The French Navy in the First World War

The French Navy in the First World War

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Expenditure on the French Navy doubled between 1910 and 1914. Fourteen new battleships were ordered along with cruisers, destroyers and submarines.

On the outbreak of the First World War France had 19 battleships, 32 cruisers, 86 destroyers, 34 submarines and 115 torpedo boats.

During the Dardanelles operation the French Navy sent four battleships, six destroyers and submarines. The battleship Bovet and four submarines were lost during this campaign.

The French Navy also operated its own air service. By the Armistice the French Navy had 1,264 aircraft (mostly seaplanes) and 37 airships. These mainly operated from coastal stations as reconnaissance and for light bombing operations.

After 1915 the French Navy was expected to concentrate on protecting French and British shipping in the Mediterranean. Unable to cope with German U-boats, more than 500 French merchant ships were sunk during the war. The French Navy's total losses in action was 4 battleships, 6 cruisers, 23 destroyers and torpedo boats, 14 submarines and 46 various patrol craft.


To study France during the “Great War” – as it was called as early as 1914 – involves focusing on a major Western state that was confronted with a growing demand for resources to fuel the war machine and enable the country to hold out until victory and the deliverance that would come with it. This “totalization process” engulfed both the government and society as a whole, and demanded of the latter an effort that inevitably created tension. France was obviously not the only state to experiment with the consequences of an increasingly total war. But if we compare the French context with that of the other two largest Western states at war, Great Britain and Germany, France was indeed unique since it was both one of the most important battlefields of the war and also partially occupied by the enemy.

The Trigger of Mobilization

Schlieffen's plan to quickly knock France out of the war meant that the rapid mobilization of troops was not just an important tactical advantage but a critical element for achieving victory. On August 1, in response to the German declaration of war against Russia, the French government ordered a full mobilization. The Germans followed suit. On August 3, after Paris had refused to answer Berlin's demand to remain neutral, Germany declared war on France.

Simultaneously, Germany informed King Albert's neutral Belgian government that, "it would treat it as an enemy" if it did not permit the free transit of German troops across its land. Belgium immediately ordered a full mobilization. Less than twenty-four hours later, in accordance with the strategy laid out in the latest version of the Schlieffen Plan, Germany invaded Belgium. In London on the stroke of midnight, August 4, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith's government, having received no German guarantees to respect Belgium's neutrality, began a full mobilization of the army and fleet, and declared war on Germany.

By the first week of August, even as Europe was still in the midst of an all-out mobilization, hostilities had already commenced. The term mobilization is used freely to describe the process of calling up reservists in each of the belligerent countries. The process, however, was fundamentally different in each country.

German military units were geographically based. Their muster stations and arms depots were local. Once a mobilization order was issued a unit could be assembled, armed and dispatched within 24 hours. Given Germany's extensive and efficient rail network, a military unit could be on the front within 48 hours of being called up.

French mobilization was slower because the composition of French military units was geographically diverse. A tactic designed to ensure the loyalty of French troops in the event of a regional disturbance or revolt. Muster stations for French recruits were typically further away, requiring a train journey to the muster station and then, once assembled and armed, a second journey to their designated deployment. That difference meant that French mobilization was, at best, two to three days slower than that of Germany. Most of the time France lagged about a week behind Germany in mobilizing and deploying its troops. In both the French and German cases, reservists would have undergone some prior military training.

Russian mobilization was an altogether different process. Russia's western front was organized into six military districts. Each district had multiple muster stations. Typically, these were located well back from the front lines–in some cases, as much as 200 miles back. Three of these military districts fronted on German territory and three fronted on Austrian territory. In August 1914, there were approximately 5,000 miles of paved roads in Russia, less than one percent of all roads. Russian track mileage was slightly greater than that of Germany, but it had to service an area many times larger.

Reservists had to travel long distances to their muster stations, often by foot. It was only after they had arrived at the military depots that they were assigned to their military units. Only then would Russian recruits meet their fellow soldiers and more importantly their officers. Few of those recruits had received prior military training. Over 60 percent of them were illiterate. Following their activation, military units would then proceed to their front lines, again, typically on foot. The result was that Russian mobilization was inherently far slower than either the French or German process. It took Russia between four and eight weeks to fully mobilize its military. Until it soldiers were ready, Russia relied on standing cavalry units to provide a screen for its forces and to defend its frontiers.

