Military miscalculations and not national dry rot may have been the real answer. The French high command simply could not recover from its mistakes in 1940 as it had a generation earlier.
FIFTY YEARS AGO THE FRENCH ARMY COLLAPSED WITH STUNNING SUDDENNESS before an onslaught of German panzer divisions. If the fall of France in 1940 was not quite the first act of World War II, it was certainly the most dramatic up to that point. Even with a half century of hindsight, it is difficult to comprehend how an army that Churchill had hailed as a model of resolve and commitment “Thank God for the French army!” he had thundered in the face of the defense–shy British government of Ramsay MacDonald–could dissolve into chaos so complete that even her conquerors were startled.
France’s rapid military collapse and surrender left a legacy of historical perceptions that endure 50 years on. For outsiders–especially the British, who could speak with the superiority of those who survived to fight again an other day–the fall of France in 1940 was viewed essentially as the harsh but logical outcome of two decades of divisive French politics. This verdict, in fact, was not far from the one offered by the French themselves.
That both the Gaullist resistance and the collaborationist Vichy regime put the blame for France’s defeat on the Third Republic is hardly surprising. However, the devastating French defeat of 1940 appeared to contrast so utterly with the dogged determination of the generation of 1914 to prevail against the Schlieffen Plan that even those on the Left suspected that the battle for France had been forfeited before the first German tanks crashed into the Ardennes forests.
The French historian Marc Bloch, a man of the Left who perished in the occupation, believed that the fall of France resulted from deep political and social divisions, as well as from military incompetence. In Strange Defeat, a powerful “]’accuse” of the late Third Republic written in the months immediately after France’s collapse, Bloch blasted the intrigues and poor planning of the politicians, the pessimism and faithlessness of the bourgeoisie, and the low productivity, selfishness, and lack of patriotism of the trade unions. In his view the high command, basking in the reflected glory of the victory of 1918, “failed to keep their minds supple enough to retain the power of criticizing their own prejudices.”
“Who were our leaders in 1940?” he asked. The answer to his own question was devastating–company and field grade officers promoted from the last war, men mesmerized by its linear rituals of slaughter, content to recycle its concepts and regurgitate its “lessons” as if the study of war were an arcane theology compounded of superstition and dogma. Yet according to Bloch, confidence in their command of the military mysteries was not extended to France and to Frenchmen, for these high priests of destruction “were only too ready to despair of the country they had been called upon to defend, and of the people who furnished the soldiers they commanded.”
What we are left with, according to Canadian historian J.C. Cairns, are three basic perceptions of France in 1940. The first is of a regime of scheming politicians presiding over a people locked in factious political quarrels. The second view is of the French army’s geriatric high command suffering the advanced stages of a “Maginot mentality,” wedded to the defensive postures and the trench-taking traditions of the last war and willfully resistant to the dynamic techniques of mechanized warfare perfected in Germany. Last, we are heirs to the “legend of the unnecessary surrender,” the belief that France was too quick to capitulate when the first battles went badly. Instead, she might have fought on from a Breton redoubt or North Africa, or even joined in the Franco-British union offered by Churchill.
This is a heavy legacy indeed, and on the surface at least these perceptions appear to be perfectly credible. After all, if the victorious power that was France of 1918 could become, in just 20 years, a shattered satellite of Germany on a level barely superior to that of Poland, Belgium, or Norway. Then some fairly cataclysmic changes must have occurred in the stability of her political system, the competence of her army, and the will of her people to resist. In other words, great events must have great causes.
And who could deny that the event was a momentous one? The images of France’s defeat remain poignant even today. Documentary footage of May June 1940 offers an uninterrupted vision of German panzers moving virtually at will through demoralized French units, of shoals of French soldiers throwing down their weapons in surrender, and of roads clogged with refugees fleeing south, the roofs of their cars padded with mattresses mistakenly believed to offer protection against the strafing of the Luftwaffe.
