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Belligerents and Participants
in World War One:
the Republic of France  pt1


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After Emperor Napoleon III was captured at the Battle of Sedan in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, the Second French Empire fell and the Third French Republic was declared to act as an interim government. There was a great divide between monarchists and republicans over what form the new French government should take, so much so that nothing was ever agreed upon. When General Georges-Ernest Boulanger seized on this instability to gain political power, fears of a coup arose. The endorsement of Paul Deroulede’s Patriots League for a military takeover only added fuel to the fire. While nothing ever came of this, these incidents instilled fear of a powerful military.

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By the turn of the 20th century the political divide in France had only grown more embittered. As radicals came to have more influence over the Republic, Louis Andre was made Minister of War in 1900. He then instituted a series of reforms to satisfy republican fears that would prevent the promotion of unreliable political allies, who were mostly Catholics. In a system already highly corrupt with nepotism it became even more difficult to promote officers of merit. The Dreyfus Affair only divided politicians further and encouraged military purges. As radicals, republicans, socialists, conservatives, and monarchists all fought for power, ruling coalitions could not be held in place. This created a constant turnover in the ministries, and generals seeking to preserve their own careers attended little to the needs of the army.

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The Third Republic was still in existence when the Great War broke out, and now it was the growing power of the Socialist movement with their pacifist stance that posed the most direct threat to unity. This quickly changed in July 1914 when their leader Jean Jaures was assassinated by a French nationalist who was afraid he would keep the republic out of war. The Socialists then abandoned their antiwar position to join Prime Minister Rene Viviani’s Union sacrée. Only in the face of a German threat was political and religious unity achieved, but the French army lacked the leadership and equipment to fight the modern war that was on the horizon.




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The growing power of the German Empire made both France and Russia uneasy, and when Germany formed a duel alliance with Austria-Hungry, a defensive Franco-Russian alliance was signed in 1892 that helped counterbalance this threat. Even so there was little indication of a pending war as the century turned, and efforts to upgrade defenses were continually underfunded. Neither France nor Germany had anything to gain by waging war against one another, and few thought hostilities likely. Believing that only a limited third Balkan war might erupt, President Raymond Poincare assured the Czar of France’s full support. When Russia failed to stop mobilizing its armies poised against Austria-Hungary due to the July crisis in Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia and was then compelled to declare war on its ally France on August 3, 1914.

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A number of historians have cited France’s bitterness over the loss of Alsace and Loraine in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 as the reason they fought World War One. While these provinces played an enormous role in the propaganda war, French attitudes toward them are far more complex. Outside of Paul Deroulede and his Patriot League calling for a war of revenge, little attention was paid to these provinces until the turn of the century when the loss began to be highly romanticized in mythological terms. The provinces were often personified as sisters dressed in their distinct national costumes; their virtue always under the threat of the beastly Germans. In the face of this danger they remain brave and ever hopeful of being rescued so that they can return to their proper home, France. They joined Marianne and Jean D’Arc as popular representations of French virtues on postcards.

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By 1914 the romantic upsurge over reclaiming Alsace and Loraine had died down. After forty years this was really a forgotten issue in most Frenchmen’s minds, and many of the younger generation did not even know this territory was ever part of France. Only a bitter minority of nationalists still held extreme views concerning the region’s liberation, but they had no real influence over political affairs. Once the Great War broke out the recovery of this territory suddenly became one of France’s principal war aims, and long forgotten resentments were easily stirred up. The regions liberation played right into French national pride and the theme was heavily uses on propaganda postcards throughout the War. These cards include battle scenes, German atrocities, and many political cartoons.

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Loyalties in Alsace and Loraine were suspect by both sides. While many crossed the border to enroll in the French army, most in the region served with the Germans, though they were often sent to the Eastern Front or assigned to the navy to avoid potential conflicts. While not publicized on French cards, many of the liberated Alsatians and Lorrainers that found themselves behind French lines during the Battle of the Frontiers were sent off to concentration camps when their loyalty came into question. French authorities continued this policy of deportation throughout the War.