Austrian mobilization was also regionally based. Unlike Germany, however, their regions were broader, often corresponding to provinces. Additionally, as one might expect in a polyglot empire, military units were further broken down by native language. Troops drawn from the Friuli region, for example, were organized into Italian speaking and German speaking regiments. This organizational scheme also meant that Serb units from Hungary, for example, were organized into separate formations from Serb units from Bosnia. The "ethnic, geographic and language" classification of military units ensured that they were not deployed in areas that might create personal conflicts, or divided loyalties, and raise questions about their reliability. Italian speaking troops, for example, were usually deployed on the eastern front, far away from their brethren on the Italian front.

Great Britain did not have a large standing army nor did it rely, at least not initially, on a large cadre of reservists that needed to be called up. British mobilization consisted primarily of activating the Royal Navy to its war stations and deploying its standing troops to the front lines.

The process of mobilization was extremely disruptive to civilian life. German mobilization required between five thousand and ten thousand trains. Each train was scheduled at a precise twenty-minute interval, each carrying the maximum number of cars that would fit on the station platform to allow all troops to disembark at the same time. French mobilization required between five thousand and eight thousand trains, comparably organized and scheduled. When a mobilization order was given, the entire civilian railroad schedule was suspended and the rail network was turned over to military use.

Some historians have argued that it was the generals and their rush to mobilize that precipitated the war. Had mobilization been delayed, had diplomacy been given a little more time to find a peaceful solution, a general war might well have been averted. This statement is not entirely correct, although there is some element of truth in it.

The decision to mobilize was not made by the generals but by the civilian authorities. Whether it was a hereditary monarch or a democratic elected prime minister, it was ultimately a decision made by each nation's government not its military leaders. It was a political as much as it was a military decision. In every country, the announcement of a general mobilization was met with spontaneous public celebrations and manifestations of patriotic support for the government.

No doubt there were generals who argued that prudence and an abundance of caution dictated that the decision to mobilize was better made sooner than later. In that sense, they were right. The very process of mobilization, and most importantly, the varying speed at which each nation could mobilize, created a significant element of instability.

First, the decisions to mobilize were by necessity interlocking. If one party mobilized, all its potential opponents would be hard pressed not to follow suit. The first mobilization made it virtually inevitable that it would trigger a cascading effect. Secondly, the varying speed at which each country mobilized also magnified the instability of the system. A faster mobilization meant a faster deployment and represented a significant tactical opportunity. For Germany, delaying its mobilization meant it was squandering a major battlefield advantage and undermining its war plan.

For France, whose mobilization was three to seven days behind Germany's, delay meant it fell even further behind and its peril was magnified proportionally. Finally, the process of mobilization, once started, was impossible to stop until it had run its course. To stop a mobilization in mid-stride would have produced chaos, with reservists and their units stranded, and would have left that country's forces in disarray. In fact, no military staff had a way of stopping a mobilization in mid-stride. They couldn't have done it even if they had wanted to.

By the first week of August, millions of men were arriving on the front lines. War had been declared. The fuse ignited at Sarajevo, just 33 days ago, had reached its powder keg.

Joseph V. Micallef is a military historian, bestselling author, keynote speaker, syndicated columnist and commentator on international politics and the future.

First Contact

It would take weeks for Washington and his small detachment of soldiers to reach their objective. It turned out that the French would beat them to it.

On April 17, a column of 500 enemy troops arrived at the partially constructed outpost, which had been dubbed Fort Prince George. With a garrison of only 40 volunteers at his disposal, the commander, Ensign Edward Ward, immediately surrendered the fort.

Arriving at Wills Creek three days later, Washington learned from Ward and his men that the French had taken possession of the stockade. He was further informed that the enemy forces comprised of “a Body of French consisting of upwards of one Thousand Men, who came from Venango with Eighteen pieces of Cannon, Sixty Battoes, and three Hundred Canoes.” Despite the dismal odds against him (he commanded only 180 men), Washington called for a council of war and decided to press onward. At the same time, he also received assurances of support from local native Chief Tanaghrisson, the Half King, who was a known British ally.

