To type in the words “paths of glory” upon an internet search engine is to immerse yourself in the great movie of Stanley Kubrick, the 1957 anti-war film which shows how bitter the memories of war remained in France nearly half a century later. By now it is not a half-century which has passed, but more than a full century, so that years have gone by since the scores of leaders drawn across the world watched in 2018 next to the Arc de Triomphe the vast centennial of the Great War. But the nightmarish memory still holds fast in France, so that French military officers still receive lectures at Verdun, despite its complete irrelevance to modern warfare, and it still lies like a shadow over the 20th century. But despite this tremendous struggle, the French army is still less appreciated than the British or Americans in the Anglo-Saxon world, and this makes Anthony Clayton’s book, Paths of Glory, The French Army 1914-1918 a welcome change, in an excellent description of the evolution of the French military in its long, bitter struggle as it transformed from the bayonet-charging, elan-worshipping force of 1914, to the massively equipped, battle hardened, exhausted force of 1918, overflowing with artillery, aircraft, and tanks. Despite all of the brutality of the long and terrible war, it was the army which held firm through the fires of terrible adversity and emerged victorious.
Such thoughts of the war’s pain naturally leap to mind since the book gives such a touching and heart rending impression of what the horrors of the war were like, most poignantly, naturally, at Verdun, with its nightmarish lunar landscape, the terrifying artillery, the corpses rotting, the death, the destruction. Little will match Alistair Horne’s wrenching portrait of the cauldron of despair, but Clayton gives it his best shot, and its glance at the horror still leaves one shuddering despite the expanse of time separating us from the war. He looks at the soldiers’ lives throughout the war, such as their foot, shelter, psychological isolation from society, rest, and support mechanisms, and gives a feel for what the perspective was of these humble men. This continues on with the post-war struggle of France’s army, as it had become alienated from France itself, the soldiers feeling alone, with only a grim, unfeeling desire to survive and escape the horror of war. In the Great War itself, the morale aspect can never be ignored, as to why French soldiers fought - often expressed in the book, in their own translated words - and how morale plunged to the darkest abyss in early 1917 before it could be shakily restored, enough to tide France over to victory.
In operational-equipment terms, there is a great description of the war of firepower which the French fought, stunning in its demand for guns and shells. One gets a true sense of how expensive the war was beyond the atrocious blood price, since material and treasure too were put upon the sacrificial altar to the god of war. The sheer quantity of artillery ammunition consumed, and its deadly impact receives full accounting. There are extensive quantitative details about this war of material, in regards to numbers and production - as well as that visceral portrait of what this actually meant for the men on the ground.
It also like books such as Flesh and Steel in the Great War, helps to elaborate on rival tactical and operational conceptions of defense and fighting, notably between Pétain and Foch, Foch’s obsession with the offensive and holding every inch of terrain contrasted with Pétain’s cautious, defense-in-depth approach, as well as strategically as Foch perceived the allies as a collective force while Pétain was concerned about French isolation and being minimized by the Anglo-Saxon powers. This is just one microcosm of the tactical development of the army, in how tactics transformed to become more firepower heavy and more sophisticated with hurricane bombardments and creeping barrages, or the growing role of tanks and aircraft. It also, in its brief length, still finds the time to look at “secondary” campaigns such as Gallipoli, the Middle East, Africa, and Italy.
Also, Clayton has a knack for being able to simply and effectively describe the reasons for the success or failure of an operation, as well as the impact of policies. how the French army restored morale or strategic factors impacting the soldiers are nicely displayed and simple to understand. He can provide a comprehensible, readable, and logical description of what went wrong with catastrophes such as the Battle of the Frontiers, with both excessive French aggressiveness and a terrifying tendency to avoid any unwelcome information.
As far as a general history of the army and its operations goes, it combines good supporting detail with excellent readability. Touchingly human, well documented, written, and writing of what both the impact of the war on France and her army was directly, as well as in the years following the war, Paths of Glory is a great centerpiece to reading about the French army and WW1, and perhaps ideals for beginners. A longer book would be welcome for a more encyclopedic look, but as an introduction, and general backbone, it is splendid.
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.