France’s geographical location within Western Europe with England to the North, Germany to the East, Spain to the West and the Mediterranean Sea at its South coast mean that it is a country which has fought its fair share of wars over the years.
French military history is fascinating – but is there any truth to the stereotype that France has never won a war on its own?
Of course, France has known many military victories, especially in the World Wars – so did they have any help?
Let’s take a look at some of France’s most notable victories and defeats in Superprof’s guide to France’s military history.
But first, an overview...
The Military History of France
It all started because of the perceived need to shore up and maintain the country’s natural borders: The Alps to the southeast, the Pyrenees to the southwest and the Rhine river to the east.
King Clovis I united the country, taking it from land parcels held by various tribes led by chieftains, his father among them, to a rule under a single king – himself.
The same thing happened during the unification of England by Athelstan some 500 years later!
Now ruling a united France, the next step in King Clovis’ strategy was to protect the country from incursion.
So began the long military history of France as a unified territory, instigated by a king still in his teens – Clovis was only 16 when his father succumbed, leaving him to set the course for the country’s destiny.
Once the borders were secure, King Clovis set out to acquire more territory.
The first incursion, known as the Battle of Soissons, was a decisive victory in spite of the treachery by one of Clovis’ allies. That victory approximately doubled the Frank territory.
More battles followed, gaining more territory and occasionally losing some.
As king of France, Clovis did not always fight in or instigate war to gain territory.
Often, he relied on diplomacy or sovereignty, sometimes attaching the territory in question without much concession and, more than a few times, bartering his female relatives in exchange for land.
Charlemagne, Louis XIV and Napoleon also had great successes in expanding the French realm.
Still, the years between those military rulers were not times of peaceable growth and harmony; minor skirmishes, mainly along the country’s borders saw France lose territory and lives.
However, the country regained much land and also acquired many overseas territories: in Africa, South America, Indochina and a large swath of North America.
Most military action in those territories and in the homeland centred around peacekeeping efforts. French soldiers were generally tasked with quelling native population uprisings as well as dissent among the French colonists citizens alike.
From the Gallo-Roman war (60 to 50 BC) fought while France was still a land occupied by various oft-squabbling tribes to the end of the Second World War – when France’s western borders were finally drawn, this country’s more than 2,000 years of military history defy the stereotype that France cannot win a war on her own.
Or, you could think of it this way: not for nothing does France occupy the largest landmass in Europe.
Her expanded size is certainly not due to her neighbours’ generosity but because of France’s military acumen and might through centuries of fighting.
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Now let’s take a closer look at some of the more notable battles fought by the French military.
Battle of Tours
Also known as the battle of Poitiers, the Battle of Tours was a victory for the Franks (the people lived in France in the 8th century) against invaders who had accessed France from North Africa via the Iberian Peninsula.
The Muslim conquest of European Christian kingdoms began in 711 AD with the defeat of many areas in present-day Spain. Established as a dominant power in Southern Europe, Umayyad Caliphate’s men went on to pursue France. After having been defeated at Toulouse in 721 AD, the invaders continued Northwards and emerged victorious at Aquitaine in 732 AD.
After fleeing Aquitaine, which was now being brought under the control of the Umayyad forces, Duke Odo pleaded with the Frankish mayor, Charles Martel, who agreed to help as long as the attack was Frank-led.
Charles Martel was not initially nominated to rule Francia upon his father’s passing. Instead, Pepin de Herstal, Charles’ father, at his wife's urging, nominated Charles’ nephew as successor.
Some records contend that Charles was in fact illegitimate, which would have been a good reason to deny him succession to power. However, at that time, it was legal for a man could have several consorts.
Charles, being the issue of one of Pepin’s other wives, could in fact ascend to power but Plectrude, a consort who bore heavy influence on her husband, ensured her grandson would inherit the title by obtaining a promise from Pepin on his deathbed.
You might say that Charles Martel’s first, most significant battle was for the title that was rightfully his.
Plectrude, unwilling to see her grandson slighted, had Charles thrown in prison. However, because the boy was so young, only eight years old, the nobles resisted his ascension to power.
Unrest festered throughout the land, culminating in battle. The young statesman led his troops in the battle of Compiègne and suffered a humiliating defeat.
Later that year, Charles escaped from prison and was met with acclaim and allegiance from the nobles.
The resistance of the Franks, along with the Muslims’ failure to prepare for the European climate and the Franks’ attack on the opposing army’s camp made for a Frankish victory.
Battle of Hastings
The Battle of Hastings is probably one of the most famous French military victories in history.
In 1066, William of Normandy gathered his troops and set out to take the English crown from King Harold I, who, unfortunately, had only recently returned from another battle in which Harald Hardrada of Norway has also attempted to establish his dominance on the British Isles.
The battle tactic employed by the King Harold’s army was famously shocking to William’s troops, who attacked the English as they stood their ground. Thankfully for Harold, this put the Normans off, and eventually, after a rumour that William, the Norman leader, had been killed on the battlefield, the French forces retreated.
