France at War, 1870-1962
We tend to forget that France – the land of culture, gastronomy and fashion – was until recently a nation so bellicose that it was waging war for almost a hundred years. In France at War Henk Wesseling, a historian with a lifelong fascination for French history, tells the story of the French hunger for colonies and its desire for revenge on Germany. The loss of its status as a great power, and the continual struggle to come to terms with that loss, exert a powerful influence on French politics and society to this day.
In the perpetually turbulent history of France it would be hard to point to any period as violent and dramatic as the years between 1870 and 1962. Three times the country became engaged in bloody wars with Germany, and during the Second World War national independence seemed lost for ever. France also entered into a series of colonial wars, spilling much blood in the conquests of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Indochina and, above all, in the post-1945 wars of colonial independence. After its humiliating defeat in Vietnam in 1954, France found itself engaged in a particularly dirty war in Algeria. Bloodbaths, torture and terrorist attacks on French soil landed the country in a huge political crisis.
Wesseling’s doctoral dissertation was on French attitudes to warfare on the eve of the First World War, and he went on to specialise in colonial history, with books including the much-acclaimed Divide and Rule describing how the European powers divided Africa among themselves. In France at War the two subjects that fascinate him most are brought together as never before, with his usual erudition and stylistic excellence.
Wesseling is an historian blessed with a prodigious literary talent; he paints a broad panorama and charts complex longterm developments with great clarity. He has an eye for striking details, telling anecdotes, and the personalities and eccentricities of the numerous actors in the historical dramas he describes. The physical and mental breakdown suffered by Napoleon III during the rashly declared war of 1870, the search for Pétain, who locked himself away with a mistress in a Paris hotel while the French army teetered on the point of collapse at Verdun, the extreme aversion often felt by the Allies for the wayward De Gaulle – all this Wesseling effortlessly weaves into his account of international relations and military developments.