I had planned on saving this for later, but it’s been much on my mind in the past few days and I’m afraid that I have to vent now.
Earlier in December, I was in New York for a signing. Lectures can be fun (I teach, so speaking engagements aren’t exactly a huge change-of-pace); signings are always fun. Or nearly always. This one was particularly, well, cozy. Good-sized crowd but still intimate, Revolutionary War enthusiasts all, very friendly. There was a wine-and-cheese reception before the lecture. I ventured into it, looking forward to chatting with new acquaintances. Just before it was time for me to give a formal talk about Whites of Their Eyes, an older gentleman (meaning older than myself; I’m forty-eight, but my five-year-old son tells me at least once a week that I’m too old and I need to stop having birthdays) approached me, shook my hand and introduced himself. He made some genuinely flattering compliments about Whites of Their Eyes, and then he started to ask me about my previous book, Drillmaster of Valley Forge. That led to a breezy and stimulating discussion about the role played by foreign officers in the Continental Army. My new friend recalled the Marquis de Lafayette. Then he asked if any other French officers served. There were a good number of French officers, I answered, and mostly highly professional ones who served loyally and competently.
I should have seen what was coming next.
“Really?” My companion’s eyebrows shot up high in utter disbelief. “That’s surprising!” He mused for a moment, rolled his eyes, and then chuckled. “For a country, you know, that didn’t win any battles, to have competent officers.”
This was not the first time I had had this conversation. Actually, I’ve been dragged into what I’ve begun to refer to as the “We-saved-France’s-ass-in-two-world-wars-because-they-don’t-know-how-to-fight” dialogue many times before. Mostly with undergrads who knew just enough history to be dangerous. And by “dangerous” I mean “annoying.” I didn’t want to ascend my soapbox or pulpit or whatever the hell it is I ascend when a great historical injustice needs fixin’. But I couldn’t let it get away entirely, either. So I just smiled and replied, casual and friendly: “That’s an unfortunate misunderstanding. France has been a major military power – and a very successful one – for most of its modern history. But when Americans think of France, they think of 1940 and nothing else. The French capitulated in one war – and not without good reason, either – and now that’s all we see. It’s more than a bit unfair.”
I must have ruffled my companion’s feathers a bit. He clearly didn’t like my answer. “It’s not just 1940, it’s 1914, too! We saved them in the first war also!” An easy point to refute; after all, in the “we-saved-France’s-ass” dialogue, this was what usually came next. I pointed out to him that the French held out against the German army in its prime on the Western Front, absorbing almost unimaginable casualties in the process, and that American troops only made a significant contribution to the war in the West in the last few months of the conflict. In other words, the French didn’t capitulate in 1917, and if the USA came to the rescue in 1918 it was only because France had held out for so long without American help.
I might as well have been singing La Marseillaise while waving the tricolor over my head. For all my well-rehearsed erudition (or so I told myself it was), I did nothing more than convince the other gentleman that I was some kind of Francophile. I tried to convince him, tried to make references to Napoléon Bonaparte, to the French Revolutionary armies, to the great Turenne and Condé and Montcalm. All to no effect. With a mumbled “I’ll have to check into that sometime,” my erstwhile companion abruptly broke off the conversation and disappeared into the small crowd of attendees now hovering around the platters of cheese and crackers.
I felt a little disappointed. I don’t like alienating people, and I’m always surprised at how often people – not even professional historians with advanced degrees and a surfeit of pride – take it personally when you rain on their parades. Usually, in conversation with a new acquaintance, I try to veer off-topic if a clash seems imminent. But I just can’t make myself do it when the “France as the perpetual loser” theme comes up.
Because – unlike a lot of what I like to see as wrongheaded interpretations of history – this isn’t a matter of opinion. It’s demonstrably, absolutely, irrefutably false. France prevailed in the last decades of the Hundred Years’ conflicts with England (and those were the decades that counted). French armies more than held their own in the Habsburg-Valois wars fought over northern Italy in the first half of the sixteenth century.
It was in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), the greatest international contest of the early modern era, that France emerged to take Spain’s place as Europe’s superpower. France bankrolled the victorious Swedish war effort, and fielded redoubtable armies of her own…including the army that, under the great Condé, defeated the Spanish at Rocroi in 1643, arguably one of the most important battles of that conflict. The armies of Louis XIV kept the other European powers occupied from the mid-1660s to 1713, even when faced with overwhelming odds – and with great opponents like the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugène.
Napoléon Bonaparte should scarcely require mention; his career alone is enough to show how dead wrong the image of “France as the perpetual loser” really is. Even when poorly led, as in the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, French troops accomplished incredible things (we’ll get back to that later); even when going through bad luck (as in much of the eighteenth century), it was France – not Britain, not Prussia – that all European soldiers looked to for guidance in military theory and innovative ideas.
There’s a reason that the U.S. army – before, during, and after the Civil War – tried to emulate everything the French army did, and it wasn’t just those adorable Zouave uniforms. There’s a reason that Friedrich Engels (yes, he of “Marx and…” fame), an informed and keen observer of European armies in his day, considered the French army to be the finest in the world in 1860. In fact, it was that quality that made France’s defeats in 1870-71 and 1940 so shocking to contemporaries …because contemporaries, even Americans, knew something that Americans today seem to have forgotten: that France was a great military power. Its defeat by upstarts – Prussia in 1871, Nazi Germany in 1940 – seemed all but impossible.
Over the years, Americans have found one thing after another to dislike about France and the French. Lots of things to admire and emulate, too. We often berate ourselves for our collective ignorance of our past; fabricating a make-believe past for another nation, and then crowing about our self-proclaimed superiority to that nation…well, I’m fairly certain that that’s worse than mere ignorance.