French Monuments & Memorials

Military Monuments

The Lantern Tower Memorial at the French Military Cemetery Ablain St. Nazaire, the largest French military cemetery in the world.

The French Army suffered many thousands of casualties even within the first few weeks of the war in the late summer and autumn of 1914 during the Battles of the Frontiers. Large-scale battles between the French and German Armies in Artois, Aisne, Champagne and Verdun between 1915 and 1917 resulted in large numbers of casualties for both sides. There are numerous monuments to military units and individuals on the battlefields where the French Armies were in action on the Western Front.

The Lantern Tower in the battlefield area of Artois is a national French memorial to the fallen of the First World War. A far-reaching, revolving beacon of light shines deep into the landscape every night. The tower is situated on the top of a high ridge and in the centre of the largest national French military cemetery in the world at Ablain St. Nazaire (also known as Notre Dame de Lorette).

Local War Memorials

Visitors to France will see that most towns and villages have a war memorial commemorating men from the community who served in the Great War and who did not return home.

In many cases civilian casualties are also commemorated, sometimes on the same memorial. Villages and towns which found themselves in the 1914-1918 war zone suffered casualties from artillery bombardments or street fighting before the civilians were formally evacuated. Many towns and villages along the length of the Western Front were occupied by Allied and/or German military forces either in the fighting zone or in the rear areas.

Those villages which found themselves in German occupied territory at some stage during the war did also suffer civilian losses from reprisal shootings. Where the German Army was attacked by co-ordinated terrorist tactics known as “franc-tireur” in the early weeks of its invasion of France executions did occur according to local sources. Some civilians were shot if they were believed to have been caught spying on the occupuying Germans.

If France Kept Fighting: How World War II Might Have Gone Very Differently

France surrendered to the Nazis in 1940 for complex reasons. The proximate cause, of course, was the success of the German invasion, which left metropolitan France at the mercy of Nazi armies. But the German victory opened profound rifts in French society. Instead of fleeing the country and keeping up the fight, as the Dutch government and a residue of the French military did, the bulk of the French government and military hierarchy made peace with the Germans.

But what if key figures (such as Marshal Philippe Petain) had viewed the situation differently? If the French government had decided to go into exile in the Empire, rather than re-establish itself in the German protectorate at Vichy, then the rest of World War II might have gone very differently.

The Military:

France had extensive assets available to continue its resistance against the Axis powers. The French Fleet was the most notable of these France possessed two of the world’s most modern fast battleships, numerous powerful cruisers and destroyers, and a host of support vessels. Had the French acted with any speed to the success of the German Ardennes offensive, this fleet could have evacuated a substantial portion of the French Army to Britain and to North Africa, possibly with much of its equipment intact.

In Allied service, these ships could have helped hem in the Italian Navy, and cut Axis supply lines to Africa. Against Germany, French squadrons could have hunted raiders, driving the Germans to the Arctic even before the entry of the United States. And when war came to the Pacific, the Fleet could have deployed in defense of French Indochina and other French possessions, as well as giving critical support to the Royal Navy. For their part, the Army and Air Force could have contributed to the war in the Mediterranean, the defense of Greece, and to resistance against Japanese encroachment in French Indochina.

In Africa, while we can assume that the problems that bedeviled French-British operations in France would have persisted, the continued resistance of the Empire would have put Italy in an untenable position. Italy struggled to supply Libya when faced with just the British the presence of the French fleet, as well as an active military threat in Tunisia, would have made it very difficult for the Axis to sustain operations in Africa.

Given the lukewarm Italian enthusiasm for the war in the first place, a concerted Franco-British offensive in the Mediterranean might have pushed Italy out of the conflict early, or at least curtailed Rome’s contribution to the Eastern Front. If Mussolini persisted in foolishly declaring war on Greece (as might have happened in case of the loss of Libya) French and British forces together could have sustained a serious Greek war effort, although probably not enough to hold off the Germans.

