The Failure of the French Plan XVII

E4 of Collected Articles


Scottish soldiers in retreat across the Marne, La Ferte sous Jouarre, 10 September 1914 (in Gilbert, 1994)

An evaluation of the doctrines of ‘elan vital’ and the offensive ‘a outrance’, and of Plan XVII

St. Cyr and the Class of 1914

Before World War II, a memorial tablet was placed in the chapel of St. Cyr, the famous French military academy. It simply stated “The Class of 1914″. During the last five months of that year, all but two of that year had gone to their deaths stemming the German invasion.

Their sacrifice, together with the other 995,000 French casualties, prevented a repeat of the events of 44 years before – when the Prussian Army broke the French at Sedan and besieged Paris. The Germans, confident of routing the French once again, found themselves defeated beyond the River Marne and were forced to retreat. Though they threatened Verdun and Rheims and held the heights of the Chemin des Dames they took very little further French territory until 1918.

Much can be told of the heroism of the French in stemming the German tide in 1914, but the essential question is “was such heroism, and the sacrifice which resulted, the outcome of the failure of implementing France’s Plan XVII.” This paper seeks to analyse and evaluate the evidence.

‘Elan vital’ and offensive ‘a outrance'; what are they?

It is essential to limit confusion between the French tactics of 1914 and those of the other combatants during the rest of the Great War.

French tactics were based on two doctrines:
elan vital – the fighting spirit of the French soldier, fired by patriotic idealism, seen
as superior to that of any other soldier;
offensive a outrance – that in order to get close to the enemy and use the bayonet,
the audacious French soldier moved forward at a rush.

These doctrines were expected to make up for the deficiencies in the number and training of troops and in heavy artillery. Surprisingly the latter doctrine was drawn from the writings of a Prussian, Carl von Clausewitz.

French Battle Tactics during the Nineteenth Century

The France of 1914 still drew inspiration from the events of 120 years before. In driving away its enemies after the Revolution and during the Napoleonic campaigns, the practice of the offensive had brought great victories. Battles such as Austerlitz and Jena had made the Emperor Napoleon the master of Europe, but overlooked was the attrition of campaigns in Russia and in Spain, in addition to other battles far less decisive. These had taken their toll by extracting a high casualty rate imposed by the French tactics of using massed frontal assaults (Hagerman, 1988).

After 1815, France did not engage in a major European war until 1870. The Crimea War of 1854, fought in southern Russia, was more in the form of an expeditionary campaign than the wars of the Napoleonic Age. Even with the development of increased firepower, of both cannon and rifle, tactics still consisted of lines of infantry standing shoulder to shoulder to await assaults by cavalry and infantry. The increased rate of rifle fire allowed fewer ranks to deliver the fusillades, but did not reduce the uncertainties from having to stand exposed until killed, injured or hopefully victorious.

The army was used either to quell internal strife as during the repression of the Communards, or to fight campaigns in the French colonies. Such conflicts were very different from the awesome firepower delivered in European campaigns involving Prussia, Austria and Italy. Generally France had the one-sided advantage of being able to use technologically-advanced equipment, such as artillery, rifles and the early machine gun. Against these weapons, antique muskets and scimitars were not a match.

But neither were lessons properly absorbed from the American Civil War, the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War. Large battles and sieges in these wars showed that concealed troops, making intelligent use of rapid-fire rifles, machine guns, barbed wire defences and artillery, were able to inflict horrendous casualties upon attacking forces. The British were forced to abandon their cherished red uniforms when facing Boer sharp-shooters, the Russians at Port Arthur were able to use barbed wire to slaughter the waves of Japanese warriors “on the wire”.

The decisive Prussian victory of 1870 was blamed on the superiority of Field Marshal von Moltke’s General Staff (Porch, 1981). The attempted reworking of French military values revealed a dichotomy in French attitudes to the army, the political Right welcoming its hierarchical structure, the political Left its democratic membership (Finer, 1962). In the Third Republic, a professional army was seen as a potential threat to the State itself. Therefore the army’s make up was to achieve, as far as practicable, an army strong enough to protect France’s borders and interests, but not to rule France. Hence the return to a reliance on conscription, the ‘levee en masse’, to teach large numbers the basic military skills.

