Military history of France

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Military History and War

Wars of Religion; victory there allowed a Protestant Henry to ascend to the French throne and establish the Bourbon dynasty, although he converted to Catholicism to soften the political transition.">Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry, by Peter Paul Rubens. Ivry was the most important battle in the French Wars of Religion; victory there allowed a Protestant Henry to ascend to the French throne and establish the Bourbon dynasty, although he converted to Catholicism to soften the political transition.
Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry, by Peter Paul Rubens. Ivry was the most important battle in the French Wars of Religion; victory there allowed a Protestant Henry to ascend to the French throne and establish the Bourbon dynasty, although he converted to Catholicism to soften the political transition.

The military history of France encompasses an immense panorama of conflicts and struggles extending for more than 2,000 years across areas including modern France, greater Europe, and European territorial possessions overseas. Because of such lengthy periods of warfare, the peoples of France have often been at the forefront of military development, and as a result, military trends emerging in France have had a decisive impact on European and world history.

Gallo-Roman conflict predominated from 400 BC to 50 BC, with the Romans emerging victorious in the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar. After the decline of the Roman Empire, a Germanic tribe known as the Franks took control of Gaul by defeating competing tribes. The "land of Francia," from which France gets its name, had high points of expansion under kings Clovis I and Charlemagne. In the Middle Ages, rivalries with England and the Holy Roman Empire prompted major conflicts such as the Hundred Years' War. With an increasingly centralized monarchy and the first standing army since Roman times, France came out of the Middle Ages as the most powerful nation in Europe, only to lose that status to Spain following defeat in the Italian Wars. The Wars of Religion crippled France in the late sixteenth century, but a major victory over Spain in the Thirty Years' War, with help from Sweden, made France the most powerful nation on the continent once more. The wars of Louis XIV in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries left France territorially larger and bankrupt.

In the eighteenth century, global competition with Great Britain led to defeat in the Seven Years' War, where France lost its North American holdings, but consolation came in the form of the American Revolutionary War, where extensive French aid led to America's independence. Internal political upheaval eventually led to 23 years of nearly continuous conflict in the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. France reached the zenith of its power during this period, dominating the European continent in an unprecedented fashion, but by 1815 it had been restored to its pre-Revolutionary borders. The rest of the nineteenth century witnessed the growth of the French colonial empire and wars with Russia, Austria, and Prussia. Following defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Franco-German rivalry reasserted itself again in World War I, this time France, with British and to a much lesser extent, American aid, emerging as the winner. Tensions over the Versailles Treaty led to the Second World War, where it was defeated in the Battle of France. The Allies eventually emerged victorious over the Germans, however, and France was given an occupation zone in Germany. The two world wars destroyed Franco-German rivalry and paved the way for European integration, economically, politically, and militarily. Today, French military intervention is most often seen in its former colonies and with its NATO allies.

Themes in French military history

European conflicts

A map of modern France. After centuries of warfare, France is territorially the largest nation in Western Europe.
A map of modern France. After centuries of warfare, France is territorially the largest nation in Western Europe.

French strategic thinking has often been driven by the need to attain or preserve the so-called "natural frontiers," the Pyrenees to the southwest, the Alps to the southeast, and the Rhine River to the east. Starting with Clovis, 1,500 years of warfare has witnessed the accomplishment of most of these objectives, with modern-day France lacking only about two-thirds of the Rhine, which is in Germany. France is territorially the largest country in Western Europe.

Warfare with other European powers was not always determined by these considerations, and often rulers of France extended their continental authority far beyond these barriers, most notably under Charlemagne, Louis XIV, and Napoleon. These periods of heavy militaristic activity were characterized by their peculiar sociopolitical and war-related conventions, but all required strong central leadership in order to permit the extension of French rule.

Important military rivalries in human history have come about as a result of conflict between French peoples and other European powers. Anglo-French rivalry, for preeminence in Europe and around the world, continued for centuries, while the more recent Franco-German rivalry required two world wars to stabilize. French involvement in these protracted geostrategic clashes was at times both successful and unsuccessful. The wars themselves had complex political dimensions, often involving alliance systems that rarely remained static and that yielded dynamic solutions on the battlefield.

Imperial objectives and post-colonial status

Starting in the early sixteenth century, much of France's military efforts were dedicated to securing its overseas possessions and putting down dissent among both French colonists and native populations. French troops were spread all across its empire, primarily to deal with the local population. This phase of French militarism only came to an end with the failed attempt to subdue Algerian nationalists in the late 1950s. However, even in the twenty-first century, many former French colonies still expect France to provide assistance to put down revolutionary activity.

Since World War II, France's efforts have been directed at maintaining its status as a great power and its influence on the UN Security Council, despite the fact its military capability is being overtaken by the rising power of the People's Republic of China and India, among others. However, France has also been instrumental in attempting to unite the armed forces of Europe for their own defense in order to both balance the power of Russia and to lessen European military dependence on the United States. For example, for some time France withdrew from NATO over complaints that its role in the organization was being subordinated to the demands of the United States.

