The French Military as Contrasted with the English since 1500:  Proud Traditions or a Badge of Shame?

 

          In the midst of the ferocious Francophobia surrounding the US-led invasion of Iraq beginning in March of 2003, it has become fashionable in the United States to cast aspersions at France’s supposed military pusillanimity at every opportunity.  Semi-facetious articles such as “The Complete French Military History” have sought to attribute to the French a record of reliable military bungling and failure.  Are the French really such cheese-eating surrender monkeys, exemplars of abject capitulation, when the historical record is examined in detail?  Not at all.  In fact, if one scrutinizes the French military record in comparison with France’s historic archrival—England—their military records aren’t too much apart from each other.  To be sure, France has had a rough stretch over the past two centuries, but in the long view (since these two nations first jelled, essentially around the turn of the first millennium A.D.), France has had a reasonably decent military track record.  A closer look reveals that the British as well as the French have suffered a substantial number of particularly severe defeats over the past 500 years, including a surprisingly large number in colonial wars against indigenous forces.

 

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the major military defeats—including in colonial wars—suffered by the British and French over the past 500 years.  I’ve grouped the military defeats as “First” through “Third” tier.  A first-tier defeat is a categorical, undeniable military defeat with little in the way of mitigation, and adverse consequences for the British or French.  A second-tier defeat is a failure with damaging consequences in which Britain or France emerges significantly worse off after the war but is, for example, saved by allies from total disaster or is able to at least partially quell a nationalist rebellion.  Note that second-tier defeats can be significantly more devastating than first-tier ones:  British military defeats and French military defeats in the World Wars might be described as second-tier, since in spite of repeated military failures, the intervention of the US and eventually Russia (in WWII) helped them to gain a favorable place at the peace table among the Allies.  Nevertheless, the military calamities suffered by both Britain and France in WWI and WWII were disastrous and unsustainable in their cost in blood and treasure, and contributed substantially to the chain of events that destroyed the British Empire and its French counterpart.  (This was especially so for the British, since they had the option of essentially sitting out—or participating in a more limited fashion—in WWI in particular.)  A third-tier defeat represents a sort of stalemate that is essentially unfavorable but not too damaging to Britain or France, as was seen in the various Continent-wide wars fought among European powers (with shifting alliances) often in the late 1600s and 1700s.  These are the classic “gentleman’s wars” in which kings, queens, and nobles, in addition to raising their own forces, defrayed mercenary armies to wage battles to adjust the lines on the European and colonial maps.

 

England/Britain/UK

 

First-Tier British Defeats, 1500-present

 

-          In 1542-1546, England’s King Henry VIII suffers defeat in a war against Scotland, costing the English treasury heavily.  (This was prior to the unification of the English and Scottish crowns.)

-          In 1556-1563, both the English Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I suffer disastrous military defeats in attempts to capture and reclaim the province of Calais from France.  After French victory over an Elizabethan army in Le Havre in 1563, the English are never again able to control land in France, which the English had claimed since the Hundred Years’ War. 

-          Following the Spanish Armada conflict in 1588, the English suffer a string of disastrous naval and land defeats against Spain:  An English Armada sent to torch the Spanish Atlantic navy, seize the Spanish treasure fleet, and evict Spain’s King Philip II from Portugal is defeated with devastatingly heavy losses in 1589.  In 1595, Spanish naval commander Don Carlos de Amesquita lands on English soil in the western part of the country and sets fire to Penzance and several other villages before escaping.  Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake are both killed in a fiasco of an English expedition against Spanish America later that year.  In both 1591 and 1597, English expeditions against Spain are defeated in the Azores.  The net effect of these defeats is that Spain maintains control of Atlantic oceangoing routes, trade, and its colonies in the Americas—then under challenge—and only forfeits control of the seas to the Dutch in the late 1600s, when Spain is bankrupted by inflation and heavy reliance on the silver trade.  The Elizabethan English are therefore frustrated in their attempts to settle the Americas, and the English must await King James I’s negotiation of the Treaty of London in 1604 to begin exploration again, with the first permanent overseas English settlement at Jamestown in 1607. 

-          The English under King Charles II are defeated by the wily Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter in the Second Anglo-Dutch War of 1665-7 and also the Third, from 1672-3, two naval conflicts which enabled the Netherlands to retain effective control over Atlantic sea lanes and consolidate and expand their colonies in the Americas and East Asia.