In the Pacific, Japan occupied French Indochina (first in part, and then wholly) because of the collaboration of the Vichy regime. Had the French government remained at war with Germany, authorities in Indochina would have had both the means and the motivation to resist Japanese advances. Unless Tokyo was willing to risk an early war with the British (and possibly the Americans), it would have needed to seize French Indochina in the first days of its December 1941 offensive, which would have significantly delayed Japan’s larger offensive into Southeast Asia.

On the Other Hand…

The biggest reason that many French decided to collaborate with the Nazis was fear of what Germany would otherwise do to occupied France. To be sure, the Germans took great care in 1940 and 1941 to assure the French of their (relatively) benign intentions. At the same time, the Germans looted what was left of the French military and the French treasury, funding the Nazi war machine as it undertook campaigns against Britain and the USSR. Still, France mostly avoided “Polanisation,” the complete destruction of the national unit that the Germans carried out in the East.

Without a Vichy, the situation might have gone much worse for France, especially if the military continued an effective resistance from the Empire. The Germans always found some collaborators, and whether or not the French government continued to resist, some local authorities would have cooperated with the Nazis. But conditions in the occupied portions of France were worse than in Vichy, especially for those (Jews and political opponents) specifically targeted by the Nazi regime. In the south, Mussolini’s Italy might have been able to carve away a bigger chunk of France that it eventually took control of.

The availability of French territory in Africa might have made both Franco and Hitler more amenable to each others’ entreaties, although much would depend on how effectively the French and the British fought Italy. At the extreme, persistence of French resistance in Africa might have forced Hitler to delay his invasion of the Soviet Union, although even in this case Germany lacked much in the way of means to bring the British and French to heel.

Parting Thoughts:

Many Frenchmen (led most notably by Charles de Gaulle) maintained an honorable resistance to the Germans, even after the armistice. By 1944, a strong resistance movement in metropolitan France was supported by the infusion of large numbers of troops from North Africa and elsewhere. So, as was the case with Poland, France did continue to fight, even after defeat.

Nevertheless, the eventual course of World War II put an especially bad light on the decision of the French military and political hierarchy to cease resistance against Germany. Even without foreknowledge of the German disaster in Russia, however, the French had meaningful means to resist Germany, and to continue to put pressure on the Nazi regime. The refusal of the bulk of the French government to continue the war, if under disadvantageous circumstance, undoubtedly extended the suffering of the European continent.

Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.

World War I, Part 1: The French Army and Wine

Editor’s Note: This summer will mark the 100th anniversary of World War I’s outbreak. Today, contributing editor Nicholas K. Johnson brings us the first installment in a five-part series on alcohol, drugs, and the Great War.

World War I has often been associated with intoxication in popular culture. Cocktails like the French 75, so named for the kick of a common artillery piece, became popular during the interwar period. During the “Spirit of 1914”– a burst of popular enthusiasm upon the war’s outbreak– European intellectuals likened war hysteria to mass intoxication After the war, Ernst Jünger depicted modern combat as an intoxicating rush (or Rausch) in his popular novelizations of his own experiences on the Western Front. More recently, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire explored drug abuse, alcoholism, and the rise of organized crime through the stories of traumatized World War I veterans Jimmy Darmody and Richard Harrow. This entry explores how alcoholic intoxicants like wine and absinthe were used and depicted during the war. Our guide for this exploration is the poilu [1], the typical French soldier, and his fondness for wine.

Wine was plentiful on the French front, and the image of the poilu and his wine is ubiquitous in French depictions of the war. Today, he forms a part of the French national myth. Members of the current French wine industry claim that the war experience turned poilus from diverse regions of France (especially those from regions with high beer consumption) into wine consumers. Wine supposedly contributed to France’s “national unity.” Vintners argue that the shared experience of the trenches–wine included– pushed aside regional differences. When I visited French World War I sites such as Verdun, I was struck by how often images of the poilu and wine were present.

