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A flawed but useful survey of the French army in the First World War

Paths of Glory: The French Army 1914-18 - Anthony Clayton

Most English-language memoirs and histories of the First World War typically focus on and reflect the experiences of the British “Tommies” on the Western Front.  Such an approach often marginalizes the far more critical experience of the French army, which as Anthony Clayton argues diminishes their contribution to Allied victory in the conflict.  Clayton’s book is an attempt to rectify this.  In a succession of chapters he intersperses a operational narrative of the French army on the Western Front with descriptions of its commanders and their strategies, the soldiers and their equipment, and the challenges they faced in the four years of trench warfare.

 

All of this serves as an informative summary of the French military experience in the First World War, one that is enjoyably written and generally accessible for the interested reader.  Yet the book is not without its flaws.  Foremost is its predominant focus on the French military experience in northeastern France.  While understandable, Clayton takes this too far by reducing his examination of the army’s involvement on other fronts to a single chapter and generally ignoring the broader context of French politics and society.  Civilians are typically addressed only in terms of their direct interactions with the troops, while the heavily politicized world in which the French high command operated is treated often as background noise.  Such a narrow approach deprives his analysis of critical elements necessary for understanding the forces at work in the French army during this period.

 

Also problematic is Clayton’s handling of non-European troops fighting in the French ranks.  While acknowledging the presence of thousands of North African, Senegalese, and Indochinese soldiers, the author never gives them the attention he grants to conscripts from France itself, often offering little more than stereotyping claims of questionable veracity.  These beg for a reference to Clayton’s source, yet there are no footnotes or endnotes, only a bibliography of the sources used.  Such an omission minimizes the utility of the book, one that in the end leaves it to serve as a useful survey of the French army in the First World War and little more.