Anglo-French alliance – does history matter?

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill (in his a...

Churchill and de Gaulle: the uneasiest of allies (Image via Wikipedia)

Not many of you might know this, but the Anglo-French Defence Agreement was due to be signed onboard HMS Ark Royal in Portsmouth. Until she was hatcheted in the Strategic Defence Review, cue a new plan to spare Dave C any embarassment. Even though the SDSR itself was one big embarassment.

Anyhow, on to my main point. When it comes to the UK and France working more closely together, does history matter? As one of my lecturers told us at Uni, ‘we spent most of the eighteenth century at war with the  French, one – because they deserved it, and two – because they needed the practice’. Even though in recent times Britain has been allied with France and Germany has been the more recent enemy, you cannot help but feel that the man on the street has very little time for our cheese-eating cousins across La Manche.

Anglo-French rivalry begins in earnest in 1066, with the arrival of William the Conqueror. After his death his realms in France and England were divided amongst his sons, sparking a rivalry that led to frequent wars between English Kings and various French Kings, nobles and other factions for hundreds of years. The Plantagenets in particular built up an impressive cross-Channel Angevin Empire, through dynastic marriages and conquest. Battles such as Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt heralded British military superiority during the Hundred Years War.

During the reign of Henry VIII we once again gain of feeling of Henry trying to outdo his French ‘cousin’ King Francis, both in war and in chivalry. The Field of Cloth of Gold was nothing more than an elaborate attempt to outwrestle each other, literally at one point. Early modern international politics saw Kings one moment allying with each other, the next trying to attack each other. Later, after the English Reformation and the coming to the throne of Charles I, his French – and Catholic – Queen was the source of much suspicion, particularly for Puritans who suspected a French-backed scheme to re-impose Catholicism. After the accession of the house of Hanover, attempts to re-install Stuart Pretenders to the throne were more often than not launched from France.

Things really hot up during the eighteenth century. Increasingly Imperial rivals – especially in India – Britain found herself at war with France in the middle of the eighteenth century during the thirty years war, and then in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1787 and 1815. This ‘War of wars’ defined modern European, and really was a titanic struggle between a France buoyed firstly by revolutionary fervour and then by Napoleon Bonaparte; and on the other hand a number of coalitions of European nations, bankrolled by British finance. Rather cleverly, Britain refrained from using her land forces in Europe for much of the period, preferring instead to rely on a naval blockade of European ports which strangled French trade. Although Napoleon marched all through Europe, he could not defeat the Wooden Walls bearing the White Ensign.

After co-operation during the Crimean War, the mid to late nineteenth century was again hallmarked by suspicion, with a min-arms race, involving ironclad warships such as HMS Warrior, and the new rifled, breech loading guns requiring whole new lines of fortifications, such as Palmerston’s Folly’s around Portsmouth. Therefore the Entente Cordial, signed in 1904, came as something of an oddity in Anglo-French relations. Forced into an alliance by German expansionism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Britain and France have none the less been uneasy bedfellows since.

Although nominally on the same side in the Second World War, there was much acrimony between both sides. After the fall of France many felt that the BEF had turned tail and ran. I’m not sure quite what else they expected Gort to do; he was following French strategy after all, which had caused the problem in the first place. Even the free French who fought under allied patronage were prickly, particularly de Gaulle, who only really thought of himself, let alone France. In 1940 the Royal Navy was forced to bombard the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in order to prevent it falling into German hands. The incident still causes high feelings even today. Whilst the French might have promised not to let their ships fall to the Germans, this was a promise they were unable to make. I’m not sure what else they expected us to do.

Even after being liberated in 1944, the French had a bizarre way of showing gratitude. Gaullism brought about a fiercely independent outlook, which vetoed UK entry into the EEC for many years, and also withdrew France from NATO – a nonsensical decision during the Cold War, which left the western world highly vulnerable, all for the sake of French pride. During one famous argument, the French Foreign Minister ordered that all US troops were to leave French soil at once. Quick as a flash, his American counterpart enquired whether that included those that were buried there. In a funny kind of way, Gaullism is an example of how a sovereign state should look after its own interests, but its belligerent manner – personified by one Jacques Chirac – has probably caused France more problems than anything else.

So, co-operation with France is very much against the historical grain. Even in recent history where France has nominally been an ally, relations have been uneasy. It will probably take a lot of effort on behalf of the Sarkozy Government to change French domestic thinking in favour of closer military co-operation. Put crudely, the French will have to show more ‘backbone’, and stop building walls between themselves and the rest of the world. During the Cold War France was not part of the military structure of NATO, although French forces were in Germany facing the Warsaw Pact, and also in Berlin. These units were not allowed to plan with their NATO colleagues, meaning that if the balloon went up allied planning would have been in a vacuum. Lunacy indeed, dictated by French selfishness.