The war’s outbreak also coincided with France’s ban on absinthe. Long the scapegoat of moral panics (and subject of countless depictions in the arts), absinthe was finally banned on August 16, 1914. In her book on the topic, Doris Lanier notes that many consumers circumvented the ban, and soldiers continued to enjoy absinthe during the war. The French government nevertheless justified the ban by claiming that absinthe was contributing to an epidemic of alcoholism, which was weakening France’s population. Although the language used by both government officials and the French press during this time is similar to language used by American Prohibition advocates, absinthe and alcoholism were also characterized as contributing to a general malaise and degeneration of the French population. This concern with societal degeneration was part of a generalized anxiety throughout Europe during this period. Social ills, so-called decadence, and racial mixing were often cited as contributing to the weakening of Western Civilization.Although these specters were used to justify absinthe’s 1914 ban, more recent work argues that the ban was part of an effort to promote France’s then-struggling wine industry. The issue of alcohol as a social ill would return in the interwar period, though not to the same degree as in the United States.

When France went to war in 1914, troops were only issued water, but the army quickly began issuing a daily wine ration as early as September 1914. This consisted of pinard (sometimes translated as “plonk”), which was a low-quality red wine. Generally, poilus were issued with ½ liter of pinard per day, but this could fluctuate depending on the logistical situation. Soldiers were sometimes issued beer, cider, or brandy in lieu of pinard, but it remained the most common alcoholic drink consumed at the front. On special occasions, other drinks like spiced wine or sparkling wine would be issued. (In Gabriel Chevallier’s novelization of his war experiences, a bottle of sparkling wine was issued to every four men on Bastille Day). Pinard was sometimes mixed with brandy some reports mention it being mixed with ether. Better quality wine, cognac, and other brandies were also widely available behind the lines, particularly in cafes and brothels catering to soldiers. British and American accounts of the war describe going out and consuming vast amounts of vin blanc (white wine) as a matter of routine during furlough.

On the front, pinard became an essential part of France’s logistical operation. France imported wine in vast quantities and mounted a propaganda campaign to encourage civilians to conserve their wine for the war effort.

Alcohol features prominently in French war literature and poetry. Henri Barbusse’s apocalyptic novel Under Fire, which was published during the war, portrays the sheer ubiquity of wine at the front. In Barbusse’s account, soldiers get drunk from others’ wine rations. Civilians exploit soldiers on leave by illegally selling wine for prices higher than the military-imposed price controls. The soldiers’ billets reek of “ pipes, wine, and stale coffee.” In the same way later war literature depicts soldiers pining for the culinary comforts of home, Barbusse’s poilus daydream about the wines from their respective regions . Barbusse himself mounts a partial defense of alcohol by arguing that the “poison” did not affect his squad’s performance (apparently, the problem was big enough to warrant a mention). Nevertheless, the French military often issued brandy just before an attack. This “liquid courage” did not always have the desired effect, as Gabriel Chevallier noted in this depiction of an attack he participated in at Chemin des Dames:

“We drink eau-de-vie that has the sickly taste of blood and burns the stomach like acid. A foul chloroform to numb our brains, as we endure the torture of apprehension while waiting for the torture of our bodies, the living autopsy, the jagged scalpels of steel.”

For the surrealist poet and poilu Guillaume Apollinaire, alcohol was both strategically useful and profoundly disturbing. In his poem “To Italy”, Apollinaire referred to pinard’s ability to unite the French and Italians against the Germans. In one of his more famous war poems, “The Grape Grower in Champagne,” Apollinaire depicts his fellow poilus as champagne bottles containing blood. The poem includes a haunting depiction of the eponymous grape grower:

“A grape-grower was singing bent over his vines
A grape-grower without a mouth on the far horizon
A grape-grower who himself was the living bottle
A grape-grower who knows all about war
A grape-grower in Champagne who’s an artilleryman”

Alcohol was a key part of the French war experience it was part of daily life in the trenches. Alcohol remained ever-present in depictions of the poilu in popular culture, both during the war and in its aftermath. It formed part of the French national myth about the war through propaganda images and, later, specious claims about the war turning wine into France’s national beverage. It also contributed to the perception that social ills were exacerbated by the war. The war physically destroyed much of the wine-growing landscape, including areas in the Champagne region. Ultimately, as Max Leclerc’s “Ode to Pinard” indicates, wine was neither a source of national pride nor a threat to civilization. It was simply one of the few comforts available to poilus– one that helped them get through the day-to-day existence at the front.