French objectives in this era have undergone major shifts. Unencumbered by continental wars or intricate alliances, France now deploys its military forces as part of international peacekeeping operations, security enforcers in former colonies, or maintains them combat ready and mobilized to respond to threats from rogue states. France is a nuclear power with the largest nuclear arsenal in Europe, and its nuclear capabilities, just like its conventional forces, are being restructured to rapidly deal with emerging threats.

Gauls

Vercingetorix surrenders to Julius Caesar after Alesia. Painting by  Lionel-Noël Royer, 1899.
Vercingetorix surrenders to Julius Caesar after Alesia. Painting by Lionel-Noël Royer, 1899.

The region of Gaul consisted of modern-day France, Belgium, Germany west of the Rhine, and parts of Switzerland. Gallo-Roman conflict in Cisalpine Gaul had been occurring for centuries prior to Caesar's invasion of Transalpine Gaul. In either 390 BC or 387 BC, a Gallic army under Brennus destroyed a Roman force at the Battle of the Allia, which led to the sacking of Rome and the destruction of all Roman historical records prior to that period.

Growing professionalism in the Roman army eventually led to victories, most noticeably at the Battle of Sentinum and the Battle of Telamon, over their Gallic counterparts, whose tactics and weapons changed little over the years. However, in order to permanently end the Gallic threat, a consistent effort was required by the Romans, and this was finally provided by Julius Caesar.

Caesar's conquest of Gaul was met with little resistance initially. The 60 or so tribes that made up Gaul were unable to unite and defeat the Roman army, something Caesar exploited by pitting one tribe against another. In 58 BC, Caesar defeated the Germanic tribe of the Suebi, which was led by Ariovistus. The following year he conquered the Belgian Gauls after claiming that they were conspiring against Rome. The string of victories continued in a naval triumph against the Veneti in 56 BC. In 53 BC, a united Gallic resistance movement under Vercingetorix emerged for the first time. Caesar laid siege to the fortified city of Avaricum ( Bourges) and broke through the defenses after 21 days, with only 800 out of the 40,000 inhabitants managing to escape. He then besieged Gergovia, Vercingetorix's home town, and suffered one of the worst defeats in his career when he had to retreat to suppress a revolt in another part of Gaul. After returning, Caesar surrounded Vercingetorix at Alesia in 52 BC. The townspeople were starved into submission and Caesar's unique defensive earthworks, protruding towards the city and away from it in order to stop a massive Gallic relief force, eventually forced Vercingetorix to surrender. The Gallic Wars were over.

Franks and the Carolingian Empire

The Frankish Realm under Clovis I.
The Frankish Realm under Clovis I.

As Roman power weakened in the fourth and fifth centuries, a Germanic tribe, the Franks, overran large areas that today form modern France. Under King Clovis I in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, Frankish dominions quadrupled as they managed to defeat successive opponents for control of Gaul. In 486 the Frankish armies under Clovis triumphed over Syagrius, the last Roman official in Northern Gaul, at the Battle of Soissons. In 491 Clovis defeated Thuringians east of his territories. In 496 he overcame the Alamanni at the Battle of Tolbiac. In 507 he scored the most impressive victory in his career, prevailing at the Battle of Vouillé against the Visigoths, who were led by Alaric II, the conqueror of Spain.

Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours. Painting by Carl von Steuben.
Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours. Painting by Carl von Steuben.

Following Clovis, territorial divisions in the Frankish domain sparked intense rivalry between the western part of the kingdom, Neustria, and the eastern part, Austrasia. The two were sometimes united under one king, but from the sixth to the eighth centuries they often warred against each other. Early in the eighth century, the Franks were preoccupied with Islamic invasions across the Pyrenees and up the Rhone Valley. Two key battles during this period were the Battle of Toulouse and the Battle of Tours, both won by the Franks, and both instrumental in slowing Islamic incursions. Claims that these victories permitted the independent development of European civilization seem exaggerated, but nonetheless they were major symbolic triumphs over the "Islamic hordes."

Under Charlemagne the Franks reached the height of their power. After campaigns against Lombards, Avars, Saxons, and Basques, the resulting Carolingian Empire stretched from the Pyrenees to Central Germany, from the North Sea to the Adriatic. In 800 the Pope made Charlemagne Emperor of the West in return for protection of the Church. The Carolingian Empire was a conscious effort to recreate a central administration modeled on that of the Roman Empire, but the motivations behind military expansion differed. Charlemagne hoped to provide his nobles an incentive to fight by encouraging looting on campaign. Plunder and spoils of war were stronger temptations than imperial expansion, and several regions were invaded over and over in order to bolster the coffers of Frankish nobility. Cavalry dominated the battlefields, and while the high costs associated with equipping horse and horse-rider helped limit their numbers, Carolingian armies maintained a decent size of 20,000 (average) by recruiting infantry from imperial territories near theaters of operation. The Empire lasted from 800 to 843, when, following Frankish tradition, it was split between the sons of Louis the Pious by the Treaty of Verdun.

