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

Monday, August 29, 2016

France's Role at the Somme and in the Great War

French Troops, Fay, Somme Sector

On my recent group tour of the Somme battlefield, I made a concerted effort to cover the French contribution to the battle.  This meant incorporating stops at sites on both sides of the River Somme, like the the Montagne de Frise and Curlu, which were captured on 1 July; journeying to the most southerly reaches of the battle; Lihons, Soyécourt, and Chaulnes; and following the French advance on the flank of the September 1916 British push, during which it was the French Sixth Army that made the farthest advance east in the entire campaign to Rancourt (location of a moving French memorial) and the village of Sailly Saillisel.

View of Somme from Montagne de Frise toward Curlu
Both Sites Captured 1 July 1916

For our group, most of whom had never read much about the French contributions to the Battle of the Somme, I believe it was eye-opening.  For me,  I felt a little guilty, I realized that had not done justice to the French contribution in my earlier tours.  I might be writing more about this in future postings, but I want to share a comment I remember from a review I read a few years ago.  It is a sort of caution to us in the English-speaking world how deeply the war involved and touched France.

The Great War shaped the subsequent history of France as surely as France shaped the Great War. Mourning marked every family; bitter political animosities that came to the surface in 1917 contributed ultimately to the decline of the Third Republic; and the totalization of war, that made civilians as well as soldiers the targets of military aggression, became a tragic hallmark of twentieth-century European life. Equally importantly, France and the Great War makes evident how French resolve in the face of unparalleled adversity shaped the history of the Great War. Given that, any analysis of the First World War that leaves France on the side-lines is fundamentally inadequate

Martha Hanna, University of Colorado, in her review of France and the Great War 1914-1918. by Leonard V. Smith, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau.


  1. Indeed one might use a stronger term than "...inadequate."-any history of this era that does not explore the French role is fundamentally flawed and suspect.

  2. Thanks for the reminder of the French participation at the Somme - Rancourt is a moving memorial as the German and British cemeteries are in close proximity. While certainly a searing moment in the British psyche, many skip over that the Somme Offensive was a combined operation incorporating the British, French, and Commonwealth nations as well as the concurrent Russian and Italian Offensives.

  3. Terrific article. Are the troops pictured dirty or Colonial Troops? What %age of the total French Army were Colonial Troops?

  4. In spite of the emphasis on the Western Front, the English speaking world tends to regard the French as "cheese eating surrender monkeys ", not realizing the resolve and determination of the French to win the war and beat the hated Germans!

  5. Wonderful post -- I have diaries and photos from an American ambulancier who was with the French until 23 June, just before the battle, when his section was reassigned to Verdun. Chilling to view the buildup.