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Flesh and Steel During the Great War: The Transformation of the French Army Review


The French Army has received a lot of interest recently: Robert Doughty’s Pyrrhic Victory from 2005, Time Gale’s 2016 French Tanks of the Great War, Anthony Clayton’s 2007 Paths of Glory, Early Trench Tactics in the French Army from 2013 by Jonathon Krause, and a host of others which I haven’t gotten around to reading yet but are from the last decade. It isn’t furthermore, simply a product of looking at more modern sources: one can see in bibliographies on articles that the books cited almost all stem from the last several decades. Miche Goya’s book Flesh and Steel during the Great War: The Transformation of the French Army and Modern Warfare, translated from the French by Andrew Undiffel, predates these given its original publication date of 2004, perhaps heralding the wave of books which followed it. As the starting piece of the trend, it makes for a valuable piece on tactical and operational thought both before and during the war, as well as equipment and structural evolution, although it is let down by relative dryness and the lack of precise details which could have been included for tactical doctrine:

Grandmaison was a brilliantly charismatic man, but like many pre-WW1 generals he was charismatic about the wrong ideas.

Grandmaison was a brilliantly charismatic man, but like many pre-WW1 generals he was charismatic about the wrong ideas.

Its beginning is an excellent companion to March to the Marne, and matches many of its points: the key one is reinforcing the idea that the French army was fractured, divided, and lacking in firm centralization internally, and it was this climate that enabled, ironically, the doctrine of the offensive to become so predominate, through simplicity. It also however, pairs this with a great collection of sources on the intellectual debates within the “cabal” of the French army thinkers, including particularly but not just the (in)famous Grandmaison, showing how they dealt with psychological, social science ideas, their interpretations of South African and Manchurian wars, and the idea of effects of modern weapons. Its excellent examination of these sources is invaluable in giving additional understanding of how the doctrine of the offensive became so intellectually dominant among French military thinkers. This is particularly intriguing with the psychological analysis which the French military men applied, their belief in moral factors, and the interpretation of historical factors. And examining what seems to be the key debate - whether the battle would be immediately decisive or a multi-staged, if still brief war, sheds light on how it the quick coming war was perceived.

With the conflict’s start, there is also a good overview of how the war shaped French operational thought during the immediate beginning, such as rapid increases in artillery usage and flanking attacks, which quickly supplanted official doctrine. There is also a decent look at what the failings and weaknesses of French units were, such as their poor proximity security, non-existent long-distance security, mediocre interarms operation, and scouting. The late war contrast with this shows up at times as a good comparison, but there is also the continuing debate throughout the war of shock vs firepower which continued pre-war arguments.

It does however, seem that there is less detail about the year 1915. This lacks comparatively compared to the dramatic opening offenses at the beginning of the war or the successful mechanized-aviation assault of the end: the middle flashes by without sufficient note of how the translational army worked. Also, the focus is on the “normative” - the standard units of the French army, and less so upon the colonial units such as the African black troops, the Tirailleurs sénégalais, or the experience of French formations on other fronts such as Italy, Salonica, or Palestine. This is an acceptable ommission since after all the majority, the overwhelming one really, of French army combat occurred on he Western front, by Metropolitan infantry units, but the black troops which were used as shock formations would have been a useful comparison and in of themselves are worthy of study for their tactical employment.

German prisoners being marched to the rear after the Battle of Malmaison, a rather forgotten battle but a highly important French victory in the otherwise grim year of 1917.

German prisoners being marched to the rear after the Battle of Malmaison, a rather forgotten battle but a highly important French victory in the otherwise grim year of 1917.

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There are some insightful observations, such as about the opposite developments of the French and German army compared to pre-war stereotypes: the French triumph in 1917 at Malmaison was a carefully coordinated, precisely planned, methodical offensive victory, while the German offensive at the same time at Caporetto in Italy was a decisive triumph of speed, mobility, and improvised maneuver. Certainly, the German army of the pre-war era was not the clay-footed, inflexible behemoth of the French conception, but the two arrived at comparatively diametrically opposed views which ran completely contrary to pre-war stereotypes. The sane can be said for reservists vs. line troops - the French opened the war with reservists and active formations in completely different roles, with only active troops used in the line of battle, while the Germans opened the war with reservists integrated into their main combat formation, while by the end of the war the French had removed any distinction between the two while the Germans had hierarchized their troops with regular formations and stormtroopers. Perhaps the discrediting of styles of both armies in the terrible struggle led them to adopting changes based on reaction, and the German claim that the tactical-operational thought of the army did not undergo a fundamental change is an exaggeration.

Innovations in the air force, cavalry, and particularly the armored units are well represented. Aircraft operations such as the organization of dedicated fighter units, or the concentration of airpower in the air division, or the relationship of army and artillery units to observation are well covered. It doesn’t ignore the personnel and more factors either, such as how the influx of cavalry personnel into the air force or the tank forces gave them a cavalry-esque spirit. And reservist officers too, who fled to the new branches to escape marginalization in the regular arms where normal officers looked down on them.

As mentioned, the changes of the tactical and doctrinal environment are excellent, and a key part of the display is how the French infantry reacted to and had to adapt to mobile warfare with German stormtrooper tactics. It shows how the psychology of trench warfare conflicted with open battle, with its need for improvisation and coping without secured flanks, and how French infantry struggled very much to react at first to this after years of mostly static trench warfare.

Organizationally, the feuds for power and institutional control are a strong component, with how the army was organized and parts related to each other, such as how different military units fell under different branches, with the engineers with internal combustion engine transport, or tanks in the artillery, or fortresses with the engineers and guns with the artillery or spherical observation balloons with the artillery and dirigibles with the engineers CHECK TO MAKE SURE.

While as noted at the micro level there is a good description of some of the tactical elements, it misses broader operational details: compared to Paths of Glory by Anthony Clayton for example, there is less in the way of description of the change in armaments. however, it does have the micro-tactical level better covered, but it really could have gone more into describing various tactical engagements of French infantry. it mentions the profound difference between French infantry of the beginning of the war and the new units and equipment introduced, such as 37mm guns, automatic rifles, and mortars, as well as sections and half-sections, and the constant devolution of combat firepower and to some extent decision making, but these are not shown in action as much as would be expected. It would have been instructive for example, to have had a description of a French infantry section in their tactics used dealing with common threats such as a machine gun nest, and how they used their new firepower. There is also a lack of emotional connection that one finds in other books: it appears cold and formal in its treatment of the conflict and its suffering, terribly clinical. As a military tactics book it doesn’t necessarily require literary genius, but books such as Alistair Horne’s The Price of Glory show that it is eminently possible to combine the two.

Overall it makes for a strong analysis of the evolution of the French army tactically, operationally, and in its equipment, both qualitatively and quantitatively. But it doesn’t provide as much in the way of precise detail of tactical doctrine and micro-operations as one would expect, and it is very cold. Regardless, it seemed to spark the wave of books on the French army and it continues to be a valuable source for observing its transformation during the war, with a particular French flair for analyzing ideas, scientific principles, and cultural trends.

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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