Middle Ages

King Philip II of France at Bouvines. The battle led to a breakdown in the Anglo-German alliance and may have even emboldened the nobles of King John to force him to sign the Magna Carta. Painting by Horace Vernet.
King Philip II of France at Bouvines. The battle led to a breakdown in the Anglo-German alliance and may have even emboldened the nobles of King John to force him to sign the Magna Carta. Painting by Horace Vernet.

French military history during this period paralleled the rise and eventual fall of the armored knight. Following Charlemagne, there was a great increase in the proportion of cavalry supplemented by improvement in armor: leather and steel, steel helmets, coats of mail, and even full armor added to the defensive capabilities of mounted forces. Cavalry eventually grew to be the most important component of French armies, with the shock charge they provided becoming the standard tactic on the battlefield when it was invented in the eleventh century. At the same time, the development of agricultural techniques allowed the nations of Western Europe to radically increase food production, facilitating the growth of a particularly large aristocracy in France.

A section of the Bayeux Tapestry chronicling the Franco-Norman victory at Hastings.
A section of the Bayeux Tapestry chronicling the Franco-Norman victory at Hastings.

During the Crusades, there were in fact too many armored knights in France for the land to support. Some scholars believe that one of the driving forces behind the Crusades was an attempt by such landless knights to find land overseas, without causing the type of internecine warfare that would largely damage France's increasing military strength. However, such historiographical work on the Crusades is being challenged and rejected by a large part of the historical community. The ultimate motivation or motivations for any one individual are difficult to know, but regardless, nobles and knights from France generally formed very sizeable contingents of crusading expeditions.

Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orleans. This French victory turned the tide of the Hundred Years' War, but the elements for the ultimate triumph were sown a few years afterward. Painting by Jules Lenepveu.
Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orleans. This French victory turned the tide of the Hundred Years' War, but the elements for the ultimate triumph were sown a few years afterward. Painting by Jules Lenepveu.

In the eleventh century, French knights wore knee-length mail and carried long lances and swords. The Norman knights fielded at the Battle of Hastings were more than a match for English forces, and their overwhelming victory simply cemented their power and influence. Improvements in armor over the centuries led to the establishment of plate armor by the fourteenth century, which was further developed more rigorously in the fifteenth century. However, by the late fourteenth century and the early fifteenth, French military power declined during the first parts of the Hundred Years' War. New weapons and tactics seemingly made the knight more of a sitting target than an effective battle force, but the often-praised longbowmen had little to do with the English success. Poor coordination or rough terrain led to bungled French assaults. The slaughter of knights at the Battle of Agincourt best exemplified this carnage. The French were able to field a much larger army of men-at-arms than their English counterparts, who had many longbowmen. Despite this, the French suffered about 6,000 casualties compared to a few hundred for the English because the narrow terrain prevented the tactical envelopments envisioned in recently discovered French plans for the battle. The French suffered a similar defeat at the Battle of the Golden Spurs against Flemish militia in 1302. When knights were allowed to effectively deploy, however, they could be more useful, as at Cassel in 1328 or, even more decisively, at Bouvines in 1214 and Patay in 1429. Given the successes of Henry V of England, his death in 1422 altered the nature of the war profoundly and may have permitted the French to recover virtually all their territory by the end of the conflict.

Popular conceptions of the final stages of the Hundred Years' War are often dominated by the exploits of Joan of Arc, but in fact the French resurgence was rooted in multiple factors. A major step was taken by King Charles VII, who, with the Compagnies d'ordonnance, cavalry units with 20 companies of 600 men each, created the first standing army in the Western world since Roman times, giving the French a considerable edge in professionalism and discipline. Additionally, developments in artillery made it a crucial part of the French army, and the resounding victories at the battles of Formigny and Castillon, both significantly attributable to artillery, were so decisive that the war ended then and there. By 1453 Calais was the only English possession in mainland France.

Ancien Régime

The French triumphant at Rocroi in the Thirty Years' War. The battle marked the symbolic end of the Spanish tercios and the resurgence of French power in Europe.
The French triumphant at Rocroi in the Thirty Years' War. The battle marked the symbolic end of the Spanish tercios and the resurgence of French power in Europe.

The French Renaissance and the beginning of the Ancien Régime, normally marked by the reign of Francis I, saw the nation become far more unified under the monarch. The power of the nobles was diminished as a national army was created. With England expelled from the continent and being consumed by the Wars of the Roses, France's main rival was the Holy Roman Empire. This threat to France became alarming in 1516 when Charles V became the king of Spain, and grew worse when Charles was also elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. France was all but surrounded as Spain, Germany, and the Low Countries were controlled by the Habsburgs. The lengthy Italian Wars that took place during this period resulted in defeat for France and established Catholic Spain, which formed a branch of the Habsburg holdings, as the most powerful nation in Europe. Later in the sixteenth century, France was weakened internally by the Wars of Religion. As nobles managed to raise their own private armies, these conflicts between Huguenots and Catholics all but demolished centralization and monarchical authority, hence precluding France from remaining a powerful force in European affairs.