The socio-economical structure of France favoured conscription. Being a mainly agricultural country, large numbers of Frenchmen were needed in farming. Taking them away for limited training gave them these skills but did not deprive the farmers of their labour for too many years. However, this situation was made worse before 1905 by the ability of the wealthier classes to either exploit their educational training to avoid conscription (or to minimise it) or to buy their way out of it.

Training to a high standard in a short time needs the enthusiasm of the officer corps. Unfortunately this was affected by their own personal conditions; pay being some 60 % that of Germany, pensions some 40 %. Coupled with the political nature of many promotions, both morale and the quality of the intake suffered. Many officers resigned, others lost interest in their troops..

But giving basic skills did not train troops to be able to use sophisticated tactics to nullify the worst effects of the increased firepower. Hence the official reliance, developed by 1913, on the leadership of officers and non-commissioned officers to get their troops close to the enemy and then rush forward to engage. These experienced soldiers were given the duty of showing ‘elan vital’ to get their troops, full of patriotic audacity, to overwhelm the enemy. This was the basis of the offensive ‘a outrance’, driven by the mystique of honour, and necessary to implement Plan XVII.

‘Elan vital’, as performed during many colonial campaigns, was the quality which was expected to compensate France for a numerically smaller army in case of war with Germany. Indeed the higher German natality rate gave the quantitative advantage of an extra 380,000 soldiers in the years before the Great War.

Renovating the French Army

After 1905, the French saw their major threat as still coming from across the French-German border. Weak economically, yet with trooping requirements in the French colonies, the French governments and their military advisers could not afford to maintain a large standing army on French soil to be certain of resisting the threat. At least conscription did prepare large bodies of soldiers, even if of dubious ability. What extra resources were available could be used to upgrade the equipment such as the development of the brilliant artillery field pieces, the 75mm guns. Unfortunately, heavy artillery was not seen as a necessity, instead as a hindrance to manoeuvrability.

However, the long-standing political instability of France, veering between monarchy and republicanism, made difficult a steady improvement with time. For instance, the post of Minister of War was generally held by a relatively junior general. With governments having lifespans measured in months, not in years, such a post held little authority (there being 41 changes of Minister in 43 years). Unlike Germany where von Moltke was able to exercise power for 33 years.

Coupled with the short-termism of this post was the slowness in deciding what renovations to carry out. So debates on the lengths of conscription and even who was to be conscripted took years before decisions were made (Ralston, 1967). With the ablest French generals finding good reasons to avoid being made the Minister, the opportunity to renovate by incorporating all the advances in technology and military theory were limited; a junior general is in a difficult position to impose change knowing that his ‘return to the ranks’ might be uncomfortable if senior generals are displeased by his decisions (Ralston, 1967). Thus the political-economic climate did not allow the French nation to forge a modern technologically-proficient army.

Inevitably the Dreyfus affair, with its conspiracy among senior French officers, and then the Freemason commissions scandal reinforced the feeling against the army being given too much independence. Nevertheless, the politicians were able to partially combat France’s inherent military weakness by treaties with the Russian Empire (1892) and later with the British (1904). What these gave were the knowledge that a German attack on France would require Germany to fight three national armies on two fronts, on the borders of France and East Prussia.

The strategic objective of Plan XVII, the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine, versus the Schlieffen Right Hook

Deep within France’s military thinking after 1899 was the recovery of the former French regions of Alsace and Lorraine. Inevitably, French battle plans focused too intently on how to rapidly recover these regions. The romanticism of the French nation saw the rolling hills of the Vosges and of Lorraine as but temporarily under German hegemony. Their recovery had to have priority – even if it unbalanced the dispositions of the rest of the army. Hence the placing of so many of the best regiments near Nancy and Mulhouse in the First and Second Armies to be ready to retake these regions in a battle of the frontiers. Plan XVII, completed in 1913, would avenge for the humiliation of 1870. However its flaw was its focus on deployment without any overall strategic objective or logistical timetable (Tuckman, 1962).

