The First World War in France

Introduction to the First World War

World War 1 is a military conflict that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918. Also called the Great War, it was most centred in Europe on the Franco-German borders.

More than 9 million of the combatants were killed, due to the stubboness of the leading officers and politicians; the new generation of weapons for example gas; and other technological advances such as the tank and for the first time aircraft.

The First World War or The Great War was spread across several frontiers and this a chronological time line of events in France.


Figures and numbers and statistics

The figures below concern only the population of France and not their allies. These figures alone are outstanding and will give you an indication of the dimension of damage, pain and sorrow generated by a strange war. Very few countries in the world did not suffer.

The war lasted 1566 days and during this time...

More than 8,000,000 non professional soldiers where mobilized for the war.

Around 1,400,000 of the soldiers were killed. This is an average of 893 deaths per day.

More than 4,300,000 men where wounded, which means an average of 2745 per day, this includes :

  • 1,100,000 disabled
  • 300,000 mutilated
  • 42,000 blinded
  • 15,000 broken faces

The deaths of soldiers created 700,000 widows and more than 1,000,000 orphans.

Between 81,000 and 97,000 men from the French colonies were killed, including 26,000 Algerians.

Of France's total population 1 out of 20 were killed.

27,000 French soldiers were killed on August 22nd 1914 at the Battle of Charleroi.

52% of the total of men mobilized were killed or wounded.

1914 was the bloodiest year for the French Army with an average of 2,200 deaths per day.

In 1914, more than 65,000 mobilized horses were shared between the five French armies.

In 1915, during the Artois Offensive between May 9th and June 18th, it cost 300,000 lives and wounded men to gain just 4 kilometres of territory.

Between 10,000 and 12,000 soldiers were from the island of Corsica were killed. during the war.

The French artillery fired more than 330,000,000 shells, this is more than 210 thousand rounds each day.

36% of the soldiers aged between 19 and 22 were killed.

The French soldiers sent an average of 2,000,000 letters per day.


1914 : World War 1

28 June : Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and his wife Sophie are murdered by Gavrilo Princip. The assassination lead to an escalation of violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The 28th of June 1914 is considered the beginning of World War I.

28 July : Austria-Hungary declares war to Serbia.

31 July : The French socialist leader, Jean Jaurès who was for peace is murdered.

2 August : General Mobilization Order in France. Germany sends an ultimatum to Belgium in order to use their territory for the invasion of France. Belgium refuses.

4 August : Germany invades Belgium.
The Chancellor declares the treaty of Belgium neutrality is only "a scrap of paper".
United Kingdom enter the war against Germany.

7 August : British soldiers arrives in France.

19 August : In the region of Alsace, French Army tries to attack again Mulhouse.

21 August : France and United Kingdom are defeated at the Battle of Frontiers. The French Generals Dubail, Castelnau, Lanrezac and their armies retreat.
The same day, the 4th Army of General Langle de Cary is unable to resist against the Imperial German Army, it's the Battle of the Ardennes
( During the WWII, another battle was fought in the very same place ).
20,000 French soldiers are killed, captured and wounded.

24 August : La Grande Retraite ( the Great Retreat ) is a slow retreat by the Allied to the Marne.

25 August : The British II Corps of Commander General Horace Smith-Dorrien to stand and fight. The next day, German forces nearly destroys the British positions who are saved by the French Cavalry.

26 August : The Sacred Union is definitely proclaimed. All the French political wings unite for the war effort. Far-Left and Catholic wings join the government's wish for a united France. Only the Far-Right refuses.

4 September : The Germans capture the city of Reims.

6 September : The First Battle of the Marne. British and French armies forced the Germans to abandon the Schlieffen Plan ( invasion of Paris in 6 weeks ).
France lost 200,000 soldiers with 80,000 killed.
British losses are ( approximately ) 1,750
and the German's casualties are 250,000 men ( including 15,000 prisoners ).

10-13 September : General retreat of German forces.

3 October : The First Canadian Battalion is mobilized for France.

5 October : The first aerial fight at Reims. The French troops shoot down a German Aviatik with rifles.

14 December : The beginning of the first Battle of Champagne.

25 December : It is the Christmas Truce in several places of the Western Front.


1915 : World War 1

8 - 14 January : The battle near Soissons

4 February : The beginning of the Submarine wars.

Other events of February : Allied forces try to prevent the transfer German soldiers to the Russian front. Reims is bombarded the 20th. 60% of the city is destroyed.

16 March : The end of the Battle of Champagne. France and Germany both suffer 90,000 men.

5-12 April : Battles in Les Esparges. The most violent since the beginning of the War. The countryside around the village still show signs of the fight.

18 July : The first 6 days of leave (rest) for the French soldiers.

25 September : The British a nd French launch the second offensive in the Champagne, it fails leaving more than 130 thousand killed.


1916 : World War 1

9 January : German troops attack Champagne.

21 February : The Battle of Verdun begins.

11 April : The first Russian soldiers arrives at Marseille on French ships.

27 April : A honorific title called Mort Pour La France ( Dead for France ) is created to remember the sacrifice of thousands of men.

June : German forces move forward in the Battle of Verdun.

1 July : The beginning of the battle of the Somme. British volunteers, Australian, Canadian, African troops and soldiers from New Zealand are fighting with France against the German Army.

24 October : In 4 hours, British and French troops get back all the territory conquered in 8 months by the Germans near Vaux ( Somme ).

18 November : End of the Battle of the Somme. 206,000 and 66,000 British and French soldiers loose their lives when 170,000 Germans died. More 660,000 soldiers where killed, wounded or disappeared.

12 December : After almost 11 months, the Battle of Verdun ended. 163,000 French soldiers died and the German losses are approximately 143,000. The number of wounded are twice the deaths from both sides.


1917 : World War 1

2 April : The United States entered in war on the side of the Allied.

16 April : General Nivelle launch the offensive of Le Chemin des Dames ( literally Ladies' Path ). Nivelle thought the German positions would be taken by the end of the first day. The battle lasted several months.

20 Mai : 68 divisions out of 112 engaged are affected with mutinies. 629 soldiers are judged and 50 of them are executed.

30 June : First American troops in France and arrive at Saint-Nazaire.

16 August : French and British offensive near Yprès ( Flanders ) succeed.

24 October : Pétain launch an attack near Soissons in order to capture the Fort of Malmaison which allows French to reoccupy the North of Le Chemin des Dames.

Zouave soilder

A "Zouave" soldier from the 3rd March Regiment, who died in battle on the 24th November 1917 in the Meuse, on hill 304 by the village of Samogneux


1918: World War 1

During the months between March and July, it is La Grande Bataille de France ( The Great Battle of France ), helped by the Allied forces.

30 Mars : Bombardment of Paris by the Pariser Kanonen ( German for Parisian canons ).

14 April : General Foch is named Commander-in-chief of the Allied forces.

18 July : Second Battle of the Marne. French, British, Italian and American troops launch the big offensive which obliged German soldiers to give up the invasion of Flanders. Almost 300,000 men ( all sides ) died.

August and September : Many French cities are released from the German occupation.

26 September : Offensive in Lorraine by Foch.

9 November : German Emperor Wilhelm ( William ) II abdicates.

11 November : Signature of the Armistice at La Clairière de l'Armistice ( The Glade of Armistice ) which marks the end of the World War One.


Further reading :

You may be interested in reviews of French war films that we have seen.
Learn about the orgins of everyday slang words spoken by soldiers.


Remember the Army of the French Empire was also composed of soldiers from the colonies, who bravely fought along side the French and Allied troops, for the preservation of Peace.

Original text by a Dijon University student Alister Aldridge