France’s geographical location within Western Europe with England to the North, Germany to the East, Spain to the West and the Mediterranean Sea at its South coast mean that it is a country which has fought its fair share of wars over the years.
French military history is fascinating – but is there any truth to the stereotype that France has never won a war on its own?
Of course, France has known many military victories, especially in the World Wars – so did they have any help?
Let’s take a look at some of France’s most notable victories and defeats in Superprof’s guide to France’s military history.
Also known as the battle of Poitiers, the Battle of Tours was a victory for the Franks (the people lived in France in the 8th century) against invaders who had accessed France from North Africa via the Iberian Peninsula.
The Muslim conquest of European Christian kingdoms began in 711 AD with the defeat of many areas in present-day Spain. Established as a dominant power in Southern Europe, Umayyad Caliphate’s men went on to pursue France. After having been defeated at Toulouse in 721 AD, the invaders continued Northwards and emerged victorious at Aquitaine in 732 AD.
After fleeing Aquitaine, which was now being brought under the control of the Umayyad forces, Duke Odo pleaded with the Frankish mayor, Charles Martel, who agreed to help as long as the attack was Frank-led.
The resistance of the Franks, along with the Muslims’ failure to prepare for the European climate and the Franks’ attack on the opposing army’s camp made for a Frankish victory.
The Battle of Hastings is probably one of the most famous French military victories in history.
In 1066, William of Normandy gathered his troops and set out to take the English crown from King Harold I, who, unfortunately, had only recently returned from another battle in which Harald Hardrada of Norway has also attempted to establish his dominance on the British Isles.
The battle tactic employed by the King Harold’s army was famously shocking to William’s troops, who attacked the English as they stood their ground. Thankfully for Harold, this put the Normans off, and eventually, after a rumour that the William, the Norman leader, had been killed on the battlefield, the French forces retreated.
Seeing his army’s reaction, William quickly became frustrated and audaciously removed his helmet before both armies to disprove the rumour.
Now empowered with a new rush of confidence, Willliam’s troops persisted in their attack and emerged victorious after the death of King Harold and surrender of his forces.
William of Normandy became William the Conqueror, and the Normans gained a new territory.
When I took French lessons online with my Superprof tutor, we discussed this battle from the French and British perspectives!
The Second Battle of Ypres was a major battle of World War One which lasted over a month and resulted in a victory for the allied forces (which included France, Belgium and Great Britain) against Germany.
Situated in Belgium on the Western Front near to the border with France, Ypres was a valuable asset in the First World War because of its location and having control over it would help either side towards overall victory.
The Second Battle of Ypres marks a famous point in war history as it was the first time when toxic gas was used as a weapon.
Cylinders full of the poison gas were planted along the boundary of the French-held territory and were activated while the area was being guarded by French soldiers. The attack came as a surprise and caused survivors to flee the area.
Thankfully, the retreat of the French did not grant the German forces an easy victory, and the British Empire’s troops defended Ypres and led the allies to victory.
Another landmark victory for the French was the Battle of Verdun, which also took place during the First World War, in 1916. It is famous for being the longest battle of the whole war, lasting from February to December.
Verdun is still remembered for being key to the defence of France ¦ source: Pixabay – 12019
Verdun was a historically important city in the military history of France as a defensive town, and the Germans sought to make the French compromise the forts in Verdun, which were signs of the country’s previous military strength and cause national embarrassment, or to forfeit the lives of their men.
The plan to attack Verdun appeared to be perfectly engineered and everything looked to be in the favour of the attacking side. The French had removed a significant amount of ammunition from the forts, the trenches had not been finished, and German air forces were dominating the skies.
Marshal Phillipe Pétain led the French forces to victory by moving supplies and troops to Verdun as quickly as possible, and elsewhere, the British planned to lead an attack on the Germans at the Somme which would force them to remove men from Verdun.
One famous defeat for the French was the Battle of Agincourt, which was fought during the 100 Years War in 1415.
The 100 Years War was being fought between England and France over which country would inherit the French crown.
Henry V of England led his troops into France via the English Channel, however, weeks of traveling has caused levels of exhaustion which cost King Henry V over 5000 men. After suffering such massive losses, Henry decided to retreat back to England, however, he was met by a wall of French soldiers.
The English remained still while the French troops, clad in heavy armour, came towards them. The French found themselves bombarded by arrows from the English longbow archers.
The Battle is famous for the use of the English longbow, which can reach targets up to 230 metres away.
As the French army tried to push through the arrows, attacking became even more difficult because of the weight they were carrying on their bodies. Once the battlefield was full of French men, King Henry ordered his troops to attack the French using axes.
This bloody tactic secured a victory for the English and marked the start of a series of military successes for Henry V.
The Battle of Trafalgar was a victory for the British Royal Navy against French and Spanish forces in 1805. The battle was part of the Napoleonic wars.
27 British ships were led by commander Admiral Lord Nelson aboard flagship HMS Victory in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Trafalgar, off the Spanish Coast.
In the run-up to the battle, Napoleon Bonaparte, the new Emperor of France, had been trying to find a way to invade Britain and expand the empire of France after the French revolution. However, the Britsh were aware of his plans and imposed a naval blockade on France which prevented Napoleon’s forces from crossing the Channel as well as interrupting France’s trade links.
Frustrated and unable to control the waters around France, Napoleon (who had allied with Spain) planned to get men from the Caribbean who would assist his troops in dismantling the British presence in the Channel so he could invade England.
Nelson’s Column stands in Trafalgar Square to commemorate Admiral Lord Nelson ¦ source: Pixabay – 12019
However, Napoleon’s ships were prevented from reaching the Caribbean by Nelson’s men, who approached the French in two columns to deter them.
After 5 hours of battle, Britain had destroyed 19 of the 33 Franco-Spanish ships. No British ships were lost and the British Navy returned triumphantly.
Though Admiral Lord Nelson lost his life in this battle, his leadership ensured that Napoleon would never seek to make Britain part of the French Empire. He was honoured with the naming of a square in London: Trafalgar Square, where a statue of him still stands.
To read more about Napoleon and other famous French figures throughout history, follow the link!
A more recent defeat of the French was the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954, which was a part of the larger Indochina War.
The French engaged in a battle with the Viet Minh, who represented Vietnam’s communist and national forces. Vietnam has been a French colony since the 19th century, however, the independence movement had been growing in popularity and France was losing control over the country.
In a bid to weaken the Viet Minh forces, the French Republic started an occupation of Dien Bien Phu in order to cut off supplies into Laos and establish a French stronghold. However, this tactic did not work as planned, as the town was soon cut off and surrounded by Vietnamese forces.
When the Viet Minh began their offense, France called on the USA for help, however, the independence movement has strength in numbers and the Viet Minh eventually broke through the French defences to the town.
If you found this blog interesting, why not check out our article on the most important events in France’s history?
Or, if you want to start learning French, try googling ‘french lessons london’.