Regard also had to be paid to what the Germans might do. Seen as an aggressive nation which, under its Kaiser, wanted to dominate central Europe, France recognised that because she was still a powerful neighbour, Germany was likely to attack her at a time to take advantage of the balance of power favouring itself. But where the main attack would be focused was less certain. The easiest route to central northern France lies through Flanders. Belgium, a small and militarily weak nation, had few natural defences. So in 1839 she had been granted a position of neutrality in her dealings with her powerful neighbours. By the conventions of war, the position of neutrality was expected to be observed and Belgium not invaded. However the German army had developed the Schlieffen Plan to pass through Belgium, by force if opposed, and enter France from Flanders to Dinant. So the Plan plotted for German armies to hold the French forces romantically drawn to recovering Alsace and Lorraine and impale them on prepared defences. Meanwhile their more powerful attacking armies, placed on the right flank, would sweep along the French coast capturing the ports of Calais and Boulogne before descending on Paris. Should the German armies also overcome on the eastern frontiers, then a double envelopment of the French forces would be achieved. The Prussian strategists would for ever be mentioned in the same breath as Hannibal, the victor of Cannae.

France was made aware of the Schlieffen Plan but her military planners could only speculate about its priority in the overall German strategy. Would the Germans be prepared to attract world repugnance by violating Belgian neutrality? Hopefully not. But in case Germany might be tempted, the French Third, Fourth and Fifth Armies were positioned to advance and cut through the German right flank. As a result of the Anglo-French agreement, France trusted that the British Army would hold their left flank to blunt the head of the German advance towards the Channel ports.

The battles of Eastern France, an ‘honourable’ draw

After the German invasion of Belgium, the French armies advanced to recover Alsace and Lorraine. Mulhouse was taken, but the French were soon forced to withdraw. However once they closed on their forts at Belfort, and Epinal, they were able to stem the German advance.

In the area around Nancy, savage fighting took place. Regiments ordered into action walked into the fog of battle and disappeared as fighting units. Heavy artillery fire and the sweeping from side to side of machine gun fire turned the fields of battle into charnel houses. Many officers of that St.Cyr class died leading their troops in hopeless assaults, condemned to death by the bright colour of their red pantaloons, their white gloves, their shining swords – and the absence of French heavy artillery to quell by counterfire the ferocious German firepower.

General Joffre’s rapid replacement of incompetent generals and senior officers, coupled with the elan vital of the French troops meant that the German armies were also taking heavy casualties, but disproportionately less than the French. Eventually the strength of the German attacks weakened as the French learned to entrench, and fire from covered positions. By the end of August, the French lines were stabilising at les Eparges, before Nancy and in the Vosges, from where they moved little until the last months of 1918.

Pursuit to beyond the Marne

By breaking Belgian neutrality, the German armies gained momentum. However Belgium’s defence of her Liege and Namur forts caused slippage in the German timetable. When the western armies of France and the British Expeditionary Force came into contact with the German armies, they were forced to retreat. But unexpectedly, the German government began to have doubts about containing the Russian armies now entering East Prussia in accordance with the Russo-Franco treaty. Misinterpreting the fighting retreats of the French and British armies, and believing that the use of its reservists would still give it the numerical advantage, the German high command took two of its corps out of the right wing thereby weakening it. Because a gap opened up, the extreme right of the German army swung away towards the east of Paris. The flank of the army was presented to the city, and the famous transfer of French troops by Parisian taxis took place. And south of the Marne, the ‘miracle of the Marne’ saved France.

Against all German expectations, and after weeks of retreat, the French armies regained their ‘elan vital’. Although superior in marching with packs, nevertheless the Germans were exhausted by the miles of marching and fighting along the hot roads of northern France. They were stopped by the ferocity of the French attacks, many being captured as they lay asleep (Tuckman, 1962). Most importantly, their speed of advance left behind their heavy artillery, giving the French the opportunity to manoeuvre their 75s free of massive German counterfire. The Germans retreated to the heights above Soissons. Then began the race to the sea before the entrenchments began to be dug, soon to become that winter the notorious Trenches.

