The total death toll in the two World Wars is estimated to be 98 million. Here are some of the voices of the deceased, whispering from a page of poetry:
“We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie.
In Flanders fields.”
Remember the soldiers
In every city, town, village and hamlet in France, you will find memorials to soldiers who died in World War I and World War II. A list of the ‘glorious dead’ is always part of the monument, and Marianne often stands guard over them.
Of course war memorials with lists of names commemorating those who died in the two World Wars are also found all over Britain, Canada, America, Australia and other Commonwealth countries.
World War I: a greater death toll
But on these memorials there is a glaringly obvious difference: the lists of those killed in World War I and World War II are always approximately equal.
However in France, the list of soldiers who were killed in World War II is always considerably shorter than those who were killed in World War I – invariably only a handful. Even when the deaths of deportees, women, and maquisards are added, the World War I death toll is still far greater.
The reason is that, for the French, World War II was very short. The actual fighting was over in just six weeks. Historians are divided over the reasons: failure to coordinate military actions with their allies; an isolated and ill-considered French foreign policy; fear of repeating the misery of World War I – when France lost a greater proportion of her male population than any other combatant, and every French family was touched by death or injury.
Anglo-Saxon attitudes about the French defeat are still widespread in many countries, where cruel jokes are still told. Here’s an example. Question: “How many gears does a French tank have?” Answer: “Four reverse and one forward, in case the enemy attacks from the rear.”
There are dozens of other jokes, and one can still find those who claim that the French are simply defeatists – or even cowards.
But the problem with this theory is that almost 300 000 French soldiers were wounded or killed in only six weeks of fighting to defend France in la guerre et la défaite de 1939—1940. They are always conveniently forgotten by the xenophobes.
So, do you think the often held Anglo-Saxon prejudice that the French gave up too quickly is appropriate? Or was it more complex with a range of reasons? Was it the politicians who were out of touch? Was it disastrous logistics and outmoded tactics amongst the military? Was it dated tactics on the battlefield? Or was it an amalgam of all of the above?
What do you think – is it fair to brand them, cowards? Or were they simply idealists who held off until it was too late hoping in vain that the carnage of World War I would not be repeated. Is all this talk of French cowardice simply entrenched Anglo-Saxon prejudice?
Do you think the French were cowards? Or do you think this is an unfair label? Share your opinion with us in the comments box below.
1. Verdun memorial, via publicdomainpictures
2. Monument © Ray Johnstone
3. Petanquer © Ray Johnstone
Source: In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, May 1915
Note: This popular article was refreshed and republished in 2020