While France could do little to challenge the dominance of the Holy Roman Empire, the Empire itself faced many challenges. From the east it was severely endangered by the Ottoman Empire, with which the French sometimes cooperated. The vast Habsburg empire also proved impossible to manage effectively, and the crown was soon divided between the Spanish and Austrian holdings. In 1568 the Dutch declared independence, launching a war that would take decades and illustrate the weaknesses of Habsburg power. Finally in the seventeenth century, the religious violence that had beset France a century earlier began to tear the empire apart. At first France sat on the sidelines, but under Cardinal Richelieu it saw an opportunity to advance its own interests at the expense of the Habsburgs. Despite France's staunch Catholicism, it intervened on the side of the Protestants. The Thirty Years' War was long and extremely bloody, but France came out victorious and, for the next century and a half, was the undisputed great power of Europe.

The French defeated at Malplaquet in the War of the Spanish Succession. Despite winning, Marlborough and Eugene suffered so many casualties that they were unable to press farther into France. Malplaquet, woodblock by R Canton Woodville.
The French defeated at Malplaquet in the War of the Spanish Succession. Despite winning, Marlborough and Eugene suffered so many casualties that they were unable to press farther into France. Malplaquet, woodblock by R Canton Woodville.

The long reign of Louis XIV saw a series of conflicts: the War of Devolution, the Franco-Dutch War, the War of the Reunions, the Nine Years War, and the War of the Spanish Succession. Wars in this era consisted of sieges and movements that were rarely decisive. Few of Louis' wars were either clear victories or definite defeats, but inexorably, France's borders expanded. The west bank of the Rhine, much of the Spanish Netherlands, and a good deal of Luxembourg were annexed while the War of the Spanish Succession saw a fellow Bourbon placed on the throne of Spain. To stop France's advance, several European powers formed coalitions. During Louis' long reign, the English reemerged as France's great rivals, allied to the Habsburgs. While they could not stand up to France on land, the British Royal Navy dominated the seas, and France lost many of its colonial holdings. The British economy also became Europe's most powerful, and British money funded the campaigns of their continental allies.

The armies of Louis XIV were some of the most impressive in French history, their quality reflecting militaristic as well political developments. In the mid-seventeenth century, royal power reasserted itself and the army became a tool through which the King could wield authority, replacing older systems of mercenary units and the private forces of recalcitrant nobles. Military administration also made gigantic progress as food supply, clothing, equipment, and armaments were provided in a regularity never before equaled. In fact, the French embedded this standardization by becoming the first army to give their soldiers national uniforms in the 1680s and 1690s.

The eighteenth century saw France remain the dominant power in Europe, but begin to falter largely because of internal problems. The country engaged in a long series of wars, such as the War of the Quadruple Alliance, the War of the Polish Succession, and the War of the Austrian Succession, but these conflicts gained France little. Meanwhile, Britain's power steadily increased, and a new force, Prussia, became a major threat. This change in the balance of power led to the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756, when France and the Habsburgs forged an alliance after centuries of animosity. This alliance proved less than effective in the Seven Years' War, but in the American War of Independence, the French helped inflict a major defeat on the British.

Revolutionary France

The armies of the Revolution at the Battle of Varoux, 1792. With chaos internally and enemies on the borders, the French were in a jittery state in 1792. By 1797, however, they had exported their ideology (and the army that followed it) to the Low Countries and Northern Italy.
The armies of the Revolution at the Battle of Varoux, 1792. With chaos internally and enemies on the borders, the French were in a jittery state in 1792. By 1797, however, they had exported their ideology (and the army that followed it) to the Low Countries and Northern Italy.

The French Revolution, true to its name, revolutionized nearly all aspects of French and European life. The powerful sociopolitical forces unleashed by a people seeking liberté, égalité, and fraternité made certain that even warfare was not spared this upheaval. Eighteenth-century armies, with their rigid protocols, quasi-static operational strategy, unenthusiastic soldiers, and aristocratic officer classes, underwent massive remodeling as the French monarchy and nobility gave way to liberal assemblies obsessed with external threats.

In 1791 the Legislative Assembly passed the "Drill-Book" legislation, implementing a series of infantry doctrines created by French theorists because of their defeat by the Prussians in the Seven Years' War (see "Formations and Tactics" in La Grande Armée). The new developments hoped to exploit the intrinsic bravery of the French soldier, made even more powerful by the explosive nationalist forces of the Revolution. The changes also placed a faith on the ordinary soldier that would be completely unacceptable in earlier times; French troops were expected to harass the enemy and remain loyal enough to not desert, a benefit other Ancien Régime armies did not have. Following the declaration of war in 1792, an imposing array of enemies converging on French borders prompted the government in Paris to adopt radical measures. August 23, 1793, would become a historic day in military history; on that date the National Convention called a levée en masse, or mass conscription, for the first time in human history. By summer of the following year, conscription made some 500,000 men available for service and the French began to deal blows to their European enemies. The French triumphed at the decisive Battle of Fleurus through numerical superiority; while both sides had roughly equivalent forces in the region, the French were able to concentrate theirs more effectively. Armies during the Revolution became noticeably larger than their Roman counterparts, and combined with the new enthusiasm of the soldiery, the tactical and strategic opportunities became almost limitless. By 1797 the French had defeated the First Coalition, occupied the Low Countries, the west bank of the Rhine, and Northern Italy, objectives which had defied the Valois and Bourbon dynasties for centuries. Unsatisfied with the results, many European powers formed a Second Coalition, but by 1801 this too had been decisively beaten.

