It has been a while since I have entered the blogging world, so I thought my return should find me writing about something which has been bothering me for a long time. Recently while walking through the halls of Drake University I heard a not-so-mature young man make a comment about France’s alleged cowardice and general awfulness. This view is shared by many Americans who don’t know their history, so I thought I should take to task the stereotypes and set the record straight about our croissant eating allies.
First there is the idea that the French rolled over to Germany in 1940. While it is true that France’s battle with Germany was very short, it is also true that this could be attributed to the fact that the French government was run by collaborators at the time as much as it could be to any cowardice or incompetence on the part of the French Army. Additionally, if France rolled over to the Germans, can’t we say the same about Austria, Holland, Belgium, Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania? All of them are countries which quickly fell to the Nazi war machine, yet they are never given the scorn leveled at France.
There is also the fact that while Americans like to criticize the French war effort, at the time we were still sitting the war out and would be for more than a year. Furthermore, there is the untold story of the British and American surrender in the Pacific during the war. In 1941-42, the British and American forces in the Pacific surrendered Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, and the Philippines to the Japanese. Yet, no American ever accuses either British or American forces of “rolling over” to the Japanese in the Pacific. Indeed, General Douglas MacArthur’s speech stating that “I shall return” has entered into American folklore as proof of American resolve and determination. Much less known is General Charles de Gaulle’s speech where he told the people of France that the war was not over and that they should continue to fight the Germans and the Vichy government. If Americans can view the American surrender in the Pacific as related to the grim reality of conditions on the ground at the time, and if they can view MacArthur’s “I shall return” speech as an inspiration, why can’t the same be said about France’s surrender to Germany and de Gaulle’s “appeal of June 18” speech?
Furthermore, the French did not just passively sit by and wait for the Americans to liberate them. Many French citizens accepted de Gaulle’s demand to keep fighting their occupiers and formed what would soon pass into French folklore: the French Resistance. The French Resistance was the largest resistance movement in Europe, consisting of about 400,000 people who fought against the German occupation by conduction sabotage, spreading propaganda, and giving intelligence to the Allied Powers. At least 100,000 memebers of the Resistance were killed, many of whom were sent to concentration camps. They played a key role in the liberation of France, garnering praise from no less a military hero than Dwight D. Eisenhower who wrote in his military memoir Crusade in Europe:
Throughout France, the Free French had been of inestimable value in the campaign. They were particularly active in Brittany, but on every portion of the front we secured help from them in a multitude of ways. Without their great assistance, the liberation of France and the defeat of the enemy in Western Europe would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves.
There is also the French role in the American Revolution. While the idea of breaking away from Great Britain was a home grown idea, it is often forgotten that the French were key allies of the colonists in the war. Having been defeated by the British in the French and Indian War (and having a hatred of Great Britain going back centuries), the French were more than happy to aid America in its quest for independence.
As one history site states:
Without the direct and indirect assistance of France, it is doubtful that Americans could have won the war for independence. From 1776 to 1783 France supplied the United States with millions of livres in cash and credit. France also committed 63 warships, 22,000 sailors and 12,000 soldiers to the war, and these forces suffered relatively heavy casualties as a result. The French national debt incurred during the war contributed to the fiscal crisis France experienced in the late 1780s, and that was one factor that brought on the French Revolution. In the end the French people paid a high price for helping America gain its independence.
Additionally, it was the French Minister of War who introduced Ben Franklin to Baron Von Steuben, the Prussian military officer who is credited with turning the rag tag group of American colonists into a disciplined, well-trained fighting force.
So the next time you say to a French person, “you’d be speaking German if it wasn’t for us!” expect them to retort “you’d be signing God Save the Queen if it wasn’t for us” because a French person would have every right to say that with confidence.
Regarding French military history, this post does not even cover the history of Napoleon, France’s valiant defense in the First World War, or its military record in the post-World War II word, but that is for another time.