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Poilu of 1916

Discussion in 'France' started by Dan Morton, Dec 29, 2015.

  1. Dan Morton A Fixture

    From the International Encyclopedia of the First World War, 1914-1918 online. http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/france.


    The deadliest year for France was 1915, with about 350,000 deaths, although proportionately 1914 was even deadlier with 300,000 men killed in only five months. The French army sought to break through the front in the Vosges, at Hartmannswillerkopf, at Artois and in Champagne in the spring and in the autumn. The use of artillery preparation and drum fire meant to destroy the enemy’s defences never actually succeeded in breaking through, which explains why French losses were even greater than in 1916, which was when the large total battles of Verdun and the Somme occurred.

    Indeed, the scale of fighting changed in Verdun. The most intense phase of the battle lasted from 21 February 1916 to July, but it endured until December. Erich von Falkenhayn (1861-1922) wanted to get the Western front moving again and chose to attack the French in this hilly sector. Roughly 1 million shells of all sizes were fired on the first day alone. The battle remained undecided until June, but the Germans never actually managed to break through the front. Philippe Pétain (1856-1951), followed by his successor Robert Nivelle (1856-1924) organized a continuous fleet of trucks that used the “sacred way”, according to the expression coined by Maurice Barrès (1862-1923), to get men and materiel to the front–roughly 90,000 men and 50,000 tonnes of materiel per week. 6,000-8,000 vehicles drove on the route each day. Already in 1916, the battle of Verdun became a symbol of the Great War. Once the battle had begun and the French resistance been proven, Falkenhayn nonetheless insisted on pursuing the attacks over and over again. Given the failure to advance, he claimed after the fact that the goal had not been to break through or get the front moving but rather to wear down the enemy and “bleed him dry”. And yet this strategy chosen after the fact and by default also failed. Although Falkenhayn had bled the French army, he had done the same to his own troops. The losses were indeed comparable, with 160,000 missing or killed on the French side and over 140,000 on the German side. There were in addition to this 200,000 wounded on both sides.

    While the Battle of Verdun was raging, the British and French launched an offensive on the Somme starting on 1 July. This offensive had been planned for a long time, since 6 December 1915. The initial goal of the Anglo-French offensive had been to get things moving again and force the enemy to retreat as quickly as possible by “pushing” him back–the British named this battle the Big Push. The 1 July 1916 offensive at the meeting point of the French and British armies was a catastrophe. In a single day, nearly 20,000 soldiers from British Empire armies were killed and slightly less than 40,000 were wounded. This represented half of the British troops engaged on 1 July. The attacks in the Somme sector which, unlike Verdun, stretched over several dozen kilometres, nonetheless continued until the end of autumn without the set goals ever being met. The final result was even worse than in Verdun since in less than six months there were likely close to 1.2 million casualties in all.

    While for the French the Battle of Verdun earned its status as the symbolic battle of the Great War, the Somme was actually even more deserving of the title. It was a global battle in a world war whereas Verdun was an essentially Franco-German affair. Moreover, it was exemplary in showcasing how totalization had taken hold of the Western model of war. The radicalization of the war’s violence resulted in a change in the nature of combat which was becoming impossible in the traditional sense of the term. It also required that the French army gradually adapt between 1914 and 1918 - a painful but ultimately efficient change; this was done both by taking into account “feedback” from the front and via modernization that was both tactical and technical, in connection with the industrial and scientific sectors.[10]

    Given the violence experienced but also inflicted, French historians - likely more so than in other countries - have focused a lot on the factors underpinning French soldiers’ ability to hold on. This has in turn led to at times very heated debate over soldiers’ “consent”[11] to the war as one of the factors that might (or might not) explain their endurance. Other factors were of course also at play, such as the ties of solidarity between soldiers within a “primary group”, the internalization of social roles that notably explain why young men at the time found it normal to don a uniform. Expectations and hopes about the pending victory were perhaps also influential.


    Dan Morton - I'd disagree with the authors statements that the German armies attacking around Verdun failed to advance. The German forces took large portions of critical defensive terrain, forts and observation and defense points in the fighting at Verdun and they held most of them for months. In Verdun, "The Lost History of the Most Important Battle of World War I", John Mosier makes a very believable case that the propaganda machine at GQG so completely deceived the newspaper writers, the politicians, indeed even the senior leadership of the Army not directly involved in the fighting at Verdun, that the success of the German Army was covered up, minimized, not reported, reported long after the fact, etc. The French eventually began to understand and use the artillery preparation, assault and maneuver methods of the Germans did they begin to overcome the enemy and drive him from Verdun. This process did not involve one separate battle, but several and was only completed in 1918 when the US forces gained Hartmannswillerkopf.

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