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The Military Capability of the French for the Last 150 Years

Updated on April 8, 2020
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MG is a senior air warrior who has seen combat and is an alumnus of the Staff College and a writer on military matters.

1870 war
1870 war


At a time when the coronavirus has gripped the world and made Europe its epicenter, one is apt to think of nothing else but this virus. I have written quite a few articles on the spread of the coronavirus but then I thought why not write something far away from this virus which could interest students of military history. Obviously what I say is not the last word and everything is open to interpretation but the military history of France for the last 150 years has seen a downslide with the result that France today is a shadow of the France of yore and dependent for a place in the sun on the military power of the United States. Even its membership of the Security Council is gratis from the US and the UK. Many people in the third world war are questioning how France is a member of the Security Council when bigger powers with greater influence like Japan India, and Germany are sidelined.

A country's say in world affairs is directly proportional to its military might. This has been an axiom of history. Just about 200 years back the French under Napoleon Bonaparte shook the world and dominated Europe. Bonaparte built up a formidable military machine, the high point of which was the battle of Austerlitz (1805) where the entire coalition of the European powers was decimated by Napoleon. One can trace the downfall of the French to the battle of Waterloo 1815, where the English and the allies led by the Duke of Wellington defeated the French. This was a catastrophe because after that the stars did not favor the French and they continued to be mostly on the losing side.

Outside Europe, the French also carved their empire but they had to remain content with the fringe areas of Africa and Indochina. The big prize of India eluded them where they were defeated by the great Robert Clive. The one man who could have made the dream of establishing a French Empire in India was Joseph-Francois Dupleix (1697-1763). He was appointed Governor-general of all French establishments in India and led the French to victory by driving the British from Madras. Politics played a hand and at this critical juncture, Dupleix was recalled to France leaving the field free to Robert Clive.

Napoleon restored French pride but at one time in 1815, he was the most hated man in Europe. He preferred surrendering to the English and was carted away to the island of Saint Helena where he died. In retrospect one can say that the reign of Napoleon was the last hurrah for the French military for after that the French never won any significant victory anywhere in the world.


The Downslide Of French Military Power Begins

France and Germany had always been rivals on the European continent. After the downfall of Napoleon, the French meandered along and in 1870 they had their first brush in a war with the Germans for the domination of Europe. The Franco-German war of 1870 cannot be a happy moment for the French. The Germans were led by Otto Von Bismarck, one of the great leaders of Germany and under his leadership the German army after a siege captured Paris.

We are now aware that Bismarck allowed the siege of Paris to continue for reasons which are not clear. The siege was a harrowing period for the people of Paris who were reduced to eating zoo animals. Two elephants Pollux and Castor had to be killed and their meat sold to the hungry Paris population. The misery of the French was over when Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke ordered the capture of Paris.

The French learned their lessons and built up a large Army but another clash with Germany was always on the cards and this came during World War I. The Germans lost the war to the Allies which consisted of France, the United Kingdom, and the USA. Russia was a member of this alliance but after the October revolution of 1917 led by Vladimir Lenin, they made a separate peace with Germany.

One aspect of the war is the occupation of eastern France by the German army. The Allies did halt the German thrust at Verdun but large areas of Eastern France came under German control. Even at the time of the armistice, nearly 10% of eastern France remained in the possession of the German army. There is some justification for Adolf Hitler's opinion that the surrender of the German armies was due to a conspiracy for the German army at that time still controlled a vast area in France and the eastern front with Russia had been secured.

The next event in the timeline of military history is the battle of France in 1940. Before the war, the French had built up a formidable fighting machine with a standing army of almost 5,000,000 men. The Germans at that time had built up a professional force and within 40 days the French were defeated. To avoid damaging the city of Paris the French government allowed the Germans to occupy the city without firing a shot. It was abject surrender.

France remained occupied by the Germans till the end of 1944 until the Allies forces made the landing at Normandy. The victory over Germany was entirely the effort of the United States and Russia. These powers allowed the French to have a place in the sun by giving them respectability and asking the French leader General De Gaulle to sit on the victor's table, despite the French contribution having been negligible.

France was also given a seat in the Security Council more out of sentiment than anything else.


Aftermath of WW II

During the war, the French had lost their colonies in Indochina which had been captured by the Imperial Army. It is on record that there was not much resistance to the Japanese force which almost had a walkover as the French had been defeated in Europe.

After the war, the French decided to reassert their military power and reclaim their colonies in Indochina. For once, the French wanted to show to the world that they still had military might and transported troops and material to Indochina under the covering support of the United States.

The French, however, proved unequal to the task as they were confronted by a determined force led by the Communists under Ho Chi Minh. There are many reasons for the French defeat but the biggest was that two worlds collided, European colonial power against a rising nationalism. The French were decisively defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and that signaled a loss of French power. The French retreated from Indochina and their vacuum was filled by the United States. It is a sad commentary that 55,000 French soldiers were killed for no reason at all, except they had no will to fight.

The French military debacle continued and the last was Algeria which had been a French colony and had been incorporated into France. The French were loathed to give up Algeria and poured in troops to hold the country. There were almost 800,000 French settlers in Algeria.

The Algerian nationalists started a guerrilla war against the French which continued for seven years. The French were greatly harassed and mounting casualties turned public opinion against the war. General de Gaulle became president in 1959 and decided that France could not win the war in Algeria despite its best efforts including the torture of the nationalists. In 1962 the Evian peace accord was signed and the French withdrew from Algeria.

Before this, in 1956 the Anglo-French forces attacked Egypt after president Nasser nationalized the Suez canal which was run by an Anglo-French country for nearly 90 years. Though Israel joined in on the side of the French yet the United States did not support this and the attack collapsed. This was another signal that the French had lost their military grip over the world.

Last Word

As things stand now the French are a shadow of what they were during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. Whatever power and position the French have now is courtesy of the United States of America. It is a moot point how long the Americans will continue to subsidize the defence of Europe when their economy is under pressure.

The period of the French as a military power with global reach is now a distant dream. The world will have to face reality and realize that there are new powers that are emerging which will have to be accommodated and it may well mean the eclipse of France.


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