pm BST
Gervase Phillips
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Against the odds: French troops throw rocks at advancing German troops in the Vosges, 1916. PA Images
When marking the centenary of the terrible events of 1917, some of the most devastating of World War I, it is perhaps understandable that the British have focused their attention on the Passchendaele offensive and the Americans on their entry into the war against Germany. Unfortunately, their desire to commemorate the heroism of their own service personnel often has an ugly flip-side: the denigration of the courage and skill of their French allies.


This attitude is best captured in the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”, coined in a 1995 episode of The Simpsons and popularised by journalist Jonah Goldberg in a 1999 column for The National Review. It suggested, among other things, that the French “surrendered Paris to the Germans [in 1940] without firing a shot”.

Doubtless the piece was satirical in intent, but the seriousness of the underlying prejudice became all too obvious in 2003; witness the invective directed at the French by US and British politicians and media following France’s (retrospectively, wise) decision not to support military intervention in Iraq.

If the British and Americans are serious about remembrance, then let’s remember France’s military performance fairly.

Be fair on the French

From August 1914 to early 1917, it was the French Army that bore the brunt of the fighting on the Western Front – and with astonishing stoicism. In one two-week period – August 16-31, 1914 – they suffered 210,993 casualties. By comparison, British casualties numbered 164,709 in the opening month – July 1916 – of the Somme offensive.

The French Army also adapted effectively to the challenges of trench warfare, perfecting artillery “barrage” fire and pioneering innovative platoon-level infantry tactics, centred on automatic weapons and rifle grenades. While the first day of the Somme – July 1, 1916 – was a disaster for the British, the French took all of their objectives.


French troops receive mail in their trench during World War I. PA Images
In early 1917, 68 French divisions suffered mutinies. But the soldiers taking part in what were effectively military strikes neither refused to defend their trenches nor abandoned France’s war aims. The army itself rallied magnificently from this near collapse and played a pivotal role in the Allied victory of 1918. From July to November 1918, French troops captured 139,000 German prisoners. In the same period, the American Expeditionary Force captured 44,142 Germans.

In the interwar years, the French invested heavily in massive defensive fortifications, the Maginot Line, along the Franco-German frontier. This decision has often been derided as indicative of a defeatist attitude. Yet France had a smaller population than Germany and could not hope to match its field army in size. Fortresses could make good the deficiency. The key point of the Maginot Line was to protect France’s industrial heartland from a rapid German offensive and funnel a German invasion through Belgium. It worked.

The German Army won the ensuing campaign in May and June 1940, through its audacious “sickle cut” through the Ardennes Forest, which was thought impassable by Allied commanders. This cut off the British, French and Belgian armies to the north and doomed them to defeat.

French strategic planning must bear much of the blame for this catastrophe, yet this was an Allied defeat, not simply a French one. The Dutch and Belgians had been reluctant to risk their neutrality and so there was little coordination before the Germans struck. And the British clearly assumed that France was to bear the main brunt of any land fighting.

The British Expeditionary Force of 1940 had a maximum strength of just 12 divisions. In 1918, it had numbered 59. Small wonder that the Nazi propaganda machine used to taunt their enemies with claims that the British were “determined to fight to the last Frenchman”.

The Dunkirk ‘miracle’

Although their generals were outclassed in 1940, French troops fought courageously and skilfully. For example, at the Battle of Gembloux – May 14-15, 1940 – elements of the French First Army checked the vaunted German “Blitzkrieg” and won enough time for their comrades and allies to withdraw. Without such tenacious rearguard actions, there would have been no “Miracle of Dunkirk” and the war might have been lost in 1940.


Having crossed the Meuse River, the German Panzer divisions only had to advance 150 miles to the Channel coast to trap the bulk of the Allied forces – 1.8m French soldiers were captured, and 90,000 killed or wounded.

In the opening phase of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union the following year, the Red Army suffered nearly 5m casualties, including 2.5m who surrendered. The Russians also lost 600,000 square miles of territory. Yet, as Charles De Gaulle observed to Stalin, in the aftermath of this colossal defeat, the Soviets still had 5,000 miles of Eurasia into which they could retreat. The French did not lack courage in 1940; they lacked space.