Part 2 of this series will focus on the British Army, alcohol, and a shift in tobacco culture stemming from the trench experience.

[1] Literally translated as “hairy one,” poilu is the French equivalent of terms like the British Tommy and the American Doughboy.

The Russian Revolution

Revolutionary politics in Russia was fuelled by poor morale in the army. It became a vicious cycle, in which political turmoil destroyed the last of the Russian military’s will to fight.

By 1917, morale was already low in the Russian army. Since the start of the war, they had been fighting half the armed forces of the Central Powers. It had been a grueling battle that featured superguns, supply shortages, and all the horrors of war.

In early 1917, two events took place that pushed poor morale past the point of recovery. In January, the Entente leaders of Britain, France, Italy, and Russia decided 1917 would be the year they made a big push to win the war, with advances on every front. Then, in March the monarchy was overthrown.

Troops on the front found themselves in a state of uncertainty. Without the Tsar under whose banner they had fought, who were they fighting for? Shifting political structures left them confused about their place in the world. Desertions rose.

Attacking the Tsar’s palace at the start of the Russian Revolution

Then, on June 30, Russia launched its part in the promised great offensives. Faced with new German tactics of defense in depth, the advance ground to a blood-soaked halt. A new commander-in-chief decided that, instead of fighting the Germans, he would turn around and launch a coup.

Rather than push their advantage in combat, the Germans encouraged the Russians to destroy themselves. They sent the Communist leader Lenin home, hoping he would stir up trouble. As autumn turned to winter, the army joined in a revolt against the government rather than go on fighting for leaders they did not trust.

Russia withdrew from the Great War and descended into civil war.

France’s military brothels: Hidden history of the First World War

Prostitution and war often go hand-in-hand. But this is perhaps most true of the First World War, where even the French government played a part in the sex industry – a legacy that continued almost to up to today.

“You could find anything you wanted in the brothels in the surrounding area and at the camps. It was a mêlée, a hard, dangerous and disgusting business. Fifty, sixty, up to a hundred men of all colours and races to see every day, all under the constant threat of air raids and bombardments.”

These are the words of Dr Léon Bizard in his memoirs of the First World War. He was describing the daily routine of a hidden army operating in the shadows of the one fighting on the front lines - the thousands of sex workers that catered to the soldiers of the Great War.

‘Where there are soldiers, pimps quickly follow’

Prostitution flourished from the moment fighting began in the summer of 1914 – supply rising to meet the demand of soldiers who, far from their families and plunged into the hell of war, found themselves in need of female companionship.

“You can die at any moment, from one second to the next. When there is the opportunity to respond to desire, there are no restraints,” explains Lieutenant Colonel Christian Benoit, author of a book on the military and prostitution entitled ‘The Soldier and the Whore’.

For centuries, soldiers and sex workers have shared history, he tells FRANCE 24. In fact, he says, they are inseparable.

"This is explained by the fact that the armies are groups of young, unmarried men who have the need occasionally to be with a woman, not always for sex by the way, but also for company.

“This mass of men provides clients for prostitution. Where there are soldiers, pimps quickly follow.”

With the mobilisation of vaster quantities of men than had ever been seen before, the phenomenon reached new heights in the First World War.

Prostitution became rife in areas close to the front lines, as well as in nearby towns and villages, says Benoit.

“Some of the inhabitants took up prostitution. Others were also brought in. These were apocalyptic scenes, real slaughterhouses.”

Disease quickly spread – an estimated 20 to 30 percent of men contracted syphilis during the war, including both soldiers and the civilian population.

France’s military-run brothels

Soon, the military doctors became concerned and during the summer of 1915, the French army began taking measures to stop the scourge, setting up clinics to treat infected men.

“The doctors took the opportunity to interrogate the men to find out who they caught the disease from so they could find the woman in question and treat her,” says Benoit. “But [the men] were often unable to remember.”

Eventually, the French state took an even more drastic step and began taking direct control of, or even setting up, brothels across the country.

Known as Military Campaign Brothels (BMCs), they had already been used by the French army in the previous century during the conquest of Algeria – but never before on home soil.

These appeared in particular near training camps, often set up in the countryside “where there was no regulated prostitution or medical screening”, says Benoit.

