France holds its fire in the blame game

For fear of reviving old hostilities, one French version of responsibility for it has the war ‘appearing as a sort of natural disaster that no one wanted – a catastrophe in which all are victims and none are responsible’

The minarets of a Sarajevo mosque loom in the background. Men watching from balconies and in the street are coiffed with the red Ottoman fez. Gavrilo Princip surges from the crowd, in black, firing a pistol. The duke and duchess, decked in finery with plumed hats, are thrown backwards by the onslaught of bullets. While Franz Ferdinand agonises, Sophie embraces her dying husband.

There were no photographs taken of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28th, 1914, so the image reproduced in French history manuals and seared in popular memory was a melodramatic, almost comical colour drawing published by "Le Petit Journal." (see page 30)

Political assassination was not unusual. "In France, President Sadi Carnot was assassinated in 1894," notes Frédéric Manfrin, head of history at the Bibliothèque nationale de France and commissioner of the BnF's authoritative exhibition, Été 14; les derniers jours de l'ancien monde.*

“Empress Elisabeth of Austria – ‘Sissi’ – was assassinated in 1897, the royal family of Serbia in 1903, the prime minister of Russia in 1911,” Manfrin continues. “June 28th was a clap of thunder in a cloudless sky. No one saw the war coming.”


For years, there had been wars and rumours of war. France and Britain nearly came to blows at Fashoda in 1898, then made a “gentlemen’s agreement” recognising each other’s colonial interests. Kaiser Wilhelm sought his “place in the sun” in the Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911, raising tension with France and Britain. The Ottomans fought the Balkan League in 1912-1913, in what came to be considered a dress rehearsal for the first World War.

Yet it was a time of great prosperity, in France and in Europe. "The gross domestic product of Europe in 1914 would not be equalled again until 1973," says Manfrin. After the war, the French would recall the turn of the century as "la Belle Époque," much as Britain idealised the Edwardian era as a golden age.

France was one of only three republics in Europe, along with Portugal and Switzerland, while Britain, Germany and Russia were ruled by grandsons of Queen Victoria. They habitually sorted out their differences through correspondance, and on lavish visits. The French believed the crisis provoked by the assassination in Sarajevo would be resolved diplomatically, like earlier crises.

France was Europe’s leading agricultural power. More than half the French population were still peasant farmers. A chief concern that summer was that children complete school in time to help with the early harvest, brought on by exceptionally hot weather.

France was also an industrial power, though less so than Britain and Germany. And she derived tremendous wealth from her empire, which provided both a market for French products and natural resources that created new industries, for example rubber from Indochina.

The French Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes extended French trade to the Americas and Australia. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, rejoiced in the convenience of communications and transport, declaring that “with the railway and the steamboat, distance exists no longer!”

Life continued to improve under the French Third Republic, thanks to decades of peace. “Through work, through dignity and savings, the humble worker can attain great fortune,” said a school dictation text in 1894. “The sons of farmers or workers can aspire to the highest ranks in the army, to the most eminent responsibilities in the state. That is true equality.”

Europe in 1914 had attained a high degree of cultural, scientific and political cooperation, as shown by the number of world fairs, congresses and meetings of the Socialist International. Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Max Planck were among the great scientists who met at the Solvay Congress in Belgium in 1911, for example, to discuss radiation and quantum theory.

“These meetings lasted for two or three weeks,” says Manfrin. “They ended with the war. Thereafter, French and Germans kept to themselves; there were no more exchanges.”

Although she was profoundly opposed to the war, Marie Curie, the Polish-French physicist and chemist and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, advised the French army. In November 1914 she took charge of a fleet of radiology vans, known as petites Curies that criss-crossed the battlefields, helping the wounded.

The assassination of the archduke coincided with the first day of the 12th Tour de France bicycle race. Suffragettes demonstrated in Paris. There were street balls on July 14th. The crisis in the Balkans barely figured in French newspapers.

The French public were obsessed by the Cailloux affair. Le Figaro newspaper had decided to destroy the career of the finance minister and former prime minister Joseph Cailloux. Every day for 95 days, Le Figaro published letters and documents against him.

Cailloux had become the head of the pacifist radical party in October 1913. Though a pragmatist with strong business connections, he embodied peace for many French people, because he’d negotiated an agreement with Germany over Morocco, and because he campaigned against extending conscription to three years.

Cailloux's wife Henriette was so enraged by Le Figaro's campaign against her husband that she went to the newspaper office and shot dead its editor, Gaston Calmette. Her July 20-30th trial for murder overshadowed the diplomatic manoeuvering that preceeded mobilisation and declarations of war. Madame Cailloux's acquittal, on the grounds she had committed a crime of passion, was deemed far more interesting than the sabre-rattling in European capitals. Belle époque France was a militarised society in which soldiers were idealised, except by the left, which objected to the repeated use of the army to put down strikes. The loss of Alsace and Lorraine continued to gnaw at the French body politic. "Let us think of them always, speak of them never," the statesman Léon Gambetta had said in 1871.

