Pyrrhic Victory – A Book Review

Author: Robert A. Doughty

In Pyrrhic Victory, General Robert A. Doughty, formerly an instructor of military history at West Point for 20 years, writes an excellent, detailed history of the French Army’s strategies and operations during The Great War from 1914 to 1918. He meticulously covers every single major engagement on the Western Front through these years and provides what some have called the definitive, analytical study on the subject.

That being said, this is not a book for the casual reader of military history. In that it deals specifically with the analysis of combat operations during World War I, the focus of the book is narrowly focused on this area of study alone.

For such a study, Doughty does provide some very illuminating areas in his research but only a few times does his prose generate a sense of excitement over the subject matter. As a former West Point history instructor, one gets the feeling that his book was designed as a text for The Point as much as it was for commercial distribution. As a result, his writing at times becomes pedantic and dry at points. However, this should not lessen anyone’s interest in reading this text if combat operations is what you are interested in studying. No doubt, despite the failings of the prose at times, this book will definitely provide the reader with an in-depth look at how the French Army performed in these years.

The problem with the way the book is written is its inherent lack of color. Doughty appears to have written such a text as clinically as possible with little background information about the major actors on the battlefield in this tragic event. His intent is to only cover strategy and operations.

However, The French Army did not fight in a vacuum. Many complex factors provided the reasons why the French were on the battlefield in the first place; most importantly their loss in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, a conflict the French initiated, though some historians are of the opinion that Otto von Bismark, then chancellor of Prussia, provoked. France’s loss in the conflict forced them to concede Alsace and Lorraine to the Prussian Army, which incensed French politicians and the public at large right through 1918. And though Germany would later attempt to formulate its own security through several alliances with surrounding nations, France sought to literally surround Germany with an alliance with Russia, making Germany far more concerned about her security than she would have been had such an alliance not been developed.

Doughty does describe the various politicians in power during the war years but again fails to provide enough color about them to give the reader an indication as to why they thought the way they did.

From the point of view towards the military leaders it is natural that the author would provide the most information about the first French commanding General, Joseph Joffre, who was in charge of French forces from 1914 through the early part of 1917. For whatever reason, Doughty seemingly implies from his writing style that he exonerates Joffre’s gross incompetence as a tactician by the way his descriptions of the man are so terribly impartial.

First and foremost, Joseph Joffre was a very capable military engineer since that is what he was originally trained as, as well as served as in the French Army. As a military administrator he had many talents that should have been used to greater advantage than the position he was in allowed him to do. Even as a strategic thinker, Joffre demonstrated some capability. However, his tactical thinking was entirely enmeshed with the prevalent French belief in elan, the philosophy that French forces should always be on the offensive and not bother with critical maneuver or defensive planning.

Robert Doughty makes this clear in his writing but provides no indication of his own thoughts on the man’s generalship considering that the massive losses the French Army experienced up through the end of his term, were entirely his fault in similar style to the waste of lives that southern General Robert E. Lee engaged in with his frontal assaults. The result is a confused feeling one contends with when reading about this general’s tactical incompetence while wondering if the author feels the same way or he is just simply providing the facts.

On the other hand, for Ferdinand Jean Marie Foch who appears to be a disciple of Joffre’s and who would become the commander of all French forces in mid to late 1917, the author provides early, glowing credit for this man’s bringing the war to a victorious close in November 1918. However, Foch hardly deserves this credit.

Instead, the true hero of the French Army was Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Joseph Pétain. Of all the senior commanders of the French Forces, Joseph Petain was not only the most cautious towards protecting the lives of his men but the most innovative and successful on the development of French operation tactics on the battlefield. As a result, Petain had a masterful understanding of the tactical situations he was faced with and planned all of his operations accordingly.

Unlike Foch, Petain was also given command of the French Army just as it entered into a series of severe mutinies, whose underlying factors began in 1916 and came to a head in early 1917 after the Nivelle Offensive, which was one of the biggest disasters for the French Army during the entire war.

As other historians have noted, the French Army by the end of 1915 was done. It had been summarily defeated by German Forces at this time and would defeat the French Army summarily again after continued French attempts to force German forces out of France by the winter of 1917\1918. In 1916, Joffre, with some help from Foch would throw exhausted French forces up against the more adept and modern German Army to the point that by the time of the Nivelle Offensive, French troops were ready for peace at any cost and wanted it no matter how they got it.

It was Petain who quelled the mutinies and then reinvigorated the French Army as well as reformed it with quite a number of innovations during 1917 when for all intents and purposes there was little left of the French troops to give. He did such a masterful job of it that by early 1918 the French were able to provide one last push to bring the war to a close by halting an early German offensive in the spring and then taking the initiative and finally defeating the German Army in October\November 1918.

Oddly enough, the tenor of Doughty’s writing on this great French general never seems to provide him with the credit due him.

The only thing one can hold against Petain is his allowance that several of the French mutineers were executed to serve as an example to the rest of the troops. This was grossly inexcusable considering that all of the mutineers had very legitimate grievances in that they were provided with terrible conditions to fight under with no consideration for leave, rest, requisite food and rations, decent medical care, and the like. On top of that, by early 1917 they had spent two years in the trenches watching their friends and colleagues get blown to smithereens with no apparent reason in sight.

Imprisonment yes. But execution, why? Unless a French soldier had committed murder of another soldier or officer, execution was taking things too far given the circumstances. However, Doughty provides no background as to why such executions took place.

Though the quality of Rober Doughty’s writing is consistent throughout the book, the section that describes the Nivelle Offensive seems as if it was given short-shrift for such an important battle. Robert Nivelle, the man who became the commander of French forces for a very short time after Joffre was relieved was even more incompetent than Joffre tactically and created a disaster for the French in his offensive in early 1917. Yet, Doughty does not seem to spend much time on this important battle, though it provided the spark that generated the severe mutinies that were to come.

Other historians have seen Nivelle as a somewhat complex character, with major flaws to be sure. However, Doughty seemingly brushes this general aside to simply move onto the next phases of his book.

Dought’s treatise also provides good overviews of both the British and American forces that fought. alongside the French. However, only with America’s general John Pershing does he indicate any true dislike for the methods of his generalship, which are richly deserved. In fact, Pershing appears to be such an incompetent at times that one is left to wonder who the French had more serious problems with, the Germans or the American command structure. Douglas Haig, the commander of British forces during the conflict whose tactical capabilities are spotty at best but not as seriously impaired as Pershing’s, does get some respect from Doughty but only to the limited extent that he deserves.

In the end, the reader will have to take note of the fact that Pyrrhic Victory, provides a very limited but excellent view of the French experience in World War I. His only mistake that I could find was his interpretation of Premier Georges Benjamin Clemenceau’s failure to foster a completely vindictive peace on the German nation. This is not true and one wonders why Robert Doughty would make such a historical error. Clemenceau was in fact spearheaded the drastic allied peace with Germany due to his incessant hatred of the German people and was for his time a definitive war monger. Though others at the Paris Peace Conference certainly played their destructive parts, Clemenceau should be given special credit for his meanness, which credited him with the dismantling of the entire German nation.

To be sure, Robert Doughty provides an in-depth, detailed study of how the French Army performed in World War I. There is no doubt that such a book should be in every serious military historian’s library who studies World War I as a primary area of interest. However, Doughty does not provide enough background information for the major French personalities or even the issues confronting German forces that provided the French with their victory far more so than French talent on the battlefield.

In the end, France and her allies did not win the conflict, Germany lost it. And militarily speaking there is a huge difference…


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