Not all of France’s allies took such a tolerant view. The US, for example, banned its soldiers from visiting brothels entirely.

“They preferred to control their soldiers with the following system: any man who had sex had to report it within three hours at medical station for prophylactic treatment. If they got sick without following this procedure, they were fined half their pay.”

This approach did not always have the desired effect: when the Americans landed in France at the port of Saint-Nazaire, their attendance of illegal brothels contributed to the spread of syphilis in the city.

A lasting legacy

The end of the combat in November 1918 inevitably brought a decline in prostitution. But the French military’s dalliance in the murky world of prostitution continued long after the last shots of World War One were fired.

It continued to operate brothels right up until the end of the 20th Century.

“It was outside the law of course,” says Benoit, “but the use of subcontracting – the army would start a relation with a local pimp who would supply the girls – gave the system its ambiguity.”

BMCs were used by the army in North Africa and Germany during the Second World War and, despite the outlawing of brothels in France in 1946, during the Indochina War of the late 40s and early 50s.

Right up until 1978, four BMCs were being operated in metropolitan France, serving the French Foreign Legion. The final state-run brothel -- in Kourou, French Guiana -- did not close its doors until 1995.

“A local pimp had filed a complaint for unfair competition,” explains Benoit.

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  1. ↑ Filteau, Gérald: Le Québec, le Canada et la guerre 1914-1918, Montréal 1977, p. 23.
  2. ↑ Pelletier-Baillargeon, Hélène: Olivar Asselin et son temps. Le volontaire, Québec 2001, pp. 18f.
  3. ↑ Sharpe, Chris A.: Enlistment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1918. A Regional Analysis, in: Journal of Canadian Studies 18 (1984), pp. 15-29.
  4. ↑ In a newspaper article dated 8 April 1916, Sir Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook (1879-1964), the Canadian Records Officer, explained that the total number of French-Canadians enrolled as recruits for all the Canadian contingents remained “a matter of some doubt” but estimations varied from 15,000 to 20,000. See Aitken, Max: With the French Canadians in Flanders, in: Ottawa Citizen (8 April 1916), p. 11. Although an exact number is still unavailable, recent research brings the number closer to 35,000 French Canadians who served during the First World War. See Litalien, Michel: Écrire sa guerre. Témoignages de soldats canadiens-français (1914-1919), Outremont 2011, p. 9.
  5. ↑ Morton, Desmond: French Canada and the Canadian Militia, 1868-1914, in: Social History 3 (June 1969), pp. 32-50.
  6. ↑ Morton, Desmond: Did the French Canadians Cause the Conscription Crisis of 1917?, in: Canadian Military History 24/1 (2015), pp. 94f.
  7. ↑ Richard, Béatrice: La Grande Guerre de Paul Caron. Chroniques d’un légionnaire canadien-français, 1914-1917, Québec 2014, p. 16.
  8. ↑ Morton, Desmond: When Your Number’s Up. The Canadian Soldier in the First World War, Toronto 1993, p. 63.
  9. ↑ Young, W. R.: Conscription, Rural Depopulation, and the Farmers of Ontario, 1917–19, in: Canadian Historical Review 53/3 (1972), pp. 289-320.
  10. ↑ Schull, Joseph: L’Ontario depuis 1867, Toronto 1987, p. 187.
  11. ↑ Canadiens-français et la guerre, in: Le Droit (5 August 1914), p. 1.
  12. ↑ Author’s own translation. Langlois, Omer: C’est un projet criminel, in: Le Droit (7 July 1917), p. 1.
  13. ↑ Theobald, Andrew: Une Loi Extraordinaire. New Brunswick Acadians and the Conscription Crisis of the First World War, in: Acadiensis 34/1 (Autumn 2004), pp. 80-95 Theobald, Andrew: The Bitter Harvest of War. New Brunswick and the Conscription Crisis of 1917, Fredericton 2008, p. 121.
