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Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War.

Pyrrhic Victory. French Strategy and Operations in the Great War. By Robert A. Doughty. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005. Pp. xiii, 592. $39.95.)

For the last eighty years, accounts of the First World War have been dominated by a cabal of British historians, officials, and fellow travelers who have cultivated the idea that England fought the war almost single-handedly and won it with little help. Anyone who questioned this fairy tale was smeared, from Winston Churchill after he wrote The World Crisis through Niall Ferguson and The Pity of War.

So it is good to see Robert Doughty telling the story from the neglected perspective of the French, who did by far the greater part of the fighting. Unfortunately, they also did most of the dying, and thus the title of the book. Insofar as the Allies won the war, it was a Pyrrhic victory indeed.

Anglo-American scholars, who have been dutifully trudging along the paths defined by British government propagandists in their early histories of the war, will find much to ponder in this account of the war as seen from inside the French high command and the civilian leadership.

Three major points emerge from the wealth of documentary evidence Doughty has painstakingly assembled. France fought hard and long and bore the brunt of the struggle. Although there were horrific disasters during the first part of the war, the army did indeed have a learning curve and learned how to fight with fewer casualties and more successes. Last, the French had been thinking seriously about an impending war and how to fight it for many years before 1914: the country had both a coherent national defense policy and sophisticated strategic planning that depended on its ability to maintain important alliances.

The academy has generally termed such efforts "revisionist," but the issue here is not new interpretations; this book rests on evidence that has been routinely suppressed or denied because it contradicts the legend.

The exposition is lucid and impressive. It seems churlish to quibble with any part of Doughty's argument. However, there are three minor problems. First, the French Army's wartime archivist pointed out long ago the pitfalls of relying on internal documents produced by the staff. Those materials reflect the view the army wanted everyone to have, not the actual reality of the war. Second, ignoring the penetrating studies published by the army's best officers and specialists results in a skewed notion of what was going on. Last, using French and German archives from World War II, recent historians have made a convincing case that the Pyrrhic victory notion is inexact: in May 1940 the army had the weapons, the men, and the will to fight; French soldiers fought hard. They deserved a government considerably better than the one they had.

Doughty's work is an impressive first step, roughly equivalent to Thomas Fleming's masterful The Illusion of Victory, which challenges the uncritical acceptance of Woodrow Wilson that permeates all American accounts. Quibbles aside, Pyrrhic Victory is a major contribution to the American understanding of the Great War.

John Mosier

Loyola University, New Orleans

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Author:Mosier, John
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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