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Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy And Operations in the Great War
Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy And Operations in the Great War
The French army during the World War I has been marginalized by scholars around Europe and America. The British often view them as the 'unknown ally' and American scholars regard France as the older brother. Robert A. Doughty's new book establishes France's legitimate position through a definitive account of the development and implementation of French strategy during WWI. 'Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War.' By Robert A. Doughty. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005. 578 pages. $39.95. France, and the French army in particular, have been increasingly marginalized in the growing body of scholarship on the Great War. To British scholars France is the "Great Other." Sometimes it is the unknown ally, the off-stage factor in a war fundamentally about Britain: its military system, its social structure, its mythology. At other times France becomes "Perfidious Gaul," seeking to enmesh honest Britons in devious schemes to take over more miles of trench and mount offensives in the wrong places. American scholars frequently regard France as elder brother, generously providing tools and training, then applauding as the doughboys assume the war's burden. Yet France is also the calculating patron, expecting to use the naive foreigners to underwrite France's plans for peace and reconstruction. German authors for their part tend to concentrate on the British connection. Verdun is overshadowed by the Somme and Passchendaele. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the Royal Navy are the standards against which German military effectiveness is measured. The British parliamentary system is the touchstone for critiquing Germany's ramshackle authoritarianism.

This marginalization reflects as well the mentality of a France whose intellectuals and academicians have concentrated on World War II and its consequences. The "grand tragedy" of 1940, the Vichy years and the Liberation, the Fourth Republic, and the sales guerres of Indochina and Algeria, overshadowed the Western Front. The revival of interest in the Great War since the 1970s, inspired by thework of Jacques Becker, has emphasized the "new military history," producing a spate of work on the mentality of the poilus and the dynamics of the home front, the war's destructive effects, and its eschatological consequences. Operational analysis has been of secondary interest.

Pyrrhic Victory restores the French army to its legitimate position at the focus of World War I. General (Ret.) Robert Doughty, for many years Chair of the US Military Academy's History Department, possesses a gifted professional soldier's understanding of French aims and intentions. The result is a definitive account of the development and implementation of French strategy in the Great War.

Doughty begins by analyzing the reconstruction of the French army between 1871 and 1914. It was based on a sharp division between political and military leaders. The former determined policy and objectives, then stood back and turned matters over to the soldiers. That pattern, often presented as a model for the conduct of America's wars, led to a war plan emphasizing the offensive at all levels, strategic, operational, and tactical. It led to an army structured institutionally and intellectually for fighting a short war. And it left France's military cupboard empty when the long-expected death-grapple with Germany in the autumn of 1914 produced unprecedented casualties, but no decision.

The central figure in this national drama was Joseph Joffre. Chief of the General Staff since 1911, Commander in Chief since the outbreak of war, he proved unusually flexible in responding to the tactical conditions imposed by the emergence of trench warfare. He was constrained by strategy and policy, however, to continue an offensive policy notmerely to liberate occupied France, but to contain a German army that by 1915 had all too free-a-hand in every other sector and theater of what was being increasingly called the Great War.

Above all, however unwillingly, Joffre came to understand the necessity for accepting a war of endurance. He reconfigured doctrine, training, command philosophy, and weapons procurement to prepare the French army for a long haul. He sought to coordinate plans for a general offensivewith BEF commander Sir Douglas Haig; and to secure cooperation on the Italian and Russian fronts. Joffre did not expect even that sharing of the war's burden to bring immediate success, only to wear down German resources. And his grand strategic design was shattered by the German attack on Verdun.

Whatever German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn's ultimate intentions, Verdun bled white the army Joffre had been at such pains reconstituting. The government was reorganized; Joffre was dismissed as Commander in Chief; and General Robert Nivelle received a free hand. He projected "total destruction of active enemy forces," but his tactics were strikingly similar to those of previous offensives. Their failure caused the army's morale to collapse. Doughty's analysis of its recovery describes a military process: with a moral dimension. Nivelle's successor Philippe Petain sought to rebuild spirit by developing means of attacking without suffering unsupportable casualties. He sought as well to reconfigure defensive methods, avoiding the slaughter of Verdun.

In an introduction written with an eye to the present, Doughty warns that believers in surgical wars and quick fixes know little about the Great War. Even an army as dirigiste as the French, with almost four years of war experience, faced problems institutionalizing such comprehensive doctrinal changes. The German offensives of 1918 put French and British backs to the wall. The emphasis on firepower that characterized French offensive tactics in the war's final year was only relatively successful in reducing losses. One-fifth of all French casualties were suffered in 1918. The "strategy of opportunism" pursued by Ferdinand Foch as Allied supreme commander was in good part a product of recognition that the French army could no longer bear the war's primary burden.

Nevertheless France won-in good part because from the politicians at Versailles to the poilus in the trenches, its people refused to accept defeat. Doughty recognizes the high, short- and long-term costs of what he legitimately calls a Pyrrhic victory. But in this seminal book he demonstrates the crucial role of the army and its generals in structuring a triumph of national determination. He demonstrates as well that for all its errors of preparation and execution, the army's prestige was by no means undeserved. This dual intellectual achievement merits the highest recognition by soldiers and scholars alike.

? Copyright 2007, Parameters