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Roncevaux Pass, Napoleon and Anvil-Dragoon

One of the best things about looking at history through a somewhat empirical lens is that the skilled practitioner can make correlations that were simply not possible to contemporaries of events.  Then again, so can semi-competent duffers like your current correspondent.  Such is the correlation we can make with 15 August and France’s fate.

Roncevaux Pass was an ambush by a largely Christian Basque guerilla force and the rearguard of Charlemagne’s retreating army after his invasion of northern Spain on this day in the year 778.  The action killed Roland, the commander, and created a legend in the Christian-Moor conflict that would rage for another three centuries.  It also immortalized the sacrifices of Christian “knights” and other semi-nobles that would depict them largely as stories would depict them for generations: pure-hearted, noble-browed heroes on horseback in shining armor.  That most were paladins–soldiers for hire–seems to be left out.

Roncevaux Pass immortalized the Christian knights as pure-hearted, noble-browed heroes on horseback in shining armor.

On 14 August 1769 Napoleon Bonaparte was born to minor French nobility in Ajaccio, Corsica.  He was the master of Europe before he was thirty-five, by which time he was well on the way to destroying it as it was known under the Bourbons.  It was Napoleon who won France’s  last major war (War of the Sixth Coalition) in 1809: even if they were “victors” in WWI and WWII, France is better described as having survived, rather than “won.”  Napoleon, for good or ill, ingrained “libertie, egalitie, fraternitie” into the French soul even as he destroyed the economy, abandoned two armies in the field (Egypt and Russia), and became a romantic legend on both sides of the Atlantic that grew larger with each successive generation.

Napoleon, for good or ill, ingrained “libertie, egalitie, fraternitie” into the French soul

And, on this date in 1944, France managed to redeem itself somewhat for the disasters of 1815 and 1940, with their rebuilt army’s superb performance during the invasion of Southern France known in history as Operation Anvil-Dragoon   Originally intended to be conducted simultaneously with the better-known Overlord landings in Normandy, the landings on the French Riviera had to wait for landing craft.  Legend has it that Winston Churchill was unhappy with what he saw as a diversion from more important turf in the Balkans (contemporary discussion says this is not as true as Churchill would have later stated it was).  So, according to legend, the name Operation Anvil was changed to Dragoon because Churchill was “dragooned” into supporting it, though the reason for the name change was somewhat more prosaic and not Churchill’s at all.

...the landings on the French Riviera had to wait for landing craft.

Ultimately, in the distance of time, we can see that 14 August, for France, was just another day, though in 1945 it was, like the rest of the world, a relief when Japan agreed to surrender and the Showa Emperor Hirohito publicly agreed with the broadcast of the Imperial Rescript in 15 August, 1945.  But legends like the romantic knights of French stories, the “genius” of Napoleon and the landings in Southern France live on, as do the legends of a Japanese “surrender” by a “government” that was anything but.  But that’s another story.

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Vietnam Part 1 (aka the French Indochina War): Another French Revolution

In the distance of time historians look at the French experience of 1945-54 as a lead-in to the American experience in what would become Vietnam.  This merging has become a shorthand for academics in and out of the United States, like slavery has become the prime issue for the American Civil War (when it was only one of the most visible), and the Moro rebellion has been called a struggle for independence for the Philippines after the Spanish-American War (submerging the religious aspects completely beneath nascent nationalism).  But the issues in the colony were much deeper than simple nationalism, and began a path to yet another French revolution that would bring down the Fifth Republic.

France has had a fractious history.  Since it became a unified state under Louis XIV the various regions have shown non-national sentiments every other generation or so, bursting out into full rebellion against the Bourbons in 1789.  The revolution began with the spirit of “strangle the last noble with the guts of the last priest,” seeking to remake French society separate from the landed and imposed hierarchy that put Church and King above all else. As the revolution compromised just to keep society itself from spiraling into chaos, it ultimately  just made things worse, especially for future colonies.   The conflict with Europe from 1794 to 1815 provided the external threat that the forces of “revolutionary” nationalism used to forge a new kind of state: a representative republic.  Under Napoleon Bonaparte the ideals of liberty-equality-brotherhood were extended to all those who would embrace French suzerainty.  By 1804 the new-style state had an old name: empire; new wine in old bottles.  The Church still dictated who would have a voice, but after the Terror, bureaucrats made the desired voice heard, and Napoleon recreated his own aristocracy whole cloth, to the resentment of many.

