On this day, two hundred years ago, the Battle of Leipzig came to an end. After three days of fighting in the largest battle that would be fought in Europe until World War I, nearly a hundred thousand men lay dead on the field. It was a decisive victory that forced Napoleon’s First French Empire into an unending retreat into France. A year later, Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to Elba. A further year after that, he was defeated a second time at Waterloo and exiled for good to Saint Helena.
Leipzig and Waterloo, however, were merely the culmination of over twenty-three years of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. It took four empires twenty-three years, seven coalitions, the unforgiving terrain of Spain, and finally the Russian winter to finally defeat France. By 1815, France had been more comprehensively defeated than Germany in 1918, and yet, rather than impose a punitive peace, the allied powers allowed it into the Congress of Vienna as a full party. The allies were absolutely terrified by the possibility that if it was not treated well, France would simply begin another conquest of Europe.
I tire of those would-be funny fools who resort to this familiar refrain: “The French have invested in a new tank. It has thirteen gears: twelve to reverse, one to go forward.” Another oh-so hilarious joke goes: “the French Army is the largest buyer of white flags in the world.” Groundskeeper Willie of The Simpsons summarised France’s modern military reputation with a single sentence: “Bonjour, ya cheese-eating surrender monkeys!”
But consider the above: Does this really sound like a nation of “cheese eating surrender monkeys”?
Those who repeat this “joke” are either wilfully ignorant, stupid, or both. The French have the single most successful military record in Europe, even more so than Germany: Until the mid-19th century, France played the same role in European politics as Germany would in the 20th: France’s geography places it at the crossroads of Europe, poised to exploit trade from Spain and Portugal from the south, from Germany in the east, from the British Isles in the north, and from the Atlantic in the west. This repetition of facts from an atlas may seem obvious to anyone who has glanced at a map, but it produced an environment in which France had to be good at war. Any would-be European conqueror, from Caesar to Charlemagne to the Kaiser to Hitler, trying to build an empire needed France out of the way, either as part of his possessions, as an ally, or conquered and broken.
Thus, France has always had to be able to defend itself, and it has done so very well: of the 125 major European wars fought since 1495, the French have participated in fifty, compared to Austria’s (the major power in Central and Eastern Europe until 1866) forty-seven and Britain’s forty-three. Out of 168 battles fought since 387 BC, France has won 109, lost forty-nine and drawn ten. France was at the leading edge of the development of musket warfare in the 16th and 17th centuries, in fortification in the 18th, and in artillery and mass warfare in the 19th. When the Duke of Marlborough defeated Louis XIV’s army at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, it was the first major defeat suffered by France in fifty years. Under Napoleon at Austerlitz in 1806, it defeated the combined might of the Russian and Austrian empires. In 1812, the French Army gained a victory even the Nazis never matched: it entered Moscow.
Though everyone mocks France’s conduct in the Second World War (even though they were defeated by a movement no one saw coming, which defeated the British Expeditionary Force as well), it is their actions in the First World War that reflects their character best. In 1914, the French Army’s core doctrine was based on the concept of attaque à outrance, literally “attack to excess”, which held that victory would be won by the side that attacked with the greatest speed, courage, and élan. In red trousers and powder-blue greatcoats, the French hurled themselves against German positions in Alsace-Lorraine. Against machine guns, artillery and barbed wire, it was suicidal, but they can never be faulted for their courage. When they finally retreated from the Battles of the Frontiers, 260,000 Frenchmen were casualties (British losses in 1914 were roughly a quarter of that). Britain remembers the First Day on the Somme, but the Frontiers were the sights of the worst single-day losses of the entire war. The French left behind 80% of their iron production capabilities and some of their richest coalfields. By December 1914 a huge swath of their country was occupied by the Germans. After such losses, any other nation might have capitulated. France didn’t. They kept fighting for another four years.
In those four years, they lost more than America has lost in every battle it’s ever fought. Their countryside was utterly destroyed and they kept fighting. They lost nearly twice in military killed and wounded to the war as Britain did, to say nothing of civilian casualties. No nation of weaklings could endure such losses and keep fighting. They, as a people and a nation, took a blow that would have destroyed most. And they won, with allies sure, but they won.
There is a single event in the entire First World War that almost came to define France. A battle in which 80% of the French Army fought. A scene of the most astounding courage and agonising horror. It was the greatest bloodletting the world had yet seen.
To any who doubt the strength, courage and tenacity of French arms, you need only to say Verdun and any doubts you may have utterly collapse in the face of that battle. That battle in which the French defence was immortalised by Robert Nivelle’s declaration “Ils ne passeront pas!” That battle that came to be known as “the mincing machine of Verdun”, which 80% of the French Army marched into willing. That battle where the German armies tried to bleed France white and failed. Whatever you may have to say about the generals and the officers of the French Army, Verdun proves that the bravery and endurance of its men is beyond question.
To those who would remark that the word “surrender” is derived from French, I would remind them that so are “battle” and “victory”. As are General, Corporal, Captain, Lieutenant, lance, mine, bayonet, epaulette, trench, volunteer, regiment, soldier, barracks, army, camouflage, combat, esprit de corps, and reconnaissance. France has written itself into the language of war for a very good reason: because it’s good at it.