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Military history of France
The military history of France includes both those military actions centered on the territory encompassing modern France, and the military history of French-speaking peoples of European descent, in Europe and in its overseas possessions and territories.
Themes in French history
The defence of both its own territory and its citizens overseas in later eras was driven by several military rivalries that often re-asserted themselves after other military objectives had been accomplished. These rivalries and objectives can often give a better understanding of French military history than a mere chronological listing.
France's position against other powers in continental Europe
During the first half of the first millennium, the territory now known as France was primarily under the control of the Roman Empire. After the fall of Rome in the 5th century, France was dominated by the Frankish kingdom, which controlled large territories in Germany, the Low Countries and France. Although some historians date the beginnings of France to the rise of the first Frankish empire - under the Merovingians in the fifth century - it was not until the crowning of Hugh Capet in 987 that a constant, separate political unit emerged. This unit would exercise control over the French-speaking peoples until the present day, and it is really from the beginning of the Kingdom of France that the distinctive trends of French military history appear.
From the beginning of the Capetian dynasty, France's foreign policy was aimed at securing its "natural frontiers " - the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Rhine - these being easily defensible from external attack, and ensuring that no other European country was strong enough to endanger these frontiers. Consequently, France regularly came into conflict with other powers in Continental Europe, and developed over the centuries a number of long-standing rivalries. During the first half-millennium of its history, France's main rivals lay within the region of modern France itself, where the King of France faced considerable competition for his title from the English and Burgundians, and to the east, where the German states presented both opportunities for expansion and serious threats to France's power. From the later Middle Ages the Hapsburg Empire would prove a serious contender for the position of top-dog in Europe, at one point encircling France with its territories. Other rivals to French power included Russia, Prussia and other German states, the Pope, the countries of Iberia and, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the newly-united Germany. At various points France managed either to ally with, humiliate or be humiliated by each of these powers.
France's historical rivalry with England
Starting with the Norman Conquest, French and English interests have often been intertwined, not only in Europe, but overseas, where French and English colonial interests have frequently been at conflict. During the reign of the Plantagenets over England, French and English military interests were similar due to the fact that the King of England also held the position of Duke of Normandy. After the Hundred Years War, when the two cultures began quickly to diverge, numerous conflicts arose that would rumble on for many centuries. The rivalry between France and England only came to an end in the late 19th Century, when the emergence of other threats - primarily the unification of Germany and the rise of the United States - forced the two nations to set aside their historical enmity.
France's imperial objectives
Starting in the early 16th century, much of France's military efforts were put behind securing its overseas possessions and putting down dissent among both French colonists and native populations. French troops were spread all across its empire, primarily to deal with the local population. This phase of French militarism only came to an end with its failed attempt to subdue Algerian nationalists in the late 1950s. However, even in the 21st century, many former French colonies still expect France to provide assistance to put down revolutionary activity.
Since World War II, France's efforts have been directed at maintaining its status as a great power and its seat on the UN Security Council despite the fact its military capability is being overtaken by the rising power of the People's Republic of China and India, among others. However, France has also been instrumental in attempting to unite the armed forces of Europe for their own defence in order to both balance the power of Russia and to lessen European military dependence on the United States. For example, for some time France withdrew from NATO over complaints that its role in the organization was being subordinated to the demands of the United States.
Caesar's conquest of Gaul was met with little resistance initially. The 60 or so tribes that made up Gaul (which then consisted of France, Belgium and parts of Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany) were unable to unite to defeat the Roman army, a fact Caesar made use of by pitting one tribe against another.
- 57 B.C. Caesar conquers the Belgian Gauls after claiming they were conspiring against Rome.
- 56 B.C. The Veneti of Brittany are routed in a naval battle. Survivors flee to Britain.
- 53-51 B.C. Gallic resistance movement opposing Roman rule.
- Siege at Gergovia, Vercingetorix's home town. Holds out against Caesar and causes him the loss of 700 men. Vercingetorix's greatest victory.
- Remaining area of resistance in central France, at Uxellodunnum . The defenders are starved out and Caesar orders the right hand of all the Gauls who had fought to be cut off.
As the power of Rome weakened the area was taken over by the Franks. Around 500 AD the Franks controlled most of the area covered by modern France. In 507 allied with the Byzantine Empire they won the Battle of Vouillé against forces commanded by Alaric II
In the 8th century the Franks were fighting off Islamic attacks from Spain. Two key battles were the Battle of Toulouse and the Battle of Tours which was won in spite of inferior numbers. By winning these battles the Franks were able to stop the islamic advance into Europe.
It could be said that French military history during this period parallels the rise and eventual fall of the armored Knight. In approximately the 10th century, iron armor started to replace that of other materials such as leather or bronze. At the same time, the development of agricultural techniques allowed the nations of northern Europe to radically increase food production, allowing the support of a large aristocracy. Although all the nations of northern Europe benefitted from these advances, France has a particularly favourable climate which allowed the development of a large aristocracy with sophisticated and increasingly more expensive and more inpenetrable armor.