Draft-dodgers were considered traitors. An illustration in "Le Petit Journal" in 1909 shows a gallant officer delivering an ill-kempt pacifist who'd shouted "Down with the army!" by the scruff of his neck to police at a military parade.

From 1889, Tu seras soldat, a patriotic military manual, was standard fare in French schools. Sentences such as "There is no more beautiful death than to die for one's country" and "Germans are arrogant people who do everything they can to harm us" figured in school dictations.

Every Frenchman owed the army 25 years of his life; three on active duty, the rest in the reserves. Émile Driant, a deputy in the national assembly and a reserve colonel, wrote a series of best-selling books under the pseudonym Capitaine Danrit, titled The War of Tomorrow.

Driant foresaw trench warfare, the use of barbed wire, hand grenades, heavy artillery and poisonous gas. At the age of 59, he obtained the command of two battalions in August 1914. Driant was killed at Verdun 18 months later.

France and other belligerents were in many ways ill-prepared for the coming war. Though each country manufactured its own rifles, they all weighed an average 4.5 kilos and with bayonets too long to be handled in the trenches. The poppy red trousers of the French poilus – named affectionately for their moustaches – made them easy targets. French war plans rejected defence, investing an almost mystical belief in the psychological advantages of the all-out offensive.

Both France and Germany were so confident the war would be short that they ran out of ammunition by September. They also failed to realise how deadly machine guns would be. The weapons had a range of up to 1.5 km, so victims could not see who shot at them. A machine gun could mow down a regiment in two minutes. Casualties were horrendous: 27,000 French soldiers were killed on August 22nd, 1914, the most deadly day in the country’s history. On average, 900 Frenchmen and 1,300 Germans would be killed every day for the next four years.

The Triple Entente between France, Britain and Russia was so ill-defined that French politicians were gripped by anguish over whether Britain would fight. The French ambassador to London, Paul Cambon, virtually laid siege to the office of the British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey, seeking reassurance.

"We would like to know if the relations established between (military) headquarters are the consequence of a treaty or a verbal agreement . . . or if they are the result of a tacit understanding," wrote Gen Joseph Joffre, the supreme commander of French forces. "Moreover, can we say that, in all probability, England will be at our side in a conflict with Germany?"

France had no certainty until, responding to the violation of Belgian neutrality, Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th.

France so feared being portrayed as the aggressor – thus losing British support – that the government falsified a document in its “yellow book” chronicling the beginning of the war.

Maurice Paléologue, the French ambassador to St Petersburg, had sent a telegram to Paris on the morning of July 31st announcing the mobilisation of Russian forces. For reasons unknown, the cable took nearly 10 hours to reach Prime Minister René Viviani.

In the meantime, Austria-Hungary announced that it too was mobilising, in reaction to the Russian mobilisation. Until the evening of the 31st, when Paléologue’s telegram finally arrived, the French government genuinely believed that Austria, not Russia, had mobilised first, which is how French newspapers reported the chain of events.

Rather than allow their Russian allies to appear to have been the aggressors, Paris concocted a false diplomatic note, post-dated July 31st, saying that “because of the general mobilisation of Austria and measures taken secretly but continuously by Germany for the last six days, the general mobilisation of the Russian army has been ordered”.

When the government received a letter from the German ambassador to Paris on August 3rd declaring war on France, “there was among all the members of the Council (of ministers) a genuine relief,” President Raymond Poincaré wrote in his diary. “Never was a declaration of war greeted with such satisfaction, France having done all she could to maintain peace, and war having become nonetheless inevitable. It was a hundred times better that we not be forced. . . to declare it ourselves.”

French historical interpretations of la Grande Guerre have evolved over the past century. “From the autumn of 1914 until 1940, the fundamental question was that of responsibility,” explains Manfrin of the BnF. “In France, the position was totally clear: It was Germany’s fault.”

After the second World War and in the run-up to commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the first World War in the 1960s, Manfrin continues, attention turned to the point of view and suffering of the poilus.

For some 15 years in the 1970s and early 1980s, in the wake of the May 1968 revolution and protests against the Vietnam war, France seemed to reject veterans of all wars. The eldest, in particular, were regarded as laughable whiners. But the poilus were rehabilitated in literature, cinema and popular culture in the late 1980s. Studies of the first World War focused on the brutalisation of society.

Today, the theme of pointless, inhuman suffering continues to dominate. The historian Antoine Prost condemns “today’s politically correct vision” in which “the war appears as a sort of natural disaster that no one wanted.” Contemporary historiography, Prost adds, is “careful not to revive old quarrels that poisoned the period between the two wars,” instead presenting the conflict as “a catastrophe in which all are victims and none are responsible”.

The Cambridge professor Christopher Clark's book Sleepwalkers; How Europe Went to War in 1914 attributes prime responsibility to Serbia. It has provoked great controversy among British and German historians, but not in France.

“French historians have been very careful,” says Manfrin. “I think it’s largely because France played such a passive role at the beginning of the conflict. France was a follower, dragged along by Russia and Germany. She played no determinant role in starting the conflict, so the French tended to look naïve. I think that’s why we’ve held back on the question of the causes of the war.”

*Runs until August 3rd. See