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Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War

Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War by Robert A. Doughty. Harvard University Press, 2005, 578 pp.

With the possible exception of Verdun, few Americans can name any of the major French campaigns of the First World War, despite the fact that the French army bore the brunt of the military effort in the West for most of the war. English language histories instead focus on the British and Commonwealth agonies of the Somme and Flanders, on the ill-fated Gallipoli expedition, or on the contributions of Pershing’s Americans in stemming the final German offensive of 1918. The French 1914 counteroffensive at the Marne, Joffre’s 1915 Champagne offensive, and Nivelle’s disastrous 1917 Chemin des Dames offensive have faded from our memory, subsumed by a general consciousness that by 1918 the French Army had suffered such grievous losses that without the exertions of British, Commonwealth, and US forces, victory would have been beyond France’s reach.

Retired brigadier general Robert Doughty, longtime chair of the Department of History at the US Military Academy and a recognized expert on the French military, has performed a great service in writing a superb, thoroughly researched analysis that emphasizes the development and execution of French strategy and operations during the Great War. Pyrrhic Victory has won numerous awards, including the Society of Military History’s 2007 Distinguished Book Award for European Military History. The work encapsulates years of research on the topic, drawing upon primary records from the Service historique de l’armee de terre at Vincennes, the Archives nationales, and the Public Records Office, along with a vast array of official histories, secondary sources, and memoirs.

Doughty’s study will be most appealing to those looking for an old school military history that focuses tightly on strategy and operations with amplifying discussions about the impact of changing technology, the evolution of French doctrine, the impact of politics on the command structure, and interaction between French, British, and Russian military strategies and operations. Here Doughty is at his best, analyzing how Joffre maneuvered his forces at the Marne, explaining how he sought to coordinate operations on the Western Front with Allied and expeditionary operation in the East, and assessing the assumptions, operational schemes, and intent of the costly French offensives of 1914 and 1915. Doughty’s discussion of 1916 and 1917 highlights the dialectic nature of war, as French and German plans and operations interacted with one another in the maelstrom of Verdun and during the Nivelle offensive of 1917.

Given the scope of his work, Doughty provides only brief biographical information about his commanders, instead focusing on their generalship and performance. Pétain, the hero of Verdun, comes across as careful, methodical but risk averse, with Doughty concluding that Clemenceau made the right choice in selecting Ferdinand Foch as chief of the General Staff and Allied Supreme Commander in 1918. In contrast to many of the Anglo-American accounts, which tend to characterize the French Army as a spent force by 1918, Doughty explains that French strategic direction (through Foch) steered the final Allied offensives of August through November 1918 and that French armies anticipated fighting well into 1919 as they methodically drove back their German opponents.

Doughty pays only marginal attention to new trends in military history that emphasize the social, cultural, and experiential components of war. Some may greet this with a sigh of relief, as some historians write of war with scant consideration of the battles and campaigns that decide its outcome. Yet in this reviewer’s opinion, military histories that provide only the view from above provide an incomplete view. A dash more of the fog, friction, mud, and fear of the front would have added to our understanding of why operational plans could not be executed. A more developed discussion of the mindset and motivation of the average poilu would have explained more thoroughly why mutinies broke out in 1917, constraining French operations. Lastly, a broader look at the home front would have provided insights into what sustained the French army through four years of bitter conflict ranging from near defeat to Pyrrhic victory. Yet one should judge a book based on the goals and objectives that the author sets for himself. Doughty’s Pyrrhic Victory has earned its award-winning reputation as the definitive book on French strategy and operations in the First World War.

Douglas C. Peifer, PhD

Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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