-          The British (English and Scottish crowns had formally united in 1701) under George III suffered a devastating defeat against colonial rebels in their North American colonies, allied with the French, Dutch, and Spanish, in the American Revolution from 1775-83.  In addition to losing control over the 13 colonies in North America, the British also lose several island possessions in the Caribbean, lose Florida to Spain, and see several favorable trade treaty arrangements from 1763 (the French and Indian War/Seven Years’ War, probably Britain’s most important military victory of the past 500 years—see below) reversed.  Of lesser-known but perhaps equal historical importance, a French Indian Ocean naval squadron led by Captain Pierre Andre de Suffren de St. Tropez, in alliance with Indian forces led by Hyder Ali and then Tippu Sultan, engages in 5 pitched naval confrontations with squadrons led by British Admiral Edward Hughes, getting the better of the clashes and thus re-establishing French control in South India.  This is of some historical significance since South India (Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu in particular) would become a French cultural and linguistic outpost within the Indian nation, even after independence from France in the 1950s.  Thus as far as India’s association with European languages and cultures, the link to French on the southern Indian mainland has helped to prevent India from becoming an Asian Anglophone outpost. 

-          French revolutionary army fighters defeat and expel a combined invasion force of Russians, Prussians, British, Dutch, and others who invaded in the 1790s to restore the French aristocracy.

-          In 1806-7, the British suffer two consecutive major defeats in military expeditions to Argentina, which permanently thwarts British attempts to colonize South America.  The Argentinian forces are led by a Spanish general of French origin, Jacques de Liniers (Santiago de Liniers).

-          1807 proves to be a bad year for the British military, as the United Kingdom is again defeated, this time by Mameluke (also Mamluk, Mameluk) forces led by Muhammad Ali in Egypt, and evicted from that strategic territory.  Note that these defeats, however, occur in the context of the broader British victories over Napoleon, which rank as perhaps the British military’s most significant successes outside of the Seven Years’ War/French and Indian War 1754-1763, which establishes British colonial supremacy in North American and India.  It was also during this period that the British essentially took control of India and defeated their indigenous opponents, while also subduing the peripheral kingdoms of Nepal and Sikkim.  Thus two Hanoverian kings—George II (French and Indian War) and George III—rule Britain during what is effectively the country’s military apex.

-          The Victorians suffer perhaps the most disastrous British defeat of the 19th century when a UK-led army of 17,000 is almost utterly wiped out in the First Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-1842, by Russian-supplied and trained, mostly Ghazali and Pashtun Afghan fighters.  British ambitions for control in Central Asia collapse almost totally after this defeat, and the region falls within Russia’s sphere of control, with the badlands remaining essentially independent of colonial rule.  An unmitigated military fiasco which is, in fact, the worst defeat ever suffered by a colonial power against an indigenous army.  It not only provided an edge to Russia in the Great Game for control of the old Silk Road routes; it effectively locked the Brits out of a resource-rich region which they had coveted since the establishment of the East India Company in South Asia.  The First Anglo-Afghan War was also almost contemporaneous with the First Opium War against China, and British defeat in Central Asia forestalls any British attempts to push their advantage further against the tottering Manchu Dynasty in the western frontier; Britain soon focuses its attention elsewhere.  The myth of British military invincibility during Queen Victoria’s reign is permanently shattered.

-          First Boer War, 1880-81.  Another decisive British defeat during the Victorian period, at the hands of the tenacious Boer farmer-warriors in South Africa; the Transvaal gains independence.  Although the British eventually subdue the Boers in the Second War (concluding in 1902), the Boer victory in the First War, combined with heavy British losses in the Second, enable the Boers to win self-rule and relative autonomy within South Africa.

-          British expulsion from Palestine and Israel, 1948, following guerrilla attacks by Stern Gang and Irgun Zvai Leumi fighters.  Of all the sites of British decolonization, Palestine is their most painful outside of Aden, with the brutal yet effective tactics of the Stern Gang hitting both the British troops and civil administration extremely hard.  The Irgun and Stern Gang are especially successful at targeting and killing or wounding the British officers garrisoned in Palestine; indeed, the percentage of senior British officers killed or wounded in Palestine, as a percentage of their total casualties, is the highest of any British war in the past 300 years.