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While Raymond Poincare was President, conduct of the War fell to the Prime Minister Rene Viviani who largely deferred to his Generals. There was already a master plan prepared (Plan XVII) that called for a four prong offensive into their former provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. While this plan ignored the obvious threat of a German offensive against them through neutral Belgium, they were still quite troubled by that kingdom’s defensive strategy that largely counted on agreements made with Great Britain and France to bail them out if attacked. France however did not adequately adapt to this situation other than organizing their forces along interior lines that could reinforce this sector if necessary. General Joffre, commander-in-chief of the French Army believed that the Germans lacked the manpower to do anything more in Belgium than attack Liege. With British help he would destroy the German army before they could become too troublesome in Belgium.

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On August 4th when the German armies attacked, their main drive was focused on Belgium in order to avoid being slowed down on the heavily fortified French frontier. While they were initially stalled by the Belgian fortifications surrounding Liege, the French advance into Alsace and Loraine made great headway as the Germans withdrew before them. When they reached their own defensive line, the French hurled themselves against them but they did not break. The French were then pushed back gaining little except enormous casualties. Their threat to the German flank evaporated, and the Germans advanced across Belgium.

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The Belgian forts were supposed to slow the German advance until reinforcements arrived, but the Germans with their heavy guns reduced these forts faster than anyone expected while help was slow in coming. When the first British and French reinforcements finally arrived they brushed aside allowing the Germans to continue their advance into France. French postcards from this phase of the War were used heavily for propaganda, describing the advancing German tide as sluggish defeat. Even today they have an effect as the German offensive is often framed in terms of falling behind schedule or being heroically delayed, which is far from the truth.

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The traditional story is that as the Germans came close to taking Paris in September 1914 until they were met with a massive French counterattack led by General Joffre that threw them reeling back with heavy casualties. This great victory put an end to the German offensive and saved France. While repeated hundreds of times, some historians have questioned the validity of this narrative and the documentation it is based on. Heavy fighting did take place at that time but if examined closely it looks more like a collection of disparate attacks and rear guard actions than a grand battle. The great Battle of the Marne as it was called may have been little more than an illusion of the propaganda war, fulfilling the public’s need for a victory amidst continual defeats.

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While the events of September 1914 did represent a failure of the German strategy, it was more a strategic withdrawal than a battlefield defeat. German publishers who seemed to document almost everything on their postcards took little note of these events, and most French cards tend to represent the battle in generic terms. France by this time had declared a state of emergency and censorship was strictly imposed. From now on all news would originate from the General Staff, which was only concerned with releasing propaganda that would promote their war effort.

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While the German plan seemed to initially work well, by early September the General Staff came to realize that modern armies were just too large to surround. With no quick way to victory in sight the Germans withdrew to ground that they could more easily defend, and began extending their line westward to protect their flank. The French moved westward with them trying to turn their flank but without success. After pushing the Belgians and British out from the coast the Germans had extended their line all the way to the English Channel. After a final push into Lille, much of northern France with its industry and coal fields fell under German control by the end of 1914 and the occupation would hurt the French war effort. While deciding what their next move should be, both sides on the Western Front began to entrench. No one foresaw it would bog down into the static conditions of trench warfare.

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Although reporters were banished from the battlefront, this only became easy to control once trench warfare set in. In the early days of the war when the situation was confused and fluid, those behind the front lines could quickly find themselves in the midst of combat. In the end, being a witness to events did not matter as the only truth allowed was that put forth by the military. Censorship in France had been abolished in 1906 but soon after mobilization began, president Poincare declared a state of siege over France, and nearly all civil liberties were suspended under martial law. The French Press Bureau that dispensed news was now directly controlled by the Ministry of War, which created a huge bureaucracy that was subordinate to military departments and regional commanders. Even news wired in from all outside sources, including Allies was first examined and censored before it arrived at its destination. In most cases those receiving this information had no idea it was doctored. While there were those who evaded censorship, punishment could be severe. French postcards do not provide a direct history of the war as much as an understanding of what the military wanted the public to know. Victories could easily be fabricated and defeats hidden away. Public opinion during the War would not be based in reality.

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Once the trench line across the Western Front was set, the Germans basically took up a defensive strategy. They continued to make modest but strategic advances into the Argonne Forest and at St. Mihel, but most efforts went into constructing defenses in greater depth. The French response was to continually throw themselves against German defenses in ever greater numbers with little to show for it. General Neville who replaced Joffre in December 1916 thought the solution to the stalemate was to launch even more massive attacks that could not be resisted. They were resisted producing enormous French casualties and growing discontent with French ranks.

