*** World War I -- France

World War I: France

World War I France
Figure 1.--The caption says, "I am sending my kisses papa!" Losses on the Western front were horrendous during Workld War I. And as a result, World War I fundamentally changed France. The Germans set out to break the French at Verdun. They largelly suceeded. Although the French Army held, it was no longer capable of offensive operations. The German Western Front was cracked by the Americans and British. French diplomacy before WorldWar I was not aimed at preventing war, but rather recovering Alsace Loraine. This was not the case when the Germans threatned again. Both the British and French were absorbed with preveting war and willing to appease Hitler. The impact of World War I was still seen in World War II and was a factor in the collapse of the French Army when the Germans struck again in the West.

France had learned its lesson in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Never again would France attempt to fight the Germans without allies. Bismarck had effectively kept France isolated. His restrained polices changed with the accession of the belicose Wilhelm II (1883). As a resuly of Wilhelm's policies, Fance was able to sign an allince with Russia meaning that Germany would have to fight a two-front war. The French were less successful with Britain, but Wilhelm's belicose policies and decession to build a High Seas Fleet paved the way for military cooperation. The French war plan was Plan XVII. Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch personally devised the plan. It was adopted by French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre in 1913. The plan entailed an offensive to take Alsace and Lorraine, seized by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War. The Germans had a opportunity to win the War in a massive strike against France. The Allies had an advantage against Germany in population and resources. But the Germans had the strongest army at the onset of the War and the Schiliffen Plan directed the bulk of that army at France. The Germans launched a massive invasion through Belgium (August 1914). The goal was to seize Paris and force the French to accept Germany terms, quickly ending the War. If the War was to be won by the Allies, it was the French Army that would have to stop the German invasion. The Russians could distract the Germans on the Eastern Front. The Belgians could slow the Germans and the British could assist on the left flank and to hold the Channel Ports, but it was the French Army that would have to stop the Germans. This occurred on the Marne--the Miracle of the Marne. (September 1914). The war then bogged down into a war of attrition and deadly trench warfare. The Germans decided to bleed the French Army by focusing their forces on Verdun--fortifications they knew the French would defend at whatever cost. Here the Germans were successful, the French Army was destroyed as an offensive military force. In the process, however, the German Army was also weakened. And the end even though successful in the East was unable to stave off an expanded British Army and a new American Army in the West.

French Diplomacy

France had learned its lesson in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Never again would France attempt to fight the Germans without allies. Bismarck after the War effectively kept France diplomatically isolated, making it difficult to negotiate alliances. Bismarck's restrained polices changed with the accession of the belicose young Wilhelm II (1883). As a result of Wilhelm's policies, Fance was able to sign an all-important alliance with Russia meaning that Germany would have to fight a two-front war. The French initially were less successful with Britain, but Wilhelm's belicose policies and decession to build a High Seas Fleet paved the way for military cooperation. Finally the German invasion of neutral Belgium when bring the British into the War on the French side.

French War Plan

The French war plan was Plan XVII. Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch personally devised the plan. It was adopted by French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre in 1913. France since the Franco-Prussian War was fixated on regaining Alsace-Loraine. The plan was thus an offensive operation focusig on an operation to retake take Alsace and Lorraine, seized by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War. The French plan disregarded the fact that the Germans had prepared important defensive positions. The French Army believed passonately in the force of Élan or fighting spirit which had been fervently promoted. French officers believed that Élan would be the decisive factor in any war. The French to seize Alsace-Loraine would have to attack against t the Metz-Thionville fortresses seized by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War. The plan was for the southern wing of the French invasion force to capture first Alsace and then Lorraine while the northern wing would drive into Germany through the southern Ardennes forest. (Note the importance of the Ardennes.) Alternatively depending on German moves, drive into Luxembourg and Belgium.


