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

Friday, December 1, 2017

Between Sedan and Dreyfus: The French Officer Corps and Politics

General Boulange in His Prime
The defeat of the French Second Empire at German hands led to the creation of the Third Republic, a governmental system that placed power within the legislature and was plagued by ministerial instability and bureaucratic ineffectiveness. Most French officers, disproportionately Catholic, rural, and conservative, disliked and distrusted the anticlerical and pro-Parisian leanings of the government. The Third Republic, in their eyes, was a bastard child of the bloody Paris Commune and would, in all likelihood, last not much longer than the four years of the Second Republic (1848–1852). Then France could go back to a more authoritarian, conservative, and effective government that would support the army and promote traditional French values.

Joffre, 1889
The Third Republic was also rife with scandals, political intrigue, and persistent rumors of military-led coups. General George Boulanger's political movement of the late 1880s was the most famous but far from the only one of its kind. Boulanger combined right-wing authoritarianism and left-wing populism to build a movement that terrified the French government into a series of extreme measures that included ordering government employees to vote against the general and, eventually, exiling Boulanger himself. The threat only ended in 1891 when a love-sick Boulanger shot himself on the grave of his mistress, who had recently died of consumption.

Thus, French officers in the late 19th century often felt that they had more to fear from fellow French than they did from the Germans. Officers had to learn how to play the system and curry favor with politicians in order to survive the turmoil and intrigue of the Third Republic. Some, like Joseph Joffre and Maurice Sarrail, developed ways (albeit very different ways) to deal with political realities. Others, like Paul-Marie Pau, had promotions denied to them on the basis of their politics. In 1907 then prime minister Georges Clemenceau had to intervene personally to give Ferdinand Foch command of the French War College; a report shown to Clemenceau had accused Foch of giving higher grades to Catholics, and Foch had a Jesuit brother, but Clemenceau decided to back Foch anyway.

Foch Before the War
When French officers weren't worrying about politics in Paris, they were looking overseas. The way to make a career in the late nineteenth-century French Army was by distinguishing oneself in the empire. After the Franco-Prussian War, France looked to Indochina, Madagascar, Senegal, and, above all, Algeria, to recover lost glory. The Germans, for their part, did all they could to encourage French imperial interests, both to turn French attention away from the continent and in the hopes that imperial endeavors would keep France and Britain in constant conflict.

Virtually all of France's best known and best regarded generals had made their names in the colonies. Joffre, Hubert Lyautey, Charles Mangin, Joseph Gallieni, and countless others became French heroes for their work extending French influence to the corners of the globe. Given enormous powers, they learned to manage resources over tremendous distances, conquer problems of logistics, and balance military responsibilities with economic and political ones. To many of them, most notably Lyautey, the prospect of a war with Germany was infinitely less important than the expansion and solidification of the empire.

Source:  Over the Top, March 2007


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  2. I agree that this is really a great piece and I likewise would like to learn more.

  3. Very useful background for France in WWI.
    More, pls!