“Always the same picture,” wrote Erwin Rommel as his panzers sped south in the blazing late-spring days of 1940, “troops and civilians in wild flight down both sides of the road.”
The sad spectacle of French generals forced to sign a humiliating peace with Hitler in the same railway carriage where only a generation earlier Ferdinand Foch had humbled the Wilhelmine Reich was visible proof that France had reached its historical nadir. But how valid is this indictment of Frances government, of her army, and of her people’s morale in 1940? Does France’s rapid collapse in 1940, when compared to her tenacious resurgence on the Marne in September 1914, really prove that she was a spiritual and political cripple? Or might the difference in outcomes of 1914 and 1940 be explained by improved German capabilities against a foe that was not more guilty of the post-1940 charges than it had ever been, just less lucky?
Perhaps the first point to make is that modern scholarship has chipped away at the image of the French government of the 1930s as one that struck just the right balance between complete chaos and mere confusion. There can be no denying that the Third Republic had its problems–chronic ministerial instability and the economic disorder produced by the depression perhaps foremost among them. However, the view that the regime was on its last legs in 1940 is, an exaggerated one. The government of Edouard Daladier, elected in April 1938, survived for almost two years and gave the Third Republic at least a veneer of stability. The Left was in serious electoral difficulty, and many contemporaries believed that the republic was on an even keel by 1939.
This does not mean that the regime was strong–only that Frenchmen were not too divided to unite in their own defense. The Communists constituted a potentially disruptive political factor, but between 1934 and the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 they had generally supported resistance to fascism.
Historians of the left-wing Popular Front government, which came to power in 1936, have vigorously argued against the accusation that it was soft on defense. France spent a greater percentage of her GNP on defense than any other European country between 1919 and 1935, and socialist prime minister Leon Blum launched an armaments program that had French arms factories humming at impressive rates by 1940. German military spending surpassed that of France after 1935, but then Germany was catching up. French military spending in 1938 was in real terms 2.6 times what it had been in 1913 at the height of the “nationalist revival,” when France resolved to match the pre-1914 German buildup.
A more accurate picture of the late Third Republic is of a regime showing definite strains. But the 1930s were trying times for all European governments, and some very prominent ones–those of Weimar Germany and Republican Spain among them–did riot survive the decade. The Third Republic was not strong, but neither was it in the last stages of political debilitation. In the view of Gordon Wright, an American historian of France, “Although France in the 1930s suffered from growing social stresses, French society on the whole remained stable, and there was no widespread sense of frustrated nationalism to increase the degree of discontent.” The Third Republic could still rally the country and organize a powerful, if ultimately inadequate, defense.
Like the government of the Third Republic, the French army of the inter war years has also undergone a partial rehabilitation–not an easy task given the spectacular and comprehensive nature of its defeat. In 1940, incompetence was one of the kinder charges leveled at French generals. Their operational doctrine, it was believed, showed that the high command had never abandoned the trenches of the Great War. Strategically, the French advance into Belgium and Holland laid them open for a Schwerpunkt–a break through-through the Ardennes, which the high command had dismissed as impossible.
If the French army was destroyed in 1940, this was not because its leaders ignored new weaponry or attempted to reproduce the battlefields of the 1914-18 war in the dramatically different conditions of mechanized warfare. Robert Doughty has shown in his book The Seeds of Disaster that far from ignoring the tank, the French army worked hard to integrate mechanized warfare into their military system. By May 1940 they had three armored divisions and three light mechanized divisions, as well as 110 tanks assigned to five cavalry divisions. Overall the French had more tanks than the Germans, even counting the 500 Czech tanks appropriated by Hitler when he occupied Prague in March 1939.