Belgium was central to the German war plans. The French failed to appreciate this. Joffre and other French planners until 1914 did not believe that the Germans would attack through Belgium. France and Britain had signed a treaty, but it did not require Britain to declare war if France was attacked. The French could thus not be sure of British support. Britain did guareantee Belgian neutrality. The French thus concluded that the Germans would not attack through Belgium because it would bring the British into the war. The Germans had calculated that by striking through Belgium, they could defeat the French before the British could effectively intervene. (The Germans would use the same logic as regards America in 1917.) One reason the Germans were willing to risk war with Britain was that the British had only a small professional army that could be deployed to the Continent.

Balance of Forces

The Germans had a opportunity to win the War in a massive strike against France. The Allies had an advantage against Germany in population and resources which would be significant in a long war. But the Germans had the strongest army at the onset of the War and the Schiliffen Plan directed the bulk of that army at France. Thus the Germans calculated that with their large, effective army that they could win the War in a few weeks with a massive offensive against France. The Germans reasoned that they could achieve this goal before the Russians could mobilize their huge army and attack in the East or the British could send significant forces to the Continent. They also calculated that Britain would not continue the war without the French. The Germans were not the only ones to miscalculte. The French also seriously muscalculated. French inteligence had accurately estimated the strength of the German army. It did not, however, accurately assess the size and effectiveness of Germany's reserve force. This may have been because French generals did not have much confidence in their reserve forces. Thus the German strike when it came was much more powerful than the French had anticipated.

French Colonial Forces

France had different types of colonial forces. Substanial numbers were deployed on the Western Frobnt. The French colonial troops played an important role in World War I and were used by the French as after the War as occupation troops. This particularly incensed the Germans.

Balkans Crisis (July 1914)

A Serbian terrorist shot Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia (June 28). Austria-Hungary was shocked. Offiacials debated on how to respond. The decession was made to settle accounts permanently with Serbia in the Bakkans. The Austrians delayed ammouncing their plans for 3 weeks, in part because a substantial portion of the Army as was tradotional was on leave. Soldiers were given permission to return home to help with the harvest. (The lack of farm labor was to cause major food shortages in both Austria-Hungary and Germany during the War.) Austrian officials hesitated to act because of Russian commitments to Serbia. The Austrians, however, obtained German reasurances. The Germans assured Austria-Hungary of support in case the Russians declared war. This was a critical decession by Gwrmany, because Austria-Hungary would not by itself gone to war against Russia. In addition, Russia had treaty eith France. Suddenly the Germans turned a regional crisis into a major European crisis involving France. Austria-Hungary delivered its Ultimatum to Serbia consisting of a long list of onerous demands (July 23). The Austrians saw the Serbian Government has responsibe for the assasination. They demanded to be allowed to participate in the investigation and judicial process in Sebia. The Serbians were willing to accept the demands, except Austrian participation in an investigation. Serbian officials claimed that this violated their Constitution. The Austrians assured of German support rejected the Serbian reply (July 26). Austria-Hungary severed diplomatic relations and declared war (July 28). Austrian artillery began to shell Belgrade (July 29).

Declaration of War (August 3, 1914)

Both Austria-Hungary and Russia ordered general mobilization (July 30). Germany believed that Russian mobilization was a serious threat. Russia had a larger army than Germany, but Germany could mobilize faster. The German Government delivered an ultimatum to Russia, demanding that the Russians stop mobilisation within 12 hours (July 31). Telegrams exchanged between Tsar Nicholas and Kaiser Wilhelm failed to defuse the crisis. When the ultimatum expired, Germany declared war on Russia (August 1). German forces occupied neutral Luxembourg (August 2). This was the first step in executing the Schlieffen Plan, the planned attack on France through Belgium. The Germans delivered another ultimatum, this time to neutral Belgium. The Germans demanded free passage for the German army across Belgium. The Belgians rejected the German demands. Kaiser Wilhelm II at this stage had second thoughts. He discussed canceling the invasion of Belgium with German Chief of General Staff Moltke. The Kaiser not only had family ties to the Tsar, but also to the British royal family. Moltle who was was focused on execiting the Schlieffen Plan could hardly believe his ears. He told the Kaiser essentially that the Schlieffen Plan had been set in motion and could not now be stopped, in part because it would cause chaos in the rail schedule. Germany declared war on France (August 3). The next day German troops entered Belgium (August 4). Belgian neutrality had been guaranted ny the great powers (Britain, France, and Prussia) in the 19th century. The independence of the Low Lards had been a cornerstone of British foreign policy for centuries. Britain had not committed to war to defend France. The British Government, however, honored its commitment to Belgium and declared war on Germany (August 4).

