The Class of 1914 died for France

Monday, November 12th, 2018

Guns of August by Barbara TuchmanBarbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August includes an apocryphal footnote about “the terrible drain of French manhood” from the Great War:

In the chapel of St. Cyr (before it was destroyed during World War II) the memorial tablet to the dead of the Great War bore only a single entry for “the Class of 1914.”

I cited this passage, and Philippe Lemoine dug up St. Cyr’s own numbers, suggesting that “just” 51 percent of the military academy’s Class of 1914 died for France.


  1. Kirk says:

    I’d argue that they didn’t “…die for France…”, but died for an ancien regime whose irresponsibility shaped their world and drove much of the tragedy of those times.

    Both the French elite and the German one were abysmally feckless and outright stupid, not seeing the long-term ramifications and likely second- and third-order effects of their policies. The Germans were so focused on “building an empire” like the ones the French and British had that they were blind to the fact that the inefficiencies and rigidity of those imperial “systems” were stultifying and destroying that which had enabled the French and British to prosper, and, to a lesser degree, the Dutch.

    Let us say, for example, that the Germans eschewed empire, and focused on what enabled their post-WWII success: Commercial development and modernization. Had they done that, instead of playing at the game of soldiers, they’d have come out as de facto leaders of Europe, and for what cost in blood? Near-zero.

    WWI can only be explained as sheer human folly, initiated by the “leadership classes” of the involved societies. You look at it cold-bloodedly, and you can only wonder at the sheer blind waste of it all, and marvel that the masses ever followed those purblind idiots off the cliffs and into the trenches. Precisely none of that killing was necessary, and we’re still feeling the effects of it to this day. When you get down to it, what did WWI really accomplish, aside from setting the stage for WWII, with all of its cruel destruction of human material? Not a damn thing. And, both the French and the Germans were complicit in the fecklessness of it all, although the Germans did manage to do a better job of managing the purely tactical and operational aspects of the military end of things. Politically? Idiots, and the French were only marginally better.

    I feel sorrow for the dead, but as a professional soldier, all I can do is marvel at the sheer waste and amateurish fashion in which they fought. The French military might have done better had they simply taken the majority of the upper echelons of their officer corps out and put a bullet into the backs of their skulls, on day one of the war. In effect, by not doing so? They ensured the deaths of millions of their conscripted soldiers, who died attempting to enact the ideas and ideals of elan, which proved to be a poor substitute for professionalism and pragmatism, which the Germans, unfortunately for the French fantasists, excelled at. Courage and a bayonet, no matter how much elan you may demonstrate using them, is no match for a Maxim gun…

  2. David Foster says:

    “The Germans were so focused on “building an empire” like the ones the French and British had that they were blind to the fact that the inefficiencies and rigidity of those imperial “systems” were stultifying and destroying that which had enabled the French and British to prosper, and, to a lesser degree, the Dutch.”

    In his memoirs, Wilhelm II seemed close to grasping how German bureaucratic culture had sapped initiative:

    “Another thing that struck me, in addition to the one-sidedness of the education in the schools, was the tendency, among youths planning their careers in those days, to turn their attention to becoming Government officials, and always consider the profession of lawyer or judge the most worthy goal…As long as the state consisted, so to speak, of government and administration, this tendency among German youths in the shaping of their lives was understandable and justified; since we were living in a country of officials, the right road for a young man to select was the service of the state. British youths of that time, self-reliant and made robust by sports, were already talking, to be sure, of colonial conquests, of expeditions to explore new regions of the earth, of extending British commerce; and they were trying, in the guise of pioneers of their country, to make Great Britain still stronger and greater, by practical, free action, not as paid hirelings of the state.”


    “To be sure, there were even then enterprising men in Germany—brilliant names can be cited among them—but the conception of serving the fatherland, not by traveling along a definite, officially certified road, but by independent competition, had not yet become sufficiently generalized. Therefore I held up the English as an example, for it seems to me better to take the good where one finds it, without prejudice, than to go through the world wearing blinkers.”

    Almost a century earlier, Goethe had some rather similar thoughts. See my post Parallel Observations, 94 Years Apart.

  3. Kirk says:

    David Foster,

    There’s something to be said about national characteristics, traits, and milieu; the UK built an empire with innovation and daring during the long run up to losing it, and the contrast between the height of Empire and the post-WWII malaise is telling — at least, in terms of adaptability and innovation. Likewise, the Germans during the post-WWII Wirtschaftwunder years. During that era, the Germans in West Germany were open to innovation and adapted to drastically changed circumstances. During those years, there was a certain plasticity to things that has, again, shifted back to the default deference to ordnung and authority. The moment of adaptation, forced on them by defeat, has passed. Will it ever arise, again?

    The English built an empire in what they like to term an “absence of mind”, but the reality is that the only absent-minded Englishmen involved were the ones running the government, and you can make a case that their lack of insistence on running everything is what actually built the Empire in the first place. It was only when the government got involved that the whole enterprise started to cock-up; the desire to “fix things” broke much of what make the UK an industrial powerhouse, and the unfortunate tendency to obstruct innovation and change came out of the takeover of new industry by the same group of insidious idiots that clamped down on that devil, change…

    You can make out the outline of the same thing happening here in the US, as the auto companies that made the American rust belt were taken over by the bean-counters and run into the ground, while the quick Japanese foxes jumped over and around them, building cars that just… Worked.

    There are people who do things, and then there are people who try to control things. When the former class has ascendancy in society, then we all progress. When the latter class is in charge, things run down and, as Heinlein’s quote goes:

    Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

    This is known as “bad luck.”

  4. Sam J. says:

    Ran across this photo. Look at the massive waste of Men in WWI.

    Cameron Highlanders in 1914 and then after armistice.

  5. Sam J. says:

    Oops. My apologies. Photo shopped. I wonder if the numbers are correct anyways?

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