Some of the French tanks–notably the Somua 35 and the B.I bis–were considered superior to anything produced by the enemy. The problem of the French tanks in 1940 lay not so much in their speed or efficiency as in the way they were employed. Rather than develop new concepts that would have allowed the tank to realize its full potential on the battlefield, the French slotted it into their concepts of the controlled battle. This error was compounded during the Allied advance into Belgium in May 1940, when mechanized divisions were often broken up by commanders who little understood their independent task and used them for infantry support in a manner similar to their employment in World War I. The Germans, on the other hand, discovered that if they massed their tanks, they could gain a local numerical superiority. French antitank weapons, although excellent, proved insufficiently mobile.
The Maginot Line–the wall of defensive fortifications stretching from Switzerland to the Ardennes–was decried as the most egregious example of the French high command’s reluctance to abandon the fixed-front mentality of the Great War. But one can argue that it was a perfectly logical solution to the problem of providing defensive cover for vital population and industrial centers. Nor was the Maginot Line evidence of a mentality mired in defensive thinking–on the contrary, it served to anchor the maneuver into Belgium. In retrospect, the salient problem of the French high command was not that it sought to refight the Great War but that it was unable to overcome constraints imposed upon its freedom to develop a viable military system, constraints that were nonexistent or at least minimized in Germany.
The first such constraint was the French Left’s hostility toward the professional military establishment. The Left not only feared that the military establishment posed a threat to the continued existence of the republic, but also fervently believed that French officers favored offensive doctrines that would throw away lives. After suffering the loss of 1.3 million young men–27 percent of her male population between 18 and 27 years of age, the highest death rate of all the major combatants–France might be excused if she had a “Verdun complex.”
The Left thus opposed any tactical, operational, or strategic change that hinted of a plan to repeat the bloody offensives of the Great War. The sanctity of a” nation-in-arms” based on a short-service army of conscripts and reservists caused Leftist politicians to op pose an increase in the numbers of professional officers–5,000 were let go in 1933–and NCOs as well as a more rational organization of the high command.
After 1918 the army returned to the prewar system of peacetime command, which separated the chief of the general staff from the vice-president of the Superior Council of War, the man who was to take command upon mobilization. Attempts to unify the two positions into a single commander in chief failed in 1920. In 1935 General Maurice Gamelin did occupy both offices simultaneously, but power at the top of the French army remained fragmented, essentially because politicians feared a powerful service chief, and because in the absence of strong authority, senior generals had acquired independent attitudes that were difficult to bend toward a single goal.
The second constraint was imposed by limited resources. The treasury was perennially squeezed for cash. Tanks were recognized as the armament of the future, but the expansion of that arm had to come at the expense of the other service branches. Some generals argued forcefully that the antitank gun was the answer to the tank, more cost effective and the weapon of choice for an army of short-service conscripts.
Accommodating mechanized warfare in the French army was further complicated by politicians’ reluctance to organize a clear path of authority in the high command. The result was that important doctrinal and armaments decisions were based on bureaucratic compromise rather than clearly established army needs. Plans to create independent tank divisions set off a flurry of bureaucratic and budgetary wrangling similar to that provoked by Generalissimo Joseph Joffre before 1914 when he attempted to rectify the glaring short age of heavy artillery in the French army of those days.
Viewed in this context, Gamelin, the World War II French commander in chief, emerges as a soldier whose idea of making war was not just to shuffle papers. A bureaucrat he certainly was, but an accomplished bureaucrat was precisely what the French command structure required. As a peacetime commander, he proved himself a clear sighted and effective politician. He was firmly set upon guiding the French forces toward independent tank divi sions through the maze of left-wing hostility, budgetary restraints, and interdepartmental rivalry.
When Charles de Gaulle, in his 1934 book The Army of the Future, called for France to create mechanized divisions, Gamelin objected, not because he opposed mechanization but because de Gaulle and the moderate politician Paul Reynaud had linked the issue of modernization to the creation of a professional tank corps separate from that of the conscript army, a prospect that automatically provoked hysterical op position from the Left. Unfortunately for France, when war came Gamelin was less well suited to command.
