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Britain cannot comprehend French suffering in WW1

When travelling around France it is hard not to be struck by the quality of its memorials to the dead of the Great War.A hundred years on – and we mark the centenary of the Armistice on 11 November – these often elaborate sculptures still make an eloquent statement of the sheer grief a nation felt at its suffering in those four years.

France lost nearly 1.4million men in the conflict. Of the total deaths among the entente powers, the British Empire accounted for 16%, France for 25%. Almost 4.3% of the entire French population was killed in the war; Britain lost 2.2%.

Britain had a volunteer army until 1916, when the scale of destruction on the Western Front forced the introduction of conscription.

In France, every man was called up from the moment the Germans attacked. It is easy to understand why: the motherland itself was under assault. For the British it was a case of going abroad to join an ally in the defence of Belgium; for the French, it was about securing the continuation of their nation.

Not only was every man required to serve: women were enlisted for work in munitions factories and on the land, long before anything on such a scale happened in Britain.

The British were slow to adjust to what came to be called ‘total war’. The French had no choice.

Only a small part of the northeast of the country was occupied between 1914 and 1918; but that part was devastated and depopulated – and, to this day, the scars of the shell-holes and the dugouts, and the undulations of the trenches, are visible on the landscape.

Each year burial parties from the French and British armed forces hold military funerals for soldiers discovered when fields are ploughed in the countryside around Verdun and Cambrai; and they will continue to do so for years yet.

The French fought with such ferocity and determination because saving their homeland from the Germans was not an abstract consideration.

In 1871 two parts of France – Alsace and Lorraine – had been taken by Germany after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.

Those areas had been steadily Germanified.

Germany never ceased after 1871 to regard France as a natural enemy, and almost its entire military strategy had been focused on dealing with France again if the need, or the excuse, arose.

No-one had quite imagined the duration and the extent of the carnage that would result if such an engagement happened.

When it did, and when France with the aid of her allies defeated Germany, it was in no mood for olive branches.

Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister in 1918, dominated the ensuing peace conference at Versailles.

He felt he had every right to do so, as so much of the war had been fought on French soil, and he spent months brushing aside criticisms of his policies and aims from the other participants – the British, the Americans and the Italians – who thought an inherently unstable Germany would be made only more, not less, dangerous by undergoing a severe punishment.

The demand to return Alsace and Lorraine was predictable and supported by the allies.

They were less enthusiastic about the scale of reparations, which they saw as unrealistic and crippling. However, Clemenceau had a trump card, in pressing his policies, that he was not the most hard-line French statesman in his attitudes to Germany; the president, Raymond Poincaré, took an ever sterner view, and saw Clemenceau as something of a moderate. The two men detested each other.

When the German delegation travelled to Versailles in 1919, Clemenceau ordered that their train be slowed down as it went through the former battlefields, so they would have time to see the destruction their aggression had caused.

Clemenceau endured an assassination attempt in February 1919 – shot in the back – that emphasised the divided nature of France.

By now a sworn enemy, too, of Lloyd George, the British prime minister, and Woodrow Wilson, the American president, Clemenceau’s negotiating style became indiscernible from the tantrum.

Germany was duly not just defeated but, in the peace terms imposed on it, humiliated. There was no doubt it was the aggressor and had been mistaken in thinking the French would be easy pickings; but in historical terms, Versailles was nowhere near the end of the problem.

The humiliation of Versailles gave rise to extremism among German nationalists, out of which within a few years arose the demagogue Hitler, and the Nazi party.

Part of its ideology was that the people it called “the November criminals” – the collection of politicians and soldiers who ran a Kaiserless country, and who had agreed to the capitulation at Versailles – had betrayed Germany; and the stain of that betrayal could, in their view, only be wiped clean by the reassertion of German nationalism and power.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The rampant expansionism that went with that obsession led to the Second World War, and France being invaded again in 1940.

The heavily armed Germans, with their Panzers and Blitzkrieg, never sought to dig themselves in and fight a war like the Great War: they swept into a demoralised and divided country and their rule only exacerbated those divisions.

The country was literally divided, between occupiers and Vichy; and despite decades of rhetoric since the occupation ended in 1944, about unifying a France of résistants and collabos, the divisions that stemmed from Clemenceau’s and Poincaré’s determination to crush Germany have never entirely gone.

When France remembers its hecatomb of dead on November 11 it, too, will be no abstract exercise.

The effects of the war fought by the glorious dead are, like the shell-holes, still visible in France today. One hundred years is a very short time in history.


Column by political commentator and historian Simon Heffer, who is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

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