La Victoire... et ensuite ?

Corps 1
Corps 2

Between the 17th and 22nd November, French troops arrived in Mulhouse, Metz and Strasbourg. On 1st December, the Allies reached German soil and on the 9th the French occupied Mainz. But this victorious advance, accompanied by military music and punctuated by ceremonies, proclamations by generals and applause from the newly liberated people, could not disguise the heavy toll the war.

An enormous waste: more than 8 million dead, including 1,400,000 for France, 2,000,000 for Germany, 1,700,000 for Russia, more than a million for Austro-Hungary, 850,000 for the British Empire, 600,000 for Italy, about 320,000 for Serbia and Turkey, 50,000 for Belgium and 114,000 for the USA; to which figures must be added the millions of wounded, disabled and invalids(1). All of these wasted lives were from the active generations of men aged between 18 and 50: France thus lost 10 % of her active male population and these losses could never be compensated for. The material damage was immense: in France, about 300,000 houses were destroyed and in Belgium, Italy, Poland, Russia and Romania millions of hectares of land was rendered unworkable for years to come.

The economies of most of the warring nations were upset and the public debts of France, Great Britain and Italy increased tenfold as a result. These countries had borrowed from their own people and, most importantly, from abroad, mainly from the United States. Despite major human losses, the USA had remained relatively unscathed and became the veritable creditor of Europe. As well as losing the war, the old continent lost its economic supremacy: many markets thus passed into the hands of American and Japanese businessmen.

A world turned upside down The conflict dramatically changed the whole of European society, first of all through the military operations themselves. In France, as in other countries, some social groups had been decimated, for example the tutors and teachers who had served mostly in the French infantry regiments(2) and farmers who had provided the greatest number of conscripts for this "queen of battles". Quick fortunes had been amassed by suppliers to the armies, manufacturers of military equipment and all kinds of intermediary agents. These "war profiteers", barely affected by the tax levies, flaunted an arrogant showiness. For their part, the working class benefited from a certain amount of protection from 1915 because of "special allowances" and were to see their salaries increase.

Their household incomes had been enhanced by the salaries of their wives who had often been able to find work in the armaments factories. As for the farmers, they benefited overall from the price increases in commodities and from allowances allotted by the State. Those most affected were the middle classes on fixed incomes: those on private incomes and small-scale property owners had been practically wiped out by the freezing of rent, the debt moratoria and the price increases since 1916(3). The treatment of civil servants never kept up with the cost of living. Moreover, these social groups took part on a large scale in the loan schemes and in the "gold campaign" in particular, exchanging their precious metals for the equivalent in paper money. The resort to inflation to finance the war, which led to price increases, the devaluation of the Franc and then the abandonment of the gold standard, would end up ruining them. A lot of habits also had to change: pre-war the women, responsible for educating children, had been restricted to working at home; but now, the absence of men meant they had to shoulder responsibility for some of the war economy of France, Great Britain and Germany.

Hundreds of thousands of them successfully replaced the male work force in the factories, state departments and agricultural businesses and few of them were ready to give up this new independence and return to their pre-war lives.

The demobilised men, the older groups from the end of 1918, and in 1919 for the rest, were faced with competition on the labour market. In addition, the old values themselves had changed: in November 1918, what was the point of taking enjoyment from a job well done and saving every penny?" Too many certainties had collapsed. Some artists and thinkers now opted for "going beyond face-value" towards surrealism, others lapsed into total derision.

The foundations for peace From October 1918 onwards, even before the armistice on the Western Front was signed, the characteristics of post-war Europe were beginning to take shape: a mosaic of states, claiming republic status following their independence. Three states had co existed in central Europe before the war: the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires; they dissolved into ten states, including seven new ones: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the kingdom of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. Either practically destroyed by their defeat or transformed through revolution, the old European empires collapsed. But that did not mean that that the political problems of peace had all been solved: for the allies, the constitutional upsets of the autumn of 1918 were just a preamble to the armistice. And so, for Great Britain as well as for France, Germany was held totally responsible for the conflict: "This peace must be a fair peace, strictly fair, inexorably fair (...), those responsible for the war must be punished. We must make sure that this crime will never be repeated." On saying these words in a speech in Newcastle at the end of November 1918 (4) , Lloyd George established the Allies as both judge and jury. The consequences were obvious: if Germany was responsible, then she "must pay as many of the costs of the war as she was financially able" (5) . The reasoning is practically identical in all respects: the Allies had to prevent the vanquished party from recovering too quickly by taking all the traditional safety precautions, such as occupying the more or less demilitarised banks of the Rhine, as well as some economic precautions: "the Allies must take care to remain united in order to prevent Germany from getting straight back into the business world" (6) . It was clear that the victors feared any future competition from Germany, who had already been so dangerous pre-war.

