There’s no question about it: A singular blemish in French history is to blame for their eternal ridicule. The moment Marshal Philippe Petain surrendered (kind of) to the Germans after being the main target of the blitzkrieg was the moment people started associating “s’il vous plaît” with “surrender.”
Ridicule against Vichy France, the German puppet state, isn’t without merit — we get it. But to overlook the storied nation’s thousands of years of badassery is laughably incorrect. Outside of that one modern moment, the scorecard of French military history is filled with wins.
Author’s Note: It’s a fool’s errand to try and rank these by historical significance or how they each demonstrate French military might, so they’re listed in chronological order:
Coincidentally, this would also be the last time England was taken over.
Battle of Hastings
If you want to get technical, this battle happened before the formation of France proper. Still, it’s generally agreed that France began with the Franks.
Sorry, Gauls. Their legacy of military might includes (successfully) fighting off vikings, Iberians, and, occasionally, the Holy Roman Empire.
But the single landmark victory for the Franks came when Duke William the Bastard of Normandy pressed his claim over the English crown in 1066. At the Battle of Hastings, outnumbered Normans fought English forces, led by King Herald Godwinson. The Normans, led by William, pushed through English shield walls to take out the crown. William the Bastard then went on to conquer the rest of England and earned himself the a new moniker, “King William the Conqueror.”
Surprisingly enough, feeding your troops makes them fight better.
(Jean-Jacques Scherrer, “Joan of Arc enters Orleans,” 1887)
Siege of Orleans
At the the height of English might, during the Hundred Years’ War, they finally made an effort to end the French once and for all. The city of Orleans was put under siege — and the throne was thrust into dire circumstances. All the English had to do was starve city. That was, until a young peasant girl arrived: Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc successfully sneaked a relief convoy of food, aid, and arms into the city, right under the noses of the English. This bolstered the strength of the defenders. With food in bellies and morale on the rise, the besieged made a stand and finally pushed the English out of France.
Seriously. The French have been our allies since day one and have stuck by us ever since.
(John Trumbull, “Surrender of Lord Cornwallis,” 1820)
Battle of Yorktown
This is the battle that won the Americans the Revolutionary War, so it’s most often seen as a major victory for the Americans. But the victory would have never been if it weren’t for massive support from the French.
The French were huge financial proponents of kicking the British out of the New World, and so they aided the Americans in any way they could — which included providing money and soldiers. Everything came to a head at Yorktown, Virginia when Lord Cornwallis went up against General George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau. It was an effort of equal parts — both Washington and Rochambeau flanked Cornwallis on each side, forcing his surrender and officially relinquishing British control over the Colonies.
If you gotta go out, go out in a blaze of glory… I guess.
(William Sadler, “The Battle of Waterloo,” 1815)
Most of the Napoleonic Wars
It’s kind of hard to single out one shining example of the sheer strength of the French during the Napoleonic Wars because Napoleon was such a great military leader. If you break down his win/loss ratio down into baseball statistics, like these guys have, he outshines every general in history —from Alexander the Great to modern generals.
Let’s look at the Battle of Ligny. Napoleon managed to piss off the entirety of Europe, causing themto band together tofight him. He was cornered in Prussia andhis enemies were closing in. In a last-ditch effort, he took a sizable chunk out of the Prussian military and forced them to retreat. This all happened while the English, the Russians, the Austrians, and the Germans were trying to intervene.
Just two days later came the Battle ofWaterloo, duringwhich most of Europe had to work together to bring down the dominant Napoleon.
This is why Petain remains such a polarizing figure. He may have given up France in the 40s, but he saved it thirty years earlier.
The Battle of Verdun
Let’s go back to Philippe Petain, the guy who gave up France to the Germans, for a second. Today, many see him as a traitor, a coward, and a weakling — but these insults can’t be made with putting a huge asterisk next to them. In World War I, he was known as the “Lion of Verdun” after he oversaw and won what is known as the longest and single bloodiest battle in human history.
For almost the entirety of the year 1916, the Germans pushed everything they had into a single forest on the French/German border. It was clear within the first six days that after the Germans spent 2 million rounds, 2 million artillery shells, and deployed chemical warfare for the first time, that the French would not budge. 303 days later, the Germans finally realize that the French wouldn’t give in and gave up.
So maybe lay off the “French WWII Rifle for sale” jokes. It mightbe funny if it weren’t completely inaccurate.
In the opening paragraph, there was a “(kind of)” next to mention of French surrender during WWII. Well, that’s because not all of France gave in — just parts of it. France was split into three: Vichy France (a powerless puppet state), the French Protectorates (which were
mostly released back to their home rule), and the resistance fighters of Free France.
The Free French resistance fighters were widespread across the French territory, but were mostly centralized in the South. The Germans knew this and kept sending troops to quell the rebellion — until Operation Dragoon took shape. Aided by Allied air power, French resistance fighters were able to repel the Germans out of Free France in only four weeks and give the Allies the strong foothold they needed in the Mediterranean until the fall of fascist Italy.