French Offensive (August 1914)

The French activated Plan XVII and attacked into Alsace and Lorraine. Their offensive proved a disasters. The French were stopped by a relatively small German force fighting from prepared defensive positions. French losses were heavy. Important units of the French Army were thus weakened and illpositioned to stop the massive Germany offensive striking through Belgium.

German Offensive (August 1914)

The Germans activated the Schlieffen Plan and launched a massive invasion through Belgium (August 4). The goal was to seize Paris and force the French to accept Germany terms, quickly ending the War before the Russians could organize an effective offensive and the British deploy significant forces. If the War was to be won by the Allies, it was the French Army that would have to stop the German invasion. The Russians could distract the Germans on the Eastern Front. The Belgians could slow the Germans and the British could assist on the left flank and to hold the Channel Ports, but it was the French Army that would have to stop the Germans. The German strike was more powerful than the French had anticipated because the German Army had been effectively bolstered by the reserves. In addition the French were off ballance by the failure of their offensive and the losses sustained. German forces approached Reims, a hugely important historic city in northrtrn France. They entered the city, but could not hold it. The destruction wrecked by the Germand made in this jewel of medieval Europe made the city a prominent example of German atrocities.

Fighting in the East (August-September 1914)

The Russians, true to their treaty obligations, with the commencemebnt of hoistilities, drove west with their huge but cumbersome army into Germany (East Prussia) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Lithuanian and Poles had decisevely defeated the Teutonic Knights near Tannenburg haltuing German expansion east (1410). Thus it was a location indeliably engrained in German history. Germany braced for the invading Russian Army. The Germans under Hindenburg and Ludendorff met a Russian army under Samsonov (August 26, 1914). The Germans smashed the Russians, taking 100,000 prisoners. Such was the scale of the Russian defeat that Samsonov shot himself. A scond Russian army under Rennenkampf was to have joined up with Samsonov. The Germans soon engaged that army and destroyed it in the Battle of the Mansurian Lakes. Hindenburg and Ludendorff became German national heros.

Miracle on the Marne (September 1914)

Throughout August the German Army moved rlentlessly forward, albeit behind schedule and a great cost. The British and Belgians had shlowed the German advance and diverted German focus on the French. The French army was central to the Allied war effort. The Belgians could delay the Germans and the British could play a mjor supporting role, but in the final analysis it would have to be the French Army that would stop the Germans. The Germans began to cross the Marne and it looked like the French would have to abandon Pars to the Germans. Joseph Joffre, the Commander-in-Chief of the French forces, ordered his men to fall back to a defensible line along the River Seine, south-east of Paris and over 60-km south of the Marne (September 3). Sir John French, BEF commander comitted to attacking the advanncing Germans. The French 6th Army attacked the German Ist Army at the Marne (September 6). General Alexander von Kluck wheeled his entire force to meet the attack, opening a 50-km gap between his forces and the German 2nd Army led by General Karl von Bulow on his flank. The British the French 5th Army struck into that gap, splitting the two German armies. The fighting was furious, the French 6th Army was close to collapse, but the French used Paris taxis to rush 6,000 reserve troops to the front. Finally von Moltke had to order von Bulow and von Kluck to fallback (September 9). Miraculously the French Army had managed to stop the Germans at the Marne, saving Paris. [Tuchman] Not only were the Germans forced to retire back over the Marne, but the French and British crossed the Marne in pursuit. The Schlieffen Plan had failed to bring a quick German victory. By this time the German army had ehausted itself and the two sides began digging trenches to protect themselves from the murderous machine guns and artillery. The short war of rapid movement that everyone had expected degenerated on the Western Front into a stagnant war of the attrition. The Germns had gambled that following the Schliffen Plan and invading Belgium and bringing Britain into the war would be a moot point after a swift victory. This proved to hav been a disastrous miscalculation.