In 1809 France won its last war, negotiating a treaty with Austria after Wagram.  Though Napoleon would fight many more battles, no other conflicts would go his way.  By 1815 Europe was exhausted and the French emperor banished to a water stop in the South Atlantic.  France had restored the Bourbons briefly in 1814, but wasn’t interested in the royal institution as it had been and went through a number of constitutional monarchies.  The Second Republic lasted until 1852, when a Second Empire under Napoleon’s nephew, Louis (Napoleon III) was declared.  Under Louis, Algeria became a colony in 1830, and in 1861, Indochina.  France was growing her empire as a counterweight to Britain, Germany and Russia, but treated the indigenous peoples to modified forms of citizenship.  As long as they adhered to French revolutionary principles they were treated as philosophical and moral (but not social, legal or economic) equals.

French adventures in Mexico 1862-66 taxed France’s treasury and the patience of her military establishment.  Ongoing insurgencies in North Africa, Senegal, and Caribbean colonies magnified the multiple-tiered nature of French society, even while the “equality” of the revolution was being used as a bedrock of French polity.  The disastrous 1870-71 war with Germany cost France little territory but great prestige at home.  The Second Empire (technically) blew away with the smoke of the Paris Commune.

Meanwhile French law and law enforcement developed a multi-tentacle law enforcement structure that made future revolutions within France practically impossible.  Layer after layer of information-gathering apparatus joined separate security agencies, each responding in secession to every riot and disturbance in metropolitan France.   The Third Republic was practically a fortress of security organizations.

All this insulated the French from any thought that some of their “citizens” in the distant parts of their empire might be unhappy, but, in that remote event, France created a military structure to ensure that Frenchmen would never know of any unrest.  The French Foreign Legion, created in 1831 to protect France’s overseas colonies, was unique for a time in that no French citizen could join directly, but where French officers gained rank quickly.  They fought in every war and campaign France engaged i in every corner of the earth from Mozambique to Mexico, and from the Sahara to Saigon.  In the 1914-18 war Frenchmen marched against German invasion, auxiliaries from all over were brought to the Western Front, primarily as laborers.  One of these, present at the Versailles conference in 1919 with a list of grievances for his people that were never heard, became known later as Ho Chi Minh.

World War I frightened France.  Though she declared herself a “winner” of the conflict, she was more a survivor than a winner.  Her industrial heart had been gutted by German occupation, her best farmland blasted and gassed into muddy abattoirs, and one in five of her military age men killed or injured.  The next 20 years saw her military primarily become fortress troops within France, and the brutal mercenaries of the Legion labored under a veneer of military law abroad.  Heavy handed policies suppressed labor unrest with tear gas in the Caribbean and New Caledonia, machine guns were used on protesters in Senegal and Saigon.  Legionaries, primarily Russians and Germans by 1930, had no idea that the very structure of French society made the French administrators of their colonies blind to the protests of their charges.

World War II devastated France, and completely destroyed her military establishment.  Re-equipped by the Americans and British, only the Legion survived anywhere near intact as an organization.  Other French Army units were rebuilt using whatever manpower could be had, but a fundamental rift in French military policy stayed.  Those who obeyed the Vichy government’s orders to stop fighting in 1940 were labeled traitors and collaborators by 1944; those who ignored those orders were hailed as heroes, including the Legion.  The French Pacific colonies never surrendered but were small; the African colonies split, but the North Africans eventually started fighting the British, then the Americans, then the Germans and Italians–following the loudest orders.  Physically reconstructed after 1945, France’s military was a long time in recovery.

The Legion filled up with men from all over the world whose lives had been displaced and their countries destroyed, giving them a home and an income; all they had to do was fight France’s wars.  These desperate men were sent to Southeast Asia under French officers who barely understood where they were, and were told to fight Vietnamese farmers, students, agitators and guerrillas under a flag that had proclaimed liberty, equality and brotherhood for over a century.

