When France collapsed after only seven weeks beneath the onslaught of Hitler’s blitzkrieg in 1940, the French people earned a reputation of being effeminate and impotent retreaters unable to withstand the harsh rigors of war. For seventy years now, many ill-informed militaristic thinkers and armchair wannabe warriors have derided the French as unwilling to fight and lacking courage and fortitude. I remember — upon hearing French troops would be fighting in the Coalition Forces during the First Gulf war — college classmates of mine who had no more experience of war than they had of space travel making grave pronouncements such as, “Be sure they put the Frogs behind us so they don’t trample our troops during their retreat,” and “They need to be careful over there; everyone knows the French Army’s battle flag is solid white.” To be honest, I didn’t think much of the French military capabilities. I’d been raised on the old lie that arose after we began numbering our world wars — France was weak; France couldn’t fight.
That was before I’d done any substantial reading or study on World War 1 in general and the Western Front in particular. No nation has ever been more unjustly ridden with a yellow saddle than France. If they seemed to be swept aside in 1940, perhaps it was less cowardice and more memory — memory of another war a generation before.
People who speak of French lack of military prowess are woefully untutored in the annals of history. Britannica may have indeed ruled the waves, but for a millennium following Charles the Hammer’s victory over the Moors at the Battle of Tours, the Fleur de Lis, then the Tricolor ruled continental Europe. This was the nation of Charlemange, Jean d’Arc, and Captain d’Anjou. Just a fraction over a century before the Great War began, a young Corsican second lieutenant of artillery raised the largest army the Western world had ever seen and came closer to conquering the entirety of Europe than anyone since the heights of the Roman Empire. Only a horrible Russian winter and the combined armies of almost every other country in Europe managed to keep Napoleone di Buonoparte from recognizing his dream of uniting Europe under the Tricolor.
Only the rise of a unified German Federation with Prussia as its core began to challenge French military might on the Continent. France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War a generation before the Great War marked the passing of the torch of rivalry from France’s traditional enemy ever since the Hundred Years War — England / Great Britain — to a new and newly powerful Germany. Still, the loss of one war does not a coward make for if it did, Great Britain would have crumbled after the American Revolution. Instead, France learned from its mistakes in the Franco-Prussian campaign and some of those lessons would stand her in good stead in 1914, but only at a tremendous cost.
Americans, by and large, have a skewed view of war and especially casualties. Here is a number — 2,756,150. That’s a huge number by any accounting. In this case, that huge number is the sum total of ALL casualties — killed, wounded, or missing — from every conflict the United States of America has been a part of since the American Revolution. Again, 2.7 million casualties from EVERY conflict — even the bush wars, “Indian Wars,” and “interventions” right up to the present War on Terror. Also, nearly 800,000 of those casualties are from the War of Northern Aggression, not any conflict against a foreign power.
2,756,150 casualties in 238 years. That works out to roughly 11,500 casualties per YEAR since this nation was founded. That’s not a small number and I understand every person who makes up that number is a representation of suffering and grief not only of that person, but that person’s family, friends, and community. Unlike Comrade Stalin, I do not believe one death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic. Still, 2,756,150 casualties in 238 years.
Over the course of a single day — August 22, 1914 — 27,000 French soldiers died in an early part of what is now known at The Battle of the Frontiers.
27,000+ Frenchmen KILLED, not casualties, DEAD. In. One. Day.
For some perspective on the matter, consider this. America fought the Vietnam War from 1955-1975. In those twenty years, we had 47,424 combat deaths. In twenty years, we lost fewer men than France lost in TWO DAYS on the Western Front.
What is even crazier is people are STILL DYING every year directly because of World War I. Some estimates say as many as 12 million shells are still “out there” in the fields waiting to be struck by an errant plow or perhaps some teens on a motorcycle. Here in America, we have NOTHING to compare. Unless one is foolish enough to wander onto a military bombing or firing range, one is not going to be killed by an unexploded piece of ordnance from a past war.
In all, the French lost nearly six million killed, wounded, or missing during the four year war. That is almost 10% of the country’s population. When you extrapolate each casualty having friends, family, and other loved ones who would be devastated by deaths and wounds witnessed, over half the population can be said to have been DIRECTLY affected by the events of the war.
Think of it this way, a good chunk of the men in charge at the outset of World War II, the men who oversaw the collapse of France in those seven short weeks, had been junior officers or enlisted soldiers during the horror of The Great War. Military historians often state most armies are perfectly ready to fight the PREVIOUS war. Could it be that so many of those men who had survived the carnage of the Western Front could only envision another war of mud filled trenches and body filled shell craters? If they did, can one blame them for not wanting their sons to go to the same Hell?
The French are not cowards now. They are eccentric to be sure, but they are not cowards, and they were not cowards in the collapse of France during the salad days of World War II. It is not cowardice to have an excellent and accurate memory.
Love y’all, and keep those feet clean!