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

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Rise and Triumph of Clemenceau

By Professor Pierre Miquel (1930–2007)
Professor of History, The Sorbonne, Paris, France

After much internal debate the ill-fated Chemin des Dames offensive of General Robert Nivelle went ahead on 16 April 1917 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. 

Statue at Place Clemenceau in Paris

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 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 [an] American position, expressed by Pershing [who was not speaking for President Wilson], which advocated not to sign an armistice before Allied troops had penetrated into the Rhineland.  As for 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. 

Victory as Commemorated on a French Magazine Cover

While Clemenceau had been accused of acting as a dictator by his political opponents, he had nevertheless succeeded in controlling the military to the end , notably by taking advantage of the rivalry existing between Foch and Pétain. Under this point of view, his political mastery helped make the final victory and the armistice of  11 November possible.

Selected from a paper Professor Miquel originally presented at the 2003 Seminar of the Great War Society.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting article. I am a great fan of both Clemenceau and Joffre, and while I suspect Joffre kept aloof from politicians and refused to allow political interference from the French government for perfectly good reasons (There were, for instance, those in the government that would have supported making peace with Germany), his eventual removal was instigated by political supporters of Nivelle, who nearly destroyed the French army. Clemenceau was probably the only politician in France who had the trust of both the French army and the British government.