The French military contribution to Allied victory in World War II did not end in 1940. There were 550,000 Free French soldiers under arms in 1944 and they made a major contribution to the liberation of Western Europe. In particular, Operation Dragoon – the invasion of southern France in August 1944 – was effectively a Franco-American operation, with limited British involvement.

Many of the French soldiers involved were recruited in France’s African colonies, but this was no different to the British reliance on 2.6m Indian soldiers to support their empire’s global war effort. By all accounts, the French units serving in Italy and Western Europe between 1943 and 1945, fought well, in the best traditions of the French Army.

Cheese-eating surrender monkeys? It’s time to think again.


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2017 12:53 pm 
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I'm pretty sure that France suffered significantly more casualties (in proportion to population) than Britain in WW I.


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2017 2:06 pm 
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A lot more casualties per capita. The UK had a larger population than France in 1914 and suffered considerably fewer casualties. The UK suffered 750,000 dead and 1.65 million wounded for total permanent casualties of 2.4 million or so. France suffered 1.15 million dead and 4.27 million wounded. Percentage-wise the dead were about 2% of the population, whereas for France it was about 4.3% of the population. France suffered immeasurably greater damage from WWI than the UK did.


Last edited by David Newton on Wed Aug 30, 2017 2:32 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2017 2:19 pm 
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David Newton wrote:
A lot more casualties per capita. The UK had a larger population than France in 1914 and suffered considerably fewer casualties. The UK suffered 750,000 dead and 1,65 million wounded for total permanent casualties of 2.4 million or so. France suffered 1.15 million dead and 4.27 million wounded. Percentage-wise the dead were about 2% of the population, whereas for France it was about 4.3% of the population. France suffered immeasurably greater damage from WWI than the UK did.


This is true and its only a part of the picture. The critical figure is the percentage of casualties suffered by the male 17 - 25 cohort. The French took 60 percent of that cohort dead or severely wounded. The British took 28 percent of the same cohort.

The social impact of losing 60 (some assessments put it at 73 percent depending on how one defines "severely") percent of a country's young men is far-reaching. It also really slams the availability of military recruits twenty years later

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2017 2:35 pm 
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If you read German sources, you never find criticism of the French fighting spirit in WW1.

And in the German consciousness, Verdun is THE battle of WW1.


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2017 2:35 pm 
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France also suffered much greater war damage than the UK. The UK had a few bombardments of coastal towns, and the Zeppelin and Gotha bombings. France had direct combat on its soil and also saw much of its industrial capacity fall in the occupied area. The psychological impact of "les villages morts pour la France" cannot be over-estimated either.


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2017 4:04 pm 
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Hans wrote:
If you read German sources, you never find criticism of the French fighting spirit in WW1.

And in the German consciousness, Verdun is THE battle of WW1.


In the French consciousness, Verdun is also THE battle of WW1.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2017 4:12 pm 
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David Newton wrote:
France also suffered much greater war damage than the UK. The UK had a few bombardments of coastal towns, and the Zeppelin and Gotha bombings. France had direct combat on its soil and also saw much of its industrial capacity fall in the occupied area. The psychological impact of "les villages morts pour la France" cannot be over-estimated either.

A lot of it, particularly the coal, iron and steel industries, were destroyed by the Germans as they retreated, in some cases irreparably so. One of the things about the negotiations that led to the Versailles Treaty was that the French were absolutely obdurate about getting coal from Germany in addition to any reparations that would be received. The reason why turned out to be that the Germans had deliberately flooded the coal mines in Northern France as they retreated in the last few weeks of the war, permanently destroying them. The result was that the French had inadequate supplies of coal for domestic heating let alone any form of industry and winter was coming. It was apparent that the German plan in their retreat had been to cripple French industry to the maximum extent possible and, to the French that meant only one thing - the Germans were going to restart the war at the earliest possible moment.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2017 4:58 pm 
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Question, given the powder keg that started it, if the French had struck first and occupied German territory, then retreated, would they have done the same in occupied area?

The French and Germans were always going to war against each other.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2017 9:36 pm 
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Francis Urquhart wrote:
The social impact of losing 60 (some assessments put it at 73 percent depending on how one defines "severely") percent of a country's young men is far-reaching. It also really slams the availability of military recruits twenty years later


That melded badly with France's already in place trend of slowing population growth that had been in place for decades.

