Atlantic History The French Army and the Atlantic World
Christopher Tozzi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0277


For much of the early modern and modern eras, the French Army has been among the largest in Europe. Its significance as a subject of historical study derives not only from the role French forces played in virtually all of the major conflicts that have occurred in Europe during the past three centuries but also from the social, political, and ideological changes that the French Army mirrored and in some cases helped to instate. Indeed, it was in France that many of the paradigms that define modern military forces and military services, such as the concept of citizen-soldiers, first arose. The history of the French Army since early modern times is a broad and diverse subject. No single work deals effectively with the entire history of the French Army’s complex evolution over the course of this long period. However, students and researchers interested in the history of the French Army will find useful works devoted to the French Army’s history during particular periods of the past, a fact reflected by the chronological organization of the works in this article.

Primary Sources

A complete list of primary sources dealing with the history of the French Army would be impossible to compile (much less present) here. However, the following key works, which cover varying time periods, are useful for understanding important moments in the French Army’s evolutionary history. These primary sources stand out also because they are published and readily available. Saxe 1757 offers perspective on thinking about warfare, army organization, and tactics in the mid-18th century. Guibert 1773 and Servan 1780 present examples of reformist thinking under the Old Regime that helped to shape revolutionary military changes after 1789. Jomini 1816 narrates the French revolutionary wars and the Napoleonic Wars, drawing on his experiences serving in the French and Russian armies. Dreyfus 1901 highlights the difficulty that the army faced as late as the early 20th century in transforming itself into a truly republican, egalitarian institution, while Bloch 1968 attempts to explain one of the greatest questions involving the French Army in the 20th century: why, despite its large size and modern equipment, did it fail so spectacularly and quickly in the face of Nazi invasion in 1940?

  • Bloch, Marc. Strange Defeat: A General Statement of Evidence Written in 1940. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968.

    An account of France’s defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1940 authored by a Franco-Jewish soldier and historian. Bloch attributes France’s defeat primarily to long-term developments that undercut the effectiveness of the French Army.

  • Dreyfus, Alfred. Cinq années de ma vie, 1894–1899. Paris: Charpentier, 1901.

    A memoir that focuses mostly on the political context of the Dreyfus Affair but includes material on Dreyfus’s military service and his views on it.

  • Guibert, Comte de. Essai général de tactique. Liége, Belgium: Plomteux, 1773.

    Largely devoted to military tactics, this book also discusses institutional reforms designed to make the Old Regime army more effective. Guibert was a high-ranking officer who oversaw military reforms enacted on the eve of the Revolution.

  • Jomini, Antoine-Henri. Histoire critique et militaire des campagnes de la Revolution. Paris: Magimel, 1816.

    Narrative and critical analysis of the major military campaigns of the French revolutionaries and Napoleon. While this is not written as a firsthand account, Jomini’s work is informed by his personal experience as an officer during these conflicts.

  • Saxe, Maurice de. Mémoires sur l’art de guerre de Maurice de Saxe, duc de Courlande et de Sémigalle, maréchal général des armées de S.M.T.C. &c. &c. &c. Dresden, Germany: George Conrad Walther, 1757.

    Discussion of Old Regime tactics and proposals for military reorganization. Saxe was a German who served as marshal of France, the highest rank of command in the Old Regime army, in the era of the War of the Austrian Succession.

  • Servan, Joseph. Le soldat citoyen, ou Vues patriotiques sur la manière la plus avantageuse de pourvoir à la défense du royaume. N.p.: n.p, 1780.

    Treatise by an Old Regime officer and minor nobleman that argues for reforming the French Army into an army of “soldier-citizens.”

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