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When Germany seized Alsace and Lorain at the end of the Franco-Prussian war, the new rugged border with France offered great protection to the German Rhineland. Now that the Germans were on the offensive, the same terrain limited their movements. The only viable rout into France was through the Meuse Valley and the French had heavily fortified the heights on both sides where they formed a choke point at Verdun. When the Germans took the Argonne Forest and the heights of St Mihel on the flanks of Verdun, it cut enough supply lines to make this position useless for French offensive operations into Germany. Though Verdun lost its strategic importance, the French could not give it up because it was here that they drew their line in the sand. It had come to symbolize all French resistance to aggression; and its loss would cause a severe blow to the Republic’s morale. General von Falkenhayen attempted to exploit this in early 1916 not by taking Verdun but in creating a situation that would make France realize they could not win the War.

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While the Germans managed to capture much of the commanding heights above Verdun, and the French suffered huge casualties trying to retrieve them without much results, the offensive failed to bring them to the peace table as expected. French politicians and generals had fostered so many lies about the republic’s preparedness and the progress of the War that they could not come to grips with reality and save their careers at the same time. They were simply willing to sacrifice any number of lives to cover their own incompetence, and continued to make irrational choices. Though the War would go on, continuing losses had a detrimental effect on French morale. French postcards however would exaggerate the great price the Germans were paying while only making reference to French heroics.

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To help relieve pressure off of Verdun in 1916, General Joffre insisted that the British launch an offensive in their sector. Their lines met up at the Somme, so that is where a joint attack was planned. While the battle is best remembered for the tremendous casualties the British suffered, the French under the command of General Foch also took part in the offensive and managed to take the most ground. This was celebrated as a victory despite that this worthless ground came at a high price in lives. French casualties however were far less than in other campaigns so it did not create a powerful myth in France as it had in Great Britain.

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In October General Robert Nivelle renewed the attack on the German lines at Verdun with great intensity recapturing Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux in the process. Seen as the man to get the job done, he replaced Joffre as French Commander-in-Chief in December of 1916 when he lost the confidence of the government and was forced into retirement. Nivelle believed that victory could be achieved if the Germans were just hit hard enough. His plan to break through the German salient at Champagne was rendered pointless when the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line, but he still launched an offensive against the new stronger position at Chemin des Dames in April 1917. None of his grand efforts succeeded but the casualty list was enormous.

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By May 1917 the belief that the lives of soldiers were being carelessly wasted led French troops to mutiny. The poor conditions they were forced to live under added to these feelings of neglect and discontent began to spread rapidly through the ranks. After awhile half the French Army was challenging orders. They would continue to hold their positions on the frontline, but many units refused to move up refusing to risk their lives for what they saw as pointless offensive operations at the hands of incompetent leadership. When Leon Trotsky exiled in Paris put out a newspaper that helped to stimulate strikes on the home front while the Russian battalions serving on the Western front agitated for Bolshevism, military grievances soon turned political. Small army units marched on Paris but resistance was more spontaneous than organized, they were all halted and ringleaders shot. This situation still posed a great danger to France for if faced with a major German offensive the French defenses would not hold for long. Luckily the mutiny was one of the few secrets they managed to keep out of German hands. Censorship had already been growing more strict since July out of fear that subversive ideas might spread. Letters and cards were scrutinized, and any comments that might adversely affect morale were blocked out with ink.

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The failure of the Nivelle Campaign also had a great effect on French Politics. Joseph Caillaus, a former premier of France now headed the Radical Socialists, the largest party in the Chamber of Deputies. He did not believe there was any good reason for France and Germany to be fighting and that they would be better off as allies. In secret negotiations with Germany he agreed to end the War if he came to power, and even suggested that a new alliance of France, Italy and Spain (Latin League) be formed to attack their old enemy England. The current French government was already week, and the loses of the Nivelle Offensive guaranteed it would fall. Caillaux enlisted the help of the powerful Interior Minister, Louis Malvy in his plans to regain power; but when Malvy was found to have suspicious ties to Germany he was forced to resign in August and the Ribot government fell with him in scandal. By November the power vacuum had led to a constitutional crisis and It was up to President Raymond Poincare to choose a new Prime Minister. While the war weary public was leaning toward Caillaux, Poincare considered him a traitor and chose Georges Clemenceau of the Radical Party instead even though he detested him. This insured that France would not work toward victory as much as the defeat of Germany. Further accusations led to Malvy’s and Caillaux’s arrest in 1918. They would not receive trials until after the War when Caillaux was cleared of treason while Malvy was exiled to Spain.

