“Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys”

A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. Read the introduction to the series here, or the previous post here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 – Paris

You wouldn’t think that the seemingly random combination of these four words could yield 2.1 million hits on a Google search. But thanks to the writers of The Simpsons (who had Groundskeeper Willie say this  in a 1995 episode), the phrase even has its own Wikipedia page.

A quick digression: when I started this post, I was convinced that this Wikipedia commenter was right and the phrase actually came from Late Night with David Letterman. After far too much research that will do nothing to advance my scholarly career, I think I’ve eliminated that possibility. But to show that I wasn’t totally off base… The July 18, 1990 list: “The Top Ten Ways France is Dealing with German Reunification.”

There are worse slurs against the French, but few sillier than calling them a nation of “cheese eating surrender monkeys.” So it’s with some sense of wanting to defend a people whose history I studied at considerable length in grad school that I’m going to start our five-day stay in Paris with the Invalides and the Arc de Triomphe, two monuments to French heroism and military success separated by less than two miles.

Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe, Paris - Creative Commons (roblisameehan)

In addition to housing the French national Army Museum, the Contemporary History Museum, and those museums’ fine WWI collections, the Invalides complex (named after its original purpose as a hospital for military veterans) also is the final resting place for Napoléon Bonaparte and dozens of other French military leaders.

The Arc de Triomphe, of course, is an iconic image that even Americans recognize and risk their lives (if they ignore the signs for the tunnels and instead try to cross the Champs-Elysées on foot) to go see. The home of France’s WWI Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (contrast here with Britain’s Cenotaph, previously blogged about), the arch is inscribed with the names of battles and generals that loom large in French military history.

Okay, by this point I know that many Anglo-American readers are fighting hard not to snicker. Surely whichever Wikipedia editor wrote the following was smirking a bit:

Following its construction, the Arc de Triomphe became the rallying point of French troops parading after successful military campaigns and for the annual Bastille Day Military Parade. Famous victory marches around or under the Arc have included the Germans in 1871, the French in 1919, the Germans in 1940, and the French and Allies in 1944 and 1945.

I know, I know: two of the parades noted here celebrated spectacularly inglorious defeats of the French, and the French procession in 1944 was a transparent gambit to make it seem that the Free French (and not the Americans, Brits, Canadians, etc.) had played the leading role in the Libération. And it’s a stretch even to view WWI as a truly “successful military campaign,” since 17 of every 100 Frenchmen mobilized died to achieve that pyrrhic victory.

So permit me to identify the five greatest triumphs in French history, in chronological order:

1. The Battle of Tours (or Poitiers), AD 732

Historians argue constantly about the real significance of this battle. Was it a minor encounter between a Frankish force and small contingent of Muslims raiding a nearby monastery, or the moment when Charles Martel emerged as the “saviour of Christendom” (Edward Gibbon, The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, p. 933) and stopped an otherwise inevitable Islamic conquest of western Europe? It’s certainly been a popular “what if?”, leading to an early and influential example of the kind of “alternate history” that I’ll be discussing in one of these posts next week: L. Sprague de Camp, “The Wheels of If” (1940).

In any case, French nationalist historians have certainly treated the battle as a landmark event that precedes even the establishment of the Kingdom of France. So let’s give it to them.

Battle of Formigny
A French victory near the end of the 100 Years War (Formigny, 1450)

2. The Battle of Castillon, 1453

That’s right, Anglo-Saxons, y’all lost the Hundred Years War! Declaim “Crispin, Crispian” all you want, but this is a classic example of one side losing the battle (and battle and battle) yet winning the war.

3. The Battle of Yorktown, 1781

If you include militia, there were more American soldiers than French involved in the climactic battle of the Revolutionary War, but the fact that it’s even close and that the French took more casualties than their allies (which one could read in very different ways, I suppose) suggests that Rochambeau and his men deserve an important place in the annals of US history. Most importantly, Cornwallis and his overwhelmed garrison could not escape because they were bottled up by the fleet of de Grasse. And it all helped bankrupt Louis XVI and cause the French Revolution, so let’s be magnanimous, shall we?

Dean Acheson
Dean Acheson, 1965 - Johnson Presidential Library

4. France withdraws from the NATO integrated military command, 1966

And a year later kicked NATO’s (American) supreme commander out of his headquarters near Paris. Now, given that French troops continued to serve in NATO and would surely have fought in a war against the Warsaw Pact, this may be seen as the most petty in a series of petty efforts by Charles de Gaulle to reassert French power and independence in the face of American hegemony.

But when US president Lyndon Johnson refused to take steps to punish de Gaulle, it led to this exasperated response from former American secretary of state Dean Acheson:

You made the greatest imperial power the world has ever seen kiss de Gaulle’s a**.

And, assuming he heard it repeated, that statement alone would have been victory for de Gaulle.

5. The FIFA World Cup Final, 1998

Winning France’s first World Cup. In Paris. Two days before Bastille Day.

I don’t know if this result alone makes up for 1870, 1940, and 1954, but I’ll say this… I made the mistake of flying to Paris on a plane that arrived early (6am or so) the morning after this match. Given how long it took the CDG gate crew to deplane us, I wouldn’t be surprised if the festivities had continued toute la nuit.

Tomorrow we take a day trip to Versailles (where the Germans rubbed it in France’s face in 1871, only to get their pound of flesh 48 years later) and grapple with the problematic legacy of Woodrow Wilson.

<<Day 13          Day 15>>


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