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August 1914: France, the Great War, and a Month that Changed the World Forever Review

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The long 19th century came to an end in August 1914, when the European continent broke out in the conflagration of the Great War. France mobilized the largest army she ever had in her history, and in the first weeks of the war suffered casualties that were already staggering, as tens of thousands died every day in the bloodiest single period of fighting during the entire war. August 1914: France, the Great War, and a Month that Changed the World Forever by Bruno Cabanes and translated by Stephanie o'Hara makes the case that France was already profoundly transformed by this experience, which dramatically altered French society. This claim seems overstated, but it does show how mobilization and entry into the war was felt very differently across France and how French people and society acted during the beginning of the war.

These reactions are some of the most fascinating, striking in particular is the analysis of the fears of espionage, sabotage, and social mobilization against perceived enemies. This is often not something which reflects well on France: the French people searched for ridiculous scapegoats as the nation descended into war. Most absurd was the belief that Maggi, a French food company, was helping the Germans by setting up supply depots with secret codes and messages which the German invaders would see - on public billboards for advertisements! And so Maggi stores were attacked, looted, burned, blood-stained helmets placed outside. I don’t particularly buy the idea that it was a peculiarly modern espionage development, since rumors and fears of enemy sabotage were nothing new and France in particular seems to have a proclivity to wild specular and fear-mongering during war time. But it burst the belief of a France nobly and selflessly united around the war effort, showing how in practice French people could react with terrifying small-mindedness and hysteria in attacking foreigners and the terror of imaginary spies. This social side of France’s time in war is most often ignored in favor of conditions later in the war, but mobilization had its own particular dynamics.

The image of the "fleur au fusil" still dominates many contemporary impressions of reactions to the war

The image of the "fleur au fusil" still dominates many contemporary impressions of reactions to the war

Also intriguing is the focus on French soldier’s experiences. It is a common theme now to analyze critically the famous enthusiasm of the opening the weeks, the “fleur au fusil” with patriotic rallying around the flag and almost carnivalesque atmosphere. it is relatively widely known now that soldiers went to war in an atmosphere that was much more melancholy, uncertain, and sad - il faut en faire, have to get done with it, rather than bellicose violence. Beyond this, soldiers had the integration into military life, the rough march to the front in brutal conditions of scorching heat, and huge loads to carry, and then the terror and confusion of combat. While the book is not a dedicated military history, and it makes errors (such as the claim that Plan XVII was a campaign plan rather than a concentration plan, although this error is widespread enough in other sources) it gives a good picture of the mentality and outlook of soldiers as they entered the war. They were entering into an entirely new world, one which would be theirs for the next grueling four years.

The homefront of course was still the experience of most French people, even with the unprecedented mobilization for the front, and a vital subject of the book is how it responded to the massive removal of men, as well as animals, such as horses, from the economy. Some of this is quite notably intriguing, such as how the nexus of family authority shifted - not to women, but often to older male relatives who became the new heads of the family. Crossing between men and women, soldiers and non-soldiers, was the occupation and invasion. With its violence, fears, and massive exodus of refugees. Some of the language here is the odd and generally useless scholarly variety - instead of saying violence against people and property there is “violence against bodies and places” but as a whole the chapter on the invasion is enlightening and shows the long term scars the war left on France by the war and violation of her territory.

The section on Jaurès however, although a well done component, seems out of place in light of the limited effect that it ultimately had, and the extensive forays into the pre-war political life doesn’t jive with the theme. It is an odd contrast to the rest of the book, which is distinctly a history from below, as it is more a history from above.

The central theme of the book, that French society was transformed from the star of the war, also seems overstated. Since the counterfactual - the war being over by Christmas, as was predicted - seems like it could have seen a society restore its pre-war self relatively easily enough. But it gives a good account of the beginning of the war and otherwise neglected elements, such as the witch hunts against foreigners, or the condition of foreign prisoners and nationals in France, and the espionnage fears - which are a great connection to the breakdown of France in 1940. A good, readable, and intriguing, if not social history.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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