Between the Frano-Prussian War and WWI a big fear many Frenchmen had was that Germany would simply out-reproduce them and they'd be steamrolled.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2017 9:52 pm 
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jemhouston wrote:
Question, given the powder keg that started it, if the French had struck first and occupied German territory, then retreated, would they have done the same in occupied area?

Historically, they didn't. Immediately after the Armistice, allied armies occupied the Rhineland and Saar, the French explicitly stating that they did so to replace the coal lost from the destroyed mines. The French stayed in those areas until 1930 but they didn't destroy the mines or anything else when they pulled out. In retrospect, they should have done of course.

There's a very good book on this whole subject called Deluge. Its extremely heavy going but its worth it just to appreciate the enormity of the economic drivers for French and British action against Germany.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 30, 2017 11:14 pm 
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David Newton (9 posts up)--
Thanks! I remembered that France had suffered more(*), but didn't have actual numbers in my head… and if I had tried to guess the numbers, I would conservatively have guessed something less extreme than was really the case!

(*) And, given the psychological/cultural after effects of the American Civil War on the U.S., or of WW I on the U.K., the effects on French consciousness and attitude had to be immense!


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PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 4:47 am 
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...As always, the quick sound bite rarely reveals the true story. William Shirer's brilliant The Collapse Of The Third Republic should be mandatory for anyone wanting to understand why France went under so quickly in 1940. Short summary - serious cultural and societal fault lines, excacerbated by the terrifying losses of WWI and a tendency on the part of French generals and civilian leadership to win the LAST war. The men who won WWI for the French were nearly deified, but with the qualified exception of Foch were singularly unable to understand the advances made in technology during WWI, much less after. (And IMHO you can make a case from Shirer that the French high command was ruthlessly and utterly prepared to win the Franco-Prussian War). French politicians were so uniformly corrupt and self-centered that they made our current crop here in the States look like paragons of virtue.

Shirer also convincingly shows that the French regulars fought very well, given the constraints in equipment and doctrine that they were forced to deal with. It was the reserve units - heavily manned by soldiers who had seen the Great War and its immediate aftermath - that cracked first and worst. (And the Maginot Line fortress units fought ferociously.)

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 6:33 am 
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When I was a little kid almost 60 years ago, my father made a comment about the French. He said that the French population never recovered from the Napoleonic Wars, and then they fought WW 1. I think the ultimate results of the Napoleonic Wars, WW 1 and 2, has pretty much taken the heart out of Europe. That's a pretty standard insight, but accurate I believe. I think most only go back to WW 1, but I think you need to include the Napoleonic wars also...

The effect of the war on France over this time period was considerable. According to David Gates, the Napoleonic Wars cost France at least 916,000 men. This represents 38% of the conscription class of 1790–1795. This rate is over 14% higher than the losses suffered by the same generation one hundred years later fighting Imperial Germany.[3] The French population suffered long-term effects through a low male-to-female population ratio. At the beginning of the Revolution, the numbers of males to females was virtually identical. By the end of the conflict only 0.857 males remained for every female.[4] Combined with new agrarian laws under the Napoleonic Empire that required landowners to divide their lands to all their sons rather than the first born, France's population never recovered. By the middle of the 19th century France had lost her demographic superiority over Germany and Austria and even the United Kingdom.

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 7:16 am 
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Francis Urquhart wrote:
jemhouston wrote:
Question, given the powder keg that started it, if the French had struck first and occupied German territory, then retreated, would they have done the same in occupied area?

Historically, they didn't. Immediately after the Armistice, allied armies occupied the Rhineland and Saar, the French explicitly stating that they did so to replace the coal lost from the destroyed mines. The French stayed in those areas until 1930 but they didn't destroy the mines or anything else when they pulled out. In retrospect, they should have done of course.


Speyer, Heidelberg and a few more towns in the Palatinate/Rhineland would like to have a word with you. They did conduct a scorched earth campaign there. Not after WW1 because at that time it wasn't in their interest. Furthermore France and Germany were at peace in 1930, so behaving like during Operation Alberich and the Nine Years War was never an option.

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It was worse than he had expected. It was so incomprehensibly bad that he'd rather watch Pearl Harbor on a constant, never-ending loop than...