Another key aspect of French success was the changes wrought in the officer classes. Traditionally, European armies left major command positions to those who could be trusted, namely, the aristocracy. The hectic nature of the French Revolution, however, tore apart France's old army, meaning new men were required to become officers and commanders. As a result of political pressure, competition, promotion, and constant campaigning, France emerged out of the Revolutionary Wars with the best officers in Europe, a very helpful feature during the later Napoleonic Wars. In the nineteenth century, all European armies adopted the fluid officer class the Revolution had introduced, and for that fact, the French Revolution can be credited with establishing the world's first professional armies.

Besides opening a flood of tactical and strategic opportunities, the Revolutionary Wars also laid the foundation for modern military theory. Later authors that wrote about "nations in arms" drew inspiration from the French Revolution, where dire circumstances seemingly mobilized the entire French nation for war. Although the reality of war in the France of 1795 would be different from that in the France of 1915, conceptions and mentalities of war evolved significantly. Clausewitz correctly analyzed the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras to give posterity a thorough and complete theory of war that emphasized struggles between nations occurring everywhere, from the battlefield to the legislative assemblies, and to the very way that people think. War now emerged as a vast panorama of physical and psychological forces heading for victory or defeat.

Napoleonic France

Famous battles and occupied places of La Grande Armée. French peasants that had never stepped a few yards beyond their homes suddenly found themselves at the steps of the Schönbrunn in Vienna and the spires of the Kremlin in Moscow.
Famous battles and occupied places of La Grande Armée. French peasants that had never stepped a few yards beyond their homes suddenly found themselves at the steps of the Schönbrunn in Vienna and the spires of the Kremlin in Moscow.

The Napoleonic Era saw France's influence and power reach immense heights, but just as quickly, it collapsed back to its old borders at an immense cost to the French people. The reasons for the success are varied, but a few points do survive analysis. In the century and a half preceding the Revolutionary Era, France had transformed demographic leverage to military and political weight; the French population was 19 million in 1700, but this had grown to over 29 million in 1800, much higher than that of most other European powers. These numbers permitted France to raise armies at a rapid pace should the need arise. Furthermore, military innovations carried out during the Revolution and the Consulate, evidenced by improvements in artillery and cavalry capabilities on top of better army and staff organization, gave the French army a decisive advantage in the initial stages of the Napoleonic Wars. Another ingredient of success was Napoleon Bonaparte himself—intelligent, charismatic, and a military genius, Napoleon absorbed the latest military theories of the day and applied them in the battlefield with deadly effect.

Napoleon developed an army based on conscription using huge masses of poorly trained troops that could usually be readily replaced, led by a few elite units, like the Imperial Guard. What his armies lacked in skill they made up for in bulk. Napoleon's huge losses suffered during the disastrous Russian campaign would have destroyed any professional commander of the day, but those losses were quickly replaced with new draftees. After Napoleon, nations planned for huge armies with professional leadership and a constant supply of new soldiers, which had huge human costs when improved weapons like the rifled musket replaced the inaccurate muskets of Napoleon's day during the American Civil War.

Napoleonic Empire, 1811. The French Empire is in dark blue; the "Grand Empire"[1] includes areas under French military control (light blue) and allies.
Napoleonic Empire, 1811. The French Empire is in dark blue; the "Grand Empire" includes areas under French military control (light blue) and allies.

This large size came at a cost, as the logistics of feeding a huge army made them especially dependent on supplies. Most armies of the day relied on the supply-convoy system established during the Thirty Years' War by Gustavus Adolphus. This limited mobility, since the soldiers had to wait for the convoys, but it did keep possibly mutinous troops from deserting, and thus helped preserve an army's composure. However, Napoleon's armies were so large that feeding them using the old method proved ineffective, and consequently, French troops were allowed to live off the land. Infused with new concepts of nation and service, French soldiers proved reliable enough to pillage Europe without "going native." Napoleon often attempted to wage decisive, quick campaigns so that he could allow his men to live off the land. The French army did use a convoy system, but it was stocked with very few days worth of food; Napoleon's troops were expected to march quickly, effect a decision on the battlefield, then disperse to feed. For the Russian campaign, the French did store 24 days' worth of food before beginning active operations, but this campaign was the exception, not the rule.

Napoleon's biggest influence in the military sphere was in the conduct of warfare. Weapons and technology remained largely static through the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, but eighteenth-century operational strategy underwent massive restructuring. Sieges became infrequent to the point of near-irrelevance, a new emphasis towards the destruction, not just outmaneuvering, of enemy armies emerged, and invasions of enemy territory occurred over broader fronts, thus introducing a plethora of strategic opportunities that made wars costlier and, just as importantly, more decisive. Defeat for a European power now meant much more than losing isolated enclaves; near-Carthaginian peaces intertwined whole national efforts, sociopolitical, economic, and militaristic, into gargantuan collisions that severely upset international conventions as understood at the time. Napoleon's initial success sowed the seeds for his downfall. Not used to such catastrophic defeats in the rigid power system of eighteenth-century Europe, many nations found existence under the French yoke difficult, sparking revolts, wars, and general instability that plagued the continent until 1815, when the forces of reaction finally triumphed at the Battle of Waterloo.