By the time of the Crusades, there were in fact more armored Knights in France than land to support them. One of the driving forces behind the Crusades was an attempt by such landless Knights to find land overseas, without causing the type of internecine warfare that would largely damage France's increasing military strength.
In the 11th century, French Knights would be fortunate to have large link chain mail, and a horse barely capable of carrying the knight's weight. However, these warriors were more than a match for most of Europe, and their overwhelming victory at the Battle of Hastings simply cemented their power and influence. However, by the 15th century, France could easily field over 10,000 Knights in full plate mail, with a large number of those on heavy warhorses with their own armor. A Knight on horseback would most likely have felt invincible, except to another Knight on horseback.
However, by the end of the 15th century, France's military power was all but gutted by the sudden obsolescence of men in armor, as new weapons and tactics made the Knight more of a sitting target than an effective battle force. The slaughter of Knights at the Battle of Agincourt was only the worst example of this carnage. The French were able to field about 10,000 men-at-arms against a much smaller British force with only a few hundred men-at-arms and virtually no cavalry. Despite this, the French suffered about 5,000 casualties compared to a few dozen for the British. Indeed, given the successes of Henry V, the French could consider themselves lucky that they recovered virtually all their territory by the end of the Hundred Years War.
- Battle of the Golden Spurs
- Battle of Bouvines
- Albigensian Crusade
- Franco-Habsburg War
- Hundred Years' War
- Breton War of Succession
- Battle of Agincourt
- Battle of Sluys
- Battle of Crecy
- Siege of Calais
- Combat of the Thirty
- Battle of Poitiers
- Battle of Auray
- Siege of Rouen
- Battle of Bauge
- Battle of Cravant
- Battle of Vernuil
- Battle of Orléans
- Battle of Patay
- Battle of Gerbevoy
- Battle of Formigny
- Battle of Castillon
The French Renaissance and the beginning of the Ancien Régime, normally marked by the reign of Francis I, saw the nation become far more unified under the monarch. The power of the nobles was diminished as a national army was created. With England expelled from the continent and being consumed by the Wars of the Roses France's main rival was the Holy Roman Empire. This threat to France reached its height in 1516 when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor also became king of Spain. France was all but surrounded with Spain, Germany, and the Low Countries all controlled by the Hapsburgs. France was weakened internally by the Wars of Religion that dominated the sixteenth century.
While France could do little to challenge the dominance of the Holy Roman Empire, the Empire itself faced many challenges. From the east it was severely endangered by the Ottoman Empire, with whom the French sometimes cooperated. The vast Hapsburg empire also proved impossible to manage effectively, and the crown was soon divided between the Spanish and Austrian holdings. In 1568 the Dutch declared independence, launching a war that would take decades and illustrate the weaknesses of Hapsburg power. Finally in the seventeenth century the empire began to be torn apart by the same religious violence that had beset France a century earlier. At first France sat on the sidelines, but under Cardinal Mazarin it saw an opportunity to advance its own interests at the expense of the Hapsburgs. Thus, despite the France's staunch Catholicism, it intervened on the side of the Protestants. The Thirty Years' War was long and extremely bloody, but France emerged victorious and for the next century it was the undisputed great power of Europe.
The long reign of Louis XIV saw a series of conflicts: the War of Devolution, the Dutch War, the War of the Reunions, the Nine Years War, and the War of the Spanish Succession. Wars in this era consisted of sieges and movement and were rarely decisive. Few of Louis' wars were either clear victories or definite defeats, but inexorably France's borders expanded. The west bank of the Rhine, much of the Spanish Netherlands, and a good deal of Luxembourg were annexed while the War of the Spanish Succession saw a fellow Bourbon placed on the throne of Spain. To stop France's advance coalitions of the other major powers of Europe formed, but even united France suffered only occasional reverses. During Louis' long reign the English re-emerged as France's great rivals, allied to the Hapsburgs. While they could not stand up to France on land the British Royal Navy dominated the seas and France lost many of its colonial holdings. The British economy also became Europe's most powerful, and British money funded the campaigns of their continental allies.
The eighteenth century saw France remain the dominant power in Europe, but begin to falter largely because of internal problems. The country engaged in a long series of wars, such as the War of the Quadruple Alliance, the War of the Polish Succession, and the War of the Austrian Succession, but these conflicts gained France little. Meanwhile Britain's power steadily increased, and a new force, Prussia, became a major threat. This change in the balance of power led to the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756 when France and the Hapsburgs forged an alliance after centuries of animosity. This alliance proved less then effective in the Seven Year's War, but in the American War of Independence the French inflicted a major defeat on the British. France had to empty the treasury to do so, however.
- French Revolutionary Wars
- Revolt in the Vendée
- Treaty of Amiens
- Treaty of Lunéville
The Napoleonic period saw France's influence and power reach immense heights, but just as quickly it collapsed back to its old borders at an immense cost to the French people. This, of course, can all be attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte — brilliant and charismatic, but opportunistic. The opportunism that led to his early victories eventually allied almost every major power in Europe against him to insure his downfall.