Seeing his army’s reaction, William quickly became frustrated and audaciously removed his helmet before both armies to disprove the rumour.
Now empowered with a new rush of confidence, Willliam’s troops persisted in their attack and emerged victorious after the death of King Harold and surrender of his forces.
William of Normandy became William the Conqueror, and the Normans gained a new territory.
Reflections of Battle:
It is easy to ascribe Harold’s defeat to battle fatigue, depleted troops and the element of surprise.
However, we must consider these factors:
- The troops were not necessarily fatigued – by the long march to Hastings from London or by the fighting which lasted an entire day.
- Nor were they depleted. Although reliable records don’t exist, it is estimated that between 7,000 and 8,000 troops fought at Hastings.
- Furthermore, Harold dispensed of some of the troops at his disposal before marching to Hastings
- Surprise may have been a decisive factor in shaping the battle. When the rumour circulated that William was dead, Harold’s troops all but ceased fighting, permitting onslaughts by the Normans – once they were assured that their king was indeed alive.
The battle’s outcome might have been vastly different had Harold been a more experienced fighter and strategist. Unfortunately for him, that is where William had the upper hand.
For example, he might have exploited the Norman confusion over William's supposed death; perhaps he may have turned the tides in his favour by striking while the Normans were otherwise preoccupied.
When I took French lessons online with my Superprof tutor, we discussed this battle from the French and British perspectives!
Second Battle of Ypres
The Second Battle of Ypres was a major battle of World War One which lasted over a month and resulted in a victory for the allied forces (which included France, Belgium and Great Britain) against Germany.
Situated in Belgium on the Western Front near the border with France, Ypres was a valuable asset in the First World War because of its location and having control over it would help either side towards overall victory.
The Second Battle of Ypres marks a famous point in war history as it was the first time when toxic gas was used as a weapon.
Cylinders full of the poison gas were planted along the boundary of the French-held territory and were activated while the area was being guarded by French soldiers. The attack came as a surprise and caused survivors to flee the area.
Thankfully, the retreat of the French did not grant the German forces an easy victory, and the British Empire’s troops defended Ypres and led the allies to victory.
The Poison Gas Debacle
Trench warfare was a WWI feature, deadly not just because troops were essentially sitting ducks under grenade and artillery fire but because the very trenches were hotbeds of disease and decay.
Nevertheless, no army would permit nature to take its course; trench fighters must be eliminated quickly.
Along came German chemist Fritz Haber, embellishing on fellow chemist Walter Nerst’s idea that the trenches could be ‘infected’ with tear gas. Haber proposed chlorine gas. Heavier than air, this gas would sink down into the trenches, quickly achieving the desired effect.
The German commander opted to use this tactic as a diversion rather than an all-out attack, thereby losing the element of surprise that would have made this deadly type of trench warfare most effective.
It was that decision that afforded French troops the opportunity to flee.
British troops, more familiar with mining tactics – to this day, France has little to no mining operations, devised impromptu masks that helped them survive the gas attacks. Thanks to those masks, they went on to win the battle.
Battle of Verdun
Another landmark victory for the French was the Battle of Verdun, which also took place during the First World War, in 1916. It is famous for being the longest battle of the whole war, lasting from February to December.
Verdun was a historically important city in the military history of France as a defensive town, and the Germans sought to make the French compromise the forts in Verdun, which were signs of the country’s previous military strength and cause national embarrassment, or to forfeit the lives of their men.
The plan to attack Verdun appeared to be perfectly engineered and everything looked to be in the favour of the attacking side. The French had removed a significant amount of ammunition from the forts, the trenches had not been finished, and German air forces were dominating the skies.
Marshal Phillipe Pétain led the French forces to victory by moving supplies and troops to Verdun as quickly as possible, and elsewhere, the British planned to lead an attack on the Germans at the Somme which would force them to remove men from Verdun.
What Clinched the Verdun Battle
Two major events turned the tide during the Battle of Verdun:
1. Maréchal Pétain ordered his air commander to concentrate the flying squadrons over Verdun rather than distributing them all along the battlefront. This disrupted German air support in that area.
2. German General Falkenhayn had grossly underestimated the French: their reserves, their military savvy and their tenacity.
He had calculated that, troop-heavy as his army was, and having air support as well, he would soon make short work of those pesky French!
His strategy was to bleed the French troops to death; to kill as many as possible, causing surrender by attrition. Actually taking the city was never his priority.
His failure to take Verdun was the first in a succession of military faux-pas that led to his removal as a general and his reputation as a war leader to be villified in his home country.
Meanwhile, Maréchal Pétain was celebrated as the Lion of Verdun...
Battle of Agincourt
One famous defeat for the French was the Battle of Agincourt, which was fought during the 100 Years War in 1415.
The 100 Years War was being fought between England and France over which country would inherit the French crown.
Henry V of England led his troops into France via the English Channel, however, weeks of traveling has caused levels of exhaustion which cost King Henry V over 5000 men. After suffering such massive losses, Henry decided to retreat back to England, however, he was met by a wall of French soldiers.
