Oct 042008

(asked by David L. from Miami)

Why do the French suck at war?
And winning things in general?
(World Cup ’98 does not count because I’m pretty certain Ronaldo was paid off.)”

Ah, the war question!
Of all the stupid stereotypes about France, I think this is the worst of all.
For two reasons:
-1st it’s simply not true.
-2nd it tells a lot about how Americans see wars and that’s not a pretty sight and explains a lot in the history if the country.

Let’s start with the facts.
First, and put simply, if France was incapable of winning a war, France would have ceased to exist a long time ago, seeing how many countries tried to obliterate it throughout the Centuries.
But instead of a diatribe, I’m gonna give you cold hard historical facts; that is all the wars France fought since France has existed, let’s say the year 987 as it’s usually the year the idea of France really emerged (it kinda did a bit earlier with Charles the Bald, but the “official” date is 987).

So, from 987 to 1226, France was by no means a country in the modern sense of the world as it was the time when feudalism was in its heyday. But during that period, France grew bigger and bigger, became more and more powerful and more often than not, this came to be through wars. During that time, also happened the first crusades that were victories for the European countries that were involved, France leading them.

One can also mention the victories of Philip II against the “Angevin Empire”, and the crushing of the Cathar heresy.
In 1229, Louis IX ended the Albigensian Crusade by defeating the Count of Toulouse and thus adding the Toulouse and Languedoc areas to the kingdom.
Then, in 1230, he defeated Henry III of England who tried to recreate the Angevin Empire.
But he miserably failed both the seventh and eighth crusades (and died from the Black Plague on his way back from the latter).

His successor, Philip III lost the Aragonese Crusade (where he also lost his life).

Then we have Philip IV the Fair. His war with England was a “tie”, but he crushed the Flemish a bit later.

The next French war was in 1320, a war led by Philip V, still against Flanders, and again a victory.

Philip VI of Valois won war in Flanders again (funny how only the Philips fought wars during those times).

In 1337, the Hundred Years War started.
It’s actually a series of wars between France and England, France won some, England won some others, but in the end France prevailed (the country would have simply ceased to exist and become part of England if it had lost) and secured Aquitaine and Normandy as parts of the kingdom.

In 1495, Charles VIII, despite an early victory, lost the Italian War (in which he claimed the Kingdom of Naples as his).

His successor, Louis XII, had a similar experience in Northern Italy when his attempts to seize Milan and Venice ultimately failed.

François I succeeded in seizing Milan in 1515, but failed at becoming Holy Roman Emperor.
He suffered a terrible defeat against Emperor Charles V in 1525 when he was made prisoner by his sworn enemy.

Henri II’s own Italian war was half a success (success in Lorraine) and half a defeat (in Tuscany). He also captured parts of Flanders, but had to renounce to any further claims in Italy.

Then there was the French Religions Civil War during Charles IX’s and Henri III’s reigns but as it was French vs French one can say that it was both a win and a loss (even though the winners were the ones in power before the war).

After that France was involved in the mess than the 30 years war ended up being, and despite losing several battles ended up in the victors’ side, especially after defeating Spain.
France won Alsace, Lorraine, Roussillon, Artois, parts of Flanders, north of the Pyrenees and thus acquired roughly its current borders.
Another consequence of this war was that France became the most powerful country of Europe for Centuries to come.
Then ensued the Franco-Dutch war, in which Louis XIV fought a coalition of several countries: Netherlands, but also Sweden, Austria, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire (and more or less England) and won.

Overseas, colonization of North America, Africa, parts of India and Asia slowly started more or less peacefully.

From 1688 to 1697, once again, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, Spain, England, Savoy, Sweden waged war against France (and Ireland) with no clear victors and its unresolved issues led to the War of Spanish Succession in which France didn’t technically either win or lose (the outcome prevented the new King of Spain, grandson of Louis XIV to ever become King of France and thus making Spain a part of France. Instead, he stayed King of Spain only. Spain ceased to be a natural ally of the Holy Roman Empire and became a country of lesser importance but a close ally of France which couldn’t “annex” it.)

Louis XV was vaguely involved in the Polish War of Succession at the end of which it gained Lorraine from Saxe.

In 1744, Louis XV took part in the Austria War of Succession which involved pretty much everybody and their mother in Europe and in which like pretty much anybody else, France lost and won stuff (if anybody can explain this war, I’ll be grateful)

But after that, France suffered one of its biggest loss in history after being defeated in the Seven Years War and losing to England most of its colonies (all of North America (remember that most of North America was French at the time) as well as India and territories in the Middle East too).

The only notable war in which Louis XVI’s France took part is called the American Revolution which was won thanks to France. Americans usually tend to forget this detail, I’m glad to be able to remind it to them.

Then France had its on Revolution which was an actual revolution and not an independence war called revolution for some reason like on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. And in 1793 every single royalist country in Europe attacked France, now a republic, and they all were badly defeated in 1795 and that ultimately led to the rise of Napoleon.

