By Tom Furse
In 1871, Prussia resoundingly beat France, which was meant to have had the greatest land army in the world, in the Franco-Prussian War. German troops besieged Paris, and they captured the French emperor, Napoleon III, at the town of Sedan. French casualties numbered over hundreds of thousands and the state spent millions on a war not even a year long. At the end of the war, the Prussians forced France to pay a war indemnity of 5 billion gold francs. This was equivalent to a quarter of France’s annual economic output. Prussian troops took Alsace and Lorraine and occupied French industrial areas in the northeast until France paid for all the indemnity. The state was in disarray: Napoleon III’s Second Empire fell and the Paris Commune’s uprising rose to international acclaim, and then the Third Republic rose in their place.
Yet in this grim postwar juncture emerged ideas that reshaped the French armed forces from a somewhat unlikely area: avant-garde vitalist philosophy. Henri Bergson’s term “élan vital,” from his book Creative Evolution (1907) conceptualized the elusive intuitive spirit that drove evolutionary change and the will to survive. In this book, he took ideas from the natural sciences and argued that evolution was not a linear path of adaptions to stronger forms of life, but one that was multidirectional. What drove this evolutionary spread was élan vital—this impulse to live free from constraints. Rational thought, Bergson argued, could not truly comprehend life because life was not just a mechanistic force. He posited that human life was not machine-like with clear inputs and outputs, but rather had a deeper spirit that gave it meaning. His thinking was partially a “revolt against positivism,” such as the ‘scientific management’ techniques from Americans, Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford, and in France, Henri Fayol. Bergson’s élan vital was, in a manner, an epistemological response to this, in that it effectively created knowledge through making matter come alive.
In the decades between 1871 and 1914, rhetoric of warrior spirits and Bergson’s élan vital travelled into France’s military schools and its strategic thinking as the officer corps attempted to adapt themselves for the next war. To French Army officers, still reeling from defeat years on, offensive warrior spirits held an opportunity for redemption. They had access to some impressive military technology—the new Lebel Model 1886 rifle and the Canon de 75 modèle 1897—but according to the officers, the Army lacked a life spirit. The Army founded the École de Guerre in 1875 to bolster military thought and reformed the General Staff so its members would alternate between frontline duty and headquarters. In the first decade of the twentieth century, they created the ‘Cult of the Offensive,’ a strategy that solely emphasized attacks in wars and that rendered defense as a moral and strategic weakness. To justify this they used élan vital, which had little immediate purpose for the military or war, to emphasize that morale or life spirit was essential to winning wars.
There was a broad group of old and young officers, Hippolyte Langlois, Frederic Culmann, Georges Gilbert, Joseph Joffre, and Ferdinand Foch who attended École polytechnique, the French Army’s artillery school, and Georges Ernest Boulanger and Louis Loyzeau de Grandmaison who attended the Saint-Cyr academy, who merged art and science together to create their own philosophical—and strategic—attitude to war. Their hearts were full of revanchism, a specific sort of revenge for past military defeats over territory, after fighting in the Franco-Prussian War. Elan vital came to them during this emotional state and suited them because of its emphasis on freeing oneself from constraints. They combined a version of it with the Army’s nationalist, masculine and hierarchical social structure.
Bergson gave lectures at the Sorbonne on Nietzschean creative will which chimed with the writer, Lieutenant Ernest Psichari, whose book L’Appel des armes, was popular in military circles in itscall for a professional and violent army. Successful armies could not rely on ‘living off the land’ as they had with Napoleon; they required the nation behind them through its economic and moral power to embolden them forward. Elan vital gave shape and intellectual depth to their strategic ideas, that were not always a dominant opinion in the Army. Offensive struggle provided a doctrine for the nation and the military to rally; like élan vital it purported to give some direction to living beings. During the First World War, Bergson became more openly nationalistic. His book, The Meaning of the War supported the French war effort and disparaged Germany, and he worked on a propaganda mission to Spain and travelled to the United States to draw it into the war in 1917.
Elan vital, or at least the French Army’s version of it as a warrior spirit, remained an epistemological approach to understand war and the nation. It gave them a way to interpret how the German army, and in particular Adalbert von Bredow’s cavalry charge at the Battle of Mars-la-Tour on August 16, 1870, was successful. Many later called it “Von Bredow’s Death Ride” because of the enormous costs, but for French military thinkers it seemed to illustrate that charging with gusto against rifle and cannon fire was honorable and successful. The German army practiced it continually throughout the war at Mars-la-Tour, but also at Spicheren, Frœschwiller, and Gravelotte. It was a blundering tactic and losses were always high. The more accurate assessment might have led them to see that it wasn’t German ‘spirit’ that won those battles, it was French defensive failures. But to the French officers, stung by defeat, it dramatically displayed an inspiring form of offensive power.
