Defending the Motherland: France, 1914

The wife of a French soldier standing with her husband and other soldiers on the site of their ruined home in Fricourt, December 1916. © IWM (Q 1703)

French government propaganda.

Among the Allies, the call to arms in 1914 was heard in France first.  Germany declared war on France on August 3, triggering the mechanism of the Entente Cordiale (Cordial Understanding or Agreement) between France and her allies, Britain and Russia.  The French Army had not been idly waiting for this to happen, however:  across the country, men had been called to take up arms as early as August 1st.

French soldiers’ early responses to the war were influenced by the threat to the country’s territorial integrity.  The German Army quickly reached Belgium and then France, beginning with the bloody Battle of the Marne on the 4th of September.  This fueled a general perception in France that the war was a just one.

But were all French soldiers convinced they were fighting a legitimate war?

© IWM (Q 78966)

A poilu concealed in the roots of a tree, reading a letter from home somewhere on the Eastern Front. © IWM (Q 78966)

In France, Army service was not voluntary:  all men were compelled to serve for three years.  This arose from the Republican ideal of the Nation in Arms and the concept of levée en masse, which in theory placed the entire population at the disposal of the country’s war machine – in other words,  defence of the nation by the nation.  Reports written by prefects and teachers at the start of the war reflect feelings of resignation and a sense of duty, rather than enthusiasm for the conflict.  The longstanding rivalry between France and Germany and the 1870 invasion and annexation of two French regions, Alsace and Lorraine, had left their marks on national consciousness, but by 1914 revenge was not the population’s chief concern.

Overall, however, in spite of some pacifist demonstrations, the call to arms was overwhelmingly successful and cases of disobedience amounted to just 1.5% of the mobilised population.  Hostility to Germany increased, with some violent episodes such as the pillage of shops selling the brand Maggi – falsely stigmatized as German by far-right groups – but cases like this were in the minority.

The French Army was primarily driven by the desire to defend the motherland against what was perceived as a German invasion, while the state instruments of education, conscription, official propaganda and censorship helped foster a climate of submission to the call of war.  French infantrymen (known informally as poilu or ‘hairy’ because of their habitual beards and mustaches) became known for their bravery and endurance.

Before long, however, patriotism gave way to weariness.  By the end of 1914, after just five months, the French had suffered a staggering 955,000 casualties – almost a third of whom had lost their lives.  During that period, both infantry and cavalry wore the all-too-visible traditional uniform of red trousers and blue coats.  Early in 1915, a blue-grey uniform was adopted; the cloth was generally known as bleu horizon, as it was thought to help soldiers blend in against the skyline.  The French Army was the first to introduce steel helmets for protection against shrapnel later the same year.

Words by Marine Furet