I’ve written a fair amount about France lately, mainly regarding its grave problems with immigration, radicalism, and terrorism. Unlike quite a few Americans, I’ve never indulged in anti-French cheap shots — the phrase “freedom fries” never passed my lips — mainly because I detest fat never-served neocons, who counsel endless war from their couch, far more than any Frenchman I’ve ever met. I’ve also had the privilege of serving alongside French partners in a few warzones, and I admire their deep professionalism and quiet patriotism.
That said, I am equally lacking in the absurd Gallomania that infects a high percentage of American pseudo-intellectuals, who need to change their shorts after the mere mention of coq au vin, to say nothing of cinq à sept. My late father was a Francophile of a serious, bookish kind and he required that I learn good French (because every gentleman must) and that I win the love of at least one beautiful Frenchwoman (because what is life without that?). I complied, eventually seeing the wisdom of his counsel, and I shall pass the same on to my sons. I am grateful for French language and culture, which gave me my favorite novelist, but I see France as just another European country at the end of the day.
Yet there is an unquestionable majesté about France that only diehard Francophobes can deny. Unfortunately, I tend to be inspired by the less-noticed moments of French glory, the sort that will never get mentioned on the History Channel or in any major motion picture. But it would be a shame if these stories evaporate in the mists of time, like tears in the rain. The world will be a sadder, less inspired place without them.
We’re now commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Great War, and I’ve written on that several times (see here and here), to say nothing of my books, but for no country is this centenary more melancholy than France. In a real sense, French victory in November 1918 — and a victory it was — has been forgotten amidst the enduring horror of the massive loss: 1.4 million dead Frenchmen. It’s no exaggeration to state that this butcher’s bill resonates still in France, and can be seen as the deep reason for why the French military — vast and well equipped on paper — failed to stem the German tide in 1940. A hundred years later, a detectable ennui about the Great War lingers.
However, focusing on the undeniable horror of 1914-1918 obscures how much gloire there was for the French. Invaded by Germany, their war was defensive and just, and in the end they won. Their victorious generals and heroes have been forgotten, lost in a sea of pain and death that to post-moderns seems pointless and anything but glorious. The average French infantryman, the doomed yet impressively mustached poilu, seems like a victim to the WEIRD.
It all seemed very different at the time. France was saved in 1914, and right through 1918, only by the willingness of her men — for men they were — to fight and die in vast numbers for hearth and home. Italians once called this ardent Gallic desire to close with the enemy, bayonet in hand, la furia francese, and it was present abundantly in the Great War, even among many senior leaders.
No general embodied France’s combative spirit more than Charles Mangin, whose name today resonates only among specialist historians. A hundred years ago his name was known to every French castle and cottage, for he was hailed by millions as France’s fightingest general.
In many ways, however, Mangin was an outlier. Failing to gain admission to St. Cyr, France’s West Point, he enlisted, and was eventually sent to St. Cyr from the ranks. He spent his career in the colonies, mostly in Africa, fighting more than not, and won a raft of decorations for his fearlessness, including the Legion of Honor before age thirty. But he was an odd man out among officers who spent their careers in France. He was Catholic, croyant in an officer corps bitterly divided between believers and secularists.
Neither did Mangin hide his views well. In an officer corps divided not just in belief, but between those who spent their careers in France versus in the colonies, Mangin was an unapologetic “African” who extolled the virtues of France’s tough colonial soldiers. Those who spent decades in the métropole, mostly riding a desk, viewed fellow officers toiling in the colonies as a tad rough, while the “Africans” saw their metropolitan brothers as desk-jockeys, at best.
Unrepentant, Mangin never hid his passionate view that France’s military depended on her colonies, mostly Muslim. In 1910, he published his views in a book, La force noire (The Black Force), which advocated that Paris openly embrace her brave colonial troops, including employing them in the European war that Mangin considered inevitable. Otherwise defeat by Germany loomed.
All these issues came to a head in August 1914 when France, like nearly all of Europe, was plunged into war. In the opening battles, which cost France hundreds of thousands of men, Mangin commanded his infantry brigade energetically; even his detractors did not deny his personal courage, which was never lacking.
On the retreat towards Paris in early September, the lead-up to the decisive Battle of the Marne, Mangin had an encounter with Philippe Pétain, a rival brigadier and exactly the sort of desk officer from the métropole whom Mangin disliked. As Pétain turned a corner, marching with his tired troops, munching on a cold sandwich in a paper wrapper, he saw Mangin, seated at a field table, complete with linen and silver, dining on steak frites and a bottle of red wine, presented by his faithful Senegalese manservant, a giant who with his red tarbouche stood over seven feet tall.
“What the hell are you doing?” asked Pétain.
True to form, Mangin replied: “Look at you. You have been at war for two weeks, and you look half-dead. I have been at war my entire life, and I have never felt better.”
Mangin continued in this spirit for the next four years, fighting all the way until Germany was defeated. He rose to command a division, then a corps, then a field army. Throughout, his fire-breathing, combined with a cynical Gallic wit, became the stuff of soldierly legend. His ability to command African troops especially was impressive, and he was regularly in the front lines himself.
His troops from the métropole were not always as impressed, finding Mangin’s toughness off-putting, and some of them derided him as “The Butcher.” There can be no doubt that Mangin endured the same tactical dilemmas that made the defense stronger than the offense from 1914 to 1918, yet he never reconsidered his belief that the attack was the only acceptable form of war, particularly when so much sacred French soil was under enemy occupation. As he observed straightforwardly about the Great War battlefield, “Whatever you do, you lose a lot of men,” a sad but true statement.
Mangin’s reputation suffered from the Nivelle Offensive of spring 1917, which failed amidst heavy losses, after high hopes for breakthrough, but his career continued, indeed prospered, since he, unlike so many French generals, remained willing to keep fighting, no matter the cost. His reputation was saved by his energetic leadership of the 10th Army in mid-summer 1918 that broke the back of Germany’s last offensive in the West. After this, the victory that Mangin had repeatedly promised would come became only a matter of time.
An incident on the eve of that decisive battle is revealing. Walking along the front line only hours before the great Allied counter-offensive kicked off, as the old soldier liked to do, Mangin encountered a sentry, asleep at his post. This was not just a court martial offense, but one calling for summary execution for dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy. Instead, Mangin picked the tired poilu up by his ear, shouting, “We’re about to kick the boches to Hell — How can you be sleeping at a time like this?” and sent the stunned sentry on his way.
Mangin played an honored part in Allied victory and, unlike most Allied leaders, never let the Germans forget that they lost. After the war, he occupied western Germany, earning the eternal enmity of the Nazis. Mangin died in 1925, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, praising his brave African troops to his dying breath.
It’s probably good that Mangin did not live to see the French defeat in 1940, which would have killed him. Saving what French honor could be saved after that humiliation fell to Philippe Pétain, who tried to engineer a face-saving collaboration with the Nazis. Approaching senility, Pétain was no politician — his mantra was “women and food are the only things that matter” — and he failed to save the honor of France that Mangin devoted his life to defending. It’s therefore perhaps not surprising that, after the occupation of France, the statue of Mangin was the only such statue that Hitler ordered to be blown up.
It seems too much to hope that France today, saddled by self-doubt, declining demographics, and domestic radicalism, can channel its inner Charles Mangin, but it could do far worse than revisiting a hard-fighting hero who so passionately extolled — and lived — the belief that those who fight and bleed for France, no matter their ethnicity or religion, represent the best of France.