Book Review: Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War

By Robert A Doughty

The French army of World War I has long had bad press in military historiography, mostly stemming from British claims to have secured victory in 1918 and, retrospectively, from the debacle of 1940. Yet French military history has enjoyed little of the vitality of its English-language counterpart in recent years. So Robert A. Doughty, emeritus professor and head of the Department of History at West Point, has performed an invaluable service to everyone by writing a closely reasoned, analytical narrative of the French army's performance during the most gruelling war in its history providing an outstanding study of the subject.

Price: £19:99
Publication Date: 2008
ISBN: 978-0674027268

Making considerate but vigorous use of the secondary literature, Doughty prefers to base his analysis on primary sources. He relies a great deal on the official history of the French army, a neglected work whose documentary volumes, he rightly observes, make it the most valuable of all the official military histories of the war. He supplements this with shrewd use of the French military archives and the private papers, published memoirs, diaries, and correspondence of the leading figures.
The French army that emerges from his account exemplifies the range of tactical and strategic responses to the nature of warfare in 1914–18. Refuting more pessimistic assessments, Doughty portrays a pre-war army that had acquired the manpower base (universal military service), equipment (the seventy-five-millimetre field gun), and offensive doctrine to enable it to absorb the shock of the German invasion—once it had abandoned its own headlong plunge into Germany. In one of many sharp and judicious assessments of French commanders, Doughty gives Field Marshal Joffre full credit for his flexibility in fighting the Battle of the Marne, which defeated the German war plan.

Thereafter, the French faced an industrialized war dominated by the defensive. Doughty appropriately conveys the pressures on the generals—the widespread belief that only an offensive could overcome the enemy, the demand for results from a civilian government that remained firmly in charge, and the requirements of coalition warfare on a grand scale. Doing nothing was not an option, but doing something constructive was almost impossible. Joffre grasped the need to retool the army with heavy guns. Yet this alone could not bring victory, and France could ill afford the human loss involved in Joffre's mass offensives. By the end of 1915, France had already lost half of its 1.4 million soldiers who would die in the war.

A further process shaped all of the above options. In 1915, Joffre envisaged the industrialization of warfare as the addition of material to human resources. But following the Nivelle offensive (and the trend was evident before), it meant, instead, the replacement of men by matériel. The second miracle, after the Marne, was that which saw France become an industrial powerhouse, developing tanks, aircraft, artillery, and chemical arms in profusion and adopting the tactics appropriate to them. Although Doughty does not use the term, the French army embarked on a “learning curve” such as that long claimed for the British army during the war.

A strength of this book is the steadfastness with which it sets its own, command-centred limits. But this also means that the chaos and carnage appear only on the margins (as at General Headquarters itself) and that while morale is taken into account, the soldiers' experience is not—although issues such as material conditions and military justice (briefly treated in relation to the mutinies) would have provided a way of doing so. Furthermore, if the Allies are dealt with, the enemy is largely ignored. This leaves unexplored the issues of what the French learned from the Germans and what each side meant by a concept such as “attrition”. Nonetheless, the ability of historians to write about these and other issues has been enhanced by the skill and clarity with which Doughty has explained the ideas and actions of the French generals who controlled the destinies of millions of soldiers.