World War I: remembering the fallen soldiers

MyFrenchLife™ – Ray Johnstone – Verdun - World War I -

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 tollMyFrenchLife™ – Ray Johnstone – Monument - World War I -

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 prejudice

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.”

TMyFrenchLife™ – Ray Johnstone – Petanquer - World War I - MyFrenchLife.orghere 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.

Image Credits:
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

About the Contributor

Ray Johnstone

Ray is an artist & writer. His favourite subjects are nudes and portraits. Art holidays for groups & families are catered for in their 800-year-old house La Petite Galerie in Gascony. They also take up to 6 walkers on the 'best bits' of the Pilgrims Route to Compostela. Check out Ray's 100+ articles - he has his own column called 'Perspectives'

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  1. Gerard Lewis-Fitzgerald Jul 31, 2016 at 3:03 PM - Reply

    Bonjour, Ray

    D’abord, je me souviens d’avoir vu un reportage à la télé australienne (ABC) tout récemment à propos des artisans qui fabriquent de nouvelles pierres de tombeaux pour remplacer les originales (de la 1ère guerre mondiale) dont les caractères gravés dessus sont devenus mal définis / moins lisibles; la méthode s’est modernisée, bien sûr – on fait ce travail avec des lasers, etc.
    Deuxièmement, l’attitude péjorative envers les forces militaires françaises se fait entendre souvent chez les Américains; l’animation “Les Simpsons” en est un exemple – je crois que ce fut Homer qui les a appelés “des singes-couards bouffeurs de fromage”/”cheese-munching surrender monkeys” – une attitude qui se pérennise grâce à un certain nombre de citoyens des États-Unis qui n’hésitent pas à se vanter d’avoir “tiré les grenouilles de plusieurs mauvais pas militaires”! Mais eux, ce sont des vantards finis (‘through and through’, j’essaie de traduire). Ils ont la manie de se croire incontestablement les sauveteurs dans plusieurs situations mondiales à travers l’histoire. On a entendu pendant la semaine dernière, au rassemblement des votants Democrats – le chauvinisme énoné même par Hillary Clinton lorsqu’elle a dit: “Notre pays est le meilleur pays du monde!”

    • Ray Johnstone Aug 1, 2016 at 5:52 PM - Reply

      Bonjour Gerard,
      Thank you very much for reading my article and for the information you provide on the attitude of the US Neocon driven propaganda against the French.
      Unfortunately, as far as 20th century history is concerned, Anglo Saxons have also been conditioned by a degree of anti American propaganda.
      Despite popular opinion, most contemporary historians agree that WW I was at a stalemate until the Americans arrived in France to tip the balance.
      And, in WW II there is general agreement amongst scholars that it was Russian blood and the American dollar that shortened the war allowing the Allies to win out in the end.
      Thanks again for your comments.

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