-          British defeat and expulsion from Egypt and the Suez region, 1956, following resistance by Nasser’s forces and economic pressure by the US and USSR.

-          British defeat and expulsion from southern Arabia (Yemen) during the Aden Emergency in the 1960s.  British permanently expelled as colonial rulers in the Middle East.

 

Note that these post-WWII defeats are in no way an indictment of the performance of the British officers and foot soldiers in the field.  In fact, of all the colonial forces in the aftermath of World War II, the British probably acquitted themselves with more professionalism and consistent valor than any other.  However, the British were so badly damaged both militarily and economically from the World Wars—and the balance of power had shifted so much to the US and USSR by then—that the British were unable to overcome their adversaries.

 

Second-Tier British Defeats, 1500-present

 

-          1594-1603:  Multiple defeats of Elizabethan English forces against Irish soldiers in Nine Years’ War led by Hugh O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell, including at the Battle of the Yellow Ford (1598), worst defeat suffered by English on Irish soil.  Although O’Neill defeated at Kinsale (1601) he continues guerrilla warfare until making peace with King James I in 1603.  When he flees Ireland for France in 1607, “The Flight of the Earls,” the English are able to assume direct control.  However, Irish resistance in the Nine Years’ War devastates Ireland and creates a permanently restive Gaelic population that inhibits English Protestant settlement and proves a long-term thorn in the English side.

-          1878-1880:  Second Anglo-Afghan War.  British make some advances and are able to obtain relatively favorable terms at Treaty of Gandamak in 1879, which helps to set Afghan boundaries and gives Britain some control over Afghan foreign affairs, against Russia.  However Afghan resistance again proves fierce and continues after the Treaty; British defeat at Battle of Maiwand again causes deep humiliation for proud Victorians.  British overwhelmed both by Afghan flank attacks and artillery volleys, supplied by Russian allies to Afghan proxies.  Treaty rejectionists persist in fight against British, who withdraw in 1880 again with no territorial gains in Afghanistan.

-          “Mad Mullah” wars, Somaliland, 1901-1921.  British repeatedly defeated by Somali warlord, Muhammad Abdille Hasan.  RAF bombings force Hasan to flee into Ethiopia by 1921, but Somalia remains unruly, divided, weak British administration.

-          World War I:  1914-1918.  A special case.  The British generally look upon WWI as the most disastrous episode in their military history.  Even though American participation in 1917 eventually helps to shift the war in favor of the Allies, British losses in the war are so severe and disastrous that the British permanently see their hold on their colonies weakened, and suddenly become the world’s worst debtor when they had been the biggest creditor.  British defeats at the Somme, Passchendaele, Loos, Kut, and Galllipoli—along with the Zeppelin bombings of Britain—induce shock throughout the country and lead to the deaths of nearly 1,000,000 British, with more than twice that number wounded, often grievously.  Entire classes at Oxbridge, various British towns and cities almost wiped out.  WWI is particularly bitter for British since they had the option of sitting out the war, or participating in a more limited naval/colonial context (German war plans in Europe explicitly sought not to engage the British).  Thus as a peripheral participant, Britain lost heavily.  A classic example of why, in analyzing the outcomes of military conflicts, the most valuable assessment is measuring a country’s relative political/economic status after as opposed to before.  Thus Britain and especially France suffered a major defeat, as WWI was essentially the catalyst that led to the ruin (premature in the eyes of many historians, in contrast to other empires) of both the British and French imperial domains.

-          Irish rebellion, 1916-1921.  Military and political; British withdraw and grant Home Rule, though northern Ireland remains British territory (cause for terrorism in 1930s and later in century).

-          1919:  Third Anglo-Afghan War.  British had again begun to encroach in Afghanistan during WWI during period of apprehension about access to trade routes and material goods in South Asia.  Amanullah in Afghanistan resented British interference in Afghan foreign affairs and declared independence, assaulting British positions in India.  British alliance with Pashtuns checks Amanullah’s advance but Amanullah is still able to press his offensive.  Bloodied from WWI and suffering twice as many losses as the Afghans, the British assent to negotiations with Amanullah and withdraw completely from Afghan foreign affairs, retreat from Afghan border after 1921.  Afghanistan, along with Argentina and Egypt, remains Britain’s most glaring colonial failure.