The final constraint on French innovation was a tactical and operational system that called for a tightly controlled battle. This was in part a legacy of the Great War, when French offensives had been tightly choreographed to minimize casualties and confusion. While the Germans stressed independent action of lower-level commanders, who were encouraged to pursue deep penetration attacks, the French preference was for shallow advances with many phases and leaps forward timed to the displacement of the artillery. While the Germans emphasized speed and flexibility, the French sought to coordinate the methodical application of firepower to the attack.
An obvious weakness of this system–a weakness recognized by the French–was that it allowed little room for initiative and the rapid exploitation of tactical success. It survived into the interwar years because the French high command considered the army insufficiently trained and too dependent upon reservists to be able to delegate responsibility to subordinate commanders, as was the case in the German army. While the high command called for 150,000 career soldiers in the postwar army, a 1928 law set a ceiling of 106,000 professionals, a figure that was never reached, to train 220,000 to 230,000 new conscripts every year from 1928 to 1935. In 1933 there were further reductions of professional cadres.
Thus the standing French army in peacetime was little more than a skeleton around which the nation would mobilize. Upon mobilization, 33 percent of the officers, 32 percent of the NCOs, and 53 percent of the enlisted men of an “active” infantry regiment would be professionals. The percentage of professionals was lower in the reserve regiments. With conscripts and reservists who possessed only basic training skills, and units whose members would be largely unknown to each other upon mobilization, it was logical for the French army to rely upon more static and controlled notions of war fare. Even the tactical regulations governing the armored divisions slotted their action into the framework of the controlled battle.
Given the ponderous nature of this military system, the French decision to rely on firepower rather than mobility and flexibility was also logical: Why should they attempt to match the Germans in an encounter battle where they would fight at a disadvantage?
All of these things were problems for the French army, but they need not have been fatal ones. The army had the material strength to halt a German offensive. French forces were less maneuverable than their German adversaries, but the tactical and operational superiority of the German army in 1914 had not given it an outright victory. The difference between the outcomes of 1914 and 1940 has often been explained by the difference in French strategies. In 1914 Joffre’s Plan XVII disastrously misjudged the Schlieffen Plan’s sweep through Belgium. However, he kept his forces together and retained the flexibility to redeploy and secure a victory on the Marne–aided, interestingly enough, by Gamelin’s timely plans.
But Gamelin’s Dyle/Breda Plan of 1940 flung his forces too far forward into Belgium and Holland, inviting the German s to break through at the hinge in the Ardennes. French reaction during numerous alerts in the autumn and winter of 1939-40 convinced the Germans that the French intended to move into Belgium–and helped gain acceptance for the Ardennes offensive at general headquarters.
In retrospect, of course, the flaws in Gamelin’s plan are obvious. Yet in most respects–except the ultimate one: that it failed–Gamelin’s plan was far superior to Joffre’s Plan XVII, and certainly more logical. Its purpose was to take the battle away from France’s northern frontier, thereby preserving many of the industrial areas and cities along the Belgian border that had been forfeited in 1914, and avoiding the devastation France had suffered in the earlier war. The advance would deepen the area of antiaircraft defenses, as well as shorten the front, thereby providing more troops for a general reserve. Gamelin’s plan also aimed to bring Dutch and Belgian divisions into the Allied camp, as well as strengthen British resolve to defend France.
The plan’s underlying assumption was that the war would be a long one hence, unlike 1914, all was not to be bet on a single throw of the dice. The point was to grab a line as far forward as possible and hold it; encourage the Germans to exhaust themselves in at tacks upon well-defended French positions; allow the Allies time to build up their superior resources; and then launch a counteroffensive.
Gamelin’s overall plan had great merit. Its major weaknesses lay in details. As Belgium had slipped her alliance with France and declared her neutrality in 1936, the French could not move north until the Germans first violated Belgian territory. When this happened, Gamelin blandly assumed the French could reach “prepared” defense lines in Belgium ahead of the Germans–only to discover that the Belgians had prepared almost nothing.
