- Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War
For all of the excellent recent research into the First World War, there still exists a significant gap in our knowledge of the French Army at war. We have admirable studies of the British Army's learning curve as well as equally admirable studies of how French society and culture coped with four agonizing years of war. Yet we still know far too little about how France actually fought the war. Major campaigns such as the Battle of the Frontiers in 1914 and the Battle of Champagne in 1915 are almost entirely absent from recent historiography.
Robert Doughty, the longtime chair of the History Department at West Point, has therefore done the field a great service with this intelligent and well-crafted study of French operations from 1914 to 1918. Readers will find much to interest them here and much to make them change their preconceptions of how and why the French fought as they did. Doughty rejects the common image of the French Army as myopically focused on offensives on the western front. Instead, he argues, French strategy always involved a multi-front approach designed to engage all the Central Powers, including Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, in a global war.
Most importantly, this book will allow World War I scholarship to move away from some antiquated notions that have somehow remained in the conventional wisdom. The French Army, Doughty is careful to point out, did not fight as it did because of ancient notions of romanticism, furia francese, [End Page 488] or a Gallic quest for La Gloire. Instead, French forces underwent the same hellish learning curve experienced by other armies on the western front. Reason, technology, science, and determination played central roles for the French, who proved as adept as their opponents and their allies at making adjustments to the realities of war.
Doughty is not an apologist. Neither is he blind to the mistakes and the problems of the French Army as it struggled to adapt to the furnace of war. Nevertheless, a careful reading of his work will reveal that the French were no less committed to solving the problems of modern war. Nor did France itself give up on the Army, which, Doughty argues, was at its highest point of prestige at the end of the war. The French did not get it all right (no army did), but they got more right than scholars normally give them credit for, especially at the levels of intelligence and planning.
Pyrrhic Victory is straight operational history. Readers interested in the cultural or social aspects of war should seek out the work of Leonard Smith, Jean-Jacques Becker, Annette Becker, and Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau. But scholars interested in the military aspects of the war, especially at the level of high command, should read this book. It will help to dispel many of the old chestnuts that continue to cloud our understanding of the important role played by the French Army from 1914 to 1918.