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Crunchy

Flesh and Steel During the Great War: The Transformation of the French Army and the Invention of Modern Warfare.  Michel Goya

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Crunchy

Flesh and Steel During the Great War: The Transformation of the French Army and the Invention of Modern Warfare.  Michel Goya, translated by Andrew Uffindell, Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2018. 323pp.

 

A product of his doctoral thesis, Michel Goya, a former Colonel of the French marine infantry, has produced a superb study of the transformation, in all its features, of the French Army during the Great War. The breadth and depth of his work is impressive. Unlike much of the literature on the British Army's learning process during the same conflict, Goya does not confine himself to the period 1914-1918. Instead he takes a longer view, casting his net back to the humiliating defeat of 1870-71 and the impact it had on French thinking and various doctrines during the subsequent forty-three years up to the outbreak of war in August 1914. Following these initial four chapters, he then charts the transfiguration of the Army after the initial shocks of the Battles of the Frontier, initially driven by those at the Front and advocates of various weapons systems, and finally pulled together by Marshall Phillipe Petain during 1917 into a modern, cohesive combined-arms force that contributed greatly to the Allied victory.

 

Goya is primarily concerned with how an Army learns from its experience, how it confronts innovation, and the factors that drive change. What makes this book so good is the multi-dimensional and sociological approach he takes in addressing the subject; emphasising that it is people who at the centre of the learning process and that different men draw different conclusions depending on their psychological makeup, their commissioning background and cliques, their service experience, and their prejudices. He shows that while the French Army after 1871 was a thinking organisation focussed on how to fight the next war, it was not a  cohesive one. Riven by tribalism between and within the fighting arms, between the Metropolitan Army and the Colonial Army, and between the officer cliques, it lacked a coherent approach to how that war should be fought. This led to diverging views on doctrine, equipment and structure that changed depending on which clique was in the ascendancy or who had patronage. More tragically it resulted in little combined-arms thought and training, with the cavalry, artillery and infantry largely going their own way with unrealistic expectations which were rudely exposed in the opening battles in Lorraine and Alsace.

 

Shaken by that experience, tactical change and cooperation came quickly within a few weeks at unit level in the infantry, artillery, and the embryonic aviation force while the cavalry, which had performed poorly, became redundant. With the advent of a static and fortified front new challenges confronted the Army. From here Goya gets into the meat of the subject; how the French Army met those challenges and how they evolved from a largely 19th Century force into a modern war-winning combined-arms team in the space of three years. Initially driven by commanders at the Front and strong advocates of specific weapons systems, the process was again plagued by differing views, scepticism, prejudices, rivalry, the lingering legacy of 1870-71, and an uncoordinated approach, as evidenced in the development of the tank force (called the assault artillery) from late 1915 on. Goya addresses all of these issues in depth, noting why, initially, GHQ was slow to respond to change and innovation, as he takes the reader through the developments in the employment of weaponry, tactics, concepts, and organisations that transformed the Army as the war ground on. The apogee of these reforms came after Petain replaced the disgraced Nivelle in May 1917, pulling together the new techniques into a cohesive fighting capability, although scepticism on the part of a few still led to setbacks during the German spring offensives before the new defensive doctrine was fully accepted. Nonetheless, it was a highly effective modern Army that went on the offensive with such success during the latter half of 1918.

 

Delivered in an easily read style, Goya gets at the heart of how armies learn from previous experience. Not only does he recount what changes occurred, but more importantly what were the factors that drove change and those which impeded it. While change occurs during peacetime; in the end, however, it is the brutal experience of war that drives relevant reforms. This book also highlights the difficulty of drawing correct conclusions from recent war experience; a point that modern critics, with the enormous benefit of hindsight, too often overlook. Goya's Flesh and Steel During the Great War is a worthy addition to any military bookshelf, and serving officers would do well to heed its lessons.

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Martin Bennitt

Thanks for that. The title is a direct translation of the book first published in French in 2004, La chair et l'acier : L'armée française et l'invention de la guerre moderne (1914-1918). It was republished 10 years later under the title L'invention de la guerre moderne du pantalon rouge au char d'assaut, 1871-1918, but I don't know if it was updated very much. He has since written Les Vainqueurs - 1918, Comment la France a gagné la guerre, which came out last year and is featured in this interview with Goya (in French)

 

http://centenaire.org/fr/publications-recentes/michel-goya-en-1918-larmee-francaise-est-la-plus-puissante-du-monde 

 

I haven't read any of his books but given Crunchy's ringing endorsement of the first one I will seek it out.

 

Cheers Martin B

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charlie962
6 hours ago, Martin Bennitt said:

first published in French in 2004,

Isn't this about the same time Anthony Clayton's "Paths of Glory" was published ? Looking on this forum for previous comments on Clayton's book it seems to have been summarised as a 'good overview', particularly on issues of morale. I found it very useful. Do I take it that Goya's work goes into better detail ?

 

Anyway, yet another great review by Crunchy that inspires one to divert more money to book buying.

 

Charlie

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Fattyowls
1 hour ago, charlie962 said:

Anyway, yet another great review by Crunchy that inspires one to divert more money to book buying.

 

Charlie, I fear that is going to be the case as there is so little out there about the French. No more pocket money spend on sweets and comics for me.

 

Pete.

 

 

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The Ibis

Great review and echo the endorsement. The only bad thing is it took so long to get translated!  Hopefully the new book gets translated more quickly.

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