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August 1914: France, the Great War, and a Month The Changed the World Forever by Bruno Cabanes

December 28, 2016

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It would be hard to top Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer-winning The Guns of August, for an account of the start of World War I. But that is told from the grand perspective, at times with a distinctly American bent. What interested me with this book is that it’s a ground-level perspective from one of the first countries to face Germany’s assault: France.

It may be dumbing it down, but to explain the opening aggression of World War I, I’ve always liked the metaphor of three men standing at a bar. On the left is France. On the right, Russia. In the middle, Germany. Germany knew that Russia and France were buds, so if a fight broke out, it would be in trouble. So Germany had developed a plan—the Schlieffen Plan—in the event of trouble. It would turn, cold-cock France immediately, knocking them out of the fight, then turn around and face Russia head-on. This way, Germany figured, it could make it a fair fight.

France knew of the Schlieffen plan, so it wasn’t completely unprepared. Plus, part of the plan required Germany to cross through neutral Belgium, kind of throw a hook punch around Belgium’s head, to keep to the bar fight analogy. Which slowed Germany’s assault somewhat (Belgium was not amenable to the entire German army just “passing through”).

So this all was the run-up to war. And what Cabanes gives us is a look at several aspects of life in France as this big German fist was headed their way. Tensions had been building in Europe for years, and there was an obvious tangle of treaties that could potentially drag country after country into the conflict like an intercontinental Rube Goldberg machine. Still, many people lacked the imagination to believe that the continent would go to war on such a large scale.

 

Before, we spoke of peace and war, but (at least, those of us in the generations born after 1870) we didn’t know what we were talking about; peace was something we were used to, it was the air that everyone breathed without thinking about it; war was a word, a purely theoretical concept. When we suddenly realized that this concept could change into reality, we felt in our entire being a shock whose memory cannot be erased.

 

When the war did come, there was the naïve belief that it would be swift and short, certainly wrapping up by year’s end. This, of course, was not to be. Cabanes recounts stories of soldiers shipping off from all over France, of tearful goodbyes, of trains shuttling thousands of men north and east. Deserters were few, as anyone shirking their soldierly duties faced the firing squad. And, it seemed, there were few who would turn away from service anyway. As is often the case, the war was a unifying force on the French populace. The country had been on the verge of revolution (again) leading up to the war, but even the revolutionaries supported the war effort, for the greater good.

The War existed at a pivotal point in the history of warfare, and like the American Civil War, the first few months would be a bloody demonstration of what happens when outmoded tactics and training meet new technologies on the battlefield. In this case, the potential of industrialized killing was on full display, and the French army, still a 19th-century army in weapons, tactics, and attitude, was on the receiving end of the demonstration.

French commanders, in fact much of French society, still believed in the “good death,” the honorable death of the soldier who sacrifices his life for his country. They would see plenty of it. French soldiers shipped out in their signature red pants (making them an easy target), led by commanders who still believed in the “heroic ideal” of the cavalry charge. They had drilled outmoded tactics that would quickly and obviously fail them on the battlefield. Everything about the French military was ill-suited for industrial warfare, and they would pay dearly. Across eastern France and southern Belgium, young French soldiers were cut to pieces by the German war machine. On August 22 alone, during the Battle of the Frontiers, over 27,000 Frenchmen were killed. It remains to this day the bloodiest day in French history.

The news of the dead came home—oftentimes with no body to follow. The families of these fallen soldiers demanded that their bodies be returned, but they did not understand the damage done to a body by artillery fire.

As the Germans pushed across the French countryside, the war was brutal. They often took out their frustrations on the town they passed, in both Belgium and France. Estimates put the number of homes and other buildings burned by the Germans at between fifteen and twenty thousand. “Crimes of desecration” became common as German soldiers targeted the most sacred and meaningful possessions of the French—their photos, their family heirlooms, the artifacts that gave them a sense of place and community. Germans executed over 900 French and 5,500 Belgians in their invasion.

As the Germans marched on, rumors of their brutality preceded them. Sometimes the rumors were false, such as the widespread story that Germans were hacking off the hands of children in the towns they took (there is no evidence of this taking place), but it didn’t matter. Masses of French citizens fled ahead of the invasion. A half million people evacuated from Paris, and masterpieces were evacuated from the Louvre. There was real fear that Paris would never be the same.

German soldiers marched with anger and bitterness, for the swift punch intended to knock France out quickly had been more of a fight than they’d anticipated. Toward Paris, they carried the motto “Paris will pay for France.” But the Germans would not make it (not until 1940, at least). A couple critical losses and a redistribution of forces would find the Germans coming up short of the French capital, eventually bogged down at the famously brutal trench line known as The Western Front.

One of the fascinating aspects of Cabanes’s account is the ground-level reaction of the French to the pressures of war. Paranoia swept French towns, and the government and citizens alike began rooting out anyone with suspected German ties, particularly those of German heritage. German Jews were targeted, as were many of the refugees fleeing from the east. Strangers were met with suspicion, if not outright violence. Stores hung signs declaring their French allegiance. People posted their French voting cards in their windows. It is a situation eerily resonant, over a century later.

The outcome of the war has been well documented, as has the way the war changed the world. But I would have liked to have read about how the war changed French society. What this book brings to life so vividly is the unease, the panic, the confusion and the chaos that rippled through France, even in the towns never directly attacked during the war. I’d be interested in a ground-level examination of the aftermath. How does a society so wracked with fear, with citizens who have demonstrated their ability to turn against one another in the face of Armageddon, go back to being “normal” when Armageddon is turned away at the gate? What is the new normal?

For anyone interested in World War I, this is a unique perspective, certainly different than those told from a global or American viewpoint. It will, I imagine, be an interesting pair with Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, told from the POV of a German soldier. I plan to read that one in the new year. There is so much to read on World War I, but these “ground level” accounts start to help one imagine what is ultimately an unimaginable tragedy. It reverses the typical trend as historical events grow more distant, which is to get a wider, more grand perspective, and it forces us to consider the statistics of death and devastation for what they are—a collection of individual lives. People with families, homes, daily routines and dreams that existed outside of war, before the war, disrupted, destroyed.

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