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The First World War in France

The French public yearned for revenge after the defeat of 1870, and for the return of the parts of Alsace and Lorraine lost to Germany. There were international rivalries over colonies, naval power and empires in Europe. France had allied itself to Russia, and after the mobilisation of Russia on 30 July 1914, France also mobilised, on 1 August.

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Crowds enthusiastically called for war in Berlin and Paris, and Germany invaded Belgium on 3 August. In spite of heroic Belgian resistance, and the aid of British and French troops, Belgium was overrun. The French were forced to retreat in September, but managed to push back the German advance in the battles of the Marne and Flanders, before the 'race to the sea' when both sides moved towards the North Sea in attempts to out-flank each other. The war, which both sides had expected to win in a few months, settled into a terrible war of attrition as both sides dug themselves into parallel trenches running towards the coast.

 La Lorraine dévastée.

Maurice Barrès, La Lorraine dévastée. Paris: Félix Alcan, 1919. Cover. Shelfmark: 9083.a.54. Copyright © The British Library Board


Verdun 1916 was the bloodiest battle, and French troops also fought in Gallipoli, in Turkey and Salonica, Northern Greece. Troops from the colonies fought on both sides. In March 1918, Marshal Foch was named overall co-ordinator of the Allies. An armistice was signed at Compiègne on 11 November 1918, and France regained Alsace and Lorraine. The allies demanded huge reparation payments from Germany (far more than its reserves) but by the end of the 1920s only a tiny proportion was actually paid to France. The war cost 200 billion francs, and 5 billion was received in reparation. In 1921 French losses were 1,367,800 dead (10.5% of combatants) and 3,595,000 wounded, (10% permanent invalids including over a million amputees). This was at least a third more than British losses, but less than German losses. British deaths were 5% of combatants. During the war 8.4 million Frenchmen were mobilised. (Statistics from Quid).

La Bourguignotte

La Bourguignotte. Journal intermittent. Organe humoristique et intranchisant des Poilus de la Woëvre Joyeuse…, no. 5, Jan 1916. Shelfmark: PP.4039.wbs(4). Copyright © The British Library Board


In 1922 the British Museum published the Subject index of the books relating to the European War, 1914-1918, acquired by the British Museum, 1914-1920. This was reprinted in 1970 by H. Pordes. A copy of each of these editions can be consulted in the Humanities - Floor 1 Reading Room. For books published in 1914-15, see the British Museum Subject Index 1911-1915, which was published by the Museum in 1918. Books published before 1975 can be identified through the printed subject indexes, or by title searches in Explore the British Library using the terms 'guerre 1914' and 'war 1914 France'. After 1975 the online catalogue offers a subject search, the term used being 'World War 1' and 'France'. Coverage by newspapers held in British Library Newspapers is extensive. A few periodicals produced at the Front are held at St. Pancras, bound in volumes together with English periodicals.


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