In March, 1871, radical Republicans in Paris rebelled and set up the Commune of Paris, controlling the capital for two months until government troops recaptured the city. In 1875, Republicans won approval for a republican constitution. The Dreyfus affair was a political scandal which divided France from the 1890s to the early 1900s. It involved the wrongful conviction for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a promising young artillery officer in the French Army. Dreyfus was a Jew who had been born in the German-speaking Alsace that became part of the German Empire in 1871. The political and judicial scandal that followed lasted until Alfred Dreyfus was fully vindicated, after which he served in World War I as a lieutenant-colonel and was raised to the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honor.
Picture 1: Alfred Dreyfus
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was murdered, triggering a chain of events causing the First World War. On August 3, the German Empire declared war to France and violated Belgium’s neutrality, causing both France and Great-Britain to enter the war. Much of the war was fought on French territory.
After the First Battle of the Marne, both Entente and German forces began a series of outflanking maneuvers to try to force the other to retreat, in the so-called Race to the Sea. The United Kingdom and France soon found themselves facing entrenched German positions from Lorraine to Belgium’s Flemish coast. The United Kingdom and France sought to take the offensive, while Germany defended occupied territories. One consequence was that German trenches were much better constructed than those of their enemy: Anglo-French trenches were only intended to be temporary before their forces broke through German defenses.
Neither side proved able to deliver a decisive blow for the next four years, though protracted German action at Verdun throughout 1916, and the Entente’s failure at the Somme in the summer of 1916, brought the exhausted French army to the brink of collapse. Futile attempts at frontal assault—with a rigid adherence to unimaginative maneuvers—came at a high price for both the British and the French poilu (infantry) and led to widespread mutinies, especially during the time of the Nivelle Offensive in the spring of 1917. News of the Russian Revolution gave a new incentive to socialist sentiments among the troops, with its seemingly inherent promise of peace. Red flags were hoisted, and the Internationale was sung on several occasions. At the height of the mutiny, thirty thousand to forty thousand French soldiers participated.
Picture 2: French soldiers with battle scarred flag, Paris, 1917.
Though ultimately a victor, France suffered enormous human and material losses that weakened it for decades. About 1,394,000 men, 25 percent of all French men between the ages of 18 and 30, had been killed, and the north-eastern departments had been devastated. Peace terms were found in the Treaty of Versailles, largely negotiated by Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) for French matters. Germany was required to take full responsibility for the war and to pay war reparations; and the German industrial Saarland, a coal and steel region, was occupied by France. The German African colonies were partitioned between France and Britain such as Cameroons, Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France.