The New Year of 1918 dawned in France with the dreary hangover of what had come before. The Great War continued to drag on in its unimaginable fourth year, with France and its scorched northeast corner, along with occupied Belgium, constituting one of the war’s most strategic battlegrounds. People in France marched on blindly and wearily, as their soldiers died and were maimed, consumer prices skyrocketed, and the headlines continued to nauseate and to outrage. Nor was there really any firm evidence that the end was near, in 1918 or beyond.
It was noted even at the time every calendar year of the War, from 1914 on, had a different character, a different feel. Each one, 1915, 1916, 1917, evoked a different set of disasters each in its own way. But 1918, as Winston Churchill remarked, brought a new intensity to the fight. The Western Front itself defined the War for the French as the German forces attacked the Allies (France and Britain and its empire, including Canada) in trenches that ran from the North Sea to Switzerland, only to be attacked in return. On it went, even as Russia pulled out in January, and the Americans finally began fighting in May. Germany launched no fewer than five offensives through the spring and summer, specifically to knock out the Allies before the Americans could enter the War. The USA entered combat somewhat earlier than the previously projected date of 1919, but even so the Germans nearly managed to pull the whole thing off.
By this time, the streets of Paris had changed. The bustle of daily life in the Belle Epoque was gone, the streets deserted with so many men away and as the women took over the work needed to make war run. The streets at night instead roared with trucks in convoys, and trains loaded with equipment. One million Frenchwomen were working in manufacturing and in munitions (although mothers of young children were banned from making armaments). The new war-fed bureaucracy also required thousands of women as typists and phone receptionists.
Although there were food shortages, France derived some advantage, for a change, from being less industrialized than the other “great” powers. This meant that in 1914 42% of its workers were still involved in agriculture, and although it was a hardship on the farms to have the men away, there was enough food production to prevent the starvation that visited Germany, Austria, and Russia. The cost of living had risen 80% by 1917, and this resulted in many farmers making small fortunes. Women who were working also received a small stipend if they had children; many women had spending money for the first time. Even so, with price controls many bakeries went bankrupt, and it was the urban middle classes who suffered the most. The coal had given out the previous winter, and it was now rationed along with oil and some foodstuffs.
Women may have been working, but they were poorly paid in munitions and for the first time, subject to industrial accidents and workplace-spread diseases from being at close quarters with so many other people. There was certainly food in France, but it was women who were expected to line up for it, and also to care for children; for those who had employment, virtually no allowances in these areas were made. Women also took to the roads and the trains on weekends in search of food in the countryside.
World War I provided a preview of the aerial bombings of civilians in World War II. Paris was bombed in 1916, by Zeppelins, resulting in several dozen civilian deaths, but the air attacks stopped for two years. In March 1918 the Germans resumed dropping bombs over Paris, eventually killing 256 in total and sending 200,000 into panicked flight. Then later that month came the long-range guns, which were fired in various engagements from later on in March until August. Among the deaths were 88 people in a church, in March. Only when the Germans retreated from the Western Front in August did the bombings stop.
The bright spots in 1918? The French were enthusiastic contemplating the arrival of American troops—half a million by May, a million by July, and two million by war’s end. U.S. President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, announced in January, provided a reasonable blueprint for ending the war and ensuring peace. For France it contained a guarantee of France’s security and the return of Alsace and Lorraine, the two regions Germany had conquered from France and annexed in 1871. Unhappily, several of the Fourteen Points would be allowed to lapse or become unenforceable after the peace conference at Versailles in 1919. France was still a democracy with its Fourth Republic (today it’s the Fifth Republic), but its Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, who acceded in 1917, reigned dictatorially. He was motivated by revenge, especially over the cost of the war and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. France was by 1918 weak, bitter, and exhausted. When the Armistice came, all countries saw crowds celebrating in the streets, but observers noticed that French revelry on November 11 was more muted than in other nations.
Negotiated in a train-car at Compiegne after the Germans had put out feelers for peace in October, the war ended with an Armistice set for November 11. The Germans withdrew from France, Belgium, and Alsace-Lorraine. Without waiting for the forthcoming peace conference, France moved into Alsace-Lorraine and took it over in two weeks, even changing the street signs. As far as Clemenceau was concerned, there was no going back.
Then came the aftermath, the adding-up. Everyone was thrilled when in December Wilson became the first sitting U.S. president to travel outside his country, in order to attend the peace conference of 1919 at Versailles. On the other hand, all the women at home were fired from their jobs, and were even denied the vote by the French senate despite the women’s suffrage movement that had been on the march in Canada, Britain, the U.S., and even Germany. Frenchwomen would not get the vote until 1944. (There must be something in the Gallic DNA—women in Quebec could not vote provincially until 1940.) In France, 1.36 million soldiers died. It had mobilized 8.4 million men and 4.3 million were left wounded. Eighty per cent of all men aged 18 to 49 were conscripted, tied with Germany as highest proportion of all countries. Both countries tied at the rate of loss of their soldiers, at one in six.
Versailles was meant to end all war, but affected as it was by revenge, resentment, and American isolationism back home, the seeds were sewn for the repeat of hostilities; some people recognized this at the time, or soon afterwards. These failures resulted in Clemenceau being voted out in 1920, and Wilson’s party, the Democrats, being devastated by voters, now including women, for a decade. Ten million were killed in the war, and then came the Spanish flu, which arose inexplicably to kill 20 million more in 1918-19, only to simply vanish. France had survived the nightmare of 1918, and had to live with the consequences, which were more ghastly than anyone dared to imagine, and which were, unfortunately, just around the corner.
Lawrence Green is an actor and freelance writer in Richmond, BC.