France before the war

For a majority of the Early
Modern Era (1500-1800), France had been the main power in Europe. Through their
skill of managing internal relations and military expertise, Louis XIV (seventeenth
century) and Napoleon I (nineteenth century) extended French power. Prussian
Chancellor Otto von Bismarck aimed to assert Prussian dominance across Central
Europe, which led to the French declaration of war in 1870. France’s defeat in
the Franco-Prussian War created the French Third republic and left them with
many losses, such as loss of territory, which gave birth to their goal of
reacquiring such. The new unified Germany was formed, run by Bismarck.

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France had an economic
rivalry with the rapidly industrializing Germany, who had taken their coal-rich
region Alsace-Lorraine in 1870, as well as growing militarism which led to an
arms race. Germany was seen as a big threat in 1882, as it formed the triple
alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, who all agreed to support each
other if attacked by France or Russia. Russia left 3 years later to join
Britain and France, forming the triple entente, the foundation for ‘The Allies’.
The German declaration of war on August 3rd 1914 brought France into
the war, as they were pinned by treaty to defend Russia.


Entering the war

The press and most
politicians pressured for war, however, war was opposed by notable socialists
and pacifists, such as socialist politician Jean Jaures of the French Left, who
was assassinated at a Montmartre café for being an “enemy of France”. Patriotic
passion drove demonstrations on the Place de la Concorde and at the Gare de l’Est
and Gare du Nord as mobilized soldiers left for the front.

Mobilization was
underway on August 1st, the day Germany declared war on Russia. Universal
conscription led male Parisians of military age (21+ the next year) to stations
around the city, for mobilization into the army. Everyone except 1 percent
appeared as ordered, 1% being a smaller amount than the expected absence of
13%. The Ministry of the Interior refrained from arresting eminent pacifists and
socialists opposed to war as little hostility showed no need.

Soldiers or “les poilus” of the French army would spend three
years in active service, then progress through reserve stages, which were lower
degrees of commitment.

Army (20–23)

of the Active Army (24–34)

Army (35–41)

of the Territorial Army (42–48)



Regiments à military regions à army corps à field army à French first army (army group)

in regional corps (e.g. infantry divisions)




In the war

The General Staff was
at the top of the French Army, under the leadership of General Joseph Joffre,
who later became Commander-in-Chief. They were responsible for creating the mobilization
plan, Plan XVII. Using the railroad network, the Army would be moved from their
peacetime garrisons in France to the eastern border with Germany. Joffre’s
forces were forced in France’s north-east, to attack Alsace-Lorraine and meet
the predicted German offensive through the Low Countries. Devastating battles
on the western front sparked France to conscript men up to 45 years of age.

First Army (7th, 8th, 13th, 14th, and 21st Army Corps), with the objective of
capturing Mulhouse and Sarrebourg.

Second Army (9th, 15th, 16th, 18th and 20th Army Corps), with the objective of
capturing Morhange.

Third Army (4th, 5th and 6th Army Corps), defending the region around Metz.

Fourth Army (12th, 17th and
Colonial Army Corps) held in reserve around the Forest of Argonne

Fifth Army (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 10th and 11th Army Corps), defending the Ardennes.

 By 1918, 40% of French soldiers on the Western
Front operated artillery and 850,000 were infantry troops, less than the 1.5
million in 1915. This was due to a greater machine gun, armored car and tank utilization.
Also, the Service Aéronautique (French air force).

A few weeks after the
war had commenced, Paris was near the front lines and bombarded by the Germans.
Parisians experienced food shortages, rationing and an epidemic of influenza,
yet morale stayed high. With many men gone, women took a much greater place in
the work force.


the end of the war, France had called upon 8,317,000 men, with 475,000 of those
being colonial troops. There were 4.4 million causalities, with 1.3 million
dead. Roughly 1/20 of France’s population were killed.

1914, more than 65,000 mobilized horses were shared between the five French

French artillery fired more than 330,000,000 shells, this is more than 210
thousand rounds each day.

On August 26th,
trains full of refugees from Belgium (affected by the Schlieffen plan conducted
by the Central Powers) arrived at the Gare du Nord and were given a roof over
their head at the Cirque de Paris. French casualties at the beginning of the
war were kept hidden from the public as many expected a quick victory. General
Joseph Gallieni came out of retirement and was appointed military governor of
Paris, a 14th century title. He started to arrange defenses of the city.
Forts, cannons and batteries were implemented for defense against aerial
attacks, along with machine guns and cannons placed on the Eiffel Tower. Cattle
were moved into the city for their meat, in case of a long siege. Masterpieces
of the Louvre were relocated to Toulouse for safekeeping.