French colonial empire

Map of the first (light blue) and second (dark blue—plain and hachured) French colonial empires
Map of the first (light blue) and second (dark blue—plain and hachured) French colonial empires

The history of French colonial imperialism can be divided into two major eras: the first from the early seventeenth century to the middle of the eighteenth century, and the second from the early nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. In the first phase of expansion, France concentrated its efforts mainly in North America and India, setting up commercial ventures that were backed by military force. Following defeat to the British in the French and Indian War, France lost its possessions in North America and India, but it did manage to keep the wealthy Caribbean islands of Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Martinique.

The second stage saw the establishment of French Indochina (covering modern Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) and a string of military victories in the Scramble for Africa, where it established control over regions that are today covered by modern countries such as Tunisia, Algeria, Chad, Madagascar, and Djibouti. In 1914 France had an empire stretching over 10,000,000 km² (4,000,000 mile²) of land and about 60 million people. Following victory in World War I, Togo and most of Cameroon were also added to the French possessions, and Syria and Lebanon became French mandates. For most of the period from 1870 to 1945, France was territorially the third largest nation on Earth, after Britain and Russia (later the Soviet Union), and had the most overseas possessions following Britain. Following the Second World War, France struggled to preserve French territories but wound up losing both the Algerian War and the First Indochina War (the precursor to the Vietnam War) to guerilla insurgencies. Today, France still maintains a number of overseas territories, but their collective size is barely a shadow of the old French colonial empire.

Modern period

La Mademoiselle Soixante-quinze in a World War I French propaganda poster that reads "Honor our glorious 75." The famous French artillery gun saw extensive use in World War I, but was so versatile that many combatants, including Germany and the United States, used it in World War II as well.
La Mademoiselle Soixante-quinze in a World War I French propaganda poster that reads "Honour our glorious 75." The famous French artillery gun saw extensive use in World War I, but was so versatile that many combatants, including Germany and the United States, used it in World War II as well.

After the exile of Napoleon, France was the beneficiary of a long period of European peace. This allowed it to focus on the expansion of its overseas empire, particularly in Africa and Asia. These areas of the world had generally resisted European colonialism until the start of the nineteenth century, but advances in weapons technology allowed small numbers of European troops to overcome much larger bodies of native warriors.

In Europe, post-Napoleonic France remained a powerful force in continental affairs, inflicting a defeat on the Habsburgs in the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, a defeat which led to the unification of Italy in 1861, after having triumphed over Russia with other allies in the Crimean War. Detrimentally, however, the French army emerged from these victories in a very overconfident and complacent state. France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War led to the loss of Alsace-Lorraine and the creation of a united German Empire, both results representing major failures in long-term French foreign policy.

Nevertheless, the French, with British and, later, American and Canadian assistance, managed to hold on for four years and defeat the Germans in World War I. After major conflicts such as the Battle of the Frontiers, the First Battle of the Marne, the Battle of Verdun, and the Second Battle of the Aisne, the latter failure causing widespread mutinies throughout the French army, the French remained enough of a cohesive fighting force to counterattack and defeat the Germans at the Second Battle of the Marne, the first in what would become a string of Allied victories that ended the war. The Treaty of Versailles eventually returned Alsace-Lorraine to France.

However, a variety of factors, ranging from poor commanders to low population growth, crippled France's effort in the 1940 Battle of France. In addition, and in many ways as a result, by 1960 it had lost its influence over all of its empire, suffering defeat in Indochina and granting independence to Algeria after a bitter struggle. Moreover, the military had lost status with the population, first because of the widely publicized Dreyfus Affair, and later because of the collaboration of the Vichy government with the occupying forces of Nazi Germany during World War II.

A French bayonet charge in World War I. Trusting in the bayonet as the "superior weapon" and believing that the élan of the French soldier would carry the day, Plan XVII sent thousands to their deaths during the Battle of the Frontiers. 20th century warfare had dawned with a frightful jolt as commanders on both sides attempted to restore some form of tactical mobility.
A French bayonet charge in World War I. Trusting in the bayonet as the "superior weapon" and believing that the élan of the French soldier would carry the day, Plan XVII sent thousands to their deaths during the Battle of the Frontiers. 20th century warfare had dawned with a frightful jolt as commanders on both sides attempted to restore some form of tactical mobility.

Despite having one of the largest and most technologically advanced standing armies in Europe, and the money to support it, France consistently lost out on the development of new tactics through insufficient training. Charles De Gaulle had foreseen the importance of armored warfare after World War I, but his theories were widely ignored in France, only to be taken up by the Germans, who used them to great effect with Blitzkrieg. Furthermore, low population growth forced the French government to extend conscription terms and made military life more unpopular. Prior to the Battle of France, there were sentiments among many Allied soldiers, French and British, of pointless repetition; they viewed the war with dread since they had already beaten the Germans once, and images of that first major conflict were still poignant in military circles. The costs of World War I inspired the French to look for more defensive measures. The Maginot Line was the result of these deliberations: the French originally allocated three billion francs for the project, but by 1935 seven billion had been spent. Generally considered one of the great failures of military history, the fabled Maginot Line actually cost the Germans heavily when attacked. However, it only covered the border from Switzerland to Belgium. The main German attack came through Belgium and bypassed the Maginot Line entirely. Isolated instances of French resistance could not defeat the German blitzkrieg and the Third Republic collapsed.