Trench Warfare

World War I resulted in a revolution in infantry tactics which fundamentally altered how wars were fought. The armies which clashed in August 1914 operated on essentially 19th century doctrines, large units of riflemen were screened by cavalry and supported by artillery. Commanders expecting a decisive engagements to settle the war rapidly. Sweeping manuevers exposed the calvary and infanntry to the killing power of modern weapons. Modern weapons, especially artillery and machine guns as well as accurate rapid-fire rifles proved devestating, especially when used against the tactics field commanders employed in the initial phases of the War. Field operations by 1916 had, after the loss of millions, been fundamentally changed. The professional armies of 1914 were devestatee and were replaced by conscripted replacenments. What began as a rapid war of movement soon settled down to static trench warfare and became a brutal war of attrition. Both the Germans and French and British began digging trenches to stay alive. Eventually parallel trench systems streached from the Swiss border to the English Channel. There were about 40,000 kilometers of trenches on the Western Front alone. Living conditions in the trenches were dreadfull, but they did offer protection. [Bull] The British developed the tank which helped to breach the German trench lines, but it would be the Germans in World War II that would put this weapon to effective use.

Northern France

The World War I western Front was fought out in Belgium and northern France. The Germans occupied Luxenbourg, almost all of Belgium, and large areas of northeast France along the Belgian and Luxenmourg borders during the first month of the war. Northern France was one of the most heavily industralized areas of France and thus although relatively small, the area occuoied by the Germans was a significant loss to the French economy. Much of the French population was evacuated or fled, but large numbers of people were left in the German occupation zone. After the fronttline stabilized behind the trenches, the Germans remained in contol of northern France until the final month of the War. Despite massive offensives and a huge expenditure of ordinance. The area north and south of the Wetern Front changed very little espite 3 years of combat. After the Germans were stopped before Paris and had to wihdraw beyond the Marne, as trench system then sneaked from the Swiss border to the Channel. It was here that the Germans and Allies fought World ar II in the Wesr. The towns and viiliages the Frint rossed and those close by were decestated. The range of artillery as well as offesive ad countr offensives significantly enlarged the area devestaed. Many were totally destroyed. A wide swath of southern Belgium and northern France was devestated leaving a huge scar across the verdent landscape. The towns and cities in the war zone looked like scenes of devestation from the World War II strategic bombing campign. In sharp contast, the neighboring German Rhineland was untouched. After the War, the Germans and many subsequent historians considered the Versailles Treaty and reparations imposed on the Germans to be unfair and many saw NAZI compainsts as justified. Rarely mentioned is that it was the Germans who first introduced the idea of reparations in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Or the immese damage done to Belgium and France while Germany was virtually untouched. One of the French cities largely destroyed was the magnificent cathedral city of Reimes, a jewel of the Middle Ages. Damafe to the Cathedral and the destruction other cultural treasuires in the battle zone would feature prominently in Allied propaganda. Perhaps fittiningly, Reims would be General Eisenhower's headquarters in World War II and the place where the NAZIs surrendered to the victorious Western Allies.

Home Front

Our information is still limited on the French World War I home front. The home front was important to all combatant countries. For Germany and Britin the homefront was distant from the battlefield. This was not the case for France. The Westrn Front trenches snaked across northern France and Belgium. Paris was only a few miles from the front and the Germany nearly reached Paris twice, in 1914 and 1918. French war propaganda attempted to maintain civilian morle. We note very sentimental postards. The truth of conditions at the front was generlly kept from the public. The British prohibitied cameras and the act of taking photographs could get one executed. I think the French did the same although I do not yet have detils. Even though the soldiers at the front could easily reach home with a short railroad trip, the High Command discouraged home leaves, concerned that the soldiers would not return. The French were in a better position than the Germans as to food production. France had a substantial agricultural production and food coud be easily imported from America. We do not yet hve details on the French rationing ptogram. Nor do we have details on the use of women and youth to replace workers conscripted for military service. We do know that the Boy Scouts played an active role. In the end French home front morale heald, but the French Army almost broke in 1917.

