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La France de la Première Guerre Mondiale Review

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La France de la première guerre mondiale by Alexandre Lafon is a rather short book, barely 200 pages long. Despite this, it manages an impressively wide-ranging, broad, and insightful look into the social organization and impact, particularly for the memory, of the war. it may lack for exhaustive detail on any single subject, but it provides a good framework about the war and a nice overall depiction of France’s struggle during the conflict, well written and easily comprehensible.

The Ossuaire de Douaumont: this monument stands as a testament to the enduring memory of WW1 in France

The Ossuaire de Douaumont: this monument stands as a testament to the enduring memory of WW1 in France

One of its beast features is the memory of the war in France, in the phase both immediately after the war and following further on, up to the present. It has a small, but serviceable section on historiography, and why historical memory in France has altered in its relationship to the war. The immediate post-war era had its interest in the triumphalist, legal justification of the war and the triumph over German militarism, but this also quickly was followed by the rise of pacifism among the veterans during the later 1920s. Unfortunately this is not fully elaborated upon, since there were some very interesting attempts at Franco-German reconciliation during the period, including some that serve as clear predecessors of the famous Franco-German handshake of 1984 between Mitterand and Kohl, with Franco-German veteran meetings at Verdun in the 1920s. But continuing on past this, it notes the return of interest in the Great War following the example of Yugoslavia and the inflammation of ethnic tensions, an intriguing return to prominence which is not noted elsewhere commonly. Some of the last segments unfortunately seem almost inconsequentially petty in things such as French educational priorities, but the rest is well covered.

Mitterand and Kohl's handshake is the most enduring picture of Franco-German reconciliation

Mitterand and Kohl's handshake is the most enduring picture of Franco-German reconciliation


There are some small errors present elsewhere, notably in the section on diplomacy, where the peace process is dramatically simplified and numerous elements that came from diplomatic negotiations between the allies instead of from purely French proposals are assigned to French decisions, such as the German army size. Germany’s army was limited to 100,000 volunteer troops under the Treaty of Versailles, which was not the French proposal: rather the French wished to have a German army of 200,000 conscripts. The book presents this as the French ideal, instead of as a product of Anglo-Saxon-French negotiations. While there is a natural degree of simplification necessary for writing such a relatively short book, in this case at least, it verges on accuracy.

Also, the book distinctly leaves out individuals. There are no deep portraits of the French leadership and generals, but rather only a structural diplomation of French society. pétain, Joffre, Clemenceau, Foch, Poincaré, Millerand, Vivenni, Albert Thomas- all of the individuals who directed the French war effort are left out. While the structural, impersonal factors are well presented, the lack of a human face hurts it. There are neither any voices from French soldiers and participants in the war. Of course, the explanation for these failings is the shortness of the book, but it reduces its emotional impact. There is some engagement with literary works, such as above all else, Barbusse’s Le Feu, which does compensate this so much.

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The book treats a huge variety of themes that appear: gender, soldierly entertainment and morale, battles, production, legal and popular justifications for the war, social transformations in the fluxes of refugees and soldiers, politics, and the propaganda effort to sustain support for the war and curry favor among the neutrals. Even if one is already well read on any single one of these subjects, there is sure to be one which one is still informed about. The section on war photography is the best, little covered in other books. Unfortunately it missed a great coup in failing to include the actual photographs!

The social transformations of French society is another point, with a good list of books that treat the subject, such as le Cheval orgeilleux, Au revoir là-haut, and Le corp au diable. These show the anxieties of French society confronting immense dislocations such as the huge absence of men at the front, the women moved into work and left isolated, their men off at the front. To some extent this was papered over with the "Marraines de guerre" (the war godmothers), who would adopt soldiers as their pen pals and sometimes ultimately become romantically involved with them, but the war was a shattering of pre-war notions of gender balance. Concerns over infidelity and place of women in society occupied a good chunk of post-war literature, and one can see this in the fascination exerted by the war-time focus on the Marraines de guerre and war propaganda which extolled the virtues of the housewife and traditional virtues. At the same time of course, the French war economy depended upon massive mobilization of female labor.

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A very strong general history, very wide based, with some understandable omissions due to its shortness, La France de la première guerre mondiale helps form a useful general history book to tie together themes from other, more specialist volumes, which is easy to read and digest.


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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