-          1920s:  British promise independence to Arabs under Ottoman Turkish rule (Lawrence of Arabia) but renege after WWI and try to establish direct control over Mesopotamia (Iraq, constituted by Sir Percy Cox).  Iraqis, furious, rebel—Shiite and Kurdish insurgencies cause thousands of British casualties, and despite RAF terror bombing of Iraqi villages the Kurds, in particular, cannot be subdued, and the British withdraw without being able to impose direct rule.  King Feisal, a Sunni Arab Hashemite, effectively gains control and is acceptable enough to the British that they do not attempt to directly retake Baghdad.  There is a British occupation during WWII that is resisted by the local population and which again leads to a quick withdrawal.  Even British indirect rule over Baghdad is removed when the monarchy is overthrown in a bloody coup in 1958.  British Iraq resembles Vietnam for the USA or France for Algeria—a combination of political blunders, broken promises, reprehensible atrocities (the terror bombing campaigns that have sullied the names of Arthur “Bomber” Harris as well as Winston Churchill, who was colonial administrator in Iraq), and military defeat that have permanently besmirched the reputation of the nation.

-          WWII:  See WWI above.  Although US/Russian intervention eventually helps to bail out the Allies, British devastation in WWII is horrific, destroys British colonial power.  Unlike the First World War, the British probably do not have an option to sit this one out; although such a claim has been advanced by some (and Hitler may indeed have had no plans to invade Britain, until Britain’s entry into the war in 1939), Hitler’s invasion of the Continent poses a threat akin to Napoleon’s in the early 1800s, with even greater brutality in the cities.  This time, however, the British suffer the horrific effects of the Blitz which devastate towns, countryside, and industry in London, Coventry, and other cities.  Although immediate Nazi amphibious attack is staved off with Battle of Britain, Luftwaffe aerial bombing continues relentlessly and only subsides when Hitler focuses attention on main target of Soviet Union.  Aerial bombings flare again later, along with ship battery attacks on British cities and V-2/V-1 terror rockets which devastate much of London.  Combined with tremendous destruction of British shipping by U-boats and Nazi battleships and cruisers, Britain is devastated to degree not seen since Norman Conquest.  In Pacific, British suffer unmitigated disaster when Japanese defeat British air, sea, and land forces and conquer Singapore in 1942, subsequently expelling British from Malaya and Burma.  Singapore declared by Churchill as “worst British military disaster.”  Singapore akin to Fall of France, devastates British Empire in Pacific and Indian Oceans.  Physical devastation in Britain (postwar gas lines, homes in rubble, food rations) and bankruptcy—combined with harsh American terms for Lend-Lease—deprive Britain as well as France of means to retain overseas holdings.  Though Britain does make some attempts to maintain control of overseas colonies, they are feeble and frequently defeated (Palestine, Egypt, Aden).  As with WWI, analysis of before-and-after economic/political status show that Britain—and Europe in general—severely damaged and ruined by the war.

 

Third-Tier British Defeats/Stalemates, 1500-present

 

-          War of the Grand Alliance/War of the League of Augsburg:  1688-97.  A fairly complex and confusing affair.  Louis XIV of France wished to expand power at expense of Dutch and Holy Roman Empire; English and Dutch crowns then aligned (William of Orange, in Netherlands, was King William III of England as well).  Early French naval victories later reversed by English; French victories on land against English, Dutch, Holy Roman Imperial armies.  War eventually stalemated; English Continental ambitions against Louis XIV frustrated as he expands kingdom at the expense of English and their allies, but Louis continues series of very costly wars for French Empire.

-          War of the Austrian Succession:  Yet another immensely confusing affair, 1740-48, waged in part as a result of Louis XIV’s prior Continental and colonial ambitions which were then furthered by his successor, Louis XV.  King Louis allied with Frederick the Great of Prussia (whom the French would oppose in the Seven Years’ War), Bavaria, Spain, Saxony, and Savoy in Italy, and they were together opposed by an alliance of Austria, Britain, and Hanover, with Savoy eventually defecting.  Basically one long drawn-out stalemate with Louis making some nominal gains (Frederick in Prussia probably emerging as the biggest winner), and Maria Theresa in Austria securing her leadership of Austria and showing that the Hapsburg domains could be defended.