Once the advance into Belgium had been decided upon, however, the plan could not be abandoned simply because of inadequate Belgian defenses. Gamelin also chose to ignore the Dutch decision to withdraw to the defense of Holland and Zeeland rather than link up with the French. In addition, it appears possible that he retained too many forces on the Maginot Line, probably because local commanders insisted that they were undermanned. Gamelin nevertheless might have succeeded in stabilizing a front in Belgium–had the Germans stuck to their original plan of attacking France through the Low Countries. But by the spring of 1940 the führer entertained different ideas.
In January 1940 a light plane with a German staff officer aboard lost its bearings and landed in Belgium at a place called Mechelen. The officer was carrying Hitler’s plans for the German offensive–which, as in World War I, would pass through Belgium–and although he managed to destroy most of the contents of his briefcase, Hitler concluded that security had been compromised and ordered a new plan devised. The remaining options open to the German generals were hardly encouraging: a frontal assault upon the Maginot Line; an end run through Switzerland; or an offensive through the Ardennes. They chose the last one, deciding that it was a long shot but the only viable course open to them.
Gamelin’s detractors, among them French intelligence officer Paul Paillole, have accused the general of ignoring intelligence reports predicting a German thrust through the Ardennes. However, a close examination of the evidence suggests that the Deuxieme Bureau, French military intelligence, did not speak with a clear voice on German intentions: In the final intelligence briefing to GHQ on May 5, 1940, the chief of intelligence merely offered the assurance that the Germans would not attack through Switzerland or against the Maginot Line. Only on May 12, two days after the beginning of the German offensive, did the Deuxieme Bureau confirm that the Germans had directed their main forces against the Ardennes front. That said, however, it is now clear that the response of the French high command to the German buildup around Sedan, obvious from May 13, was woefully inadequate.
Gamelin’s problem does not seem to have been, as is often charged, a lack of character or an ignorance of intelligence reports. Rather, he suffered from a dearth of imagination. He doggedly adhered to his plan, refusing to consider the possibility, especially likely in the wake of the Mechelen incident, that the Germans might do something other than carry out a modified version of the Schlfeffen Plan of 1914. As a general on the defensive, Gamelin should have maintained his army, or at least a large portion of his mobile strength, in a position of flexible expectation until the enemy’s intentions became clear.
The Germans hesitated to adopt their Ardennes plan primarily because all of their war games showed that the move could be easily blocked by an attentive enemy. For their part, the French considered the possibility of a German thrust through the Ardennes but rejected it because they believed the Germans in capable of moving troops and supplies quickly enough through the heavily wooded corridor with its poor road network.
Gamelin has also been criticized for his inactivity during the period of the Phony War, and especially for his failure to attack Germany in September 1939 while German forces had their hands full in Poland. “How could we have avoided defeat?” asked Andre Beaufre, a senior staff officer with the French war ministry in 1940. “It is possible that the last chance was thrown away when we refused to make war in 1939. If we had really assaulted the Siegfried Line, we would have trained our troops, rejuvenated the high command, tried out our methods of combat, and put new life into our war effort.” Instead, like a schoolboy unable to back down but unwilling to throw a serious punch at a more muscular rival, Gamelin contented himself with a desultory attack against German fortifications in the Saar.
There is possibly some merit to this view, especially as Germany spent the winter of 1939-40 building up her armaments, retraining, and digesting the lessons of the Polish campaign, while the Allies appear largely to have spent the winter perfecting their songs about hanging out the washing on the Siegfried Line. Still, to accuse Gamelin of inactivity is inaccurate. In fact, the argument can be made that he was far too active–with the wrong things.
Gamelin’s problem was that his options for offensive action were limited. His claim that a serious attack upon the Siegfried Line would merely open the conflict with a repeat of Verdun in 1916 was no doubt overstated, but it certainly would have plunged a French army untrained in infiltration tactics into a struggle with Germans on hostile and well–defended terrain. And it would not have saved Poland, squeezed by the Wehrmacht and the Red Army.