Personally, I am more in favour of European military co-operation being on a ‘cluster’ basis. Take for example the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. Britain is the framework nation, providing the Headquarters, signals units, etc. When required, NATO state will assign Divisions to the Corps. Several nations have units designated for quick allocation, and this took place in Kosovo in 1999. Britain has long had a fruitful link-up with the Dutch amphibious forces, with Dutch ships and Marine Battalions operating in an integrated manner with the British Commando Brigade. In this case the synergy is definitely there. During the Cold War, the commander of the British Army of the Rhine also served as NATO’s Commander of the Northern Army Group, with Dutch and German troops under command. Again, the synergy was there, as it had to be. But is that synergy there with the French? Does it make sense for two of the largest militaries in Europe to spontaneously and bilaterally tie themselves together with no planning regarding other states?

Before I finish off this post, let me share something that I found on a well-known British forces discussion website, which gives an idea of how the French military is regarded…


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13 responses to “Anglo-French alliance – does history matter?

  1. A humourous ad often bandied about by American re-enactors:”For Sale, WW1 (or WW2) French Infantry Rifle, Excellent Condition, Never Fired, Dropped Once.” It really intrigues me that we over here fought you folk twice, once during that 1770s domestic spat (note to Americans: BOTH sides in our War of Independence were British!), and again in 1812, but never lost our Anglophilia. On the other hand, we’ve fought alongside France twice in the 20th century, yet on 11 September, France allows a newspaper to print a headline congratulating the terrorists, thus sparking a new round of Francophobia. We should love the French for the Louisiana Purchase and keeping Mexico off our backsides, but by and large Americans can’t stand French folk! And the distaste is greater down in the Old South, despite the French trying to aid the Confederacy! Then again, you can’t totally hate the French. Even as they were being pounded by the Germans in 1940, they still managed to defeat most of the Italian Army with a couple of Alpine divisions in the south. As we re-enactors say, “What is the Italian national salute?” (Stretch your arms straight up.) “I-a give up-a!”. (Disclaimer: Yes, I have been very non-politically correct here. Apologies, no insult intended toward our French or Italian readers. The opinions are those expressed by one semi-insane person and should not be blamed on Mr. Daly. Thank you. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog. 😉 )

    • James Daly

      exactly the kind of things I have been thinking Mr. E. Its funny how most British servicemen who served in Germany after the war have a very healthy respect for the Bundeswehr, but no time for the French. Recent history suggests that it should be the other way round. But say what you like about the Germans, when they do something they tend to do it properly, even if it is grossly unpleasant. Whereas the French? I dont know, its going to take a lot to overcome the cultural differences.

  2. Yeah, I know: “What? Canada has 4 tugboats? We surrender.” (signed) France

    Actually, at Toulon in November ’42, and at the cost of their own lives, French officers scuttled every ship there rather than hand them over to the Germans. So Mers-el Kebir was (yettanother) bloodbath forced by the 20th century’s most destructive politician, Winston Churchill. Same re the ’04 ff. reversal of alliances. Had British seapower remained in concert with German landpower, the 20th century would have been an era of peace and progress, no 30 years’ World War, no communism, no fascism, no 100 million dead, no mortal wounding of western cicvilization. All the Germans asked for was “a place in the sun”, beside the English; the de-facto alliance was betrayed by Britain, not Germany. No one “forced” anything except WC and his crowd. Lord Escher, in his diary, saw from the outset where the alliance with France would lead: “This is the end of Admiralty…”.

    • I hate to be contrarian, but could you explain to my medication-addled mind how Churchill started WW1? Even if the British were allied with the Germans either on land or at sea, there would still have been an Eastern front battle between the Germanic powers (Austria-Hungary and Imperial Germany) and the Slavic powers (Serbia and Russia). Since Russia’s navy had been disassembled by the Japanese, I doubt the British would have wanted land battle with the Russians, and the effects of a sea blockade would have been minimal (Tsarist Russia pulled most of its’ resources from internal sources). Maybe it wouldn’t have led to WW2 as we know it, and maybe we wouldn’t have had trench warfare as did happen in France, but I fail to see a completely peaceful Europe rotating around a British/German Axis. Clarify, please?