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Georges Clemenceau was a strong critic of the handling of the War, and after he was appointed prime minister in November 1917 he took more direct control over how things were run. Very strict censorship was imposed on the press, and political opposition to the War was stamped out through intimidation. Unlike Caillaux, he believed in fighting out this conflict to the very end (la guerre jusqu’au bout). With the help of General Petain who replaced Neville in May, they continued to make changes that turned the tide of the mutiny. Ringleaders within the French Army and the troublesome Russian Brigades were weeded out to be imprisoned or shot after mock trials if they got any at all. Needed reforms were also made that began to make life better for the average French soldier and unrest died down. While morale was raised and some limited offenses resumed, the continued collective indiscipline as Petain called it, left France only capable of waging a limited war. French generals now put their hopes for the future on the Americans who had just begun to arrive.

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When the United States entered the War in April 1917, it only had a small standing army. Though it would take some time to train and transport all the troops, General Foch was anxious for their presence on French soil to prove their commitment was real. With General Petain still trying to quench the mutiny within the French army, America’s entry into the War was desperately needed to boost the morale of both French soldiers and civilians. American generals did not believe their army would be adequately equipped and trained to fight until 1919, they acquiesced to political needs and the first troops of Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force began arriving at St. Nazaire in June.

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The American Expeditionary Force were paraded through the streets of Paris to give definitive proof that help was arriving from the United States. These troops however were not ready to fight; they would need a lot more training as well as heavy equipment. Both the French and British insisted that these men be added to their own ranks where their inexperience would be diluted. General Pershing had strict orders from President Wilson to keep the Americans intact so when ready they could be deployed as a single force under American command. While France needed American soldiers, they didn’t want American interference with the way they were waging the War, and Pershing’s firm stance caused much dissension. Even so, the French would not only continue to train and arm Americans in France, their publishers produced many cards to announce their presence.

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With the arrival of the Americans and their pockets full of money, many French publishers reoriented their postcards to this new English speaking audience. Many cards were already being printed in both French and English to accommodate the British Expeditionary Force, but now their number increased substantially and some didn’t even bother to include any French on their cards at all. This trend would continue after the War to service the occupation troops. On the other hand there were never enough postcards available to satisfy the needs of Americans, and they received many fieldpost cards for their use that were printed entirely in French.

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The Germans realizing that the influx of so many fresh troops might turn the tide of the conflict began making plans to knock Britain and France out of the War before the weight of the Americans could make a difference. In March of 1918 their armies, reinforced with troops from the defunct Russian Front, launched a series of major attacks. By combining superior weapons and tactics the Germans managed to overwhelm the Allied lines and make outstanding gains. General Foch was called in and made Supreme Commander of all Allied forces in order to coordinate a response out of the confusion. Seeing the crisis at hand, General Pershing sent the Americans into battle sooner than anyone expected, which helped to slow the German advance. With their supplies exhausted and without reserves the Germans couldn't hold up their momentum ending the offensive. The Allied line held but the Germans had seized more French soil.

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In August 1918 all the Allies began counterattacking along the entire length of the German line, pushing the Germans out of much of their newly acquired territory. With no realistic sense of their exhausted troops, the German High command failed to adjust to this new situation when Allied offensives resumed in September. The Allies quickly took back more territory, but as they Germans fell back on defensive ground of their own choosing, resistance stiffened. The French who had engaged the Germans in a fighting withdrawal in the Marne salient, now had the confidence to launch an offensive in Champaign. Their army however was still a broken force and it lacked the drive needed to achieve real results. The quick victory that the Americans scored at St Mihel opened the possibility of using the Meuse Valley for operations against Germany. While General Pershing wanted to move the American army toward Metz, Generalissimo Foch ordered them to shift fronts toward Sedan, where they could cover the flank of the new French drive.

