RERUN–a Neglected but Significant Anniversary

‘When the crocus blossoms,’ hiss the women in Berlin,
‘He will press the button, and the battle will begin.
When the crocus blossoms, up the German knights will go,
And flame and fume and filthiness will terminate the foe…
When the crocus blossoms, not a neutral will remain.’

(A P Herbert, Spring Song, quoted in To Lose a Battle, by Alistair Horne)

On May 10, 1940, German forces launched an attack against Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Few people among the Allies imagined that France would collapse in only six weeks: Churchill, for example, had a high opinion of the fighting qualities of the French army. But collapse is what happened, of course, and we are still all living with the consequences. General Andre Beaufre, who in 1940 was a young Captain on the French staff, wrote in 1967:

The collapse of the French Army is the most important event of the twentieth century.

If it’s an exaggeration, it’s not much of one. If France had held up to the German assault as effectively as it was expected to do, World War II would probably have never reached the nightmare levels that it in fact did reach. The Hitler regime might well have fallen. The Holocaust would never have happened. Most likely, there would have been no Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.

This campaign has never received much attention in America; it tends to be regarded as something that happened before the “real” war started. Indeed, many denizens of the Anglosphere seem to believe that the French basically gave up without a fight–which is a considerable exaggeration given the French casualties of around 90,000 killed and 200,000 wounded. But I think the fall of France deserves serious study, and that some of the root causes of the defeat are scarily relevant to today’s world.

First, I will very briefly summarize the campaign from a military standpoint, and will then shift focus to the social and political factors involved in the defeat.


France’s border can be thought of in terms of three sectors. In the north, the border with with Belgium. Early French military planning had been based on the idea of a strong cooperative relationship with Belgium: however, in the years immediately prior to 1940, that country had adopted a position of neutrality and had refused to do any joint military planning with France. In the south, the border was protected by the forts of the Maginot Line (the southern flank of which was anchored by mountainous territory bordering on Switzerland and Italy.) In between these regions was the country of the Ardennes. It was heavily wooded and with few roads, and the French high command did not believe it was a feasible attack route for strong forces–hence, the Maginot Line had not been extended to cover it, and the border here was protected only with field fortifications.

The French plans was based on the assumption that the main German attack would come through Belgium. Following the expected request from the Belgian government for assistance, strong French forces were to advance into that country and counterattack the Germans. In the Maginot and Ardennes sectors, holding actions only were envisaged. While the troops manning the Maginot were of high quality, the Ardennes forces included a large proportion of middle-aged reservists, and had been designated as lower-class units.

The opening moves seemed to fit expectations. The Germans launched a powerful attack through Belgium, and the Belgian government made the expected requests for help. Andre Beaufre:

Doumenc sent me at once to Vincennes to report to General Gamelin (the French supreme commander). I arrived at 6.30 AM at the moment when the order had just been given for the huge machine to go into operation: the advance into Belgium. Gamelin was striding up and down the corridor in his fort, humming, with a pleased and martial air which I had never seen before. It has been said since that he expected defeat, but I could see no evidence of it at the time.

There was heavy fighting in Belgium…but the German attack on this country had served to mask their real point of maximum effort. Early in the morning of the 13th, it became clear that massive German forces were moving through the Ardennes, which had turned out to not be so impassable after all. A massive German air attack paved the way for a crossing of the Meuse river and the capture of the town of Sedan. French officers were stunned by the speed of the German advance–they had expected delays while the Germans brought up heavy artillery, not understanding that dive bombers could play a role similar to that traditionally played by artillery. And the bombing was psychologically-shattering, especially for inexperienced troops. The famous historian Marc Bloch had been exposed to many artillery barrages while fighting in the First World War: in reflecting on his service in 1940, he observed that he found aerial bombing much more frightening even though it was, objectively, probably less dangerous. (Bloch later joined the Resistance and was captured by the Germans and shot.)

The French command never really recovered from the unexpected thrust through the Ardennes and the fall of Sedan. Beginning on May 27, the British evacuated their troops at Dunkirk. On June 14, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned. He was succeeded by Philippe Petain, a hero of the First World War, who immediately sought terms with the Germans. The “armistice”–basically a surrender–was signed on June 20. By Hitler’s order, it was signed in the same railway car where the armistice of 1918 had been signed. Hitler was present in person for the ceremony: William Shirer was fifty yards away, and was studying his expression through binoculars: It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.

