Portal:Military history of France

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Military history of France

In July 1453, a French army crushed its English opponents at the Battle of Castillon, the last major engagement of the Hundred Years War. The decisive victory at Castillon showcased the power of artillery against charging masses of infantry and allowed the French to capture Bordeaux a few months later. The English subsequently lost their major remaining possessions on the European continent.

The military history of France encompasses an immense panorama of conflicts and struggles extending for more than 2,000 years across areas including modern France, the European continent, and a variety of regions throughout the world.

According to historian Niall Ferguson: "of the 125 major European wars fought since 1495, the French have participated in 50 – more than Austria (47) and England (43). Out of 168 battles fought since 387BC, they have won 109, lost 49 and drawn 10."

The first major recorded wars in the territory of modern-day France itself revolved around the Gallo-Roman conflict that predominated from 60 BC to 50 BC. The Romans eventually emerged victorious through the campaigns of Julius Caesar. After the decline of the Roman Empire, a Germanic tribe known as the Franks took control of Gaul by defeating competing tribes. The "land of Francia," from which France gets its name, had high points of expansion under kings Clovis I and Charlemagne, who established the nucleus of the future French state. In the Middle Ages, rivalries with England prompted major conflicts such as the Norman Conquest and the Hundred Years' War. With an increasingly centralized monarchy, the first standing army since Roman times, and the use of artillery, France expelled the English from its territory and came out of the Middle Ages as the most powerful nation in Europe, only to lose that status to the Holy Roman Empire and Spain following defeat in the Italian Wars. The Wars of Religion crippled France in the late 16th century, but a major victory over Spain in the Thirty Years' War made France the most powerful nation on the continent once more. In parallel, France developed its first colonial empire in Asia, Africa, and in the Americas. Under Louis XIV France achieved military supremacy over its rivals, but escalating conflicts against increasingly powerful enemy coalitions checked French ambitions and left the kingdom bankrupt at the opening of the 18th century.

Resurgent French armies secured victories in dynastic conflicts against the Spanish, Polish, and Austrian crowns. At the same time, France was fending off attacks on its colonies. As the 18th century advanced, global competition with Great Britain led to the Seven Years' War, where France lost its North American holdings. Consolation came in the form of dominance in Europe and the American Revolutionary War, where extensive French aid in the form of money and arms, and the direct participation of its army and navy led to America's independence. Internal political upheaval eventually led to 23 years of nearly continuous conflict in the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. France reached the zenith of its power during this period, dominating the European continent in an unprecedented fashion under Napoleon Bonaparte. By 1815, however, it had been restored to the same borders it controlled before the Revolution. The rest of the 19th century witnessed the growth of the Second French colonial empire as well as French interventions in Belgium, Spain, and Mexico. Other major wars were fought against Russia in the Crimea, Austria in Italy, and Prussia within France itself.

Following defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Franco–German rivalry erupted again in the First World War. France and its allies were victorious this time. Social, political, and economic upheaval in the wake of the conflict led to the Second World War, in which the Allies were defeated in the Battle of France and the French government signed an armistice with Germany. The Allies, including the Free French Forces led by a government in exile, eventually emerged victorious over the Axis Powers. As a result, France secured an occupation zone in Germany and a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The imperative of avoiding a third Franco-German conflict on the scale of the first two world wars paved the way for European integration starting in the 1950s. France became a nuclear power and, since the late 20th century, has cooperated closely with NATO and its European partners.

Selected article

View of Badajoz, across the Guadiana river from the foothills of the San Cristóbal heights.
The Battle of the Gebora was a minor battle of the Peninsular War between Spanish and French armies. It occurred on 19 February 1811, near Badajoz, Spain, where an outnumbered French force routed and nearly destroyed the Spanish Army of Extremadura. In a bid to help extricate Marshal André Masséna's army from its position in Portugal—mired in front of Lisbon's defensive Lines of Torres Vedras—Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult led part of the French Armée du Midi (Army of the South) from Andalusia into the neighbouring Spanish region of Extremadura and laid siege to the important fortress town of Badajoz. Viscount Wellington and the Spanish Captain-General Pedro Caro de la Romana sent a large Spanish army to raise the siege. La Romana, however, died before the army could depart, and command fell to General Gabriel Mendizabal. Supported by a small force of Portuguese cavalry, the Spaniards reached the town and camped on the nearby heights of San Cristóbal in early February 1811. When Mendizabal ignored Wellington's instructions and failed to entrench his army, Soult took advantage of the vulnerable Spanish position and sent a small force to attack the Spaniards. On the morning of 19 February, French forces under Marshal Édouard Mortier quickly defeated the Spanish army, inflicting 1,000 casualties and taking 4,000 prisoners while losing only 400 men. The victory allowed Soult to concentrate on his assault of Badajoz, which fell to the French on 11 March and remained in French hands until the following year.


Selected image

Siege of Strasbourg
Credit: William Simpson and Arthur Hopkins

"The War: Fall of Strasbourg — Departure of French Prisoners", from the 15 October 1870 issue of the Illustrated London News. The Siege of Strasbourg was a rather one-sided Franco-Prussian War battle, with the German assault only limited by the amount of ammunition they had and fortresses falling regularly. Napoleon III's capture in the Battle of Sedan on 1 September 1870 (and the fall of the Second French Empire) meant that no relief was coming, and, though the city held on a while after the news reached them, the relentless forward movement of the Prussian lines eventually forced surrender on the 27th of September.

Unit of the month

1reg.JPG

The 1st Foreign Engineer Regiment (French: 1er régiment étranger de génie) (1er REG) is a Military engineer regiment in the French Foreign Legion. It is a part of the 6th Light Armoured Brigade. The regiment is station in Laudon.

It was created on 1 October, 1939 as the 6th Foreign Infantry Regiment. The manpower came from 3 battalions of the 1st Foreign Infantry Regiment and one from 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment. It was disbanded 1 January 1942 and its soldiers were transeferred into the 1st Foreign Regiment and Foreign Legion depots. (More...)

Selected biography

Painting, c.1485. Artist's interpretation; the only portrait for which she is known to have sat has not survived.
Joan of Arc (c. 1412– May 30, 1431) also known as "the Maid of Orleans", was a 15th century virgin, Catholic saint, and national heroine of France. A peasant girl born in Eastern France, Joan led the French army to several important victories during the Hundred Years' War, claiming divine guidance, and was indirectly responsible for the coronation of King Charles VII. She was captured by the English, tried by an ecclesiastical court and burned at the stake by the English when she was nineteen years old. Twenty-four years later, the Holy See reviewed the decision of the ecclesiastical court, found her innocent, and declared her a martyr. She was beatified in 1909 and later canonized in 1920. Joan asserted that she had visions from God that told her to recover her homeland from English domination late in the Hundred Years' War. The uncrowned King Charles VII sent her to the siege at Orléans as part of a relief mission. She gained prominence when she overcame the dismissive attitude of veteran commanders and lifted the siege in only nine days. Several more swift victories led to Charles VII's coronation at Reims and settled the disputed succession to the throne. Joan of Arc has remained an important figure throughout Western culture. From Napoleon to the present, French politicians of all leanings have invoked her memory. Major writers and composers who have created works about her include Shakespeare, Voltaire, Schiller, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Twain, and Shaw.


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Related portals: France  •  New France  •  Napoleonic Wars

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