General Langlois and General Louis Loyzeau de Grandmaison were key to shaping this new strategy of offensive war and the Army’s own meaning of élan vital, which changed how they interpreted a possible German attack in western France and Belgium. De Grandmaison, a student of Foch at École de Guerre in 1898, was an offensive-minded general who was an archetypal student of Bergson’s élan vital. Through his service in wars over Indochina in the 1880s, he recognized, as others had, that the French military needed superior morale as their guiding force, not just tactical brilliance or gleaming machines, to win. He wrote In Military Territory: French Expansion in Tonkin in 1898 and Infantry Training for Offensive Combat in 1907, which laid out his views. In these works, the army could find their spirit through offensive operations. He called the doctrine attaque à outrance (‘attack to excess’), which channeled élan vital as it was, literally, for the attacking army to be zealous professional soldiers and march toward gunfire with so much intensity that the enemy would lose their will to survive.
This found common cause with retired General Langlois, who founded Revue Militaire Générale a military journal in 1907 partly to defy “transvaalitis,” which was that potentially paralyzing fear among the general staff of losing too many troops in battle. Langlois argued that during the Anglo-Boer War the British generals were under a spell of transvaalitis that stopped them from collecting all the material and morale at their disposal to counter the insurgency. It was a constraint that ran counter to his interpretation of élan vital. The Russo-Japanese war of 1905 seemed illustrate their strength of their argument. The Russian fortified their encampments with foresight and depth, and yet the Japanese Army, went fully offensive and won. This emboldened Japanese ultranationalists who pressured the government to launch an expansionist foreign policy in northeast Asia. From this perspective, hundreds of thousands of deaths could be justifiable because it symbolized to de Grandmaison and Langlois decisive strength, not weakness.
For Bergson, élan vital was the act of becoming fully conscious of reality. This influenced the officer’s approach to interpreting military matters. Statistics, for instance, were only half the story because there was this elusive, but powerful, spirit that went with it. Belief in élan vital meant generals could see a huge blood sacrifice in a single battle as a positive because through this the army could fully realize the reality of war and win it. In his journal, Langlois argued that although Germany had more artillery and more soldiers, they lacked the “precious qualities of race” the French had. Georges Gilbert argued for furie française (French fury) that would be one feature of a broader national regeneration. Despite wars around the world showing that camouflage was useful, the French Army, unlike the British and Germans, remained in blue coats with red kepis and trousers. Camouflage was not prudent, but a symbol of weakness. Overtime as offensive spirit took more of a hold in the French Army, they grew less interested in machinery. They ignored that the German Mauser rifle was easier to reload than their Lebel rifle, which suited bayonet charges. Some were unimpressed even with machine guns; and General de Castelnau saw forts as unbecoming of professional soldiers. This was their mindset as they approached 1914.
These notions meant the Army discriminated against the large pool of army reservists for political reasons. Some generals dismissed them as part-time soldiers who did not have a warrior spirit. The Vice President of the Supreme War Council, Victor-Constant Michel, who trained many reservists and was sympathetic to republicanism, critiqued the highly offensive revanchist mindset among conservative officers, like De Grandmaison, as strategically unsound. They misunderstood how machine guns and heavy artillery could destroy infantry attacks. He argued at the military colleges in the 1910s that a potential German Army would come through central Belgium instead of the former French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine. This meant that reservists would have to be deployed across the French border and that the frontline would likely be a mix of reserve and professional soldiers. In response, de Grandmaison gave exciting lectures that Michel’s defensive strategy was a display of spiritual weakness and, therefore, a poor strategy. He won the argument. Michel was dismissed as head of strategic planning and the government put Joffre in his place. De Grandmaison was now sure that the Army doctrine would settle on offensive aggression. Reservists would not dilute the confidence—the spirit—of the professional army. As de Grandmaison stated in Infantry Training, “risking your life at every step for hours on end is not a game for the common man.”
For some, this period 1871-1914 was ‘La Belle Époque,’ a time of decadence and optimism. Counteracting this was the revanchist nationalism that lingered around radical conservative politics. The Army’s establishment was largely Catholic and conservative, and some were sympathetic to the monarchy. One French Army officer, Georges Boulanger as Minister of War, started a monarchist proto-fascist movement, Boulangism, who received hundreds of thousands of votes (despite not standing as a candidate) and was once on the cusp of power in 1887-89. This politics was about finding the ‘true’ essence of France.
Bergson did not create élan vital for the Army or conservative politics; he criticized ‘closed societies’ because they hurt spontaneity. But his idea travelled beyond his initial intentions. Strategy was not a neutral form of knowledge that prioritized the most practical choices. The philosophical mindsets of strategists created the intellectual architecture that shaped moral or practical decisions and attitudes. For this group of revanchist officers, élan vital influenced their epistemological perspectives that forced them to look at evidence in front of them in a certain way. It eventually guided them into huge strategic blunders; hundreds of thousands died years later in the First World War partly because of their thinking during this period. De Grandmaison himself died fighting on the frontline in 1915. Bergson’s élan vital captures how the social sciences have adapted and borrowed paradigms and conceptual language from the natural sciences to improve the discipline’s academic rigor. And in turn, strategic thought has borrowed from the social sciences and philosophy to justify violence.
Thomas Furse is a contributing editor at the JHI Blog and a PhD candidate at City, the University of London. He researches the connections between military and strategic thought and the social sciences, primarily in the US Army. His interests include international relations, imperial history, and political thought.