For the remainder of the winter, Gamelin and the French command threw themselves into feverish attempts to find places for action. A direct assault upon the Fatherland was out of the question because to do it effectively would have required a premature violation of Belgian neutrality, an option unacceptable to both Great Britain and world opinion–not to mention the Belgians, on whose eventual support Gamelin counted.
While the army pondered what to do, the Soviet assault upon Poland and Finland, together with the French Communist party’s disloyal support of Hitler following the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939, caused a ground swell of popular indignation against the Soviet Union. The French Communist party experienced many defections of sup porters who were unable to follow the violent about-face of the party’s position on Nazi Germany.
The major effect of the Nazi-Soviet pact upon the French high command is that it translated into much time spent in farfetched schemes to aid the Finns and attack the Baku oil fields, because the Soviet Union was now labeled the “objective ally” of the Germans. When the Finns surrendered, the Allied expeditionary force set up to aid them was dispatched in May 1940 to Narvik in northern Norway. The purpose of the expedition was to deprive Germany of Swedish iron ore, not a bad strategic goal in itself. But all it accomplished was to precipitate a German preemptive occupation of Denmark and Norway in April, and commit the Allies to a battle at the end of an impossibly long supply line far from the main front, placing further strains upon Gamelin’s already inadequate staff and intelligence services.
In the final analysis, the French army in 1940 was perfectly capable of defending France, just so long as the German army behaved in a predictable manner. With the common German French frontier covered by the Maginot Line, Gamelin was prepared to take on the Germans with his best troops in Belgium. The French army’s greatest weakness, at all levels, lay in its inadequate ability to deal with the unexpected. In the opening days of the battle, the high command made a series of unfortunate operational choices that compounded their strategic mistakes.
It was bad luck for the French, or perhaps bad planning, that the German attack fell hardest on second–echelon “B” divisions made up of older reservists ill prepared to confront the cream of the Wehrmacht. That the French high command was so slow to react can be explained by their preconceived notions of German intentions. But once the breakthrough occurred, the French army’s ability to reassess its initial miscalculations was limited by systemic factors: an overly centralized command structure, a poor communications system, and a lack of operational and tactical flexibility.
Perhaps the most obvious gap in the Allied defenses was in the air. The confusion and disarray of the French air industry meant that French planes in May 1940 were inferior to those of the Germans in both quality and quantity. While in theory the Allies counted around 1,800 aircraft available for operations to oppose 2,750 Luftwaffe planes assigned to the campaign, in practice the Allies could commit less than 800 planes to support the critical No. 1 Army Group, defending the length of the Meuse River. German numerical superiority was obvious in every category of aircraft, but it was overwhelming in bombers and dive-bombers. Furthermore, May 1940 revealed that the Allies had no coordinated air strategy; they scattered their air attacks over a number of targets to no great effect. But Allied inferiority in the air was not the decisive element in the campaign. The Luftwaffe played an important but auxiliary role in the Battle of France, which was won by the German panzers.
The basic point to make is that while the defeat of 1940 was a military one, the French army was far from “rotten,” although it had weaknesses, often glaring ones, which were exposed in the pressure of battle. The “sitzkrieg”–the period of inactivity between the declaration of war in September 1939 and the German offensive of May 1940–had dulled readiness, but it had not undermined morale. Some French troops did run away in 1940, but so had some in 1914. Most of the French army fought with great bravery in 1940, as they had a generation earlier. If the Germans had not taken unexpected actions, the outcome of the battle for France might have been very different. A final legacy of 1940 is the notion of unnecessary surrender. This is an echo of Charles de Gaulle’s famous appeal of June 18 to his countrymen over the BBC, insisting that France had lost a battle but not the war, and calling for continued resistance. However, continued resistance either from a Breton redoubt, from the still largely unoccupied south of the country, or from France ‘s colonial bastion in North Africa–much less immigration to London in the trail of the governments of Poland, Norway, Belgium, and Holland–was far from the mind of Philippe Petain. The aging marshal insisted that France was prostrate, that her major ally, Great Britain, would soon share her fate, and that an armistice was the only viable option. Contemporaries and historians, noting that Petain and his armistice were genuinely popular in France, have commented with sadness on what they interpret as the decline of public and political morale from the “On les aural” (” We’ll whip them!”) spirit of 1914 to the meek acceptance of defeat a quarter century later.
