In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section France in World War I

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • The Road to War and the Campaigns of 1914
  • The Campaigns of 1915
  • The Campaigns of 1916
  • The Campaigns of 1917
  • The Campaigns of 1918
  • Tactical, Technological, and Doctrinal Evolution
  • Allies and Partners
  • Leadership
  • Social Histories
  • Morale and Mutiny
  • Colonial Forces
  • Unit Histories
  • Personal Accounts

Military History France in World War I
by
James Taub
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0243

Introduction

The French Army of the World War I (aka, the Great War) carried the weight of the Allied war effort on its shoulders, providing the second-largest proportion of fighting troops, holding a majority of the Western Front, and providing multiple smaller allied nations with the materiel needed to fight in multiple theaters of war. Like many other forces entering the conflict, the French had to rapidly adapt to modern warfare. Adjusting from dated uniforms and tactics was a painful experience, which the French soldier, known as the poilu, excelled at. After the initial shock of combat during the Battle of the Frontiers, the army was able to rally a defense along the Marne River and counterattack alongside their British allies. With the onset of the war in the trenches, the campaign of 1915 saw repeated assaults in Artois and Champagne in what would become the bloodiest year of the war for France. In addition to efforts on the Western Front, the French deployed forces to assist the British in the Dardanelles and the Serbians in the Balkans. The year 1916 would center around the brutal attritional combat at Verdun and the Somme, while 1917 saw the disastrous Neville Offensive on the Chemin des Dames and occurrences that have been referred to as a “collective disobedience” among the French forces, followed by a period of rebuilding and limited assaults. The last year of the war witnessed France assisting the British in repulsing the German Spring Offensive before dealing with concentrated offensives toward their own lines. While training and equipping the newly arrived American Expeditionary Forces, the French Army began a series of assaults in July that began the defeat of the Germans in the west. The historiography of the French military effort has changed rapidly as more sources become available. Debate continues over battles, tactics, personalities, and social themes, which have tended to focus on the social experience of the poilu and his war. Recent historians have begun a process of reevaluating the French war effort to show just how powerful and leading a force the French Army truly was. Additionally, growing studies in German and English language historiography are emerging to open France’s history to a multitude of new audiences.

General Overviews

Historians of France’s military efforts in the Great War have approached the topic from both ends, with the generals looking down and the soldiers and civilians looking up. For English language works, Doughty 2008 deconstructs the French strategic and operational endeavors during the conflict, while Clayton 2005 gives a general introduction to the history of the French Army as well as its organization and battles. Greenhalgh 2014 gives a comprehensive look at the French Army’s history from the defeats of 1871 through to the postwar era, tying in themes such as tactics, medicine, technology, politics, and many others along the way, making it a needed volume for any researcher touching on the subject. Sumner 2012 utilizes published accounts of individual soldiers to illustrate life at the front in a chronological form. Smith, et al. 2008 covers Frances’s war effort both at the front and at home through the lens of topics ranging from propaganda, economic warfare, politics, and memory. French language histories include Beaupré 2013, which looks at the French nation and its divided responses to total war. Cazals and Loez 2008 explores the social, moral, and psychological aspects of life for French soldiers in the trenches.

  • Beaupré, Nicolas. La France en guerre, 1914–1918. Paris: Belin, 2013.

    A synthesis of France’s efforts in the war, with special attention being paid to the relationship between the conflict and French nationalism. In French.

  • Cazals, Rémy, and André Loez. 14–18, Vivre et mourir dans les tranchées. Pau, France: Cairn, 2008.

    A look at the average French soldier from multiple aspects, including combat, morale, relations with superiors and the enemy, material culture, and many others. In French.

  • Clayton, Anthony. Paths of Glory: The French Army 1914–18. London: Cassell, 2005.

    A chronological history of the French Army with useful appendices exploring organization and biographies of key figures.

  • Doughty, Robert A. Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt13x0fkn

    A thorough study of French strategy and operations which dissects the military as well as political decisions that crafted French goals and theory.

  • Greenhalgh, Elizabeth. The French Army and the First World War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511998133

    A comprehensive work that connects the French Army’s participation within its proper context of French history, the Great War, and various subtopics to create an overarching picture. Each subject in this bibliography would be served by having this work cited.

  • Smith, Leonard V., Audoin-Rouzeau Stéphane, and Annette Becker. France and the Great War, 1914–1918. Translated by Helen McPhail. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    An all-encompassing study on France, its soldiers, and civilians through lenses both military and civic.

  • Sumner, Ian. They Shall Not Pass: The French Army on the Western Front, 1914–1918. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Military, 2012.

    Utilizing memoirs and diaries of French soldiers, this work explores the French Army on the Western Front through the eyes of its junior soldiers.

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