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…