The Army and the Nationalist Revival

Douglas Porch

In the history of the French army before the Great War, 1911 marked a turning point. The Moroccan crisis of that year introduced a new note of urgency into military debates. Beneath the threat of war, politicians like Poincaré, Messimy and Millerand set out to rehabilitate a war machine which had grown rusty from over a decade of neglect and restore the army as the focal point of French patriotism and national pride.

The Nationalist Revival, as the period between the Agadir crisis of 1911 and the outbreak of war has come to be called, was the product of a serious deterioration in Franco-German relations which began with the first Moroccan crisis of 1905.1 While no threat of war existed, Frenchmen could indulge a witch-hunt against soldiers, priests and other enemies of the republic. When Germany suddenly appeared as a serious threat to peace, public complacency was shaken. By 1911, when Germany again challenged France over Morocco, French public opinion had hardened—in 1905, few wanted to fight. By 1911, a significant number of people were prepared for a showdown with the Kaiser. This change of attitude had first become apparent at the top. In 1905, the high command had informed the government that the French army had no chance of winning a war with Germany. Two years later, the chief of the general staff, General Hagron, resigned, giving as his reason France's abysmal state of military preparedness which the government seemed in no haste to repair. However, from the 1908 affair of the Casablanca deserters which again strained relations between the two countries, the attitude of leading Radicals toward the army began to mellow: Clemenceau named Foch to command the Ecole de guerre, despite his Catholic background, while reports of the annual military budget began to suggest improving the conditions of service for professional soldiers as a means of reviving sagging army morale. With the second Moroccan crisis of 1911, the restoration of military strength had become a first priority among Radical politicians. While one must not exaggerate the scope of the Nationalist Revival which especially influenced the young, the intelligent and the Parisian, by 1911 nationalism had become a significant factor in French politics responsible for the election of Poincaré as president in 1913 and for the passage in that year of the three-year service law.2

For the reformist historians of the inter-war years, whose views have never been fundamentally challenged, the Nationalist Revival issued in a catastrophic period of reaction which bolstered the prestige of professional soldiers and, in the words of leftwing historian Georges Michon, 'returned the army to its pre-Dreyfus affair state.”3


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