The English remained still while the French troops, clad in heavy armour, came towards them. The French found themselves bombarded by arrows from the English longbow archers.
The Battle is famous for the use of the English longbow, which can reach targets up to 230 metres away.
As the French army tried to push through the arrows, attacking became even more difficult because of the weight they were carrying on their bodies. Once the battlefield was full of French men, King Henry ordered his troops to attack the French using axes.
This bloody tactic secured a victory for the English and marked the start of a series of military successes for Henry V.
The Agincourt Fallout
While Henry returned to London celebrated as a war hero, France was left in shambles – and not just because of the resounding defeat they had just suffered!
Two political factions clashed: The Armagnac who supported the French government and the Burgundians, who didn’t.
The former was saddled with most of the blame – and took most of the casualties in the Agincourt defeat.
The Burgundians took advantage of their weakened political and strategic position to march on Paris, sowing discord along the way and especially once they got there.
The discord in France afforded King Henry about 18 months to rest up and gather more troops, after which he again marched into France and again handed the French a humiliating defeat.
Battle of Trafalgar
The Battle of Trafalgar was a victory for the British Royal Navy against French and Spanish forces in 1805. The battle was part of the Napoleonic wars.
27 British ships were led by commander Admiral Lord Nelson aboard flagship HMS Victory in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Trafalgar, off the Spanish Coast.
In the run-up to the battle, Napoleon Bonaparte, the new Emperor of France, had been trying to find a way to invade Britain and expand the empire of France after the French revolution. However, the British were aware of his plans and imposed a naval blockade on France which prevented Napoleon’s forces from crossing the Channel as well as interrupting France’s trade links.
Frustrated and unable to control the waters around France, Napoleon (who had allied with Spain) planned to get men from the Caribbean who would assist his troops in dismantling the British presence in the Channel so he could invade England.
However, Napoleon’s ships were prevented from reaching the Caribbean by Nelson’s men, who approached the French in two columns to deter them.
After 5 hours of battle, Britain had destroyed 19 of the 33 Franco-Spanish ships. No British ships were lost and the British Navy returned triumphantly.
Though Admiral Lord Nelson lost his life in this battle, his leadership ensured that Napoleon would never seek to make Britain part of the French Empire. He was honoured with the naming of a square in London: Trafalgar Square, where a statue of him still stands.
The Irony of Trafalgar
The Spanish and French collectively had more ships at their disposal than our lone Admiral Nelson. They were also in familiar waters, just off the coast of Spain.
Napoleon had already shown himself to be a brilliant military strategist and Frederico Gravina, his Spanish counterpart, had been at sea since he was 12 – just shy of 40 years at the time of the battle. Furthermore, he had plenty of experience fighting at sea, having fought at Gilbraltar and in Toulon.
However, Both Napoleon and Gravina were nothing if not traditionalists.
Convention at the time dictated that fighting ships should line up, single file, and fire upon one another until one sinks.
Admiral Nelson threw tradition to the winds by lining his ships in two columns perpendicular to the French and Spanish fleets, giving him twice the range and firepower than Spain and France gave themselves.
No wonder Napoleon and Gravina never landed a shot but took so many hits!
To read more about Napoleon and other famous French figures throughout history, follow the link!
Battle of Dien Bien Phu
A more recent defeat of the French was the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954, which was a part of the larger Indochina War.
The French engaged in a battle with the Viet Minh, who represented Vietnam’s communist and national forces. Vietnam has been a French colony since the 19th century, however, the independence movement had been growing in popularity and France was losing control over the country.
In a bid to weaken the Viet Minh forces, the French Republic started an occupation of Dien Bien Phu in order to cut off supplies into Laos and establish a French stronghold. However, this tactic did not work as planned, as the town was soon cut off and surrounded by Vietnamese forces.
When the Viet Minh began their offense, France called on the USA for help, however, the independence movement has strength in numbers and the Viet Minh eventually broke through the French defences to the town.
What Went Wrong in Dien Bien Phu?
Clearly, the French had completely underestimated their opponents; they did not reckon that the Vietnamese would be able to navigate the jungle burdened by heavy weaponry.
Furthermore, they assumed that the Viet Minh must want to rush to Laos; surely that was behind their strategy of blocking that route.
It is interesting to note that the same tactical error brought about defeat in most military campaigns.
Such thinking seems incomprehensible in hindsight: if your enemy thinks like you, how much of a battle could there be?
Prepare for what your enemy can do, not what you think he will do – Carl von Clausewitz
How many battles would have had a different outcome had that wisdom been heeded?
In the aftermath of Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh captured over 11,500 prisoners; nearly 4,500 of which were wounded.
The blow that French diplomacy suffered in Viet Nam was not survivable. Furthermore, the citizens of France were tired of war and demanded that hostilities cease.
So ended a conflict that, in many ways, resembled the First World War: trench fighting, hand to hand combat and limited use of (for the time) sophisticated weaponry, and no air support.
If you found this blog interesting, why not check out our article on the most important events in France's history?
Or, if you want to start learning French, try googling 'french lessons london'.