Verdun (1916)

After the French stopped the Germans on the Marne, the most important battle of the War was Verdun. Verdun was the most drawnout battle of the War and considered by most historians to have been the greatest battle. German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, accurately concluded in 1915 that the key to winning the war lay not on the Eastern Front, but on defeating the French Army on the Western Front. Falkenhayn maintained that if France could be defeated in a major set-piece battle, Britain would have no other option than seeking terms from Germany. This of course is a strategy the Germans could have persued in 1914. If they had attacked France directly instead of through Belgium, they would not have had to fight the Belgians and more importantly the British and in all liklihood would have prevailed on the Western Front. Falkenhayn correctly assessed that the French would consider the defense of Verdun as a matter of national honor. His plan was essentially to bleed the French white in the defense of Verdun. One historian claims this is what all commanders said after their offensives failed and that he was actually trying to achieve break through. [Strachan] Verdun and surrounding fortifications were a strategic French position located on the eastern section of the Western Front and thus was fought by the Germans and French without British involvement. The battle took place in 10 km square around the French fortifications at Verdun. The battle began with a German offensive (February 21, 1916). The Germans hammered at Verdun for 8 months, but because of the British to the west could not concentrate all of their forces. General Henri Philippe Petain made the words " They shall not pass " (Ils ne passeront pas ) famous during the Battle of Verdun in World War I. The Germans were unable to compleletly suyrround Verdun. The French maintained a road connection to supply their forces in Verdun. It came to be called the "Sacred Way". Verdun was the greatest bloodbath in European military history. Casualties totaled and incredibke 0.7 million men. The fighting did not end until the end of the year (December 19). The Germans were successful in bleeding the French. The French Army was largely destroyed as an offensive military force. In the process, however, the German Army was also significantly weakened.

French Army Mutiny (1917)

The Allies faced the greatest crisis of the War since the initial German invasion in 1917. England began the War with only a small professioinal army. The BEF was rushed to France and Belgium in August 1914, but for the first years of the War, it was the much larger French Army that was bulwark of the Allied defense on the Western Front. Thus the French suffered much larger casualties than the British. The blood letting at Verdun was particularly severe. Marshal Foch was replaced with General Robert Nivelle�s who launched the Chemin des Dames Offensive (1917). The offensive failed with disastrous losses--over 100,000 men were killed or wounded,. It also brought the French Army close to collapse. Discontent flared among French frointline troops. In addition to a collapse in confidence with their commanders, French troops vigorously criticized how they were treated: food, home leaves, rest, and other matters. Thet had many justfiable complaints. While French officers received home leave, some enlisted men had been in the trenches for 3 years without any leave. One report suggests that 30,000 men left the trenches and began walking home. At one point 54 divisions which constituted half the French Army were not responding to orders from commanding generals. The High Command feared that the Army was near collaspse. The French bturned to Marshal Petain, the hero of Verdun. He acted decisively. There were mass arrests and about 24,000 men were tried. The trials attempted to focus ion the leaders. In the end 400 men were sentenced to death of which 50 were shot. The rest were shipped to Devil's Island. Petain also instituted reforms to address the many legitimate vgrevences of the men. The mutiny lasted 6 weeks. Incredibly thev Germans do not seem to have preceived what had occurred. A major German oiffensive at this time might have cracked the Frenchb Army. Petain succeeded in restoring discipline in the Army, but itv was a changed Army. The French were no longer willing to launch major offensives against the Germans, but they would hold the line if attacked. It was to be the British and British Empire troops along with the new American Army that began to arrive in 1917 that in the end would crack the Hindenberg Line.