With all the advantages of hindsight, it is obvious that de Gaulle had a better grasp of the long-term situation than did Petain. The war was not over; it had simply entered a new, global phase.
On the other hand, the military situation was apparently so bleak, the magnitude of the military defeat so over whelming, that soldiers like Maxime Weygand who wanted to cease hostilities could convince conservatives like Prime Minister Paul Reynaud that continued resistance was hopeless. Continued resistance found its strongest support on the Left: the jusqu‘au boutistes led by socialists such as Leon Blum, Pierre Mendes-France, and Georges Mandel, radicals Edouard Herriot and Daladier–men who harbored few illusions about what Nazi occupation held in store for them and for France.
The prospects for a continued fight from North Africa did appear encouraging, especially as the commander in chief there, General August Nogues, appeared to favor it, and because the new prime minister, Petain, had ordered a portion of the government transferred there. However, it was bad luck and bad timing that an important contingent of deputies led by Daladier and Mandel took themselves out of the picture on June 21 when they boarded the Massilia for the trip to North Africa. In fact, the Massilia became a trap in which Petain interned many important opponents of an armistice.
The desire to cease hostilities did have important support in the French population. Petain and the “defeatists” offered a return to ” normalcy” and the end of the war for France. De Gaulle’s call for continued struggle and sacrifice found few takers. Years later, as president of the Fifth Republic in 1968, de Gaulle commissioned a television documentary whose purpose was to demonstrate that Frenchmen had opposed the armistice and vowed to fight on against the occupying power. The film, The Sorrow and the Pity, so disappointed him–especially by showing the extent to which ordinary Frenchmen collaborated with the Germans–that he attempted to have it suppressed.
But was this reluctance to carry out a war to the knife against the Germans symptomatic of a severe decline in popular morale. Certainly memories of the 1914 blood letting had cooled French enthusiasm for conflict. Indeed, war was unpopular everywhere in the interwar years, including Berlin. Still, the view that France missed a real opportunity when she passed up war in 1936 over the reoccupation of the Ruhr and in 1938 over the Czechoslovakian crisis was nearly universal after the war, and her failure to act was considered symptomatic of the acute pacifism that reigned in France. Actually, the problem was far more complicated.
Although Germany had been defeated in 1918, in many ways she had emerged as the strategic victor. Where as in 1914 she had been surrounded by powerful neighbors, now of the major powers only France shared a border with her; a jigsaw of small states occupied Germany’s eastern and southern frontiers, and she had little to worry about from Britain, which demonstrated an extreme reluctance to provide for her own defense, much less to intervene on the Continent.
The French have been accused of placing ideology over survival by showing little enthusiasm for resurrecting their alliance with Russia in the 1930s. It is true that the 1935 mutual-aid pact between France and the Soviet Union was never ratified by the French parliament. But it is now clear that Stalin had no intention of fighting Germany. As for Italy, she was mercurial and ideologically had more in common with Hitler than with the Third Republic. Besides, it was in Italy’s long-term strategic interests to weaken her major rival in southern Europe.
In these conditions, the message of the 1914-18 war, reinforced by her ill fated unilateral occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 to force Germany to make her reparations payments–an action that put her at odds with world opinion was that France must not act without the backing of her allies. An independent foreign policy carried two unacceptable risks for France: the risk of another war, and, moreover, a war without British support.
