THE FRENCH SOLDIER AND FREEDOM FRIES
By Bob Drynan
In the late 18th Century and into the 19th, Napoleon conquered almost the entire European Continent. French soldiers fought bravely and heroically. They were well led. Wellington beat them at Waterloo, just barely. The French soldier and his leaders earned Wellington’s everlasting respect.
Napoleon III led France during the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870’s. The Germans of Otto von Bismark and Kaiser Wilhelm I crushed the French Army at Sedan. French soldiers died with courage. They were led by dolts!
In World War I, millions of French soldiers died at Verdun, on the Somme, the Marne and other battlefields. They didn’t die with bullet holes in the back! They fought tenaciously from 1914 to 1918, even after our doughboys landed and lent a hand. Even then, it was not only Americans who brought the war to an end.
French generals spent French soldiers like they were small change in their pockets! But don’t forget Douglas Haig, commander of the BEF, and his futile expenditure of British youth against fortified German positions. French soldiers fought on. Even when toward the end they mutinied against their callous leaders, in the end they finished facing their enemies.
In 1940, Blitzkrieg made a farce of the Maginot Line! French soldiers were not to blame! Their leaders thought no farther than their noses, and French soldiers died by the thousands with their faces pointed toward their enemy. French politicians ran from Paris to a place called Vichy! We have learned to hate DeGaulle, but he escaped to England and fought back honorably. He tried to erase the shame, not of French soldiers, but of French leaders! And the Resistance was not a myth! They were not all collaborators! After Normandy, French soldiers also died in the liberation of their country!
In the winter of 1950 the US Eighth Army collapsed against the Chinese counter-invasion of North Korea with some notable exceptions. The First Marine Division outnumbered more than ten-to-one fought their way out of the Chosin Reservoir. An army officer visited our base in Germany in 1959 to interview soldiers to determine the fundamental flaw in their character that led to the failure in Korea. Ye Gods! That was a failure of leadership!
Was our failure in Vietnam a failure of the courage of the American soldier or his leadership on the line? No, it was a failure of senior military leadership and even worse our political leaders! And clearly, it was a failure!
French troops have fought alongside of us in many places, not the least significant, Yorktown in Virginia. We would not have become a nation without their presence. They also were with us in Desert Storm.
Don’t forget about those who led us until recently. They strutted and exhorted us like heroes when they talked of war. But they had never seen the ‘varmint.’ Some wore uniforms, but avoided the serious side of war. They knew nothing of the human price of war, but they had the effrontery to sneer at the soldiers like Colin Powell, who counseled caution.
Don’t look to the soldiers. Look to the leaders, especially as events continue to unfold in the Middle East. I have only served with British and German soldiers during my time in the Army. Still, I had little doubt then, and no greater doubt now, that when called upon, the French soldier is as good a man as the rest of us pretend to be.