At the height of Napoleon's powers, France's influence dominated Europe as well as good portions of the Americas and Africa. During this period, only England's naval superiority saved most of the rest of Europe, and Napoleon was essentially unrivalled on the continent.
Napoleon changed warfare. The use of mercenaries had all but died out by the late 17th century, and the New Model Army developed to such an effect by Oliver Cromwell had taken root throughout Europe. Most armies of the early 19th century were small, well trained, made up of regular well paid troops, and were seldom used due to the cost of replacing losses. However, Napoleon could rely on none of this professionalism, as most of the military elite had been lost during the purges that categorized the French Revolution.
Napoleon's developed an army based on conscription using huge masses of poorly trained troops that could usually be readily replaced, led by a few elite units, the Imperial Guard. What his armys lacked in skill it made up for in bulk. Indeed, the huge losses suffered by Napoleon during the disastrous Russia campaign would have destroyed any professional commander of the day, but those losses were quickly replaced with new draftees. Against the smaller professional armies of the day, wars of attrition were something other European armies simply could not afford.
After Napoleon, nations planned for huge armies with professional leadership and a constant supply of new soldiers, which had huge human costs as improved weapons such as the rifled musket replaced the inaccurate muskets of Napoleon's day during the American Civil War.
This large size came at a cost as the logistics of feeding a huge army made an army dependent on supplies. Most armies of the day merely relied on commandeering local supplies of food. However, Napoleon's armies were so large that feeding them off the land soon proved impractical. In fact, the process of canning food (at first, in champagne bottles) was developed in response to a contest to preserve food for use on campaigns.
Napoleon's campaigns had a worldwide effect, and the fact that British troops were tied down in Europe probably contributed to the American decision to invade Canada during the War of 1812. It is clear that England's decision to stop American ships in international water in order to recapture deserters was also driven by their need to replace losses caused by Napoleon. In any event, Napoleon's decision to sell his Louisiana territories to the United States was most likely driven by his need for cash to wage war.
- Napoleonic Wars
After the exile of Napoleon, France was the beneficiary of a long period of European peace. This allowed it to focus on the expansion of its overseas empire, particularly in Africa and Asia. These areas of the world had been generally resisted European colonialism until the start of the 19th century, but advances in weapons technology allowed small numbers of European troops to overcome much larger bodies of native warriors.
However, after the start of the Franco-Prussian War, essentially a dispute over areas of France with large German speaking minorities, the French suffered a long and humiliating series of military defeats and embarassments. Not only did it suffer setbacks in both World Wars, by 1960 it had lost its influence over all of its empire, suffering particularly humiliating defeats in Indochina and Algeria. In addition, the military had lost status with the population, first because of the widely publicized Dreyfus Affair, and later because of the collaboration of the Vichy government with the occupying forces of Nazi Germany during World War II.
Despite having one of the largest standing armies in Europe, and the money to support it, France consistently lost out on the development of new military technologies and new tactics. For example, Charles De Gaulle had foreseen the importance of tank divisions after World War I, but his theories were widely ignored in France, only to be taken up by the Germans who used them to such effect during the Blitzkrieg.
Historically, the military had sided with the monarchy and the Catholic Church, but their continued failure over the next ninety years eventually allowed the Republican and secular forces that had first come to the fore during the French Revolution to eventually cement their hold over French politics. The last attempt by the military to set its own policy came during the Algerian War of Independence when French forces in Algeria essentially took the suppression of rebellious Algerians into their own hands against the directions of then President DeGaulle. Eventually, DeGaulle distanced himself from the military and appealed to public support, eventually resulting in the establishment of the Fifth Republic. However, this also had the effect of lessening France's military standing in the world to the point where DeGaulle often believed that France had little control over its own military destiny. Today, despite having one of the largest and best equipped military forces in the world, and being a nuclear power, France's role is seen in terms of peacekeeping and minor disputes rather than as the superpower it often still believes it is.
- Crimean War
- Franco-Prussian War
- World War I
- Russian Civil War
- French Expeditonary Corps to White Russians
- Polish-Soviet War
- World War II
- Force de frappe
- France and weapons of mass destruction
- European Security and Defence Policy
French Colonial Empire
- French and Indian War
- First Indochina War
- Algerian War of Independence
- recent actions in Africa
List of fortifications in France
Roman and Ancient
Medieval fortified towns include:
List of French military institutions
List of French military alliances
List of French military leaders
- See also Marshals of France
- Charlemagne (Frankish)
- Joan of Arc
- Napoleon Bonaparte
- Ferdinand Foch
- Henri-Phillipe Pétain
- Charles de Gaulle
French military linguistic influence
French historical military terms have been greatly influential and been adopted or become 'loan-words' to other languages common military language.
French general military terms adopted by the English language: aide-de-camp, bivouac, brigade, cartouche, cartridge, Colonel, corps, détente,enfilade, envoy, infantry, mêlée, pioneer, platoon, terrain, and volley .
- Lynn, John A. The Wars of Louis XIV.
- Gallic Empire
- History of France
- French Foreign Legion
- Free French Forces
- List of battles (geographic)
- List of wars
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