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Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations


Pete1052

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Reviewed in Parameters, Quarterly Journal of the U.S. Army War College, Spring 2007

Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War. By Robert A. Doughty. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005. 578 pages. $39.95. Reviewed by Dennis E. Showalter, Professor of History, Colorado College, and author of Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century.

France, and the French army in particular, have been increasingly marginalized in the growing body of scholarship on the Great War. To British scholars France is the “Great Other.” Sometimes it is the unknown ally, the off-stage factor in a war fundamentally about Britain: its military system, its social structure, its mythology. At other times France becomes “Perfidious Gaul,” seeking to enmesh honest Britons in devious schemes to take over more miles of trench and mount offensives in the wrong places. American scholars frequently regard France as elder brother, generously providing tools and training, then applauding as the doughboys assume the war’s burden. Yet France is also the calculating patron, expecting to use the naive foreigners to underwrite France’s plans for peace and reconstruction. Ger-

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man authors for their part tend to concentrate on the British connection. Verdun is overshadowed by the Somme and Passchendaele. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the Royal Navy are the standards against which German military effectiveness is measured. The British parliamentary system is the touchstone for critiquing Germany’s ramshackle authoritarianism.

This marginalization reflects as well the mentality of a France whose intellectuals and academicians have concentrated on World War II and its consequences. The “grand tragedy” of 1940, the Vichy years and the Liberation, the Fourth Republic, and the sales guerres of Indochina and Algeria, overshadowed the Western Front. The revival of interest in the Great War since the 1970s, inspired by the work of Jacques Becker, has emphasized the “new military history,” producing a spate of work on the mentality of the poilus and the dynamics of the home front, the war’s destructive effects, and its eschatological consequences. Operational analysis has been of secondary interest.

Pyrrhic Victory restores the French army to its legitimate position at the focus of World War I. General (Ret.) Robert Doughty, for many years Chair of the US Military Academy’s History Department, possesses a gifted professional soldier’s understanding of French aims and intentions. The result is a definitive account of the development and implementation of French strategy in the Great War.

Doughty begins by analyzing the reconstruction of the French army between 1871 and 1914. It was based on a sharp division between political and military leaders. The former determined policy and objectives, then stood back and turned matters over to the soldiers. That pattern, often presented as a model for the conduct of America’s wars, led to a war plan emphasizing the offensive at all levels, strategic, operational, and tactical. It led to an army structured institutionally and intellectually for fighting a short war. And it left France’s military cupboard empty when the long-expected death-grapple with Germany in the autumn of 1914 produced unprecedented casualties, but no decision.

The central figure in this national drama was Joseph Joffre. Chief of the General Staff since 1911, Commander in Chief since the outbreak of war, he proved unusually flexible in responding to the tactical conditions imposed by the emergence of trench warfare. He was constrained by strategy and policy, however, to continue an offensive policy not merely to liberate occupied France, but to contain a German army that by 1915 had all too free-a-hand in every other sector and theater of what was being increasingly called the Great War.

Above all, however unwillingly, Joffre came to understand the necessity for accepting a war of endurance. He reconfigured doctrine, training, command philosophy, and weapons procurement to prepare the French army for a long haul. He sought to coordinate plans for a general offensive with BEF commander Sir Douglas Haig; and to secure cooperation on the Italian and Russian fronts. Joffre did not expect even that sharing of the war’s burden to bring immediate success, only to wear down German resources. And his grand strategic design was shattered by the German attack on Verdun.

Whatever German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn’s ultimate intentions, Verdun bled white the army Joffre had been at such pains reconstituting. The

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government was reorganized; Joffre was dismissed as Commander in Chief; and General Robert Nivelle received a free hand. He projected “total destruction of active enemy forces,” but his tactics were strikingly similar to those of previous offensives. Their failure caused the army’s morale to collapse. Doughty’s analysis of its recovery describes a military process: with a moral dimension. Nivelle’s successor Philippe Petain sought to rebuild spirit by developing means of attacking without suffering unsupportable casualties. He sought as well to reconfigure defensive methods, avoiding the slaughter of Verdun.

