1914-2014: The mood in France before the First World War

In July 1914, French newspapers reported that the declining state of international affairs posed no immediate danger of war.  According to French historian Jean-Jacques Becker, French society agreed: the public, the financial world and the government simply did not consider the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand serious enough to cause a wider war in Europe.[1]  Becker’s analysis of four Parisian and two provincial newspapers from 19 to 24 July shows that greater press coverage was afforded to the salacious Caillaux affair.  The affair involved the wife of politician Joseph Caillaux.  Henriette Caillaux had shot dead the editor of Le Figaro, Gaston Calmettewhen Calmette threatened to publish love letters exchanged between Joesph and Henriette.  Even on 29 July, as little as three days before mobilisation, the affair garnered as much press coverage as the European crisis.[3]

Yet as events took their course, the mood seemed to change.  Writing from Paris, Henri Désagneaux revealed that on 1 August 1914: “…people still have a glimmer of hope, but nothing suggests that matters can now be settled peacefully”.[4]  For Marc Bloch, by those early August days, “War seemed inevitable”.[5]  Still, the reality of the situation was difficult to accept: Jacques Bainville reported that “[t]here was doubt until the last moment”.[6]  Anxiety gripped some French: Georges Leroy, a teacher from the Nord bore witness to this, “The newspapers are reassuring, but in the absence of concrete reports (nouvelles certaines), owing to contradictory news, worry is growing, everyone feels unable to get down to work.”[7]

More to follow…..


[1] Becker, Comment les Français sont entres en guerre, pp. 125-127.

[2] Ibid., p. 130.

[3] Ibid., p. 133.

[4] H. Désagneaux, A French Soldier’s War Diary 1914-1918 (Morley, 1975), p. 3.

[5] M. Bloch, Memoirs of War, 1914-1915 (London, 1980), p. 78

[6] J. Bainville, Journal inédit (1914) (Paris, 1953), p. 7..

[7] G. Leroy, ‘Journal d’un instituteur 1914-1919’, in A. Becker, ed., Journaux de combattants et de civils de la France du Nord dans la Grande Guerre (Paris, 1998), p. 109.

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