France During WWI

By | August 12, 2017

After the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, the era of dictatorship came to an end and the Bourbon monarchy was restored. Though people did not like it, there was stability during this period. In 1848 after another revolution Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon, came back from exile and was elected the as the French President. Within four years he seized powers and held a referendum that was mostly rigged and he crowned himself as the Emperor Napoleon III and ruled as a monarch.  Napoleon III was only interested in the expansion of the empire but he met with a crushing defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870.

France at the beginning of the 20th century 

The Second French Empire collapsed in 1870 and then French Third Republic was formed. The French Third Republic lasted for many years and was dissolved when Germany defeated in WWII and a Vichy Government was formed on July 10th 1940. Even though the Third Republic lasted for many years there was a lot of strife in the early years. The Franco –Prussian war was one. It caused a huge upheaval in the society and communes called the Paris commune were formed. There were plans to bring back monarchy but the questions who and how stalled the plans. The Third Republic was planned as a provisional government but it became permanent. Germany was the arch rival of France and to isolate Germany France allied itself with Britain and Russia by 1904 and was called Triple Entente. It was the fear of the German power that kept this alliance strong and came into force during World War I.

The period from 1871 to 1914 was known as “Belle Époque or La Belle Époque”, “Beautiful Era”. It was a period marked by regional peace, scientific and cultural innovations, optimism, economic prosperity and the height of its success in colonisation. In an atmosphere of peace and economic prosperity visual art, theatre and literature flourished. The name “Beautiful Era” was given in retrospect because only when the horror of WWI struck them, it was realised that the period before that was one of peace and happiness for the people and a time where there were advancement in all fields.

Involvement in WWI

Russia to protect its interest in Serbia entered the war and France joined to honour its treaty with Russia. The decision to join was taken by the leaders and not so much the military personnel. Battle of the Marne in September 1914 was a long and a bloody battle but France was victorious and this gave them confidence. The intellectuals of France welcomed the war and saw it as a time to avenge its humiliating defeat in 1871. The socialists opposed war. But when the pacifist Jean Jaures was assassinated the French socialist also went in support of war. Joffre became the Commander-in –Chief of the French Army. Five field armies were formed and most of the forces were fighting in the north east of France. . As the war was getting into the second year, more people had to be enrolled and the age of enrolment was raised to 45.

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In June 1915 a concerted effort of France, Italy, Serbia, Belgium and Russia was met with stiff opposition by Germany and Germany beat them back at Ypres. France was getting victory in many other places. The army grew by 1918 and the number of machines guns, tanks and armoured car increased. France brought troops from her colonies as well. The French Air Force also became powerful.  Though the Triple Entente won the WWI, France had 4.2 million injured and 1.3 million dead.

 

Political developments: Domestic 

The period between Franco-Prussian War and the World War I was one of political stability in France. The working class was getting stronger as in most other European countries. The most active socialist organization was Second International Anarchists and there remained so till WWI. There were very few political assassinations. However there were a few and the most prominent was that of President Marie Francois Carnot in 1894. A bomb was blasted at the Chamber of Deputies of France in 1893. No deaths were reported but some were injured.  The sudden death of Felix Faure, the President in 1899 took the country by surprise but even this did not bring any instability.

The sole incident which divided France into two sections was the Dreyfus Affair in 1894. Alfred Dreyfus was a young military in the French army. He was convicted for giving important French military secrets to German Embassy. He was sent to jail for five years. Georges Picquart, head of counter espionage through his investigation found out that it was an Army Major who had done the crime. Once this was informed through the media there was great uproar. Dreyfus was released but had to face another trial.. After another stint of jail for ten years Dreyfus was released and he went on to become Lieutenant-Colonel and took part in WWI. The years between 1894 and 1904 divided the French Society into two camps, one who supported Dreyfus, the Dreyfusards and the ones who opposed him. The Catholics opposed him and it was pro-republican camp that supported Dreyfus.

Political developments: Foreign 

From 1892 talks were on in Russia for an alliance and in 1984 France and Russia signed the Franco-Russian Entente which held good till the end of WWI. This helped France to overcome its isolation in the European continent.  In 1890s France was expanding her colonial power and on this there were conflicts with the British Army in many places but the troops faced each other at Fashoda on the Nile. But the war did not happen as both sides did not get an order to strike. The matter was then solved diplomatically.  The Sino-Japanese war in 1895 had an impact on the European advancements for further colonisation especially in China. France formed the East Asiatic Triple Entente with Germany and Russia. With this renewed strength France approached Japan and demanded Japan to give up some of the areas gained in the war. In 1998 Port Arthur in China which was a port held by France was taken over by Russia.