  14. ↑ Cook, Tim: Warlords. Borden, Mackenzie King and Canada’s World Wars, Toronto 2012, p. 95.
  15. ↑ Manitoba Free Press (28 November 1917).
  16. ↑ Bourassa, Henri: Conscription, Montreal 1917, p. 17.
  17. ↑ Author’s own translation. Le Bien public (5 July 1917), p. 1. “Exactement cinquante ans après la signature du pacte de la Confédération premier ministre Borden (…) s’apprête à faire voter de force, et contre le gré de la majorité du peuple, la conscription militaire voulue par les impérialistes. Le pacte confédératif garantissait la justice égale et complète aux races habitant ce pays. Les droits des minorités étaient soigneusement prévus, et leur protection assurée.”
  18. ↑ Mann Trofimenkoff, Susan: The Dream of Nation. A Social and Intellectual History of Quebec, Montreal 1982, p. 213.
  19. ↑ Auger, Martin: On the Brink of Civil War. The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots, in: Canadian Historical Review 89/4 (December 2008), pp. 503-540.
  20. ↑ It’s important to mention that if the conscription crisis is an integral part of the French Canadian historiography of the war, the conscripts themselves have not received much attention. Patrick Bouvier explored the conscripts who deserted in Bouvier, Patrick: Déserteurs et insoumis. Les Canadiens français et la justice militaire (1914-1918), Outremont 2003.
  21. ↑ Chaballe, Joseph: Histoire du 22 e Bataillon canadien-français, 1914-1919, Montreal 1952, p. 415.
  22. ↑ Corneloup, Claudius: L’épopée du Vingt-deuxième canadien français, Montreal 1919, p. 150.
  23. ↑ Lapointe, Arthur J.: Souvenirs et impressions de ma vie de soldat (1916-1919), Saint-Ulric 1919, p. 109.
  24. ↑ Gagnon, Jean-Pierre: L’histoire du 22e bataillon (canadien-français), in: Bulletin d’histoire politique (1999), p. 55.
  25. ↑ For more on the Acadian soldiers’ contribution to the First World War, see Léger, Claude E.: Le bataillon acadien de la Première Guerre mondiale, Montreal 2001.
  26. ↑ Cinq-Mars, Marcelle (ed.): Thomas-Louis Tremblay, Journal de guerre (1914-1918), Outremont 2006.
  27. ↑ Richard, La Grande Guerre 2014.
  28. ↑ Litalien, Écrire sa guerre 2011. Two French Canadian soldiers’ diaries were recently compiled and annotated by Michel Litalien. See Litalien, Michel: Honoré-Édouard Légaré. Ce que j'ai vu … Ce que j'ai vécu, 1914–1916, Outremont 2013 Litalien, Michel: Georges-Ulric Francoeur. Mon journal. France-Belgique, 1915–1916, Outremont 2011.
  29. ↑ Litalien, Michel: Dans la tourmente. Deux hôpitaux militaires canadiens-français dans la France en guerre (1915-1919), Outremont 2003.
  30. ↑ Morin-Pelletier, Mélanie: Des oiseaux bleus chez les Poilus. Les infirmières des hôpitaux militaires canadiens-français postés en France, 1915-1919, in: Bulletin d’histoire politique 17/2 (2009), pp. 57-74.
  31. ↑ Ibid., see also Morin-Pelletier, Mélanie: Héritières de la Grande Guerre. Les infirmières militaires canadiennes, 1914-1918, Ph.D. thesis at Ottawa University, Ottawa 2009 Grantham, Liliane: Blanche Olive Lavallée. Military Nurse during the First World War and Philanthropist, in: Canadian Defence Review 16/2 (1986), pp. 46-49.
  32. ↑ Price, Enid: Changes in the Industrial Occupations of Women in the Environment of Montreal during the Period of the War, 1914-1918, Montreal 1919, p. 21.
  33. ↑ Linteau, Paul-André/Durocher, René/Robert, Jean-Claude: Quebec. A History 1867-1929, Toronto 1983, p. 377.
  34. ↑ Djebabla, Mourad: Fight or Farm. Canadian Farmers and the Dilemma of the War Effort in World War One (1914-1918), in: Canadian Military Journal 13/2 (2013), pp. 57-67 Lew, Byron/McInnis, Marvin: World War I and the Expansion of Canadian Wheat Supply, issued by Trent University, online: [1] (retrieved:4 April 2016).


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