-          War of 1812 (American War), 1812-1815: US declared war on Britain in the wake of forcible British impressments of American sailors for service in British fleet, British trade blockades, claims of British assistance of native Americans.  Though often portrayed as a US victory in American textbooks, it was more of a stalemate between the British and Americans; the British were clearly predominant on land, while the US held the edge at sea, in the freshwater battles in the Great Lakes.  US succeeded in razing York (Toronto), capital of British North America in present-day Canada, while British managed to burn down much of Washington, D.C. (the last time the US was successfully invaded, before September 11, 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda).  However American victory at Lake Erie and Plattsburg led to respect and acceptable terms with Treaty of Ghent.  Battle of New Orleans (Andrew Jackson vs. Edward Pakenham of the British) was humiliating British defeat; occurred after treaty but perhaps ensured no reneging on terms.

 

Note that the British also suffered defeats in Indonesia and Vietnam in the immediate aftermath of WWII.  I’ve hesitated to include these here because in both of these cases, the British were acting in more of a supportive role for their colonial peers (the Dutch in Indonesia, the French in Vietnam), and thus the failure in each case was more of a long-term Dutch and French debacle, respectively; yet the British objectives were not fulfilled, in any case.  How about the rap sheet for France?

 

France

 

First-Tier French Defeats, 1500-present

 

-          Italian Wars, much of the early 1500s:  These had started in the late 1400s, with the French pitted basically against the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire’s German and Italian forces (often mercenaries), Papal armies, and Hapsburg Spaniards by the 1500s.  While there were some French successes, these wars generally constituted a series of humiliating disasters for the French.  The Battle of Pavia in 1525 was a major French debacle and, followed by French failure in Naples, led to the unfavorable Treaty of Cambrai in 1529, which compelled the French to cede gains in Italy.  Two more wars, in 1542-44 and 1556-7, again led to French defeat.  Spain would be Europe’s dominant power as a result, until the French decisively defeated the Spanish in several battles (including the Battle of Rocroi, 1643) during the Thirty Years’ War.

-          Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War in North America, 1754-1763):  Probably France’s worst and most consequential military defeat in the past 500 years.  The French were allied with Austria, Saxony, Bavaria, and Russia against Prussia and Great Britain.  Note that it was in this war that George Washington, of the British colonial forces, first distinguished himself; along with Edward Braddock, he had led an assault on Fort Duquesne (modern Pennsylvania) and had suffered a French ambush which he only narrowly survived.  The British won a series of naval victories that broke the French maritime forces in both the Caribbean and India, and Robert Clive began the British Empire in India in 1757.  Eventually the French were decisively defeated by the British and the American colonists in the Battle of Quebec on the Plains of Abraham of 1759, while on the Continent Frederick the Great of Prussia overcame valiant efforts by French forces to block Frederick’s always clever offensives.  It was this war that gave much of North America to the British, and also compelled the French to forsake their colonies in the Caribbean and India (many of which they would regain after participation in the American Revolutionary War).  As the British seized Florida from Spain, the French were compelled to cede Louisiana, west of the Mississippi River, to Spain as compensation.  (The French later regained Louisiana in 1803 but immediately sold it to the USA.)  An unmitigated disaster for the French, and it was from this point that the British Empire (as we generally recognize it) began; the vast domains of the Victorian period were largely acquired by the Hanoverians in the previous century.  Notice, however, that outside of the Italian Wars, this was perhaps the only “first-tier French defeat” in a 250-year span; indeed, France had a superior military record to England/Britain up to the mid-1700s, when French military power began to wane until briefly revived during the Napoleonic period. 

-          1802:  Napoleon’s forces suffer humiliating defeat at the hands of freed black slaves in Haiti, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.  Defeat here helps to encourage Napoleon to relinquish the Louisiana Territory in a fire sale to the USA, an act of momentous historical significance.