America Enters the War (April 1917)

American President Woodrow Wilson camaigned for re-election in 1916 with the slgan "He kept us out of war". America at various points tried to negotiate an end to the War. Wilson in a 1917 speech called for a "peace without victory". None of the major European combatants showed much interest in the American efforts. The Britsh were still hopeful that America would join the Allies. Kaiser Wilhelm dimissed Wilson's efforts as unrealistic. The Germans seriously under estimated the potential impact of American involvement. Gambling that they could force a decission in the Western Front, the military convinced Kaiser Wilhelm to resume unrestricted sunmarine warfare. After German U-boats sank five American merchant vessels, President Wilson on asked Congress to Declare War on Germany which was approved April 6. This proved to be a disastrous German miscalculation. The American and Britsh Navies defeated the U-boat campaign. The French expected a huge American army to immediately begin streaming into France. The problem was that America did not have a large army, inly a small professional force. An American army would have to be mobilized, trained, and equipped.

Final German Offensive (1918)

The collapse of Russia in late 1917 and peace treaty forced upon the Bolsevicks in 1918 enabled the Germans to transfer powerful forces to the Wesern Front. The draconian demands on the Bolshecicks delayed the siugning of the peace treaty and the transfer of troops to the Western Front. The Russian Revolution occurred during the late Fall. The ensuing Wiunter of course meant that the Germans could not l;aunch a major offensive. By the tinme they were able to launch their offensive, a new American Army of over 1 million men awaited them in the Allied trenches. Without the arrival of the Americans, it is likely that the Germans would have won the war. German General Ludendorff was to say after the War that it was the arrival of the American infantry that was the decisive factor on the Western Front.

Allied 100-day Offensive (August-November 1918)

The Germans while successful in the East was unable to stave off an expanded British Army and a new American Army in the West. When the German 1918 Western offensive ground to a halt the Allies initiated their offensive. This was largely an Anglo-American opperation. The French Army since 1917 was largely restricted to defensive operations. The British in 1914 had only a small professioinal force. By 1918 they had built a large conscript army. The army had learned a great deal on the Somme (1916) and with a new tank force was ready to assault the Hindenberg Line. The Americans when they entered the War in 1917 also had only a small proifessional army. America rapidly built a large concript army and by mid-1918 that army was ready to assault the Germans. The Allies wanted the Americans to bevused as replacement troops in British and French units. Pershing insisted on fielding an American army--the AEF. Having help stop the German offensive, the Americans along wwith the Brirish went on the offensive.

Armistice (November 1918)

Allied offensives on the Western Front cracked the German front forcing them back toward Germany. The German Navy mutined. Riots broke out in Germany cities. The General staff informed the Kaiser that they could no longer guarantee his saftey. He abdicated and fled to the neutral Netherlands. A German Government was hastily formed and asked for an armistice based on President Wilson's 14 Points. After determining that the request came from a civilian German Government and not the Kaiser or German military, the Allies accepted the German offer. There was not total agreement on this Genetral Pershing wanted to fight on to Berlin. The guns fell silent after 4 years of vicious fighting at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (November 11, 1918). There had been over 8.5 million soldiers killed and 21.2 million wounded, many wounded horribly.