In an introduction written with an eye to the present, Doughty warns that believers in surgical wars and quick fixes know little about the Great War. Even an army as dirigiste as the French, with almost four years of war experience, faced problems institutionalizing such comprehensive doctrinal changes. The German offensives of 1918 put French and British backs to the wall. The emphasis on firepower that characterized French offensive tactics in the war’s final year was only relatively successful in reducing losses. One-fifth of all French casualties were suffered in 1918. The “strategy of opportunism” pursued by Ferdinand Foch as Allied supreme commander was in good part a product of recognition that the French army could no longer bear the war’s primary burden.

Nevertheless France won—in good part because from the politicians at Versailles to the poilus in the trenches, its people refused to accept defeat . . . . Doughty recognizes the high, short- and long-term costs of what he legitimately calls a Pyrrhic victory. But in this seminal book he demonstrates the crucial role of the army and its generals in structuring a triumph of national determination. He demonstrates as well that for all its errors of preparation and execution, the army’s prestige was by no means undeserved. This dual intellectual achievement merits the highest recognition by soldiers and scholars alike.

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Thanks for the review Pete. The book certainly helps to redress the balance toward the French contribution. I read the book and put it on the pile for re-reading soon. Very dense and I expect to catch a lot that I missed first time. I was vaguely disappointed in that he does not seem to make as much use of recent research as other books published recently. Perhaps I will revise that opinion on re-reading. Well worth reading and probably a book to buy for study rather than one to borrow from the library.

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I found it to be a very dull read, and the bias against the BEF irksome.

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Brilliant book. One of the better I've read in some time. If you search here you'll see it's been reviewed numerous times.

Paul

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Many thanks for posting the review Pete, and the others too from Parameters.

The best book in English about the French Army in WW1 by a long shot. His book on the battle of Sedan (1940), Breaking Point, is an equally impressive piece of scholarship.

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Thanks for your responses. Of the several Parameters book reviews I've posted in the last few days this is the first one that's gotten any response.

Pete Eisen

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I saw the Foley review, priced the book online, collapsed, suffered severe nose bleed and have only just recovered.

Tom,

It's out in paperback...it'll set you back about 20 quid.

clickety

Paul

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Foley's study is worth £20 of anyone's money. Excellent book. Sadly I paid the full asking price for the hardback three years ago.

Cambridge's pricing policy seems a little odd; Mombauer's book on Moltke is selling for £30 on Amazon in paperback (more I think than I paid for the hardcover six or seven years back), yet you can pick up John Gooch's impressive (and hefty) study of Mussolini and his generals for as little as £15. :blink:

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Foley's study is worth £20 of anyone's money. Excellent book. Sadly I paid the full asking price for the hardback three years ago.

Cambridge's pricing policy seems a little odd; Mombauer's book on Moltke is selling for £30 on Amazon in paperback (more I think than I paid for the hardcover six or seven years back), yet you can pick up John Gooch's impressive (and hefty) study of Mussolini and his generals for as little as £15. :blink:

Ah Richard, be proud not sad! If not for the likes of us (I also bought the book when it first came out) the path would have never been paved for a later paperback edition. :lol:

Seriously, I wouldn't have wanted to wait. Much too valuable a book.

Paul

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Ach, if only my bank manager was so understanding... :rolleyes:

While we're on the subject of the French Army in WW1, Paths of Glory by Clayton offers a fairly similar thesis: ie the French Army and French people bore the burden of the war on the Western Front. It's not as comprehensive as Doughty's book (indeed it's about 1/3 of the size it ought to be) but it is stimulating reading and a good counter-balance to a lot of the Anglocentric and Francophobic literature on the Great War.

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  • 3 years later...