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Between the years 1895 and 1898 there was a conflict between French and British interests. However French diplomacy realised that France could hold on and expand the colonies with the help of a superior alliance. France did not see Germany fit for an alliance after the Franco-German war and was seen more as an enemy. Alsace-Lorraine was the bone of contention. While Germany held this area there majority of Alsassians wanted the French to take over. So letting go of the animosity towards Britain they approached Britain and the Anglo-French Entente was signed.  French claim of Morocco was accepted by Britain. However in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 France and Britain supported the opposing sides, Britain the Japanese and France the Russians. Another success of the French diplomacy was the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 which later was called the Triple Entente and the alliance that came into force in WWI.

Economic policies and changes

The Franco-German war of 1870-1871 had burdened the economy of France but by 1890 this was over come. With colonial empire growing swiftly, there was rapid industrial growth as well. The output in iron ore increased manifold from 1890 to 1913. The same was true for crude steel. Railways were very developed even in 1890and it was extended to 40,770 Kms by 1913. French banks also invested in railways like the Transiberian railroad. There was all round development and the economy was on the rise. However the economy was hit when Germany seized the industrial areas in the north east in 1913. The area conquered by Germany was small but the output from these areas formed a large part of France’s economy. After the war some relief came from America in the form of raw materials and food. American extended loans with which France got food and manufactured goods that kept up a decent standard of living. There were labour shortages and this was met by bringing people from the colonies. These workers were not by force; only those who volunteered were brought to France. The war once again brought down the economy. It affected housing and production capital. The debt of France rose from 66%of the GDP in 1913 to 170% in 1919. This reflected the huge use of bond issued to pay for the war.  There was a rapid rise in inflation and the Franc was losing its value especially with the British pound. The value was half of the British pound.

Social policies and changes

The society in France was based on Catholic Church and they believed in large families, extended families. After World War I the family began its shift to nuclear families. French state had always promoted and supported culture. So whenever there were political changes it affected cultural changes. There was always a shift in policies; sometimes they tried to unify the country around certain cultural norms, at other times the state promoted the heterogeneous French culture. French language was given a lot of importance and an institution was constituted for this. Dreyfus Affair brought about a lot of changes in the society of France. After five years of imprisonment of Dreyfus writer Emile Zola brought the whole affair into the open. The French military and leadership was openly accused. People stood behind the writer in full support; there were anti-Dreyfus group too but after of investigation it was proved that Dreyfus was innocent and then he was re-instated into the army and moved up in the rank till he retired. This only proved that by early twentieth century the French did have freedom to speak against authority without having to fear them. In a free environment art, culture, science and technology flourished. The style of French painting was diversifies and the period of Impressionism was over. In 1895 the first moving picture was shown by the Lumiere Brothers. A Polish scientist Marie Curie discovered Radium in the labs in France. She went on to win the Noble Prize in 1903. The Second Olympic Games was held in Paris in 1900.

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Consequences of WWI 

  • France had the greatest casualty which meant that almost an entire generation was lost.
  • France could not make up for the loss because many young capable men were lost in the battle.
  • The birth rate dropped and many thousands of children were orphaned.
  • Most of the wounded people were affected psychologically too.
  • Buildings were damaged especially in the western front.
  • Economy took a beating. People were not available to work. Many agricultural lands were wrecked.
  • The state had to spend large amount of money in importing goods and also to give medical care for the millions who were wounded in the war.
  • After the war Germany had to bear most of the losses that were incurred in France and Britain. The reparations were very high. Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France. All these enraged the Germans against France and this lead to the World War II.
  • There were great environmental issues after WWI. Many houses were destroyed and many villages lost their scenic beauty. Many wine orchards and agricultural areas were destroyed. This was a economic and environmental problem.
  • There were many mines in France. This was an issue after the war and discarded shells also created environmental issues.
  • Detonating the mines took a lot of man power, effort, time and money.

Never in the history of the world has a war brought positive results. Killing and bombing can never bring any good. And if political leaders learn from the past, they should make sure that no more wars happen in the world. Talks are the only way out. War wipes out generations and with that the economy, the culture, the environment, the land and more. With so much of advancement in the world it is imperative that another World War does not happen.

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About Gaynor Borade

Hi. My name is Gaynor and I have been an academic facilitator since 1992. I have successfully developed and imparted the ICSE, IGCSE and IBDP English and History syllabi. My endeavour is to make support material available to students, who find the prescribed content, analysis and collation of information particularly challenging.

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