In the First Battle of
the Marne, when the Germans turned southeast to attack the French army on the
flank (), Galliene sent all his Parisian reserves to the front to aid the
attack but lacked enough transport to move the soldiers. On September 5,
Gallieni requisitioned a thousand private vehicles, involving roughly six
hundred Paris taxicabs and their drivers to carry soldiers to the front
at Nanteuil-le-Haudouin, fifty kilometers away. Just the back lights
of the taxis were lit; the drivers were instructed to follow the lights of the
taxi in front. The majority of the taxis were demobilized on September 8, but a
few remained to transport the wounded and refugees. The taxis ran their meters following
city regulations and the French treasury paid the total fare of 70,012 francs.
In summary, the Germans were pushed back, in reality making little military
impact yet having a grandeur effect on French morale by demonstrating the
solidarity between the people and the army.



27,000 French soldiers were killed in the
Battle of Charleroi on August 22nd 1914. In
1915, during the Artois Offensive between May 9th and June 18th, it cost
300,000 lives and wounded men to gain just 4 kilometers of territory.



Avenue de l’Allemagne
(Avenue of Germany in English) was renamed Avenue Jean-Jaurés, after the French
socialist leader, and the Rue de Berlin became the Rue de Liège, after a city
in Belgium. The Grand Palais became a military hospital and Paris theatres
eventually reopened, with plays of patriotic themes. Café concerts were very
popular, packed with people enjoying music, dancing and food.

Grains, milk, sugar and eggs were at a fixed price determined by the government
and margarine and sugar were taxed. The pain national was introduced in 1916, a
standard loaf of bread made with a more rustic flour than the white loaf.
Eventually, special breads and brioches were banned and one type of load of
bread was sold, weighing seven hundred grams and being eighty centimetres long.
Poor families received 135 grams of potatoes per day.

With the major coal mines of northern
France being behind the German lines, electricity and heat were very limited.
In the winter of 1916 and 17, temperatures were -7 degrees Celsius. Coal was
reserved for the elderly, unemployed and families of mobilized soldiers, but
had to pay 4.75 francs for a fifty kilogram sack of coal, and it had to last them
40 days. Tram lines often couldn’t operate. The government were obliged to reorganize
Paris’ industry to provide weapons and ammunition. 100,000 artillery shells had
to be produced every day and more than a thousand Paris enterprises were
working in the sector of National Defence.

As factory workers
became soldiers, women, as well as 183,000 colonials from French Africa and Indochina took their place. Parisian fashions
were modified for the benefit of working women; skirts were made shorter and corsets
made looser. Woman were postmen (or ladies), tram drivers and factory workers. The first business school for women “Ècole de
Haute Enseignement Commercial” opened late 1915. Defence
factories were intense and risky, with inexperienced workers handling dangerous
chemicals and explosives. In April 1918, a new factory in Vincennes making
shells and mustard gas exploded, poisoning three hundred ten workers.11

Overall, the focus was
on the army, with the government stressing efficiency and maximization of army
supplies. The union sacree was the idea that civilians sacrificed for their
troops. The cost of living in Paris rose by 120 percent between 1917 and the
end of the war in November 1918. In the spring of 1917, Paris workers began to
demand more compensation for their efforts, including higher wages, better
working conditions and no more importation of foreign workers.


After the war

On November 9th, the German monarchy collapsed and was proclaimed a
republic. The new German government sent a delegation to Compiegne, north of
Paris, and the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. An excerpt from a
young Paris college student (René Héron de Villefosse), describing what he saw
states: “At eleven o’clock in the fog, the church bells announced the
armistice. The college released its students class by class… in the afternoon,
on the Grands Boulevards, the enthusiasm of the crowd was indescribable. People
shouted, kissed, blew trumpets, and blew the horns of trucks surrounded by the
crowds. Any solider encountered was embraced and carried in triumph.”

On November 17th, Alsace and Lorraine were returned to
France, with huge crowds gathering at the Champs Elysees to rejoice. On
December 16th, massive crowds welcomed President Woodrow Wilson to
the Hotel de Ville, upon his arrival to take part in the Versailles peace