Undoubtedly, with the Germans exhausted, lacking their heavy artillery and at the end of their supply lines, the offensive doctrine exploited by the French beyond the Marne brought a victory – but it was 30 days too late. The victory was incomplete – leaving a large part of northern France under German control for 4 years. And leading to the inevitable slaughter of trench warfare.

Frontal assault and ‘elan vital’, momentum and technological innovation

The spirit of the offensive ‘a outrance’ did not cease in 1914, even if the ability to manoeuvre in the face of heavy firepower was discredited by the November. During the next three years, increasingly powerful artillery bombardments were used to support assaults in Artois, Champagne, and on the Aisne. But where-ever the attacks took place, and despite the ‘elan vital’ of the attackers, the artillery and machine guns of the defenders extracted their heavy penalty.

The same experience was shared by the Germans in their assaults around Verdun, and the British at Neuve Chapelle, Loos, the Somme, and many other battles. In fact, on the Western Front, no nation found a satisfactory answer to the technology available to break up the momentum of this style of assault. It took the invention of the tank, the development of close air support (Howard, 1986) and the establishment of better control systems on the battlefield to give the offensive doctrine a more acceptable return on the human and resource costs. But that was after 4 years of bitter failures.

The lack of alternatives that would satisfy the critics of Plan XVII

In criticising the French military planners for Plan XVII, it must not be forgotten that the initiation of the fighting was for the Germans to decide. The French would begin their offensive actions only after the Germans had begun their attacks. This means that the French would be accepting a policy to slow and then halt the momentum of the German advances. Such a policy is inevitably more difficult that having a free hand to attack at the most convenient times and places.

The French attacks in the battle of the frontiers were ruinously expensive in human lives. The critics can suggest that the French should have waited patiently for the German assaults. But their troops were drawn from conscripts and few had been battle-hardened. For them to stand still whilst lashed by exploding shells from guns they could not see would have been to have stoical qualities possessed by Frederick the Great’s veterans – and the Russian soldiers of 1914 (Solzhenitsyn, 1972). To dig holes in the ground was to deny the essential courage of the French soldier seen on countless battlefield during the Napoleonic campaigns (Chandler, 1966), and at Crecy and Agincourt in earlier centuries (Froissart, circa 1400, and Hibbert, 1964). Indeed the soldiers were usually denied entrenching tools in case they became ‘sticky’ (Tuckman, 1962).

With the benefit of hindsight, it is too easy to criticise the tactics of all the generals who lead their armies on the Western Front (Clark, 1961). The three years from 1914 to 1917 was a time when the advances in technology had outstripped the ability of the military planners to devise ways to oppose the advantages given by exploiting that technology. Even for those fighting in defence, the impact was awesome and costly – as seen by the weakening of the professional German army on the Somme
(Farrar-Hockley, 1964).

A fair criticism – on balance

In conclusion, it is fair to be critical of the offensive military doctrines – but the criticism has to be limited. Wearing red pantaloons and waving shiny swords, thereby attracting the attention of machine-gunners, was foolish. Setting that aside, strong criticism can be directed at the weaknesses both leading to and within Plan XVII and how it was implemented. But the French did learn to control their offensive a outrance doctrine. When they successfully retook the Verdun forts, their troops were dressed in unobtrusive colours and did not advance in massed groups.

Set against the limitations on the French courses of action, the weaknesses endemic in her military machine and France’s natural desire to avenge for the debacle of 1870, Plan XVII was an understandable strategic choice. However its implementation, coupled with the clever use of the German reservists, the German willingness to wage war brutally, and the exploitation of the new technologies, gave the German armies the critical advantage.

But fortunately for France and for her allies, the Germans failed themselves to properly implement their chosen strategy, the Schlieffen Plan, so did not gain the decisive victory they confidently predicted for 1914. As Tuckman correctly concluded (1962) they were allowed to penetrate too deeply before the French armies could regroup and regain their freedom to manoeuvre, and then counterattack.


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Original presented to MA War Studies course ‘The First World War’ at KCL,
22 January 1998.