How many Frenchmen does it take to guard Paris?
Nobody knows, it's never been tried!
"French jokes" are endemic to pop culture in both Britain and the United States. Whether it's Groundskeeper Willie calling them "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" or Blackadder snarking about how the mutinies at Verdun were traced to a shipment of garlic éclairs, comedic wisdom holds that the French are make for poor, cowardly soldiers.
Our perception of the French as bad soldiers is a textbook case of selectively reading history—ignoring French victories while excusing similarly embarrassing losses by the British and Americans. The French have a distinguished military record, and no more so than during the First World War, when they held the Western Front for years with minimal assistance from their Entente allies. Armed with largely outdated equipment and lacking even helmets at the start of the war, the French Army not only persevered through unimaginable horror but learned costly lessons that their allies later benefitted from.
As it happens, two games this month bring the subject of French sacrifice and perseverance to the forefront—the independent FPS Verdun, recently released on Xbox One, and the "They Shall Not Pass" DLC for Battlefield 1. Both games strive to fill a gaping hole in the public's understanding of the First World War, and illuminate a side of the conflict that's remained invisible or obscure to many in the English-speaking world.
If you primarily know about the First World War via fiction, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the British Commonwealth largely won the war, with support from France, Belgium, Italy, and eventually the United States. Media made for the English-speaking world tends to cut France out, and games are no exception. In the release version of Battlefield 1, the game even leaves out French soldiers when portraying battlefields in France.
But as Peter Hart, author of The Great War: A Combat History and an oral historian at the Imperial War Museum, points out, it's actually the other way around. The French Army was the one that really held the Western Front—contributing the most soldiers, taking the most casualties, and covering the most territory—while the other allies provided support.
"The French bore the brunt of the early fighting on the Western Front," says Hart, explaining that the British Expeditionary Force originally had just six divisions, while the French deployed 90 divisions. In early engagements like the 1914 Battle of the Frontiers, the French Army stood practically alone.
"Indeed," Hart continues, "much-vaunted British successes at the Battles of Mons and Le Cateau left [British troops] in pell-mell retreat. On one day, 22 August 1914, the French had around 27,000 killed—not casualties—dead. This contrasts with the 1,600 casualties the British suffered next day at Mons." A month later, a hard-won French victory at the Marne stopped the German advance, destroyed the Central Powers' hope of quick victory, and bought time for British and American forces to fully join the war.
"No-one undertaking serious study of the Western Front in 1914-1915 can fail to recognize the insignificance of the British 'battles' that loom so large in our historiography, in contrast to the massive engagements involving hundreds of thousands of men, backed by hundreds of guns, in the 'real' war fought between the French and Germans," says Hart.
According to Hart, our Anglo-centric view of the war comes from a natural—and deserved—pride about British and American military achievements, mixed with blindness for anything beyond that. Cultural memories about the collapse of France during the Second World War also play a role, with people assuming that's also what must have happened twenty years before. "Too often this leads to a denigration of the huge French effort," he says. "Even at the sideshow front of Gallipoli in 1915, the French played an equal role to the much-vaunted Australian contribution."
During the war, it didn't go unnoticed that the French were fighting the majority of the battles.
"The British boast that they have 5,000,000 men," wrote a soldier of the French 3rd Army in 1916. "But what have they done, apart from their lamentable Dardanelles expedition and their surrender at Kutel-Amara? … They hardly ever leave the boulevards of [Paris]."
This sort of grumbling from soldiers and politicians grew so loud it affected strategy. The British offensive at the Somme was moved up partially due to political pressure for the UK to do its part and relieve pressure at Verdun. By the summer of 1916, the British absence at the front was so notable that it started showing up in German propaganda: "What's happened to the British offensive?" read one particularly cheeky message, carried into the French lines by a rocket. "Are they still your allies?"
However, it seems that with both Verdun and Battlefield 1's "They Shall Not Pass," the French are finally getting their due.
According to Jos Hoebe, owner of Blackmill Games and one of the three original Verdun developers, their team made a conscious approach to show the largely French-defended parts of the Western Front that get less attention in popular depictions.
