The Smell of Victory

“Did you mean “French military defeats”?

On Bastille Day, every 14 July, tanks thunder down the Champs-Elysées while jet fighters roar in formation overhead. But as the French commemorate their spectacular military history, have they forgotten some equally spectacular fiascos?

Military Disasters (Land)

Everyone knows of France’s less glorious military moments, from Waterloo and to, well, really the entire Second World War. Here are a few neglected classics.

Crécy (1346): Philip VI hurls 24,000 knights at an invading 10,000-strong English army who open up with armour-piercing arrows. The French lose eleven princes, 1,200 knights and 8,000 troops. The English lose 300 men. Ninety years later, the English leave France.

Pavia (1525): Francis I, invading Naples, doesn’t detect a 20,000-Habsburg army less than one mile from his camp. Boldly, he leads a cavalry charge, giving his infantry time to face the enemy. The infantry prefers to withdraw. The King is captured by the laughing Imperials who lose 1000 men to 8000 French. Naples stays Italian.

Blenheim (1704): As Louis XIV advances on Vienna, his 56,000 troops are surprised by the British and Austrians who march unnoticed halfway across Europe. 30 French horse squadrons drown in the Danube, 200 standards, 50 guns and all the French baggage are lost along with 21,000 dead. The Sun King stays out of Germany.

Leipzig (1813): Despite the Retreat from Moscow, Napoleon’s army is intact and threatening. His tactics have been learned by his enemies who mass 300,000 Austrians and Prussians to trap him outside Leipzig, inflicting 50% casualties on his 155,000-strong army. Desperate for a way out, he orders Poniatowksi’s Polish corps to cover the withdrawal. Every last Pole is slaughtered. Napoleon goes back to France and his abdication.

The Aisne (April 1917): Robert Nivelle, new French commander, convinces Paris he’ll win the war in three weeks. His new plan, like all the old plans, involves an artillery barrage to announce the fact his soldiers are walking slowly towards the machine gun-bristling German  trenches. After two weeks of slaughter, his surviving troops refuse to fight on. 23,000 mutineers are later convicted. Nivelle is fired and the French army is unable to take the offensive again for the rest of the war.  “The official figure of 96,000 [casualties] is one of the most suspect in military history, especially as the Germans, who won, admitted a loss of 163,000” – John Laffin, Brassey’s Battles (1986).

Military Disasters (Sea)

France’s military record on land is equalled only by its record at sea, enough to submerge any another nation. The battle of Trafalgar is well-known but the French navy boasts many more watery disasters on its score card.

Morbihan Gulf (56 BC): The first ever naval battle in the Atlantic. The Veneti tribe of Brittany bases its strength in its large fleet of 200 vessels. Julius Caesar builds his own ships in the Loire and sails into battle. Using sickles attached to long poles to disable the Veneti’s rigging, the Romans systematically burn every ship and throw the crews overboard.

Sluys (1340): Off the coast of Holland, the fleet of English King Edward III attacks 200 French ships at anchor. A leading ship-to-ship action is between a barge containing the ladies-in-waiting of Edward’s queen and a French warship which the English overwhelm with the loss of one lady-in-waiting. Ultimately, the entire French fleet is destroyed and 25,000 men drowned.

La Hogue (1692): Admiral de Tourville’s 44 ships of the line carrying an army to invade Ireland meets a combined English-Dutch squadron. In a stunning reversal of form, the French attack and actually sink one English and one Dutch ship. Next day, while celebrating in the Bay of La Hogue, sixteen of their warships and the invasion vessels are sent to the bottom by the allied squadron which had come back for more.

Battle of the Saints (1782): A French fleet of 183 ships commanded by Comte de Grasse proceeds towards British-held Jamaica to invade it. Sighting a British force of 37 warships under Admiral Rodney, three French warships immediately collide. The British break the French line, those ships not sunk flee and De Grasse surrenders his flag ship Ville de Paris. “All considered, rather a quotidian little victory, and one hardly worth the noting, being once more against the French.” Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood 1793.

Mers-El-Kébir (1940): Unique in that the French lost their fleet while not actually at war. After France’s surrender, the British fear its powerful sea force at Mers-el-Kebir will fall into Nazi hands. On 3 July, Admiral Sommerville’s Force H begins battleship and aircraft operations against the French. The battleship Bretagne is sunk, the Dunkerque and the Mogador badly damaged, and the Provence runs aground. Only the Strasbourg escapes to Toulon. Winston Churchill notes wryly that the French finally fought "with all their vigour for the first time since the war broke out". Eleven other ships, including two battleships, in Alexandria prefer to allow their ships to be immobilised peacefully by the British.


The Losing Streak; Complete Military History of France – An American View

Gallic War (58-52 BC)

Lost. In a war whose ending foreshadows the next 2,000 years of French history, France is conquered by, of all things, an Italian.

Norse Invasions (841-911) 

After having their way with the French for 70 years, the Normans are bribed by a French King named Charles the Simple (really!) who gives them Normandy.

The Hundred Years War (1337-1452)

Mostly lost, saved at last by a female schizophrenic who inadvertently creates The First Rule of French Warfare: "France's armies are victorious only when not led by a Frenchman.”

Italian War (1494-1559)

Lost. France becomes the first and only country to ever lose two wars when fighting Italians.

Wars of Religion (1562-98)

France goes 0-5-4 against the Huguenots.

The Thirty Years War (1618-48)

France is technically not a participant, but manages to get invaded anyway. Claims a tie on the basis that the other participants started ignoring her.

War of Augsburg League/King William's War/French and Indian War (1688-97)

Lost, but claimed as a tie. Three ties in a row induces deluded Frogophiles the world over to label the period as the height of French military power.

War of Spanish Succession (1701-14) Lost. The War also gave the French their first taste of a Marlborough, which they have loved ever since.

War of the American Revolution (1775-83) In a move that will become quite familiar to future Americans, France claims a win even though the English colonists saw far more action. This is later known as "de Gaulle Syndrome", and leads to the Second Rule of French Warfare; "France only wins when America does most of the fighting".

The French Revolution (1787-1879) Won, primarily due the fact that the opponent was also French.

The Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) Lost. Temporary victories (remember the First Rule!) due to leadership of a Corsican, that ended up being no match for a British footwear designer at Waterloo.

The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1) Lost.

World War I (1914-18) Tied and on the way to losing, France is saved by the United States. Thousands of French women find out what it's like to not only sleep with a winner, but one who doesn't call her "Fraulein”.

World War II (1939-45) Lost. Conquered French liberated by the United States and Britain just as they finish learning the Horst Wessel Song.

War in Indochina (1948-54) 

Lost. French forces plead sickness; take to bed with the Dien Bien Flu

Algerian Rebellion (1954-62) 

Lost. Loss marks the first defeat of a western army by a non-Turkic Muslim force since the Crusades.

War on Terrorism (2002-?) 

French attempts to surrender to German ambassador fail after he takes refuge in a McDonalds.

- from satirical US website


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