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PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 7:25 am 
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MikeKozlowski wrote:
...As always, the quick sound bite rarely reveals the true story. William Shirer's brilliant The Collapse Of The Third Republic should be mandatory for anyone wanting to understand why France went under so quickly in 1940. Short summary - serious cultural and societal fault lines, excacerbated by the terrifying losses of WWI and a tendency on the part of French generals and civilian leadership to win the LAST war. The men who won WWI for the French were nearly deified, but with the qualified exception of Foch were singularly unable to understand the advances made in technology during WWI, much less after. (And IMHO you can make a case from Shirer that the French high command was ruthlessly and utterly prepared to win the Franco-Prussian War). French politicians were so uniformly corrupt and self-centered that they made our current crop here in the States look like paragons of virtue.

Shirer also convincingly shows that the French regulars fought very well, given the constraints in equipment and doctrine that they were forced to deal with. It was the reserve units - heavily manned by soldiers who had seen the Great War and its immediate aftermath - that cracked first and worst. (And the Maginot Line fortress units fought ferociously.)

Mike


Did you read "The Blitzkrieg Myth" by K.H. Frieser? It‘s much more up to date and shows that a good deal of bad luck decided the outcome of the French Campaing.

BTW, the French didn‘t throw the towel until they had been defeated twice! First during Fall Gelb that ended with Dunkirk. It was a strategic defeat that cost France it‘s best divisions and so many that they were now clearly outnumbered. Despite the game being over they continued to fight with what was left until the remaining forces had suffered another strategic defeat. And even then many advocated continuing to fight from the colonies.

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It was worse than he had expected. It was so incomprehensibly bad that he'd rather watch Pearl Harbor on a constant, never-ending loop than...


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PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 7:50 am 
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M.Becker wrote:
Speyer, Heidelberg and a few more towns in the Palatinate/Rhineland would like to have a word with you. They did conduct a scorched earth campaign there. Not after WW1 because at that time it wasn't in their interest. Furthermore France and Germany were at peace in 1930, so behaving like during Operation Alberich and the Nine Years War was never an option.


Not with me :D With Adam Tooze.

The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 by Adam Tooze.

This is a very tedious, hard -to-read opus that tells some seriously inconvenient truths. Essentially it puts the responsibility for what happened in Europe in those years squarely on Woodrow Wilson and then goes to show why. He goes very deeply into the post-war attitude of France and the harsh economic reasoning that lay behind it - also how France's conviction base don German behavior in the last weeks and days of WW1 convinced them that the war was going to restart as soon as Germany was able to do so.

This book is a classic case of the old saw that every complex question has a simple answer that is (insert complimentary adjectives) and wrong.

By thew ay, the French did not object to the 1917 scorched earth withdrawal - that they understood if not like. It was the 1918 withdrawal when Germany had already lost the war and was concentrated on destroying French industrial capability that enraged them.

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 7:57 am 
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Francis Urquhart wrote:

Not with me :D With Adam Tooze.

The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 by Adam Tooze.



Sitting on the desk with a few others I need to read.

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It was worse than he had expected. It was so incomprehensibly bad that he'd rather watch Pearl Harbor on a constant, never-ending loop than...


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PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 7:59 am 
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M.Becker wrote:
Speyer, Heidelberg and a few more towns in the Palatinate/Rhineland would like to have a word with you. They did conduct a scorched earth campaign there. Not after WW1 because at that time it wasn't in their interest. Furthermore France and Germany were at peace in 1930, so behaving like during Operation Alberich and the Nine Years War was never an option.


I think there was a lot of local "mini wars" and local animosities as well. A f(r)iend of mine had family in Germany who were vintners. After WW-I, French requisitions of their wine almost broke their family. After Germany invaded France in WW-II, one of the family became a horse requisitioning agent for the Wehrmacht. He would deliberately ruin French farmers by requisitioning all their horses that were not half dead. According to the family, it was explicit revenge.

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Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival."
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PostPosted: Thu Aug 31, 2017 9:28 am 
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M.Becker wrote:
Francis Urquhart wrote:

Not with me :D With Adam Tooze.

The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 by Adam Tooze.



Sitting on the desk with a few others I need to read.



Just placed a request for it in our local library system.

I was a tad surprised to see that there are a HALF DOZEN copies in the county library system. I figured I would have to go to the state system to find it.

Belushi TD


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