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Book Review - Flesh and Steel During the Great War

The Transformation of the French Army and the Invention of Modern Warfare

Cover of book Flesh and Steel

By Michel Goya (translated by Andrew Uffindell)

Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2018. 323pp

9781473886964 - Hardback

Reviewed by BRIG Chris Roberts AM, CSC (Retd.)


A product of his doctoral thesis, Michel Goya, a former Colonel of the French marine infantry, has produced a superb study of the transformation, in all its features, of the French Army during the Great War. The breadth and depth of his work is impressive. Unlike much of the literature on the British Army's learning process during the same conflict, Goya does not confine himself to the period 1914-1918. Instead he takes a longer view, casting his net back to France’s humiliating defeat by the Germans in 1870-71, and the impact this event had on French thinking during the subsequent forty-three years up to the outbreak of war in August 1914. Following these initial four chapters, Goya then charts the transfiguration of the Army after the initial shocks of the Battles of the Frontiers. This transformation was initially driven by those who served at the Front and those who advocated for various weapons systems.  Then, during 1917, the Army was finally pulled together by Marshall Phillipe Petain to become a modern, cohesive combined arms force that contributed greatly to the Allied victory. No, contrary to popular Australian opinion, General Sir John Monash did not invent modern combined arms tactics.

Goya is primarily concerned with how an Army learns from its experience, how it confronts innovation, and the factors that drive change. What makes this book so good is the multi-dimensional and sociological approach he takes in addressing the subject. He emphasises that it is people who are at the centre of the learning process. He underscores the fact that different men draw different conclusions depending on their psychological makeup, their commissioning background, and which army clique they belong to. Their service experience and their prejudices are also influential. He shows that, while the French Army after 1871 was a thinking organisation focused on how to fight the next war, it was not a cohesive one. Riven by tribalism between and within the fighting arms, between the Metropolitan Army and the Colonial Army, and between the officer cliques, it lacked a coherent approach to how that war should be fought. These deficiencies led to diverging views on doctrine, equipment and structure that changed depending on which clique was in the ascendancy, or who had patronage. More tragically, it resulted in little combined arms thought and training, with the cavalry, artillery and infantry largely going their own way.  Their resultant unrealistic expectations were rudely exposed in the opening battles in Lorraine and Alsace.

Goya describes how, shaken by that experience, tactical change and cooperation came within just a few weeks of these battles.  This transformation occurred at the unit level in the infantry, artillery, and in the embryonic aviation force. Meanwhile, the cavalry, which had performed poorly, became redundant. With the advent of a static and fortified front, new challenges confronted the Army.

From here, Goya gets into the meat of the subject; how the French Army met these challenges and how they evolved from a largely 19th Century force into a modern war-winning combined-arms team in the space of three years. Initially the process was again plagued by differing views, scepticism, prejudices, rivalry, the lingering legacy of 1870-71, and an uncoordinated approach. This was especially evident in the development of the tank force (called the assault artillery) from late 1915 onwards. Goya addresses all of these issues in depth, noting why, initially, GHQ was slow to respond to change and innovation driven by those at the Front.  In unpacking this aspect of French military history, Goya takes the reader through developments in the employment of weaponry, tactics, concepts, and organisations that transformed the Army as the war ground on. The apogee of these reforms came after Petain replaced the disgraced Nivelle in May 1917, pulling together the new techniques into a cohesive fighting capability, although cynicism on the part of a few still led to setbacks during the German spring offensives before the new defensive doctrine was fully accepted. Nonetheless, it was a highly effective modern Army that went on the offensive with such success during the latter half of 1918.

Delivered in an easily read style, Goya gets at the heart of how armies learn from previous experience. Not only does he recount what changes occurred, but more importantly what were the factors that drove change and those which impeded it. While change occurs during peacetime; in the end, however, it is the brutal experience of war that drives relevant reforms. This book also highlights the difficulty of drawing correct conclusions from recent war experience; a point that modern critics, with the enormous benefit of hindsight, too often overlook. Goya's Flesh and Steel During the Great War is a worthy addition to any military bookshelf, and serving officers would do well to heed its lessons.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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