A Cautionary Tale: France and World War I

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As we approach the centennial of World War I, it’s hard not to wonder how Europeans could have entered into such a bloodbath. In hindsight, the lessons from nineteenth-century conflicts seem clear: long-range artillery destroys offensive élan, and prolonged war causes social instability and even revolution. Why would any country go to war, and stay with it once it became clear that it wouldn’t be over by Christmas?

But the lessons learned from earlier conflicts were not always the ones that we might think. France after the Franco-Prussian War provides a case in point. When France went to war with Prussia and its German allies in 1870, it had no clear war aims, no systematic plan for mobilization, and no allies. It was unprepared for war. A series of demoralizing defeats led to the battle of Sedan, in which French Emperor Napoleon III and his army were captured. And the war didn’t end there: the government that took Napoleon III’s place decided to continue the fight, which dragged on for four more months. In the end, Prussia and its allies unified into the German Empire, France lost Alsace and much of Lorraine, and Paris underwent the Commune and its bloody repression.

The link that is often drawn between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I is that of revenge: the traumatized French were eager to inflict vengeance and win back their lost territories. But revenge—or revanchisme—motivated only a small minority of nationalists. Much more potent was the belief that a nation and its citizens could and should prepare in advance for a future conflict.

Starting in the 1880s, after the initial trauma of the “terrible year” had started to heal, many French citizens started to believe that the blame for the loss lay not just with politicians and generals, but also with themselves. So they got organized. They believed that all citizens, especially young males, needed to join together to hone their bodies, gather bandages, and unify their wills toward a French victory in a yet-unknown future war. Young men joined clubs where they trained in gymnastics and riflery. Red Cross organizations mushroomed around the country, urging women and men to learn how to dress wounds. Commemorative ceremonies at war memorials became politicized, nationalistic spectacles aimed at motivating the next generation of soldiers.

This willingness to prepare for war in times of peace did not necessarily indicate a desire for a war of revenge. Instead, it reflected a drive for self-preservation and devotion to the French nation. By 1914, French citizens had created a civil society capable of mobilizing civilians for war.

As it turned out, however, French citizens could not have imagined the intensity and the duration of the war that they faced in 1914. How well did the minimally trained Red Cross volunteers fare when confronted with 329,000 French deaths in just the first two months of war? How could the tumbling skills learned in gymnastics prepare soldiers for the Battle of the Marne?

Yet these organizations shaped the Great War because they created a society in which war could be more readily accepted, not only in 1914, but again and again over the course of the next four years. Historian Jean-Jacques Becker asks, “Why were the French so ready to make sacrifices in 1914 when they had been so unprepared for them in the past?” One answer is that they had been emotionally and socially preparing for that sacrifice for decades. French organizations didn’t cause World War I, but they provide a cautionary tale: democracy and a robust civil society do not in themselves prevent war. In France one hundred years ago, they helped to sustain it.

Rachel Chrastil is Associate Professor of History at Xavier University and author of Organizing for War: France, 1870–1914.