Elizabeth Greenhalgh. “Parade Ground Soldiers”: French Army Assessments of the British on the Somme in 1916.” The Journal of Military History Vol. 63, No. 2 (April 1999): 283-312.
In “Parade Ground Soldiers”: French Army Assessments of the British on the Somme in 1916,” Elizabeth Greenhalgh examines French Army attitudes toward its English allies, and seeks to demonstrate that strategy and battlefield tactics were a determining factor in those attitudes.
As the First World War entered 1916, the French, who had initially relied on Great Britain mainly for its naval and economic resources, anticipated an expanded role for the English infantry in the coming campaign. The French had almost completely borne the allied losses of the western war until this point, and needed a large increase in British manpower to achieve a breakthrough against the Germans. The 1916 campaign was to be centered on the Somme River, which the French planned to cross south of Péronne, with the British in support. German attacks upon the French at Verdun, however, would greatly reduce French participation in the offensive, leaving the English to take the lead.
In the months leading up to the offensive, the French endured terrible losses at Verdun, and their cynicism toward the British was apparent in their letters. The “poilu” lamented a “perceived lack of will” (p.293) on the part of the “tommies,” and speculated on profiteering motives by the English government. As the buildup to the Somme offensive began and French soldiers saw more activity from the British, their attitudes moderated, and optimism spread, especially among those units closest to the English lines.
When the offensive got underway in July, the British met the stiffest German resistance, advancing slowly and at great cost, while the French advanced rapidly, taking two enemy lines in the first two days of battle. At this point, the French soldiers were almost buoyant in their enthusiasm, and many ventured that the war might end by Christmas. Their view of the British soldiers was more reserved, noting that they were relatively new to the fighting, and must yet learn their trade.
As the offensive ground to a halt, the optimism waned, only to be renewed again as another attempt at breakout was anticipated in September. British failures in the fall left the French despondent once again as the offensive sputtered out in October and November. Repeatedly the French commented on the demeanor of the English troops as they charged German positions. Some French soldiers lauded British courage under fire, but others only saw precious manpower being wasted in senseless head-on attacks.
Greenhalgh uses exemplary primary source documents as the basis of her research, such as diaries, memoirs and letters. She also makes excellent use of the records of the French Army Postal Control Service, an agency that routinely screened soldiers’ correspondence as a security measure against the inadvertent revelation of sensitive information, such as troop locations or unit strength. The Postal Control Service then prepared reports that included a representative sampling of the mails, including soldiers’ opinions regarding the British. Later, the army produced assessments of troop morale, largely gleaned from these reports. Taken together, this evidence provides a wealth of documentation on the unguarded opinions of the ordinary French poilu, and some of the more poignant moments of the article appear in the words of these men.
As the Battle of Verdun progressed and the Germans made good on Falkenhayn’s threat to “bleed the French white,” one can almost hear the desperation in the writings of the French soldiers. One letter-writer said, “What is disgusting is that the British don’t give a damn, they claim to have a very large army… and instead of giving us a hand, they watch arms folded” (p. 293). A French Army morale report equated British “coolness” not with bravery, but with inactivity. In an army where élan was believed crucial to success, loss of morale by the men at the front could have devastating results and Greenhalgh documents this ebb and flow of French morale throughout her work. In the process, Greenhalgh repeatedly demonstrates a connection between allied strategy and the attitudes of the men in the trenches.
Greenhalgh’s work is of a scholarly nature, and uses footnotes to cite sources. The use of footnotes makes it simple to verify sources, and instills confidence in the reader regarding the scholarship of the article. The style and rhetoric Greenhalgh uses makes for fast, easy reading. Soldiers are quoted frequently to reinforce interpretations, but not so much as to disturb the narrative element of the article, and the piece moves along its timeline at a brisk pace. Greenhalgh uses the peaks and valleys of the soldiers’ enthusiasm to invest the reader emotionally in the fate of the poilu, and this adds to the readers’ interest. It would, I think, have been beneficial to have concluded this study of French morale at a point beyond the Somme, noting what eventual impact the events of 1916 had on the French war effort, even perhaps touching on residual effects felt at the outbreak of the Second World War. This opportunity for a satisfying epilogue is not explored, however.
The subject of this article helps to fill a void in the scholarly work of the Great War. As Greenhalgh notes on page 284, “French perceptions of the British ally have received little attention…What little has appeared in English concentrates on strategy and high command…” By giving voice to the poilus in the trenches, and letting us experience their hopes of victory and frustration at their ally, Greenhalgh does a great service both to them and to students of the First World War.