-          Napoleonic Wars, 1803-1815.  Napoleon conquered much of Continental Europe with his brilliant generals and remarkable personal leadership on the battlefield, only to cough it all up upon his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, for which Alexander I had deftly prepared (with the help of the Russian winter).  After this fiasco, Napoleon suffered a further defeat at the hands of British and Prussian forces at Leipzig (Battle of Nations) in 1813.  After escape from Elba, Napoleon was again defeated at Waterloo, modern Belgium, by Wellington and von Blücher in 1815, and confined to St. Helena in the South Atlantic.  Napoleon overplayed his hand by inviting the fierce resistance of the Prussians and Russians.  Britain, as in many cases before, was protected by the English Channel; Napoleon’s appetite was focused on the Continent, and he had little interest in mounting a naval expedition specifically targeted against Britain.  This was perhaps in error, since it gave Wellington a free hand to help lead Spanish guerrillas in the Peninsular Campaign.  Also, Horatio, Lord Nelson caused continual misery for Napoleon at sea.  Napoleon had stalemated Britain but he blundered into Russia, and Czar Alexander I’s cleverness helped give the Prussian army the necessary breathing space to smash Napoleon on the Continent until Waterloo.  Napoleon also sold the Louisiana Territory to the USA in 1803 for money, an act now seen by most historians to be a foolish and short-sighted blunder on his part that effectively foreclosed French colonial ambitions in much of North America (though the French did retain Quebec and some lands in eastern Canada).  A very important historical figure whose actions revolutionized the legal and political systems of Europe and the Americas, brought about many liberal reforms, encouraged science (if indirectly), increased French cultural and linguistic prestige, and—perhaps most inadvertently—encouraged the nationalist movements that would lead to German and Italian unification.  Yet Napoleon ultimately led his country into a humiliating defeat, and he cost France its most valuable North American territory with the sale of Louisiana.  Interestingly, as noted above, the British had their own share of defeats in the Napoleonic Wars—though not against the French.  The British were vanquished by the Argentinians and Egyptians in 1806-7, who managed to repel or throw off all their colonial masters.

-          Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71:  Absolute humiliation for the French at the hands of Otto von Bismarck of Prussia, who had proven himself virtually invincible and invariably crafty in his military and diplomatic strategies. 

-          Dienbienphu, Vietnam, 1954:  Next to British defeat in the Anglo-Afghan War in 1842, and Italian defeat at the Battle of Adowa in Ethiopia, 1896, this was the worst debacle suffered by a western colonial power against indigenous forces.

-          Suez, 1956—see above.  The French joined the British in the bungled invasion of Egypt in 1956, and suffered similar damaging consequences.

-          Algeria, 1960s:  Little introduction needed.  The French had failed to appreciate the nationalist sentiments of the Berber and Arab Algerians, and wound up mired in an expensive, humiliating campaign against Algerian guerrillas that brought about international opprobrium.

 

Second-Tier French Defeats, 1500-Present

 

-          Dutch War 1672-78.  (Third Anglo-Dutch War, see above, occurred within this context—England was allied with France against the Netherlands.)  French expansion into the Spanish Netherlands (basically parts of present-day northern France and Belgium) had earlier been checked, in the War of Devolution (see below), by a Protestant Dutch-Spanish-English alliance despite French successes.  Louis XIV in France swore to overrun and destroy the Dutch Republic, and while he achieved some successes against the Dutch, he was thwarted in his land invasion of the Low Countries when the Dutch flooded the dikes and blocked the advance of the French army.  The Dutch also repeatedly defeated the French (often allied with English ships) in a series of naval engagements, and even took some French colonies in the West Indies.  While the French did acquire the Franche-Comté region on the Continent, I’ve labeled this a second-tier (rather than third-tier) French defeat since Louis effectively failed in his ambitions to crush the Dutch republic and seize its overseas possessions.  However, he did succeed in effectively bankrupting the Netherlands.

-          War of the Spanish Succession, 1701-1714.  Technically a British defeat since France essentially saw its candidate take control of the Spanish throne.  More of a stalemate that, in real terms, led to British gains overall, with remarkable British and allied victories against the French (e.g. Blenheim, 1704, with John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, triumphing in splendid fashion over French forces) and more financial woes for French than British.  Also, this war led to the displacement of French Acadians (present-day Nova Scotia) to Louisiana—ancestors of the Cajuns.  Another of several examples of Louis XIV’s military profligacy in France, though his impact is high and he inspires awe throughout much of Europe after this war.  This is ironically the period of greatest French cultural and linguistic influx into other nations and languages of Europe, yet I’ve included this as a second-tier French defeat (and British victory) since the British, overall, emerged the better of the two combatants.