Napoleon, who -as everybody knows- won many wars before being ultimately defeated.

In between the fall of Napoleon I and the advent of Napoleon III, France was too busy having small revolutions every other day to have wars with other countries, but still found the time to defeat Mexico in 1838 because some Mexicans dared to say that French pastries sucked.

Then Napoleon III won the Crimean War (which was the first (ever?) alliance between France and England), the Second Opium War (still alongside Britain) and in 1859, France took part and won the second Italian War of Independence, in which it acquired the County of Nice.

But after that Napoleon III badly meddled with Mexican internal affairs and sent a poorly equipped army that he almost forgot there and that incident made Mexicans believe, up to this day, that they had a great victory against France, whereas it really was a Mexican civil war with France being vaguely involved and then leaving because they got bored.

Right after that, the Franco-Prussian war broke out, aka the mother of all French defeats (well, it had one good side; it got us rid of Napoleon III) because of which Alsace and Lorraine were annexed by Germany (and paved the way to WWI).

After that, in 1884-1885 we had the Sino-French war in which France destroyed the Chinese fleet and gained full control of Indochina (Lao, Vietnam and Cambodia).

And then there was World War One, in which the allies, led by France contained and then defeated the German army. Sure, France was not alone in this, but this is definitely a French victory.

The next war was World War II, everybody knows that Germany crushed France, this is mostly from that defeat that France reputation of being losers comes from, and yes, it was a bad defeat. And yeah, the US came to help France later and saved us, but this is what allies do. And concerning D-Day, there’s one fact that not very often mentioned in the US, it’s the fact that it would never have been a success without the help of the French resistance.

Just after WWII, France lost again, that time it was the Indochina War. But I don’t think Americans should rub that too much in French people’s face as they didn’t do any better just a decade later.

Concerning the Algerian War, it’s hard to talk about a victory or a defeat, simply because even if it was a military victory, it was a political defeat and most of the population didn’t want that war and was more and more in favor of Algerian independence which it got in the end.

This was the last major war France took part in.
Of course there was the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but can we call this a war?
And I’m not even going to mention France’s current involvement in Afghanistan which has become a non-sense nowadays.

So, that was the list of pretty much all the wars that France has been involved in since the year 987, I may have forgotten a few, especially from the Middle Ages time, but I think you get the idea. And if I tally the count we get (I’m counting the Napoleonic wars, but remember that there were more victories than defeats):

Roughly 34 wars.
18 victories.
10 defeats.
6 ties.

(the second and third parts of the answer are coming soon, yep, I’m not finished with it)

More Questions Answered:

  5 Responses to “Why do the French suck at war?”

  1. I never understood this finger pointing at the French as losers that is so quintessentially redneck American. I am American, and when someone brings up the French being “sucky at war”, I ask for examples beyond WW2 also.

  2. HOLY SHIT David!! I think you are probably the smartest person I know.. Do you retain all of that info or did you do a google search/cut and paste? I mean, I have such a hard time retaining info… Chapeau to you!!! Also, I am American and I NEVER once thought the French were bad at war… !
    I really do salute you- because you are so thorough in your responses… I am going to print and read your response, because I find history fascinating..
    (Just on a side note- I really believe that Ronaldo WAS indeed “paid off.” He paid esp. crappy that day, after all.. and there really wasn’t any reason for it… What do you think?

  3. “Crimean War (which was the first (ever?) alliance between France and England)”

    In fact, knights from England and France fought side by side during the crusades.

  4. That’s really interesting! Totally took my mind off my exam tomorrow. Oh wait.

  5. As a German, I made the observation that the lack of respect for French military capacities is quite strongly correlated with a lack of actual clashes with the French military.
    It is thus no suprise that American pioneer the “France is weak” view, which is further reinforced by the American historical narratives emphasis on greatly overstating their impact, and greatly reducing the impact of other nations, in particular regarding WW2. French “weakness” is as mythological as Russian Human wave attacks, and Japanese never surrendering.

    Some further facts about WW2 and the French part of it:

    -The individual French Soldier fought well, and in the time the French were fighting in an organized fashion, they inflicted significant casulties upon the Wehrmacht
    -The French defeat was due to a failure of their supreme leadership. Both by Clemencau after WW1 (which set the stage for WW2) and by the actual French Generals in charge of things. In particular, France did not act while Germany curbstomped Poland. This was again a decision that had nothing to do with the French Soldier. The French had their Chamberlain, and their version stayed in power for a longer time.
    They also failed to create a working alliance with the USSR.
    -The French also fought German divisions at their prime, the Americans for the most part did not. Whenever a “regular” German corp appeared on the western front in 44/45 (f.e. Hurtgen forest) things often went south for the US troops too. Thankfully for the western forces, Germanys best units were fighting and dying in the east.
    -The Soviet Union inflicted 80+% of German military casulties.

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