After its defeat, France remained occupied until 1944. The Normandy landings in that year were the first step towards the eventual Liberation of France. The Free French Forces under de Gaulle had participated widely throughout previous campaigns, but their growing size made them especially notable in the final phases of the war. In May 1945, the final month of the war in Europe, the French had a total of 1.25 million soldiers; ten divisions of these, seven infantry and three armored, were fighting in Germany. At the end of the conflict, France was given one of four occupation zones in Germany and in Berlin.

Historically, the military had sided with the monarchy and the Catholic Church, but its struggles over the twentieth century eventually allowed the Republican and secular forces that had first come to the fore during the French Revolution to cement their hold over French politics. The last attempt by the military to set its own policy came during the Algerian War, when French forces took the suppression of rebellious Algerians into their own hands, against the directions of then President De Gaulle. Eventually, De Gaulle distanced himself from the military and appealed to public support, resulting in the establishment of the Fifth Republic. However, this also had the effect of lessening France's military standing in the world to the point where De Gaulle often believed that France had little control over its own military destiny. Today, despite being a nuclear power and having some of the best trained and best equipped forces in the world, the military role of France is seen in terms of coalition interventions, peacekeeping, and minor disputes. Conflicts indicative of this status are the Gulf War in 1991, in which France sent 18,000 troops, 60 combat aircraft, 120 helicopters, and 40 tanks, Mission Héracles in the War in Afghanistan, and recent peacekeeping actions in Côte d'Ivoire, which involved brief direct fighting between the French and Ivorian armies in 2004.

Topical subjects

French Air Force

The roundel was first used by the French Air Force in World War I.
The roundel was first used by the French Air Force in World War I.

Many consider the Armée de l'Air to have been the first professional air force in the world. The French took active interest in developing their air force and had the first fighter pilots of World War I. During the interwar years, however, particularly in the 1930s, the quality fell when compared with the Luftwaffe, which crushed both the French and British air forces during the Battle of France. In the post–World War II era, the French made a concerted and successful effort to develop a homegrown aircraft industry. Dassault Aviation led the way forward with their unique and effective delta-wing designs, which formed the basis for the famous Mirage series of jet fighters. The Mirage repeatedly demonstrated its deadly abilities in the Six-Day War and the Gulf War, becoming one of the most popular and well-sold aircraft in the history of military aviation along the way. Currently, the French Air Force is expanding and replacing. The French are awaiting the A400M military transport aircraft, which is still in developmental stages, and the integration of the new Rafale multi-role jet fighter, whose first squadron of 20 aircraft became operational in 2006 at Saint-Dizier.

French Navy

The USS Enterprise (left), the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the world, sailing besides the Charles de Gaulle, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in Europe. The French Navy gave assistance to U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan.[2]
The USS Enterprise (left), the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the world, sailing besides the Charles de Gaulle, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in Europe. The French Navy gave assistance to U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan.

Although the history of the French Navy goes back to the Middle Ages, when it was defeated by the English at the Battle of Sluys and, with Castilian help, managed to beat the English at La Rochelle, it did not become a consistent instrument of national power until the seventeenth century with Louis XIV. Under the tutelage of the "Sun King," the French Navy was well financed and equipped, managing to resoundingly defeat a combined Spanish-Dutch fleet at the Battle of Palermo in 1676 during the Franco-Dutch War, although, along with the English navy, it suffered several strategic reversals against the Dutch, who were led by the brilliant Michiel de Ruyter. It scored several early victories in the Nine Years War against the Royal Navy and the Dutch Navy. Financial difficulties, however, allowed the English and the Dutch to regain the initiative at sea.

A perennial problem for the French Navy was the strategic priorities of France, which were first and foremost tied to its European ambitions. This meant the army was often treated better than the navy, and as a result, the latter suffered in training and operational performance. The eighteenth century saw the beginning of Royal Navy domination, which managed to inflict a number of significant defeats on the French. However, in a very impressive effort, a French fleet under de Grasse managed to defeat a British fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781, ensuring that the Franco-American ground forces would win the ongoing Battle of Yorktown. Beyond that, and Suffren's impressive campaigns against the British in India, there was not much more good news. The French Revolution all but crippled the French Navy, and efforts to make it into a powerful force under Napoleon were dashed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, where the British all but annihilated a combined Franco-Spanish fleet. The disaster guaranteed British naval domination until World War II.