-          WWI and WWII—see above, for the British section.  France was on the side of the Allies in these two wars, yet French losses in WWI were so severe—and the humiliation of the Fall of France in 1940 so great—that the country was unable to overcome the setbacks, and lost its overseas empire after WWII, alongside the British, who also endured the loss of their overseas colonies.  Unlike the British, the French really had no choice but to fight in both wars, targeted as they were by Germany; in any case, they emerged much worse off after the World Wars than before them. 

 

Third-Tier French Defeats/Stalemates, 1500-Present

 

Essentially the War of the League of Augsburg and the War of the Austrian Succession, as discussed above.  These did yield French gains under Louis XIV, but were costly and inflamed the rest of Europe enough to unify against further French encroachment.  Rather wasteful to French ambitions overall.

 

Summary and Conclusion

 

Many readers may compare the relative size of the British and French empires in the 1800s and assume that British military superiority was responsible for the disparity in geographical breadth and population of the two imperial realms.  While the British undoubtedly controlled more of the world in the year 1850 (if indirectly, with the help of local proxies) than their French counterparts, the French imperial domains taken together were not too much smaller than the British, and also boasted a truly global sweep.  Moreover, there were many factors responsible for Britain’s relatively greater imperial reach, most of which were not related to military performance.  To the extent that the British Empire of the 1800s was larger than that of the French, this did in part ensue from British victory in the Seven Years’ War in 1763, but was more attributable to French failure to adequately colonize and financially support their North American colonies, and to Napoleon’s sale of the vast Louisiana Territory to the USA in 1803.  (Almost 90% of the territory of the USA, remember, was never within the British Empire; the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican War gave the US territories at the expense of France and Mexico, after we had already become independent from Britain.)  The British settled their colonies more heavily than the French, often with religious dissenters and even debtors, as Americans are well aware from their own history texts.  Furthermore, they were better able to colonize and extend trade networks in distant lands due to their status as an island nation, which freed them from the threat of Continental land invasion—something the French did not have.

In the final analysis, then, the stereotypes of French military fecklessness (at least in comparison to Britain, France’s historical archrival) simply do not hold water.  The French have indeed hit a rough patch over the last century in particular, yet they can also boast remarkable instances of fighting prowess, such as their tenacious stands in WWI and the naval battles of the American Revolutionary War, and rousing victories, such as their defeat of a multiple combined invasion force in the 1790s.  The British, meanwhile, had their own series of severe first-tier defeats in the same period, to a similar extent as those endured by the French—this in spite of Britain’s geographical protection by the English Channel, which France does not enjoy.  A closer look suggests one underappreciated reason for this:  The British suffered an enormous number of defeats in their colonial campaigns, something that the French did not face until Dienbienphu in 1954.  This is in part because the British Empire was larger than the French and the British simply made more attempts to extend their domains, some of which were inevitably unsuccessful; yet the sheer number of British defeats at the hands of colonial adversaries puts the lie to the assumption that British colonial armies (and Western imperial forces in general) were inevitably superior to native resistance forces. 

Although they were generally successful in the Indian Subcontinent, the British were vexed in many other places.  From the 1800s onward, the British were defeated by the Argentinians (twice), the Egyptians (twice), the Afghans (three times, including the catastrophic defeat of 1842), the Boers, the Iraqis and the Irish (both in the 1920s), the Israelis, and Yemeni Arab insurgents (in the 1960s).  In addition to defeats against European opponents with modernized armies, therefore, the British had a notorious level of difficulty against indigenous fighters in their colonies or would-be colonies.  To be fair, they often faced surprisingly tough enemies, and against the Afghans and Yemenis in particular, the French would have likely suffered severe humiliation of their own.  Yet the take-home message here is the extent to which the British suffered aggravating defeats in the colonies, which the French (because of the 20th century) are infamous for. 

In conclusion, then, there is no evidence that the French are uniquely pusillanimous or feeble in their military tradition, since a side-by-side comparison with the British—the most common adversaries of the French—reveals a similar record of defeats for them.  Both countries had consequential victories and both suffered humiliating defeats over the past 500 years, with the British in particular enduring notorious disasters in their colonies.  The Francophobic obsession in the USA, which baits the French and taunts them for cowardice and military fecklessness, has no basis in the historical record.

 

n      Wes Ulm

 

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