27 July 1915 – Parliamentary Oversight

In London today, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith stands before Parliament to announce the total military casualties incurred by the Great War through 18 July. The astounding figures — 830,995 are listed as killed, wounded, or captured on land, with 9,106 naval ratings being casualties at sea, and 340,000 dead overall — are easily the largest Britain has ever endured in any conflict. Yet even with these battle losses, the British Army will have one million men deployed by the end of the year, the largest military force that Great Britain has ever fielded.

Enormous, high-stakes projects require oversight, and the age of total war is creating whole new categories of direct government intervention in economies and societies — changes that require regulation by the elected representatives of the peoples at war. For example, this month the French Chamber of Deputies (see above) passed legislation to create local labor boards that can set wages for women doing at-home clothing work such as the sewing and laundry that supports French soldiers in the field. But the prosecution of the war is itself becoming controversial in Paris and London, for bloody offensives have failed to dislodge the enemy, and the attempted strategic stroke at Gallipoli has bogged down in self-evident failure.

A week ago, Prime Minister René Viviani spoke to the proper relationship of executive and legislative authority: “The government controls the military operations and the command-in-chief, while the Chamber controls the acts of the government.” In fact, his words highlight the growing tension between government, Parliament, and the Grand Quartier Général (general headquarters). Although patriotism forces the Chamber to maintain a stoic public face, lack of success on the battlefield and soldiers’ letters home have raised questions about the government and the fitness of its commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre.

Today, with calls for direct parliamentary control of of military departments growing louder, the Chamber of Deputies votes 269-200 on a resolution giving its war committees greater oversight authority. Inviting the government of to “assure to its delegates a control in the form of complete and free exercise of their commission and all facilities necessary to its execution,” the bill calls for the cabinet to report to the Chamber of delegates at least once every ninety days, but an amendment to give delegates full access to the Army-controlled ‘red zone’ along the Western Front is withdrawn, defanging the measure somewhat.


Bastille Day, 1915: President Réné Poincaré speaks on the steps of les Invalides as Prime Minister Viviani adjusts his mustache

At the heart of the dispute stands journalist and Radical Party statesman Georges Clemenceau, a loud critic of the Viviani government. His daughter works in a military hospital and has provided him with embarrassing confirmations of the horrifying state of the French Army’s battlefield medical services. His efforts have already borne fruit during the days of emergency, when Paris was threatened and the Army found itself short of critical items such as motorized field ambulances, but a year later the Army hospitals often still lack basic equipment.


Émile Driant in 1913 before becoming a national hero

Like Britain, France is still experiencing material crises of production, especially in heavy guns and high explosive shells but inclusive of all kinds of weaponry and equipment — a state of affairs that Clemenceau blames on Minister of War Alexandre Millerand.

Among the more militant Deputies aligned with Clemenceau is Émile Driant, author of prewar science fiction novels about future combat (guerre imaginaire) and a successful wartime officer. Critical of Joffre’s lax management, especially his neglect of the Verdun sector, he will be instrumental in creating the Croix de Guerre as a way to focus national honors on enlisted heroes. Despite serving at the front since the war began, Driant retains his seat in the Chamber until his death next year during the very German offensive that he has predicted and prepared to fight.

Five days ago, Joffre replaced General Maurice Sarrail as commander of the Third Army, angering the leftists with whom he was publicly identified. Because Minister Millerand backs Joffre’s habitual banishment of officers to remote posts for aiding accountability efforts, Clemenceau is now determined to replace Millerand, and leads the charge to have Sarrail reassigned to a new command over Millerand’s objections. The Parliament of France is hamstrung by the essential paradox of wartime oversight: they can only discuss the hard numbers and stark realities of the state of their Army in secret, but the nation will never tolerate a government being put out of office by deliberations conducted in undisclosed, unaccountable sessions. After all, that would quite defeat the whole point of parliamentary oversight. This raucous debate has only begun: by the end of the year, it will bring down the Viviani government.

Georges Clemenceau

Eventually becoming Prime Minister himself, 74 year-old Georges Clemenceau will be known as Père la Victoire (Father of Victory)