The Allies including France won the War, but the cost had been incalcuable. One sourse suggests that the finacial cost to France was something like $24 billion. The cost in modern dollars would be far higher. The only two countries spending more on the war were Germany and Britain. The financial cost can be calculated. The actual cost totaling up not only what was spent but the property and human cost would far greater, basically incalcable. We have been unavle to find an estimte of the total cost. France suffered more casualties proprtionlly than any other major beligerant. Military deaths totaled to 1.4 million men, about 1.2 million were combat deaths. Civilian deaths resulting from military action were some 40,000 peole, Civilian deaths attributed to the War were ome 0.3 million. Military wounded totaly 4.3 million This included 1.1 million men disabled and 0.3 million mtalated. There were 42,000 blinded and 15,000 'broken faces'. The men that were killed left 0.7 million widows and more than 1.0 million orphans. They and many of the wounded men had to be supported by the state. The War in the West was fought in Belgium and northern France. Much of northern France was occupied by the Germans. And the damaage to towns and villages was massive. The French Government after the War designated the Zone Rouge (Red Zone). It was a chain of non-contiguous areas in northeastern France where the fighting was particularly intense. The Zone was deyermined to be so physically and environmentally damaged that civilins could not return. Buildings were destroyed and the land was littered with human and animal remains and undxploded ordinance. Several villages in the Meuse area were seen to have 'died for France'. Estimates report that 1,857 square miles of forest land and 8,000 square miles of farm land was laid waste. Some 0.3 million homes, 6,000 factories, 1,600 schools and 1,2000 curches were destroyed. Livestock killed totaled 1.3 million. France's industrial northeast, a vital art of the economy, was devastated by the War. The provinces overrun by Germany had produced 40 percent of French coal and nearly 60 percent of its steel. [Chickering & F�rster, p. 297.] German occupation authorities attempted to use much of this during the war When it was clear that Germany was going to lose the War and began to withdraw, Gen. Ludendorff ordered the destruction of mines in France and Belgium. [Marshall, p. 460.] The objective was to cripple French industries so it could not threaten Germany in the future. We see many commentors castigating the Allies for demanding retributions as if it was unreasinavle and unusual. We notice that because the war was largely not fought on German soil, most of the property damage was suffered by the countries that Hermany invaded. And not all of it was war damage. The Germans not only damaged infrastrutre and facilities on purposes, but shelled French cities beyond the front line. Germany demanded reparations from countries it defeated. It does not seem all that unreasonable or unusual for Germany to pay for some of the damage it caused. It may well hve been counter productive, but unreasonable or unusual is a very different matter.

Versailles Treaty (1919)

The Versailles Peace Treaty ending World War I was signed on June 28, 1919, about 7 months after the Armistice stopping the fighting on November 11, 1918. It was one of the mos important treaties of the 20th century. It had a huge impact on the international status of Germany, impacting the country territorially, militarily, and economically. Germany was made a pariah country and largely blamed for the start of the War. Of major significance, the Germany being published was the Germany of the Weimar Republic and not Imperial Germany as the Kaiser had abdicated. As a result, the domestic German opposition to the changes, including the territorial changes, came to be directed at the Weimar Republic and not the Imperial Government that had conducted the War. The NAZIs and other right-wing groups were to saddle democratic politicians with the "shame of Versailles". Germany under the terms of the Treaty suffered many consequences. The navy and merchant marine was lost. The battleships had to be turned over the the Allies. The battleships ships in fact steamed into the British naval base at Scappa Flow. The German captains, however, rather than turning them over to the British, scuttled them. Germany lost her African and Pacific colonies. Along with territorial losses in Europe were important natural resources. The German Army was reduced to virtual impotence. And the country was saddled with immense retributions. A critical element in the treaty was the principle of national self determination promoted by President Wilson. This resulted in the creation of a large number of small, weak states in Eastern Europe. It must be said that the the Versailles Treaty was not as onerous as the Treaty of Breast-Litovsk (1918) imposed on the Russians. Still it was undeniably harsh. Many historians see it at the first step toward World War II.


The French as a result of World War I reported 1.4 million military personnel killed, most on the Western Front. Tht was an astinishing 4 percent of the population. The losses were especially concentrated in young men age 19-22 years when the War broke out. They were the conscripts that fouught the early battles. An estimated 35 percent of that cohort was killed--essentially destroying a generation of French men. Actually the number was even lrger when the numbers of those with dehabilitating batlefield wounds were included. The Germans set out to break the French Army at Verdun. They almost suceeded. Casualties were enormous and led to a mutiny. Marshall Petain help put down the mutiny. The French Army held, but was never again capable of major offensive opetations again. And of course these enormous casualties rippled throughout the French popultion. Men were the family's principal bread winners. At the end of the War there were over 0.6 million widdows few of which were capable for themselves or their children. The two boyshere were some of the 10s of thousands who lost their fathers (figure 1). The French cultural, political, and societal outlook was fundamentally altered. Alsace-Loraine was recovered, but the French public became understandably obsessed with the enormous cost in blood and treasure. The public as in other beligerant countries came to see the War as a great mistake, largely ignoring the potential consequemces of a German victory, both to France and individuals. The French public from the working class to the upper-class in a rare common commitment were determined to avoid another war. War became the great evil in the popular mind, especially among workers and socialists who blamed the War on the ruling clsses. Socialits saw war as the end result of both capitalism and imperialism. Pacifism and anti-military feeling were widespread. Thus France's Socialist parties resisted military spending or policies toward Germany that might lead to war. Few stoped to think about what would have resulted had the Germans won the War even after Hitler began his meteoric rise in Germany. And nothing could have been more fortuitous for Hitler and the NAZIs. The mix of pacifism, anti-miliarism, and socialism rendered France and Britain as well unprdoared to deal with a Germany all to prepared to fight another War. The French people would learn the consequences of defeat. and as bad as they were, Hitler was limiting his actions against France nd the rench people until after he won the War something of which many French people today are unaware.