The depth and gravity of the disconnect between France’s desires to hold onto its overseas territory that did not want to be held onto was played out in a long agony from 1945 through 1954. Militarizing two essentially civil conflicts, playing for time, enjoying successes rarely and ambiguous or disappointing results normally, support for the conflict in Southeast Asia waned as the Cold War warmed up, Korea and China became hot spots, and Algeria became troublesome in stages.  By Dien Bien Phu in 1954 the French were so weak in comparison to the Viet Minh that every draw was a Vietnamese victory.  After months of preparation and weeks of horrific and one-sided fighting, the last French stronghold in Asia fell to the Viet Minh, who had been armed with the weapons of the Germans and Japanese who had humiliated her before.  France finally found peace only after another republic fell and the disobedient hero of the 1940-45 war, Charles deGaulle, took charge.

The “first Vietnam War” was less a “war of liberation” from European oppressors than it was a symptom of the failure of French society to realize and appreciate that its high-sounding philosophy had to be evenly and consistently applied.   Noble social philosophies forcibly applied by desperate men with nowhere else to go will likely fail, and military organizations with strategic direction at odds with social policy will always fail.

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Verdun: Operation Judgement

Erich von Falkenhayn’s offensive of 1916 was aimed directly at the traditional invasion route between the Rhine and Paris.  The area had been used often enough that the area called the Heights of the Meuse were heavily fortified by the French over the years to have culminated in a series of forts that, if nothing else, put the entire Meuse-Rhine plain under observation for artillery.

The German plan was simple: take the forts, make the French commit their strategic reserves protecting the route to Paris, build up behind the bulge, press on to Paris in the summer months until France gave up and march home in triumph before fall.  The strategic motivations, however, were far more complex.  German agriculture was suffering under the loss of so much of its manpower, and was sorely affected by the British blockade–far more than Germany could withstand.  Though Germany had suffered less than had Britain and France in the battlefields, combined the Allies had far more manpower than did the Central Powers.  Germany, the most powerful of the Powers, was in the second year of a war she had anticipated would last two months.  Knocking France out of the war was the key to Germany’s survival.

On 21 February, the Germans unleashed their Fifth Army on the French Second Army manning the nineteen fortresses of the Verdun complex.  The first French fort to fall, three days later, was Douaumont, the largest and highest of the outer ring forts, by a small German raiding party.   Even though it had been unoccupied for months, the French were scandalized, and in Gallic rage they threw more and more men into the face of the German offensive.

While most scholars feel that this was the German intention all along, German military theory and doctrine never, ever had attritional battle in mind.  Prussia/Brandenburg, the font of Imperial German military tradition, never had the numbers nor the temperament for a drawn-out brawl, and always preferred maneuver–preferably to encirclement–to merely adding up casualties.  Tannenberg, the August 1914 double-envelopment of the Russian Second Army in East Prussia, was far more to Prussian/German liking than was the long slog of Verdun.  It is likely that post-Verdun German commentators merely claimed that attrition was the German plan all along, when in truth the French defense, orchestrated by Robert Nivelle, was more persistent and successful than they had imagined was possible.

Verdun would rage on unabated for ten months, consuming the lives of some three hundred thousand men out of the million committed, and occupying the full attention of over a hundred divisions. It would have been impossible for the rest of the world not to notice, and it would have been impossible for the Americans not to look on in horror, and in contemplation.  American military men may have been forbidden by President Woodrow Wilson to prepare contingency plans, but that did not prevent preparedness plans from being put into action with some urgency.  The Plattsburg Movement, a civilian-driven (if military favored) program of camps that trained young collegians in various places in the country, had finally come to fruition in the National Defense Act of 1916, that created the Army Reserves.  Approval of NDA 1916 and the increase in American preparedness had been spurred, in part, by the specter of the 2,300 French and Germans casualties About a regiment) every day on the Verdun front alone.

Two years after the worst of the fighting at Verdun had been concluded, the Americans were fighting to throw the Germans out of some of the 1916 gains at the Meuse-Argonne.  This battle was the largest American campaign between Appomattox in 1865 and the invasion of Sicily in 1943.  Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, edited by Ed Lengel, contains an essay by John D. Beatty entitled “We Can Kill Them But We Cannot Stop Them: An Evaluation of the Meuse-Argonne,” which looks at American performance there, and the influences of American preparedness before 1917.  Available in hardback and E-book from fine booksellers everywhere.