"Our initial focus was on the more eastern parts of the Western Front, such as the Argonne and Vosges," Hoebe told Waypoint. "As supposed to more 'mainstream' battles like the Somme or Ypres, which are embedded in an Anglo-centric view of World War I."
With its new "They Shall Not Pass" DLC, Battlefield 1 seems interested in correcting this oversight as well. The DLC features some of the most dramatic—and famous—actions to take place in the nearly 10 month-long battle. By casting the battle as a heroic stand by the French Army, it elevates Verdun from an event the audience has merely heard about and casts it as an epic struggle of larger-than-life forces—which is Battlefield's stock-and-trade.
Indeed, each loading screen in Battlefield 1 presents concept art of a single veteran, haggard and dirty, standing tall to meet his next challenge. You could argue that these proud infantrymen are a far cry from the reality of Verdun, where soldiers often cowered in the mud as their friends were dismembered by artillery shells. But it's also true that the Verdun became a patriotic rallying cry—a point of pride and a symbol of French resilience and courage.
Before February of 1916, Verdun had been a quiet sector. A "fortress city" with a collection of obsolete strongholds, Verdun was largely a sector French commanders would strip units and artillery from. That all changed when a massive German artillery bombardment and offensive smashed through French lines in February 1916, pushing all the way to the Meuse Heights and capturing Fort Douaumont. However, the German plan was not to capture territory—it was to bait the French Army into draining manpower by attacking hardened defenses.
But after years of stagnation, this sudden gain of territory proved addicting—German leadership pushed for the fake offensive to become a real offensive. What was supposed to be an operation that forced French casualties while minimizing German ones became a ten-month bloodbath for both sides. In addition, Verdun turned into a symbol of French resilience and resistance. The most famous action took place at Fort Vaux, where 600 French soldiers held out against a determined German assault, retreating to interior barricades as flamethrower troops swept the upper galleries.
Six days later, the besieged French garrison surrendered due to lack of water, but by that time they'd been enshrined as national heroes. Their commander received one of the highest grades of the Légion d'Honneur, and even Valiant—the carrier pigeon who died on arrival after carrying the commander's last message—was stuffed and put on display in Paris (the message infamously ended with: "This is my last pigeon").
The French had lost 163 men defending Fort Vaux, while the Germans spent over 2,700 men taking it. To a French population battered by years of war on home soil, actions like Vaux took on a symbolic value and hope for an end to the war's anguish.
"Hundreds and thousands of French people were suffering under a cruel occupation," says Peter Hart. "The terrible destruction of trench warfare was taking place on French soil—whole swathes of countryside, whole towns, even cities were being destroyed."
The stubborn French bravery at Verdun gave the public hope that German offensives had reached their limit. General Nivelle's proclamation: "They Shall Not Pass," inspired propaganda posters, medals, and (most recently) Battlefield 1's DLC, which features Fort Vaux as the centerpiece of its Verdun map. But most of the courage shown at Verdun was that of endurance. For months, men died in droves from artillery barrages, their bodies literally becoming part of the churned-up trenches to be trod on by new recruits. The battle seemed to have a particular appetite for lieutenants, with junior officers often dying mere hours after they arrived. The ground around the village of Fleury, which changed hands 15 times, disappeared into ground that proved so contaminated that it was never rebuilt. In this horror, infantrymen were not so much asked to fight, but to simply occupy ground at the constant risk of death. Considering these conditions, the famous mutinies in 1917 can be recognized as an act of desperation rather than cowardice. "When talking about the French Army, you can't escape the extreme sacrifices in lives made to defend the city and the forts," says Jos Hoebe, whose Verdun team occasionally visits the battlefield for inspiration. "Walking around Fort Douaumont, you can only imagine how hard it must have been to attempt recapturing it."
Yet they did.
The French military had not spent those months of Verdun simply being shelled. They'd gained air superiority and used aerial spotters to knock out enemy artillery positions, while bringing in heavier guns. Observers watched as more German troops and artillery got removed and sent to the Somme. Meanwhile, French troops rotated on and off the line to keep them fresh, and trained in new tactics using a life-size reconstruction of Fort Douaumont.
