Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, June 21, 2014

French Politics After Verdun and the Somme

Verdun and the Somme, in 1916, added a further 350,000 Frenchmen dead and missing. The successful defense at Verdun was to permit the success of a major Franco-British offensive that would follow on the Somme, but that hope failed to materialize. From that point on, the fate of General Joffre was politically sealed. Prime Minister Briand elevated Joffre to the rank of Marshal of France and replaced him with General Nivelle, who had successfully recaptured much of the lost ground at Verdun, during the fall of 1916.

Nivelle and Joffre at Souilly, Late in the Battle of Verdun

General Nivelle proceeded to prepare a spring offensive in order to recapture the German positions on the Chemin des Dames, to the north of Paris. His efforts at convincing the French and British political leaderships overcame their skepticism. However, the French minister for war, General Liautey, resigned in order not to have his name attached to what he predicted would be a failure. A negative result was also predicted by Pétain. Prime Minister Briand also resigned at the same time. After much internal debate, however, the ill-fated Chemin des Dames  offensive went ahead on 16 April and quickly ground to a halt. The dead and missing between the period April to June 1916 in that sector alone mounted to well over 100,000 men.

It took this failure and mutinies affecting half the French Army, to bring Georges Clemenceau into the post of prime minister in November 1917. In contrast with the timidity of his predecessors, Clemenceau boldly increased civilian control over the military leadership, which now was in the hands of Pétain and Foch. Furthermore, he involved himself personally with the Allies to coordinate the applications of basic military strategies. Thus he found no major difficulties in convincing Lloyd George and President Wilson to accept Foch as overall military leader of the Alliance, in the spring of 1918. At the French military operational level, for instance, he pressed Pétain to move up French divisions to help Haig take the brunt of the Ludendorff Spring Offensive in April 1918. At a later date he also pressed Foch to request British divisional support in Champagne, after Ludendorff had shifted his assaults onto the French sector.

During the weeks preceding the 11 November armistice, another political debate involving the generals took place. Pétain agreed with the American position, expressed by Pershing, which advocated not to sign an armistice before Allied troops had penetrated into the Rhineland. As to Foch, he approved the British strategic goals, which had set as a priority the military liberation of Flanders and Belgium. Clemenceau, after convincing Lloyd George, ignored their advice and imposed the signature of an armistice immediately. By that date the French nation had lost nearly 1.4 million military personnel, dead or missing in action.

Source:  THE POLITICS OF FRENCH MILITARY LEADERSHIP 1914-1918 by Pierre Miguel

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