I am just reading Pyrrhic Victory for the second time; see my post back in 2007. Since then I have read much about the BEF and rather less about the German army. Robert Doughty's treatment of the early stage of the war 'the battle of the frontiers' has, this time, greatly impressed me with his treatment of the scale of the operation launched by the French. While the operation is subject to criticism, its scale was amazing, comparable with the German offensive which defeated it. Most Brits tend to think that the war started with the encounter at Mons. It is useful to put our early input in perspective. The book does not seem to be readily available, on loan, but the inter library process works, ableit slowly.

Old Tom

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You're right, Old Tom.

This is a book that I've kept on my shelves for a year or two, and I've failed to read it from cover to cover, but on many occasions I "dip into it", and read the chapter that takes my fancy, and I rate it very highly.

Phil (PJA)

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Doughty's book in conjunction with Sewell Tyng's one on the Marne, while both a bit long in the tooth, will give a very good view of the opening 3 months of the war and the background to it.

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  • 2 years later...

Just finished this book, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it is an exceptional summary of WWI from the French perspective. I really felt I was in the conference rooms and the trenches with French politicians, generals and soldiers. In particular, I have newfound respect for Joffre, Petain and Foch, all of whom were exceptional commanders in spite of their flaws. On the other hand, this book is almost exclusively from the French perspective, which makes it a one-sided account rather than a balanced judgement of the Western Front, especially regarding two other principal actors: the British and the Germans.

I am no sycophant of the BEF, but Doughty's treatment of the British army and role in the war is extremely partisan and one-sided throughout almost the entire book (1918 somewhat excepted). He really doesn't like them and his critiques of them and their conduct really rankled. What was worse was that a check of his sources shows a very limited range (mostly the official history and a small number of other sources) and no sense of trying to see things from their POV. I don't doubt the British made mistakes, even serious ones, but IMHO Doughty overstates his case.

But the real lacuna in the book is Germany. With the exception of 1918, Doughty doesn't really give us any proper description of German operations, intentions or dispositions. Never once does Doughty report German casualties even while diligently reporting French ones. We are almost never informed of manpower or materiel problems or shifting of German reserves during battles. Reading the book, again excepting 1918, one gets the impression that Germany is some omnipotent mass which until the summer of 1918 had no problems whatsoever.

Take the 1915 battles. Doughty explains in detail how the various French offensives failed to gain much territory and describes the high rate of French casualties. However, without German casualty numbers, the reader has no way of reasonably assessing these battles even in terms of attrition; one might get the false impression that the Germans suffered no losses at all. The same goes for French operational success - without describing German movement of reserves from one battlefield to another, we cannot know how much to attribute the success of the tail end of Verdun or the (later) 1917 Chemin De Dames offensive to French skill and how much to attribute to the shifting of German reserves to the Somme and Passchandaele offensives launched by the British.

All in all, a very good corrective to Anglo-centrism, but which needs to be read with other sources to balance it out.

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Yes, you're right about his failure to cite German casualty figures. Come to think of it, he doesn't have much to say - perhaps nothing at all - about British ones either.

One of the most significant features of the official tabulations of Franco-German casualties is the dramatic change that occurs as of July 1916. Thenceforward, for much of the fighting, the French succeeded in inflicting comparable or even heavier casualties on the Germans than they themselves suffered. This significant change in the exchange rate merits comment ; as you suggest, it might reflect greatly increased French skills ; it could testify to the impact of the British taking much of the burden....it could be a combination of both those factors.

The omission is striking, especially given the title of the book, which by definition alludes to the cost of the conflict, which impinged on their enemies and allies as surely as it did on the French.

Phil (PJA)

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Yes, you're right about his failure to cite German casualty figures. Come to think of it, he doesn't have much to say - perhaps nothing at all - about British ones either.

One of the most significant features of the official tabulations of Franco-German casualties is the dramatic change that occurs as of July 1916. Thenceforward, for much of the fighting, the French succeeded in inflicting comparable or even heavier casualties on the Germans than they themselves suffered. This significant change in the exchange rate merits comment ; as you suggest, it might reflect greatly increased French skills ; it could testify to the impact of the British taking much of the burden....it could be a combination of both those factors.