  3. Good point; I exaggerated the peace thing to make a point. (Relative) inter-national peace was preserved, from Waterloo through the early 1900s precisely by the de-facto combination of German land power with Brit seapower. No doubt the Austro-Germans and the French/Serbs/Russians would have had at sooner or later. So what. Let ’em. Let the Germans do their historical job of keeping anti-western forces out of Europe. Cf. Vienna, re Islam. It all becomes a world war only when the Brits misplay the balance of power and join the encirclement. Same old, 1930s: Via “appeasement” Hitler is nudged eastward. Do the Reds. Well, Poland is in the way. Hitler moves East, and again, in goes the British KnifeInTheBack. Another world war, or the same one all over again. NB – hope you will be feeling better, Mr. E., Best regards,

    • Okay, I will grant you the concept of continental peace up to the 1900s. It was more the French immediately pre-WW1 who were skulking about behind the scenes. France signed a treaty with Britain about mutual response to attack, then went and signed a treaty with Russia stating that France and all her allies would defend Russia if it were attacked. Problem was, the French didn’t tell the Brits until after Germany declared mobilisation. Thus, France suckered Britain into WW1. In WW2, Hitler wanted France taken out before turning east, just as in WW1, so you get a similar situation (although Britain knew they were in a mutual defence pact with France). I will DEFINITELY grant you that, had BOTH France and Britain rose to the defence of Poland as they were supposed to, Hitler may very well have focused solely on Russia. With the RAF dropping mostly leaflets, and with French troops wandering around the undefended WestWall as if on a picnic without pushing further into Germany, Poland was doomed, and thus Nazi Germany almost certainly turns on France. (France and Britain were supposed to defend Poland per treaty requirements, so they SHOULD have been bound to fight if Poland were attacked.) Britain may have made peace after France fell in 1940, but that was blocked by Churchill, no question – there are a HUGE number of alternate history books and stories about that kind of world! And while I repeatedly preach about not judging history with modern morals, I would hope the rest of the world would eventually have discovered the inherent Nazi evils and destroyed Hitler and his cronies.
      I guess I don’t see the “stab in the back” on Britain’s part, except for poor Poland. Could you please elaborate a bit on the WW2 issue?
      Oh, and thanks for your wishing me better, but unfortunately, it’s a permanent condition (chronic headaches). Some days are pretty good. This isn’t one of them, so I’m fairly stoned right now. (The only positive point of my condition – GREAT painkillers!) 8}

      • O boy, I just looked back at my post! Sorry for the monumental collection of written babbling, everyone! One of the painkillers’ side effects – I tend to ramble on. (Yes, James, even more than usual!) I promise to try to keep it short from now on. Apologies!

  4. I’m not sure France “suckered” GB into Round I. A military agreement – so secret that only WC and his personal cabinet clique knew about it – bound Britain to come to France’s aid if (Germany) attacked France. So, via the Sarajevo hit and subsequent manuvers, France “arranged” the war then lay back and played the victim. There’s plenty of other proximate responsibility to go around here – including, of course, Austro-German – but it all goes back to Britain throwing over the Germans a decade before.

    Round II: I’ll not go into detail here – will, later at my site – but there is no rational calculus that impelled Britain to gave an (unfulfillable) security gaurantee to that gang of fascisti ruling Poland. Churchill and the neo-con wing of the Conservative Party forced it on Chamberlain for “other” reasons. Zionist Reasons. As for “inherant” Nazi “evils”: Hitler, via at least 4 major public speeches + through diplomatic channels, let the British Ruling Element know that if they used Germany’s efforts to right the wrongs of Versailles to force another general European war, he would go after the Jews. He considered this to be deterrant diplomacy. More fool he: Brit Zionists – via the bought-and-paid-for Mr. Churchill – were more than willing to sacrifice millions of ordinary Jews to transform their Palestine colony into a postwar nation-state.

    • By all means, please let me know where your website is. I’d love to continue this in depth, without boring everyone else here into absolute insanity.

      I’m sorry, my pre-WWW1 history is very poor. About the only two things for which I’ve done any reading is the Spanish American war and the Boer war. I’d ask for a clarification about what Britain did to Germany, but if you want, we can shift to your site and discuss it there. As to my comment about Nazi evils, it wasn’t just the Jews I was referring to. I meant the others killed in the pogroms – not just the millions of Russian and Polish “Slav unterMenschen” but also the swaths cut through the German intellectual community, Roma/Gypsies, and the peoples of the conquered territories. Hitler gave clear declaration of his anti-Semitic intent all the way back in Mein Kampf, so I tend to consider that a somewhat separate (but heavily connected) issue.

      Oh dang, I promised to be brief, didn’t I? Sorry. Let me know where we can continue this, and we can have a nice, juicy debate! Thanks for your patience.

    • James Daly

      I’m not sure where Zionism fits in with Anglo-French military-politics to be honest. I know that Churchill was a firm supporter of Zionism, as researched by Martin Gilbert. But Churchill had next to no formal influence over Government policy prior to 1939, and any influence he did have was informal and limited in nature.

      History is about debates but its also about evidence and coming to robust conclusions. I’m really not sure to what extent British Zionists ‘sacrificed’ millions of European Jews, thats a big statement to make.

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