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For a long time in the English-speaking world the French military has been regarded as a bit of a joke. Words and phrases like “defeatism”, “Maginot LIne”, “red trousers” and “cult of the offensive” get bandied about. The more I study the subject - and I by no means claim to be an expert - the less I believe this. It seems to me that in the Second World War the French army was quite good, just unlucky. In the First it was pretty bad but not for the reasons we think. 

In the course of our conversation we cover Napoleon and, of course, Hitler, the German preparations for war, the fall of empire, American independence, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, American anti-Americanism, the break-up of successful coalitions, French art and the move from war to watercolours, Emmanuel Todd, counter-factual history. 

Notes

  1. In the victorious 100 days offensive the British took 48% of the prisoners and 42% of the guns. The French took 36% of the prisoners and 28% of the guns. So, the French weren’t doing nothing.
  2. Simon House Lost Opportunity
  3. In the Middle Ages 1 in 4 Europeans was a Frenchman. This proportion has been declining ever since especially since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
  4. Dreyfus Affair 
  5. Boulanger 
  6. Findlay Dounachie's LA pamphlet 
  7. Foch was the commander of all the Allied armies in 1918 
  8. On that comment about the French PM asking Haig about the merits of the Nivelle Offensive I have got confused. He was asked by the French War Minister about the merits of Nivelle before the offensive began (24/3/17). He was asked by the French Prime Minister about the merits of other French generals after the offensive began (26/4/17).
  9. Do the French remember the Battle of the Ardennes? Yes, but not particularly well. There is a Battle of the Ardennes page on French Wikipedia but it took a while for me to find. 
  10. According to David Fraser’s biography of Alan Brooke (p137), the review of French troops took place in the presence of General Corap who Brooke found complacent. Unfortunately, this was written after the Fall of France. 
  11. For more on Germany’s High Command and their plot to oust Hitler in 1938
  12. This would appear to be the battle between Caesar and Pompey that Brian was referring to.
  13. Dien Bien Phu was a bit bigger than I thought but nothing like the scale of the First World War.
  14. “Only” 80,000 British soldiers surrendered at Singapore 
  15. There may have been as many as 40,000 French civilian dead in the Normandy Campaign.
  16. Here is de Gaulle after Paris was liberated. My French may be rusty but I am pretty sure there is no mention of either Britain or America. 
  17. This is the book by Ross King that Brian mentions 
  18. David’s portrait of Napoleon 
  19. The French word for “sympathy” is “sympathie”.
  20. I can’t find any evidence that Haig was sceptical about the Nivelle Offensive

 

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