The omission is striking, especially given the title of the book, which by definition alludes to the cost of the conflict, which impinged on their enemies and allies as surely as it did on the French.

Phil (PJA)

But note, when things did go pear shaped - ie Chemin des Dames spring 1917 - look at the consequences for the French army: the burden undertaken in the 1914- 1st July 16 period (and not to forget the considerable effort put in at the Somme and the finishing off of Verdun that year) by France was enormous.

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Nigel,

Without a doubt. But like I said, without German casualty figures, one might get the false impression that the French didn't hurt Germany at all until 1918. Hence my surprise at this omission.

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But note, when things did go pear shaped - ie Chemin des Dames spring 1917 - look at the consequences for the French army: the burden undertaken in the 1914- 1st July 16 period (and not to forget the considerable effort put in at the Somme and the finishing off of Verdun that year) by France was enormous.

But even then, Nigel, in that notorious Nivelle Offensive, the French inflicted casualties on the Germans that nearly rivalled their own.

The same could not be said of the British, despite their success at Arras in the same month.

The experience of the Chemin Des Dames indicates a fragility in the French nation that must be attributable to those excessive casualties in the earlier part of the war. There is also, I suspect, a political factionalism that was pernicious.

No mention of the German casualties in the Nivelle Offensive in Doughty's book.

Phil (PJA)

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That brings up another point - morale. Doughty does an admirable job of showing the importance of morale in the attritional battle that was the Western Front. But again - not one word on morale on the other side, civilian or military. It boggles the mind.

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The omission is striking, especially given the title of the book, which by definition alludes to the cost of the conflict, .

Phil (PJA)

Phil, I think in this case I disagree with you, the title says it all ! It is a book on the French in WW1; they suffered huge casualties but (with their allies) were ultimate victors.

Yes, as aiwac says,it would have been improved by a a wider insight in to German casualties and operations so that the reader can better assess the impact of French strategy but it does give the anglophone reader an excellent overall view of the war on the Western Front from a French perspective (albeit with an American flavour)

He reminds us that for much of the time on the Western Front there were two main players, France and Germany, with Britain playing an important but supporting role. When we trumpet the British effort in the last 100 days, to many French eyes we must be a bit like the striker who comes off the bench in the last 5 minutes, scores the winner and his team-mates efforts over the previous 85 minutes are forgotten !

Another keypoint that I picked up from the book was the impact of the American entry into the war. I had always viewed this from the point of view of the negative impact on German morale that helped spur the Germans into their final1918 offensive, and their combat impact in the Argonne etc. The book brought home to me the huge positive impact it had on French morale, the sight of thousands of US troops arriving at French ports and parading though French cities was just tonic the French army and public needed at the time. The book reminds us, I think, why the French view the Americans rather than the British as their great saviours in WW1 (and as the book is written from a French perspective it doesn't seek to balance that view by putting our contribution to the land war in the context of our startpoint and more importantly to our overall contribution, particularly naval)

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But even then, Nigel, in that notorious Nivelle Offensive, the French inflicted casualties on the Germans that nearly rivalled their own.

The same could not be said of the British, despite their success at Arras in the same month.

The experience of the Chemin Des Dames indicates a fragility in the French nation that must be attributable to those excessive casualties in the earlier part of the war. There is also, I suspect, a political factionalism that was pernicious.

No mention of the German casualties in the Nivelle Offensive in Doughty's book.

Phil (PJA)

I agree - it was the failure to live up to expectations after the hype and so many months of slogging away that I think was the crucial element in what happened post the Nivelle Offensive. To be fair, if the British had been able to call it quits at Arras, as originally intended .... One of the reasons for the relative equality in casualties in the N.O, was, I suspect, because it was called off pretty promptly. Otherwise ...

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To be fair, Michael Nieberg said in a lecture that in the years right after the war, the British "couldn't say enough nice things about the French army". It was only later, in the 1930s ad esp. 1940 that France started to suffer from an unjustified reputation as bunglers and cowards.

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