…most of the courage shown at Verdun was that of endurance.
Since the bloody battles of 1915, the French had known that their assumptions about warfare—that attackers inherently held an advantage, and martial spirit could overcome defenses—were wrong. Mass rifle attacks hadn't worked well against machine guns and artillery. But it was at Verdun where things started to change, and French commanders begin to think of infantry firepower as a major component of a successful attack.
"New weapons were being issued to boost the firepower of the French infantry," says Hart, "including a better bolt-action rifle firing 3-round clips, the Chauchat light machine gun, the Hotchkiss machine gun, rifle grenades, mortars and a 37mm mini version of the 75mm artillery piece to act as close-support weapon."
These new weapons came with new tactics, where soldiers broke into specialist functions such as men with rifle grenades, engineers to clear wire, and "bombers" that carried satchels full of explosives. Initial squads of riflemen and rifle-grenadiers would sweep behind a creeping artillery barrage, while in the rear, "mopping up" squads would clear any dugouts where enemy troops might be hidden.
It was nasty work, directly against the 19th century conception of warfare as glorious and fair-minded.
"A barbaric operation, this so-called 'mopping up' of the trenches," lamented Antoine Redier. "It's not pretty! Everyone's a solider, but not everyone's been a butcher."
However, it was effective. That October, French troops gained in a matter of days the territory it had taken German troops weeks to capture. Eventually, the British adopted the same tactics—but not until the disastrous carnage of the Somme taught them the same lessons the French had learned.
"They'd apparently rather be killed than get themselves dirty," observed one French soldier about his newly-arrived allies. "They remain standing rather than throw themselves to the ground like us; it's all very grand but not very intelligent."
Though Battlefield 1's DLC covers all the bases of these specialization tactics—along with introducing two new French tanks—it's Verdun that really captures this period of tactical and technical innovation. Trying to cross no-man's-land in Verdun, particularly without one's teammates, is a death sentence.
"We embraced the emptiness of the French battlefields, which were often fought in open country and farmlands," says Hoebe. He points out that the many different roles in a squad—grenadier, rifleman, machine gunner, and the corporal who can spot enemies and call in mortar fire—can make crossing no-man's-land easier if they work together. "Our intuition was always that inside of mass-charges, tactics played a role in conquering positions on the enemy, even if this was not part of a specific pre-set doctrine."
In addition, the game's unique leveling system mirrors the actual development of uniforms and equipment during the war. For the French Poilu units, for instance, the first upgrade removes the red trousers held over from the 19th century, the second provides a steel helmet, the third adds camouflaged "Horizon Blue" uniforms, and the last an assault kit. "We found this important to include," says Hoebe, "to make a contrast between the early and late war, to represent both visuals within the same framework, and to show players progression. We also tried to portray the unique…rifles and carbines, which I think is the factor that defines [French soldiers] the most against the limited selection of weapons of the commonwealth squads."
After hours of playing Verdun, I'm still waiting for that helmet. It's a punishing game, where I rarely see who, or what, kills me. That's only fair. The majority of the time I don't see the men I kill either. Most fall to a grenade I lob blind or are merely a helmet I glance against the horizon before firing. No game can communicate the extreme violence and despair of the First World War, but Verdun's chaotic nihilism at least provides a glimpse of what it takes to win a victory that doesn't feel like victory.
I've mopped up and been mopped up. Shelled and been shelled. That fact that this randomness snuffed out real human lives gives the gameplay a distinct air of momento mori.
In reflecting on the war, it seems incredible that the French Army saw it through from beginning to end—especially considering how many countries, like Russia and the Ottoman Empire, collapsed under similar strain.
"Despite all they had suffered and lost, they kept on fighting," says Peter Hart. "And they were still there slugging it out toe to toe alongside the British and Americans at the end [of the war]. We should—we must—recognize their sacrifice, their courage, their innovatory tactics and their underpinning military strength."