World War I in France began in 1914, when Germany marched through Belgium, hoping to capture Paris and encircle the French army, most of which was poised on the German border to retake Alsace-Lorraine. The Germans moved faster than the French did and were well on their way to completing their plan when the French recognized the danger. They pulled troops back from the German border and redeployed them to block the German advance on Paris. The Germans were stopped in the first Battle of the Marne in September 1914. If the German plan had succeeded, it would have ended the war in weeks. Instead, a standoff resulted, which defined the nature of fighting for the rest of the war.
In that stalemate, Anglo-French and German armies opposed one another for four years in rain-soaked, rat-infested, barbed-wire trenches running for hundreds of kilometers through northeastern France. Both sides tried vainly to puncture the lines of the other and win a decisive victory. They used the full range of new weaponry—poison gas, tanks, machine guns, airplanes—only to be thrown back. Meanwhile, casualties mounted in appalling numbers. The Battle of Verdun resulted in more than 700,000 casualties and lasted most of 1916 but resolved essentially nothing.
Such pointless slaughter eroded morale. In 1917 mutinies broke out in the French army, reflecting the defeatism common among those on the left, who had shown pacifist tendencies before 1914. The mutinies were put down by the Radical prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, through a combination of repression and patriotic appeals. In the spring of 1918, the Anglo-French military—now backed by fresh American troops—finally went on the offensive and forced Germany to an armistice on November 11, 1918. The war that had lasted more than four years was effectively won in six months.
World War I did not transform France, but its effects were surely considerable.
In a country already stricken by depopulation, 1.4 million men—10 percent of the nation’s active males—were killed and twice that number wounded. This loss led to further declines in France’s very low birthrate. So deep were the scars that monuments to the war dead were erected in virtually every village and town in France. Material losses were also enormous, especially since the area of the country occupied by Germany during the war produced about half the country’s coal and steel. Fiscally, too, the war was costly. The government, which had not anticipated massive expenditures, met expenses by printing great amounts of paper money and by borrowing. These measures tripled prices, quintupled the national debt, and weakened the franc. The government’s only real innovation in dealing with these problems was the introduction of a modest income tax.
The war also had social effects other than the demographic ones. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants entered the country to fill the jobs vacated by soldiers. Together with native-born workers, they swelled the ranks of labor unions by an estimated 1 million members. During the war, 450,000 women worked in factories and earned incomes that had formerly been restricted to men, but after the war two-thirds of these women were let go to create jobs for veterans. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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