- Paths of Glory: The French Army, 1914–18
Anthony Clayton, Senior Lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, from 1965 to 1994, has enriched our knowledge of several fields of military history, particularly British and French colonial history, and has added to his list of metropolitan studies in his most recent book, Paths of Glory: The French Army 1914-18. This very readable volume appraises the performance of the French Army at the field level and follows its evolution, based on the most recent British and French sources. Written for the student of military history and informed general reader, the book serves as a corrective to many British accounts which give the impression that the British Army was the main army in the field on the western front in World War I and carried the brunt of the fighting throughout the war. It also corrects the skewed vision of the performance of the French Army in the Great War, as seen in light of the debacle of 1940. As Clayton notes, the French Army, though initially ill-equipped, ill-armed, and badly trained in modern tactics, nevertheless bore the brunt of the fighting through to 1917, and, after the mutinies of 1917, under the superlative leadership of two remarkable soldiers, Philippe Pétain and Ferdinand Foch, went on to play a decisive role in the final victory.
Clayton is particularly interested in the appraisal of French morale at the various stages of the war and shows that, even after the renewal of fighting spirit at the end of 1917, morale in 1918 was variable, which contributed significantly to the French soldiers' sense of isolement, or isolation, from the [End Page 249] rest of French society. That tradition, continuing to World War II, was a cause of defeat in 1940. Also of interest to Clayton is the significant development of trench weaponry, improved artillery, new registering techniques and other more feted innovations such as tanks and airplanes, showing that World War I, especially in its later stages, was anything but technologically stagnant. He finds in Pétain's successive directives the foundation for the modernization of the French Army.
All of the horrors of trench warfare, including mud, lice, rats, rotting corpses, heat and frost, lack of sleep, and often food and water, and horrendous fear under shell fire, are detailed. After the mutinies of 1917 the French Army, which traditionally took less good care of its men than the British Army, also began under Pétain to improve the living conditions of the French poilus and, as a measure of raising morale, granted regular leaves, which, however, were withdrawn from time to time during the campaigns of 1918 under Foch.
The academic scholar might object that Clayton has not included a scholarly apparatus which footnotes his findings. Rather, he has written a substantive bibliographical essay, which evaluates recent key works in French and English, a helpful aid to the general reader and scholar alike. While the treatment of both the preparation of the French Army and its involvement in the campaigns of successive years is generally well handled, there is minimal coverage of the political-military environment which underpins French grand strategy. And the treatment of 1915 falls somewhat short in its appraisal of the strategy of Joseph Joffre, who, despite what he told the British, was still seeking a breakthrough in his great spring and fall offensives.
Overall, the author provides a convincing demonstration of the essential contribution of the French Army— in the words of Winston Churchill, "that sorely tried, glorious Army upon whose sacrifices the liberties of Europe had through three fearful campaigns mainly depended" (p. v). Clayton's volume is also the first comprehensive synthesis in English of the history of the French Army in World War I and, as such, will be helpful to the scholar, and of particular interest to the military history student and general reader.
Kingston, Ontario, Canada