Maginot Line

France's defensive line was named after the War Minister Andre Maginot who began building it. The idea was first proposed by French World War I commander Joseph Joffre and Construction began in 1930. It was a massive system of defences, most of which was built underground. There were three interdependent fortified belts with anti-tank emplacements and pillboxes protecting bombproof artillery casements. These concrete and steel emplacements stretched between Luxembourg and Switzerland. Artilery emplacements and interlocking strong points were designed to stop a German invasion. The Maginot Line has gone diwn in history as a gigantic military failure. In fact it did prevent a German break through, but the Germans went around it. Plans were in place to continue the Maginot Line to the Channel. The War broke out before this project began. Thus the Maginot Line stopped at the Belgian frontier. While the Maginot forced the Germans to go around it, criticism over the cost is valid. It cost 7,000 million francs and adsorbed a substantial share of French fedense spending. Drench military olanners believed that the Ardennes, the heavily wooded and hilly area to the north of the Maginot Line, was impassible to tanks and thus could be lightly dfended.

World War II (1939-45)

France like Britain declared war on Germany after Hitler invaded Poland (September 1939). After several months of quiet on the Western front, the Germans launced the long awaited Western offensive (May 1940). Within weeks the Germans etered Paris andc te French were forced to sign a humiliating armistace (June 1940). Much of the country was occupied and the French Army was intered in German POW camps. The new government in the unoccipied zone was formed at Vichy. Nominally neutral, Vichy assisted the NAZIs in their war effort. Vichy also actively assisted the NAZIs isolated and roundup Jews. Marshall Petain who led the Vichy Government concluded that after the fall of France that Germany was the dominant power in Europe. He sought to carve out a place for France in thev new Europe. He believed that France could form a bridge between NAZI Germany and Ameruica and the rest ofvthe world. The Grerman victory had humiliated France, but France had fought. Vichy represented a loss of honor. After the Allied Torch landings (November 1942), the Germany occupied the unoccuopied zone. The Resistance became increasingly organized, especially when the NAZIs began concscripting French workers for war work in Germany. The Allied returned to France with the D-Day landings (June 1944). This made possible the liberatiom of France. The Allies after breaking out from Normandy swept through France (July 1944). Free French forces were the forst Allied units to enter Paris (August 1944).


Chickering, Roger and Stig F�rster. Great War, Total War: Combat and Mobilization on the Western Front, 1914�1918 (London: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Marshall, Samuel L. A. The American Heritage History of World War I (American Heritage: Oxford University Press, 1964).


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to Main World War I country page]
[Return to Main World War I conduct page]
[Return to Main French history page]
[Aftermath] [Alliances] [Animals] [Armistace] [Causes] [Campaigns] [Casualties] [Children] [Countries] [Declaration of war] [Deciding factors] -------[Diplomacy] [Economics] -------[Geo-political crisis] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[Military forces] [Neutrality] [Pacifism] [People] [Peace treaties] [Propaganda] [POWs] [Russian Revolution] [Signals and intelligence] [Terrorism] [Trench warfare] ------[Technology] ------[Weaponry]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War I page]
[Return to Main war essay page]

Created: 5:54 AM 3/18/2006
Last updated:11:01 PM 9/4/2017