These difficulties were brought forcefully home during the 1938 Czechoslovak crisis, when Poland, too, placed her claim to a piece of Czechoslovak territory. The Petite Entente foundered upon the traditional animosities of the peoples of eastern Europe and the refusal of the Poles and Romanians to allow Soviet forces access to their territory, even had the Soviets been inclined to honor their 1935 commitments to support French actions against Germany.
The Munich agreement of 1938 was greeted with relief in France, as it was in Britain. But by the summer of 1939, conditions had changed. Britain supported France over the issue of Poland. French popular opinion no longer supported appeasement. The Phony War may have dampened spirits somewhat, but there is no evidence that French public opinion, outside of a few fringe groups, was defeatist before the over whelming German offensives in May.
The research of French historian Jean-Jacques Becker on French public reactions in 1914 suggests that the French state of mind was very similar in each instance: Just before the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, French popular opinion “was ready to abandon itself to the idea of an inevitable defeat.” The major difference between 1914 and 1940, Becker believes, is that in 1914 Frenchmen believed that the war would be short, whereas in 1940 they anticipated a long and arduous campaign.
Is this why France chose to surrender in 1940? Most of the high command certainly opposed the continued struggle. The military situation appeared hopeless. Their conclusion, in General Weygand’s memorable phrase, was that Britain would soon “have her neck wrung like a chicken.” Along with many politicians, they were motivated by a desire to maintain order in France and feared the political consequences of a military withdrawal from the mainland. They also wished to keep the French colonial empire intact and to settle old scores with their enemies on the political Left. By imitating Germany’s quiet post-1918 military resurgence, they hoped to rebuild their shattered army. So they made their fatal pact with Hitler. Given the confused conditions of June 1940 the decision, although hasty, was understandable.
“What conclusions may we draw about the fall of France? The obvious one is that France did not “fall”–she was pushed. In the aftermath of Gamelin’s stunning defeat, it was tempting to see General Joffre as a virtual Bonaparte by comparison. However, France’s situation in 1940 was remarkably similar to that of 1914. The difference in the outcomes between 1914 and 1940 cannot be explained away simply as resulting from a “rotten” political system, a serious decline in French military capabilities, or a population undermined by a defeatist spirit. In both instances the French high command failed to correctly decipher German intentions and made serious strategic errors. That the French recovered in 1914 but succumbed in 1940 can be put down to the much-improved ability of the Germans to exploit their initial victories.
In 1914 the Schlieffen Plan sought to envelop the French forces. Although Joffre made virtually every mistake it was possible to make, the French were able to throw back the invaders on the Marne essentially because the Schlieffen Plan proved beyond German capabilities. Weary and foot sore, having outrun both their logistics and their heavy artillery, and with Russian armies threatening them in East Prussia, the Germans were ripe for an Allied counteroffensive by September.
It was an altogether different story in 1940, but not because French powers of resistance had declined disastrously since the Great War. Had Hitler attempted to repeat a Schlieffen-like sweep into Belgium as originally planned, Gamelin might have held defeat at arm’s length. Unfortunately, the German break through in the Ardennes exposed all of France’s weaknesses. With panzers operating freely in the rear, her army broke in two. In full retreat, with no prospect of Russian assistance, the high command was paralyzed, French opinion wavered, and her political system buckled.
All of these weaknesses had been present in 1914. Joffre, after all, had dismissed over 50 French generals for incompetence, and French popular morale had shivered like jelly as the kaiser’s hordes bore down on Paris. However, a generation later, neither Gamelin nor his successor, Weygand, commanded that one scarce commodity, time, which had permitted Joffre to recover from his initial mistakes. But then, Joffre had not had to contend with panzers. In this respect, France shared the fate of all of the countries that fell under the hammering of the Wehrmacht. But unlike the other defeated powers, the French political system and popular morale, as well as the French army, have been singled out by contemporaries and historians for special blame.
DOUGLAS PORCH is the Mark W. Clark Professor of History at the Citadel.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 1990 issue (Vol. 2, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Why Did France Fall?
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