Iconic French Battles of the 20th Century
Four of the most significant conflicts on French soil
France has been at the epicentre of major conflicts throughout history and, for a country made up of such beautiful and tranquil landscapes, it has seen more than its fair share of bloodshed. The 20th century saw many significant battles in both the Great War and World War Two. We look at two from each war and highlight just what made them so significant and why they became so iconic.
The Marne 1914
Often known as the Miracle of the Marne, this battle became a talisman for the beleaguered French and a landmark Allied victory, saving France from an early defeat. The Germans had been sweeping through France, ending up slightly to the east of Paris in early September. The battle made a national hero of General Josef Joffre whose brilliant planning forged a rift in the German army’s flank, dividing it in two and causing confusion and chaos among German ranks.
Famously, at a critical moment, the French brought crucial reinforcements from Paris in some 600 taxis. This was an event which has become the stuff of legend and which quickly became a rallying point for French nationalism. Apparently, in keeping with the Paris city bye-laws, the taxi meters were kept running and the taxi force was subsequently remunerated to the tune of 70,000 francs. Quite a fare.
It was a torrid battle and the first of the war with casualties on an industrial scale – reports vary but it would seem that up to 2 million soldiers took part, with 250,000 French killed or wounded. It also set the scene for the archetypal trench warfare of the Western Front which would last another 4 years.
The longest single battle of World War One, the battle of Verdun lasted from 21 February to 18 December. It was certainly not a clear victory for the French with enormous losses on both sides and a total of 800,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing. The onslaught was on a scale never seen before, with the Germans firing 2 million shells in the opening 8 hour bombardment alone.
Verdun was carefully selected as a battleground, with the Germans calculating that the French would simply not allow strategic and symbolic forts like Vaux and Douaumont to be captured, and so would pour more and more troops into their defence, leaving other fronts undermanned. The Germans had a two pronged plan against the French and Britain, which was targeted by a U-boat offensive. But Verdun sucked in huge German resource and quickly became a matter of national, and personal, prestige.
The Germans ultimately failed in their objectives and Verdun remained in French hands. Sometimes referred to as France’s Stalingrad, it was a case of relentless German assault and unyielding French defence, with the French steely resolve and character becoming a matter of national pride.
The 6th June 1944 saw a combined air, sea and land invasion of Nazi-occupied Normandy on a scale never seen before. Operation Overlord famously centred around Allied landings on the sweeping beaches of Northern France – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Sword and Juno – and heralded the commencement of the second front against the Nazis. This was designed to relieve pressure on the Soviet Union and stretch Germany’s military resources, while providing a major bridgehead for further Allied progress across France.
D-Day itself was just the start of an entire campaign – the Battle of Normandy was a crucial 3 months of offensives pushing through the Normandy landscape. The unique landscape here, typified by the ‘bocage’ with its sunken lanes and coarse, impenetrable hedgerows was a major headache for the Allies. Despite this, the Normandy campaign was a significant success (albeit bloody and protracted) and was effectively the beginning of the end for the Nazis, with the German army in full retreat by August.
Liberation of Paris 1944
The liberation of Paris was perhaps an inevitable follow on from the dramatic success of D-Day. Though Allied plans had not included the city’s liberation at this point, political tensions and the personalities involved meant that events took their own course.
Paris had fallen in June 1940 and a week or so later an armistice was signed and a puppet French state established at Vichy. The Free French and its charismatic leader de Gaulle continued the fighting, and the Resistance maintained guerrilla action throughout the war.
Fortunately for future generations, the German commander General von Choltitz defied Hitler’s orders to raze the city to the ground and burn the city. He was reluctant to go down in history as the man who destroyed the ‘City of Light’.
De Gaulle entered Paris 25th August to delirious celebrations, marching down the flower-strewn Champs Elysées to Notre Dame. Politically, emotionally and symbolically, it was a charged landmark victory.
Main article images:
French infantry charge - By Agence Rol - Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain
French train horses resting in a river on their way to Verdun - By 300 ppi scan of the National Geographic Magazine, Volume 31 (1917), page 338., Public Domain
Into the Jaws of Death by Robert F. Sargent. Assault craft land one of the first waves at Omaha Beach - By Chief Photographer's Mate (CPHoM) Robert F. Sargent, Public Domain
Crowds of French patriots line the Champs Elysees after Paris was liberated on August 26, 1944 - By Jack Downey, U.S. Office of War Information, Public Domain