GRANDMAISON & THE CULT OF THE OFFENSIVE

(Given that no relatively major development of WWI occurred on August 8, I have decided to use this day to give some of the background)

Louis Loyzeau de Grandmaison receives notice in the vast majority of all studies of the pre-war French army, due to his extraordinary influence over it. This seems extraordinary with respect to his early death (1915) and to the fact that he never commanded even a single French army (he had only made a lower rank of General at the time of his death).

Grandmaison’s story must include that he attended the War college in Paris, where Ferdinand Foch (a gifted strategist and military theorist) taught that an army’s will to conquer is essential to victory. This represented a development of common thinking of the time, dominated by the ideas of philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson spoke of a nation’s life force having mystical powers which, if harnessed, could produce victories over even richer, more populous and powerful nations (such as Germany).

Grandmaison took these ideas to a new level: “L’offensive à l’outrance” (offensive to the excessive). Grandmaison believed and taught that all-out offensives, with nothing held back, were the key to victory.

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French officers and military leaders proved to be very receptive to Grandmaison’s ideas . . . perhaps because they were tired of being told that a stout defense represented their best hope in a war with Germany. Grandmaison delivered a series of lectures in early 1911, and subscribers to l’offensive à l’outrance, the cult of the offensive, represented a strong faction of the French Supreme War Council when a squabble over leadership emerged in July 1911.

The current commander in chief, General Victor Michel, wished to array France’s armies at varying distances from its eastern border in order to best react and counter-attack against German invasions. Though in retrospect Michel’s strategy seems very wise (indeed, he even foresaw a German invasion of Belgium), such thinking could not be endured by the cult of the offensive.

For subscribers to l’offensive à l’outrance, it did not matter a whit where and what the enemy was doing. Only one thing mattered: that you attacked him with everything you had. The cult of the offensive successfully replaced Michel with Joseph Joffre. Under his watch, the French investment in artillery severely waned, and training of French troops emphasized the use of bayonets. These proved to be horrible decisions: artillery killed more troops than any other weapon in WWI, and bayonets one of the fewest. But to the cult of the offensive, “bayonets, not big guns, were the supreme weapon.”

~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918 (New York: Delacorte Press, 2006), 173.

The French army became saturated with the cult of the offensive (and it truly was a cult: many who did not subscribe to it were replaced or even demoted). Battle doctrine emphasized that battles hinge upon morale and the will to conquer. The possibility of a German invasion of Belgium (and consequent invasion of France from the North) was dismissed. In short, Joffre set up the French army for disaster. Brigadier General Grandmaison would be killed in battle on February 18, 1915 by a piece of artillery shrapnel . . . some would call this poetic justice.

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