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The Great War without the clichés


14-18, a war but also a myth which will seize the policies (and consequently the education ...) whether it is for the blue horizon room or for the Vichy regime, with Pétain the paternalist victor of Verdun. The history of this conflict was largely blurred, mythologized ... Philippe Valode proposes to come back to around thirty key episodes of the First War on which the renewal of historiography should invite us to change of look.

A clear will: demystify 14-18

A prolific author with more than sixty books to his credit, Philippe Valode (a graduate in Political Science and former editor-in-chief of Actualité de l'Histoire) deals in this new work with the First World War that he wishes to demystify. The renewal of the historiography of the Great War is admittedly a real leitmotif in this centenary period when all the spotlight will be on contemporaryist studies dealing with this first world conflict.

The author recalls that the history of this conflict may well be very recent, it nevertheless remains poorly known to the general public, because it has been glorified, manipulated, falsified or embellished for political interests (like the Sacred Union). This is why a renewal of historiography was necessary in the light of the archives. Archives that the author does not seem to have searched himself, but the latter has worked from a rich bibliography. If the way of accentuating the gap between popular representation and the facts (by saying for example that the First World War is seen as "chivalrous" compared to the Second War) the affirmed will to speak "the truth" and evoking the “black files” of the 14-18 war can reveal a fairly journalistic hook, the book nonetheless remains very heuristic.

An example: Verdun

According to the author, Falkenhayn did not initially seek to bleed the French army dry in Verdun. For lack of sufficient strength, he wanted first to inflict a resounding defeat on the French. It was only after the failure of this assault that the German general staff would have taken the decision to bleed the French army in Verdun. As Driant had pointed out, Verdun is under defense, in 1915 Joffre even had the moving parts of the forts dismantled, which subsequently explained the surrender without fighting of Douaumont (February 25, 1916)! An unwelcome disarmament that Gallieni reproaches Joffre ... It must be said that Gallieni hardly appreciates Joffre who attributed "his" victory to the Marne ... Alarmed by the signs of concentration of German troops, Joffre must in the urgently reconsider its decisions.

The German offensive finally took place on February 21, 1916 after intense artillery preparation. The shells ravaged the landscape so much that this lunar terrain slowed down the German advance. Douaumont falls, Joffre decides to defend himself excessively, Pétain takes command ... And quickly finds himself bedridden by pneumonia ... Nevertheless, Pétain keeps his illness a secret and assumes all his functions by relying on his two assistants: Bernard Serrigny and Maurice de Barescut. Pétain wanted to constitute a new line of defense and ensure good supply lines (by road and rail). He also decided to organize the rotation of units to evacuate the battered and demoralized troops (690 killed, 16,000 missing and 3,100 seriously injured from February 21 to 27, 1916).

It was then the beginnings of the “Sacred Voice” (Bar-le-Duc / Verdun road) on which almost a quarter of the French army's fleet circulated! The reinforcements arrive, on March 6 Pétain received 200,000 men and 25,000 tons of ammunition and military equipment. In total the French army has 400,000 men to defend Verdun. Pétain also had the forts rearmed in an emergency to hold the Meuse. The Germans certainly opened the front on the left bank on March 5, but their progress was bogged down, without the visit of William II being able to change anything. Pétain took the opportunity to reorganize his defense on three lines, to reorganize the defense of the artillery and thus prepare the French army for long-term defense.

On March 15, French losses were greater than 70,000 men, the units in the front lines had an average loss of 20%, morale weakened and Pétain pleaded for a more regular rotation of units in the Verdun sector. Thus doing, Pétain (and his successor Nivelle) will organize a vast rotation on the Verdun front where perhaps 5 million French people will pass! Three quarters of the hairy have made a passage to Verdun! This rapid turnover, accompanied by time of rest, allows Pétain to maintain somehow the morale of his army, which is not at all the case on the German side where we are content to replace the dead and wounded...

In the end, Verdun caused around 317,000 dead, wounded and disappeared on the French side, barely less on the German side. The author stresses that Pétain would have "usurped" his popularity thanks to the Petit Journal, suggesting that his action made it possible to spare men and that he was concerned about their well-being whereas he was content to run regiments and that losses never stopped increasing from February 26 to March 16.

If indeed Pétain did not reduce the losses in Verdun, one can reproach Philippe Valode for not recognizing as a real measure of "well-being" the rapid turnover of troops on the front while this has, as he says. moreover, a real impact on the morale of the troops. It is also astonishing that the measures taken by Pétain when he succeeds Nivelle are not mentioned. Finally, it is also a shame not to explain in this chapter the reason for this good reputation of Pétain: because he decides with the massacres which take place under his successor (Nivelle), and because the Vichy regime subsequently greatly enhanced this image of Pétain, the paternalistic winner of Verdun.

Thirty-one major themes to understand 14-18

Besides Verdun, Philippe Valode returns to some thirty key themes of the Great War: those responsible for the war, the French plan XVII, the red pants, the defense of Belgium in 1914, Gallieni victorious over the Marne, the unjust dismissal of General Lanrezac by Joffre, sacking him from senior officers, mobilization in colonial empires, the Japanese victory of Tsing Tao, German resistance in East Africa, the torpedoing of Lusitania, Christmas 1914, prisoners of war, gas , the massacres of civilians in the French NE and in Belgium, the martyrdom of English soldiers after the defeat of Kut Al-Amara, the Dardanelles, the bombardments of civilians, Marasesti, Nivelle, censorship, the 1917 mutinies, the engagement American troops, Mata-Hari, the "French concentration camps", the Spanish flu ...

The aim pursued by the author always seems to show a cruel and cruel, total war, which in many aspects has nothing to envy to the Second World War. In the end, despite a catchy title which announces revelations, this work which is content to draw on previous works does not seem to bring "revelations". It remains nevertheless a good work synthesizing in a clear and organized way answers to key questions of the war of 14-18.


VALODE Philippe, The Great War without the clichés, L'Archipel, 2013.


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