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The presence of so many Fresh American troops on the Western Front convinced Germany that they could not win the War and they sent out feelers to the Americans to see if a peace could be negotiated on the principals of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. After a change in German leadership was secured, Wilson was able to come to an agreement on terms but he found little support for them at home and among the other Allies. Wilson wanted Germany to surrender in a position of strength so that he could oversee the reshaping of world order in accordance to his moral principles. The French however wanted revenge by achieving unconditional surrender through occupying the Rhineland.

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While both sides held cards that prevented what each other wanted, facts on the ground began to overtake these negotiations. British and French forces continued to advance, and Pershing, who disagreed with Wilson launched a new offensive along the Meuse to quickly bring the War to a military conclusion before Wilson could negotiate good terms. Meanwhile revolution in Germany led to a new socialist republic who wanted peace on any terms. The French who relayed this message knew this and offered no negotiations. When the Armistice was signed on November 11th it was more along the lines of a political treaty geared to French desires than a cease fire. There were no American delegates present, and none of Wilson’s Fourteen Points were included.

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The November Armistice called for the German army to immediately begin the evacuation of all French territory that they occupied, including Alsace and Lorraine. French and Americans troops followed closely behind, and became the subject of numerous postcards. While postcard publishing seems to have slowed considerably towards the War’s end, these events seem to have inspired a new wave of production. Despite France’s problem with the large numbers of German speakers in Alsace and Lorraine, the retrieval of these provinces were often depicted as the measure of victory in this War. There were suddenly many photo-based cards showing armies and generals in marching into Strasbourg or pulling down patriotic German statues. Many of these cards are of poor quality as if they were rushed into production. French soldiers are always depicted as liberators, while the Germans received their just rewards. While such depictions satisfied political agendas, things became more complicated when the Treaty of Versailles formally turned control of these provinces back to France. Not all in Alsace and Loraine welcomed the Allied presence, and issues surrounding racial purity would come to haunt the region in postwar years.

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One of the terms of the armistice was to allow the Allies to control three bridgeheads over the Rhine. This acted as insurance for it would allow Allied armies to penetrate deep into Germany should the terms of the armistice be violated. German unhappy with the final peace terms almost went to war again, but their depleted army felt it could not stop attacks across the Rhine. These bridgeheads came to symbolize victory itself, and they formed the backdrop of many postcards. After the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919 the Rhineland was demilitarized, and there were more opportunities from French publishers to present their troops guarding this new frontier.

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France dominated the Paris Peace Talks, making sure its agenda of blame, reparations, and disarmament were carried out. Minister Clemenceau went so far as to tell the American president he was not welcome there because of his insistence that Germany receive a fair deal. Efforts to forever destroy Germany as a military threat to France also created conditions that would prevent Germany from paying the massive amount of reparations demanded of her. While other Allies tried to amend these demands to at least make them workable, the French would not budge as they seemed focused more on revenge than reality. When the final draft of the peace treaty was released in April, German leaders saw that its harsh terms violated all the principals that the armistice was based on and felt betrayed. They considered resuming the War but no longer had the means to properly defend themselves. In the Final treaty of Versailles that ended the War, France would get her way but it created conditions that were not sustainable. Their brutal occupation of German lands eventually led to resistance. The U.S. Congress unhappy with the terms of the treaty would not ratify it. They would make a separate peace with Germany in 1920.

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Many French troops also served on other fronts, but nowhere was their presence felt more than in Greece. In October 1914 French and British expeditionary forces began landing in Salonika to bolster the Serbian defense, but before enough troops could be deployed to make a difference, Serbia had collapsed. With Bulgaria having joined the Central Powers, and cooperation with Greece quickly fading, the Allies found themselves stalemated on a new entrenched front across Macedonia. While the Allied army in Salonika grew to great numbers some have speculated that France was more interest in positioning itself for postwar influence over the eastern Mediterranean than actually fighting here. Germans jokingly referred to this front as their largest prison camp.

After the February Revolution in Russia, the protection afforded King Constantine of Greece by the Czar disappeared, and by June 1917 the French pressured Constantine to advocate and they put the more Allied friendly Alexander on the throne. While this did not result in any immediate military successes, the French led a broad coalition against Bulgaria in September 1918 that broke through their defenses and took them out of the War. Many postcards capture French troops at Salonika but they often tend to look no different than ordinary view-cards for tourists. While French publishers covered this front, it seems that most postcards depicting French troops in Greece were published in Italy.




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