France after the First World War

World War I broke out in 1914. France suffered for several years under a succession of weak premiers. However, in 1917, Georges Clemenceau became premier and led France to victory over Germany. Victory came dearly: The most destructive battles had been fought on French soil, and France suffered higher casualties than any other participant.

In 1919, after the Treaty of Versailles, France faced the dual problem of rebuilding its economy and attaining some measure of security against future German aggression, fidouard Herriot and Raymond Poincare were among the statesmen who led France during the following decade. In 1923, in an attempt to force Germany to pay its war reparations, France seized the important German industrial district of the Ruhr. This move appeared only to intensify German patriotism, and the French evacuated the Ruhr after a year. In 1925 and 1928, Aristide Briand, premier and foreign minister, negotiated peace pacts to guarantee France's security.

Verdun, France. 1919.
Verdun, France. 1919.
Verdun, France. 1919.
Verdun, France. 1919.

The Battle of Verdun

The Battle of Verdun was one of the longest battles of World War I. It absorbed the major energies of Germany and France on the western front during most of 1916, caused casualties of more than 700,000 killed and wounded, and prepared the transition of the strategic initiative from the German to the Allied forces. Verdun, its earlier fortifications replaced by the mosl recent defensive works, including artillery turrets set in concrete forts almost at ground level, was the linchpin of the entire Allied system of field (trench) fortifications from the Swiss frontier to the English Channel. The German commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, decided to seek a breakthrough at this most difficult position in the hope of achieving final victory by one gigantic blow; at the least, he anticipated, he would force the French into expending irreplaceable forces in battle with his superior troops and equipment. The battle began with a sustained artillery bombardment on February 21, 1916, followed by initial successes, including capture of the forts of Douamont and Hardaumont. Before the end of the month, General Henri Philippe Petain took command of French forces at Verdun, and resistance stiffened. However, the defenders' motto, "Ils ne passeront pas! ("They shall not pass!"), exacted an immense toll of lives before it was made good. A combined French-British attack on the Somme in July compelled Falkenhayn to divert a portion of his forces, and during the remainder of the summer the French went over to the counteroffensive, regaining a major part of the lost ground by the end of the year. Additional French gains were made during 1917 and in the final offensives of 1918. The tremendous French casualties triggered the French military mutinies of 1917; but the Germans were thereafter able to mount only the desperation Spring Offensive of 1918, their last important initiative on the western front.

Saint Mihiel view from the Barmont observatory southwest France. 1918.
Saint Mihiel view from the Barmont observatory southwest France. 1918.
Amiens, France. 1919.
Amiens, France. 1919.
Cambrai, France. 1919.
Cambrai, France. 1919.
Lens, France, the devastated coal mining region of northern France, 220 coal pits rendered useless. 1919.
Lens, France, the devastated coal mining region of northern France, 220 coal pits rendered useless. 1919.
Saint-Mihiel, vue du Fort des Paroches (nord) (Saint-Mihiel,  (France) view from the Fort des Paroches (north). 1918.
Saint-Mihiel, vue du Fort des Paroches (nord) (Saint-Mihiel, (France) view from the Fort des Paroches (north). 1918.
The Destroyed town of Boureshes, France, on the edge of Belleau Woods  1918
The Destroyed town of Boureshes, France, on the edge of Belleau Woods 1918
The Town square, Arras, France. February, 1919.
The Town square, Arras, France. February, 1919.

Post War Reconstruction

Much of France's most valuable territory had been devastated by the war. Pending the time when the Germans could begin to pay large-scale reparations, the French turned to borrowing to get reconstruction under way. By the mid-1920s, the task had been largely accomplished, and many of the obsolescent plants in the north had been replaced by modern enterprises. This enforced modernization, together with the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine, enabled France to recover its prewar level of industrial production by 1925 and to surpass it by 40% by 1930.

One variety of war damage was more difficult to repair. France's manpower losses were enormous; in proportion to population and to the number of men under arms, they exceeded those of any other warring nation. The dead totaled 1,357,800 and the wounded 4,266,000, and these losses were, of course, concentrated in the active male population. The effects were intensified by the fact that the rate of population growth had been declining since the mid-19th century. Thus the nation entered the postwar era with a serious labor shortage and with a gravely unbalanced distribution of population. Since there was no sustained increase in the birthrate, the only solution seemed to be the encouragement of immigration. During the 1920s about 3 million immigrants entered the country; but because most of the new arrivals were single men who lived in relative isolation in rural districts or mining towns the effect on long-term population trends was slight.

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