- Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War
As the study of the Great War of 1914–18 revived, particularly in the 1990s, a whole generation of specialists emerged who, surprisingly, did not always communicate well among themselves. Social and cultural historians of 1914–18 blazed new paths often remarkably uninformed about the basic military framework of what was, after all, a war. And the study of the Great War continued to take place largely in a national framework. Particularly in Britain, otherwise excellent military history has continued to be written treating the French almost as a burden, already staggering along the sorry road to 1940. Every scholar of the Great War, and anyone interested in a basic grounding in the subject, should read the book under review here. Robert Doughty has delivered a tour de force, a major contribution to military history and the history of the Great War.
As military history, Pyrrhic Victory impresses with its insight and its moderation. French commanders and strategists were neither fools nor geniuses. Plan XVII, for example, was a perfectly reasonable plan for the concentration of the French forces. The failures were operational, particularly Joseph Joffre's ill-considered offensive into Alsace and Lorraine. Yet Joffre understood his army well enough to engineer victory at the Battle of the Marne. Nor did the French simply hold on tenaciously to tried-and-failed tactics for four years. Costly trial-and-error led the French to transform their use of the heavy artillery, and to early leadership in the use of the airplane and the tank. Military history is the history of the management of uncertainty. As Doughty wisely reminds us in one of the unforgettable lines of the book: "Those who believe that wars can be surgical, that they can be won [End Page 487] with 'shock and awe,' or that they can be directed toward a precise endgame or end state know little about the Great War" (p. 3).
As history of the Great War, Doughty's specific contributions are too numerous to mention. He shows something critical that Anglophone historians often forget—that Russia and not Britain was the critical French ally in 1914. British participation would only matter in a long war, precisely what German war planning was obsessed with preventing. The dirty little secret of that conflict was that attrition ultimately "worked," in that Joffre's strategy of overwhelming the ability of the Central Powers to use interior lines to counteract numerical inferiority finally succeeded in the summer and fall of 1918. Even with Russia out of the war, Germany simply could not recover from combined assaults on the Western Front, in Italy, and the Balkans. Toward that end, Doughty argues gracefully, American and British participation was absolutely necessary, but not sufficient. The French army was a deteriorating asset by the time of the fateful meeting in the clearing at Rethondes in November 1918. But it had held on, as the expression of the day had it, a quarter of an hour longer than its adversaries. The French military effort in the Great War has always deserved a history written in three dimensions, neither as hagiography nor as caricature. Now we have it.