Few contemporaries could clearly identify the problems with such an attitude, firstly as far as the commercial markets were concerned: the real competitor was not Germany, but the United States and Japan who had, incidentally, already profited greatly from the conflict in supplanting the Europeans; and secondly, because preventing Germany from recovering, whilst asking her to pay the costs of the war, was totally contradictory. The Allies were not aware of her exact situation: in asking the government to sign the armistice, Hindenburg and the military chiefs avoided the surrender of the German armies, but most importantly, they had moved the responsibility for defeat politically and transferred it to the new regime. At the end of 1918, the latter was already in the grip of attacks from revolutionaries from the extreme left. Additionally, it was true that the people over the Rhine had no sense whatsoever of the weight of the defeat. Some correspondents and journalists were aware, but the political parties were unable to draw any conclusions as to what position to take with regard to the new regime. In the medium to long term, the victor's lack of flexibility would only serve to encourage the emergence of nationalist forces ready for revenge. In addition, all the concepts of international politics had been shattered: "Faced with the disintegration of Germany, the Allies could have had a completely free hand, if only they had known how to reorganise Russia. The problem of Moscow radically complicates that of Berlin", wrote a journalist from Le Temps, in December 1918. In fact, although the victors feared "revolutionary contagion", they hesitated on the stance to be taken: should they pursue the direct approach, such as sending an expeditionary force, or use the "barbed wire" policy, which would later become Clemenceau and Pichon's "cordon sanitaire" ("quarantine line")? In any case, they had a poor grasp of their own various mechanics (revolutionary warfare and the principles of negotiation).

It was in light of the gravity of such hypotheses and contradictions that the negotiators would try to build peace from 1919 onwards. French servicemen wanted to believe that they had suffered in the last war ever. It was up to the political figures to prove that this wish could be granted.

(1) Figures naturally vary according on the source. Those given by Pierre Renouvin in his book La Crise européenne et la Grande Guerre, published in 1934, seem a little under-estimated. See Jean-Jacques Becker's adjusted figures for major losses in Mourir à Verdun, published in L'Histoire n 76, 1985, pp. 18 to 29. The author carries out a study of French losses for the whole of the war, categorised by recruitment group, year and socio-professional group. (2) For the French army, the infantry losses were the greatest, compared with other branches of the armed services: 23 % of the total workforce was killed, 30 % if one only counts officers. (3) In 1918, prices trebled, compared to during the pre-war period. For some products they even increased fivefold. See Jean-Jacques Becker's report on this subject in Les Français dans la Grande Guerre, in particular chapter 11: La Charente en 1915 1916. (4) Quoted from Chronologie de la guerre - 1er juillet 31 décembre 1918, Nancy, Berger-Levrault, 1919, p. 311. (5) ibid. (6) Article by Chavenon in the periodical Information, 4 November 1918, quoted in Chronologie de la guerre, p. 251.
  • Appel à la générosité publique "L'emprunt des dernières cartouches".
    Affiche. Collection privée

  • La Victoire écrite par les Poilus. Source : carte postale. Collection privée

  • Lens : La région minière dévastée. Source Photo Schutz Group Photographers
    Library of Congress - libre de droits

  • A Wissous (Essonne), des femmes arrachent des pommes de terre, août 1917.
    Reporter : Gabriel Boussuge. ECPAD.

  • A Pompey, en Meurthe-et-Moselle, le 19 août 1917, des femmes fabriquent des noyaux de 155 mm.
    Photographie Jacques Agié. ECPAD.

  • Le maréchal Foch, Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando
    et le baron Sonnino sont réunis à Londres, le 7 décembre 1918,
    pour préparer la future Conférence sur la paix. Source Droits réservés.

  • Le cimetière militaire de Sept-Saulx, dans la Marne. Carte postale. Collection privée.

  • Les nouveaux riches. Carte postale. Collection privée