"Cheese eating surrender monkeys" - Bart Simpson
"For sale: French rifle. Never fired, dropped once." - Various
I was watching a documentary on the Battle of the Somme yesterday, and they mentioned a shocking statistic: that before the battle started, the French army had already suffered something like a million killed and missing during the war.
So today I looked up some statistics about French military loses.
World War I
"World War I cost France 1,357,800 dead, 4,266,000 wounded (of whom 1.5 million were permanently maimed) and 537,000 made prisoner or missing -- exactly 73% of the 8,410,000 men mobilized, according to William Shirer in The Collapse of the Third Republic. Some context: France had 40 million citizens at the start of the war; six in ten men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight died or were permanently maimed."
World War II
250,000 military killed/missing
350,000 military wounded
270,000 civilians killed
In addition, during the Battle of France (10th May to 22nd June 1940), French forces suffered 90,000 dead and 200,000 wounded. That's 55% more deaths than the US suffered in Vietnam, from a much smaller population, and over a period of 42 days instead of nearly a decade. I find it difficult to blame them for surrendering under those circumstances.
Some Things Just Aren't Funny
The above figures are what make me some angry when people (usually either fellow Brits or Americans) make jokes about the French being cowardly. Their generals may often have been incompetent (although in the First World War, they were often more competent than their British counterparts). Their politicians may, on occasion, have let them down. But as a people they fought, and they fought bloody hard.
I find the top quote, the joke by David Letterman, particularly obnoxious on the grounds that it: a) isn't true; and b) is particularly tasteless when his own country's conduct at the time is considered.
See, his joke would only make sense if the French in 1939 had argued that Nazi Germany wasn't a threat, had stayed neutral after the invasion of Poland, and had then been invaded by the German Armies. (Which is exactly what happened to Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Norway).
But they didn't. They'd been arguing that the Nazis needed to be stopped since the Czech crisis of the previous year, and it was the United Kingdom that disgracefully dragged its feet. This time they had support, and when Hitler refused to halt his invasion of Poland, they - along with the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other Commonwealth nations - declared war on him.
Which is more than David Letterman's country did.