Later in the nineteenth century, the navy recovered and became the second finest in the world after the Royal Navy. It conducted a successful blockade of Mexico in the Pastry War of 1838 and obliterated the Chinese navy at the Battle of Foochow in 1884. It also served as an effective link between the growing parts of the French empire. The navy performed well during World War I, in which it mainly protected the naval lanes in the Mediterranean Sea. At the onset of the war, the French, with 16 battleships, 6 cruisers, and 24 destroyers, had the largest fleet in the Mediterranean. French defeats in the early stages of World War II, however, forced the British to destroy the French navy at Mers-el-Kebir in order to prevent its fall to the Germans. Currently, French naval doctrine calls for two aircraft carriers, but the French currently only have one, the Charles de Gaulle, due to restructuring. The second one is scheduled for 2015. The navy is in the midst of major technological and procurement changes; newer submarines and a second aircraft carrier have been ordered on top of the Rafales (the naval version) replacing older aircraft.

French Foreign Legion

The French Foreign Legion was created in 1831 by French king Louis-Philippe. Over the past century and a half, it has gone on to become one of the most recognizable and lauded military units in the world. The Legion had a very difficult start; there were few non-commissioned officers, many of the soldiers could not speak French, and pay was often irregular. The Legion was soon transferred to fight in Algeria, performing moderately successfully given its condition. On August 17, 1835, the commander of the Legion, Colonel Joseph Bernelle, decided to amalgamate all the battalions so that no nationality was exclusively confined to a particular battalion; this helped ensure that the Legion did not fragment into factions.

Légionnaires in dress uniform. Note the red epaulettes and the distinctive white kepi. They carry the standard assault rifle, the FAMAS.
Légionnaires in dress uniform. Note the red epaulettes and the distinctive white kepi. They carry the standard assault rifle, the FAMAS.

Following participation in Africa and in the Carlist Wars in Spain, the Legion fought in the Crimean War and the Franco-Austrian War, where they performed heroically at the Battle of Magenta, before earning even more glory during the French intervention in Mexico. On April 30, 1863, a company of 65 legionnaires was ambushed by 2,000 Mexican troops at the Hacienda Camarón; in the resulting Battle of Camarón, the legionnaires resisted bravely for several hours and inflicted 300–500 casualties on the Mexicans while 62 of them died and three were captured. One of the Mexican commanders, impressed by the memorable intransigence he had just witnessed, characterized the Legion in a way they've been known ever since, "These are not men, but devils!" Today, legionnaires recognize April 30 as "Cameron Day."

After the French defeat in Mexico, the Legion participated effectively in the Franco-Prussian War, spearheading the attack that lead to the only French victory of the war in the Battle of Coulmiers. It later fought in the Sino-French War during the 1880s, putting up a stout defense at the siege of Tuyen Quang against overwhelming Chinese numbers. Much of its time in the later nineteenth century and the early twentieth was spent in various operations throughout the French colonial empire.

In World War I, the Legion demonstrated that it was a highly capable unit in modern warfare. It suffered 11,000 casualties in the Western Front while conducting brilliant defenses and spirited counter-attacks. Following the debacle in the Battle of France in 1940, the Legion was split between those who supported the Vichy government and those who joined the Free French under de Gaulle. At the Battle of Bir Hakeim in 1942, the Free French 13th Legion Demi-Brigade doggedly defended its positions against a combined Italian-German offensive and seriously delayed Rommel's attacks towards Tobruk. The Legion eventually returned to Europe and fought until the end of the Second World War in 1945. It later fought in the First Indochina War against the Viet Minh. At the climatic Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, French forces, many of them legionnaires, were completely surrounded by a large Vietnamese army and were defeated after two months of tenacious fighting. French withdrawal from Algeria led to the collapse of the French colonial empire. The legionnaires were mostly used in colonial interventions, so the destruction of the empire prompted questions about their status. Ultimately, the Legion was allowed to exist and participated as a rapid reaction force in many places throughout Africa and around the world. Today, it is one of the most respected units in the French Army.

French military linguistic influence

French specialized military terms have been influential and adopted by other languages besides English, like Spanish or German.

French military terms used in English include: action, aide-de-camp, army, artillery, attack, aviation, barracks, barrage, battalion, battle, bayonet, billet, bivouac, bomb, bombardier, brigade, cadre, camp, camouflage, captain, cartouche, cavalry, charge, colonel, combat, company, corps, corporal, détente, division, dragoon, enfilade, envoy, epaulette, espionage, esprit de corps, garrison, general, glacis, grenade, grenadier, infantry, lieutenant, lance, marines, materiel, manoeuvre, mêlée, militia, military, mine, naval, offensive, parapet, parachute, pilot, pioneer, platoon, pontoon, quarters, reconnaissance, recruit, redoubt, regiment, ricochet, sabre, sapper, sergeant, soldier, sortie, terrain, trench, trophy, volley, and volunteer.

Note: All the above examples date from Middle French or Modern French usage since the 1500s as specifically related to specialized military terms. Earlier Old French words related to war became part of the English language in a period after the adoption of the French-like Anglo-Norman language as the official royal and legal language in England - a result of its conquest by William the Conqueror in 1066. These words were not adopted for special military purposes, but were part of a general language of rule that lasted for centuries and had a major impact on Middle English. For selected non-war related examples, refer to the Wiktionary.

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