Many military factors were involved in the defeat–obsolete doctrine on armored forces, inadequate use of radio communications, a strange and cumbersome military organization structure. But the roots of the 1940 debacle are not to be found only–or perhaps even primarily–in strictly military matters. A major role was played by certain characteristics of French society and politics of the time–and some of these factors are spookily similar to some of the things that are going on in America today.

In her autobiography, Simone de Beauvoir reflects on the attitude of the French Left (of which she was a part) toward the rise of Nazi Germany…”there was no threat to peace; the only danger was the panic that the Right was attempting to spread in France with the aim of dragging us into war.” (Horne) A constant thread that runs through France in the 1930s is the extreme factionalism, often resulting in more fear and distrust of other Frenchmen than of the rising external enemy.

This was not only a phenomenon of the Left. Among conservative elites, for example, the phrase Better Hitler than Blum was popular. Leon Blum (Premier 1936-37) was a fairly mild Socialist, best known for his advocacy of the 5-day week. Something about him inspired crazed hatred on the part of French Conservatives and Rightists. “A man to shoot in the back,” wrote Charles Maurras, and he was by no means alone in such sentiments. As Julian Jackson puts it in his book The Fall of France: “Politics in France in the 1930s had reached a pitch of violence that had something of the atmosphere of civil war.”

Leon Blum and George W Bush are, of course, two very different men, believing in very different kinds of things. But it is hard not to hear an echo of the insane Blum-hatred of the late 1930s in the insane Bush-hatred of today.

Nor did the factionalism stop on May 10, 1940. Georges Mandel, the courageous Minister of the Interior, observed a Deputy (legislator) whose district had been bombed by the enemy…he went about the lobbies (of the Chamber of Deputies), screaming “I will interpellate the government on this outrage as soon as the Chamber meets!”Mandel remarked to his friend, the English General Edward Spears, about the disconnect of this behavior from reality. “Paris is bombed by the Germans? Let’s shake our fists at our own Government.”

It is virtually impossible to win a war when politics is being conducted in such a manner…when the “enemy” across the aisle is hated more than the enemy in the bombers overhead. And, again, it is hard not to hear the echo of that Deputy of 1940 in the way that every reverse in Iraq or Afghanistan is used as a platform for vicious attacks on President Bush.

The tendency to view everything through the lens of domestic politics certainly had a malign influence on French military preparedness. Consider, for example, the matter of aircraft production. When the aggressive Guy La Chambre took over as Air Minister (in January 1938), he reputedly “found nothing but a disheartened industry of small workshops of which only one factory alone was equipped for mass production. As war approached and the production gap with the Luftwaffe appeared hopelessly wide, he tried to fill it by means of large-scale purchases from the United States; but even this measure of desperation met with intense opposition from the French aircraft manufacturers lobby.” (Horne) At roughly the same time, the Left was objecting to the restoration of a longer work week in order to increase armaments production. (In the event, some aircraft orders were placed in the US, but not nearly on the scale needed, and the work week was lengthened, but not without an epidemic of disruptive strikes.)

The 1930s were a time of frequent financial/political scandals. The most famous of these was the Stavisky affair: Serge Alexander Stavisky was able to sell bonds worth 200 million francs based on the assets of Bayonne’s municipal pawnshop. His political connections assisted him both in pulling off the scam and in getting his trial postponed 19 times. The result was a considerable weakening of confidence in France’s governing institutions.

There was rising xenophobia and anti-Semitism. With onset of the Depression (which came later in France than in the US and Britain), immigrants were viewed as competitors for jobs (even though France was in a demographic crisis, with both a low birth rate and the effects of the horrendous casualties of 1914-1918), and became targets of violence. France was faced with half a million refugees from Spain following Franco’s defeat of Republican forces in that country, and there were also refugees from other Nazi and Fascist countries. (Despite the xenophobia, “it must be said that France was more generous in providing asylum than any other European country or than the United States.” (Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley))

In the period just before Munich, fears of war were very strong, and many people chose to blame the Czechs…and the Jews. In Paris, Strasbourg, Dijon and elsewhere mobs attacked Jews and looted their shops, shouting: “Down with the Jewish war.” (Brendon)

By 1939, many Frenchmen had had enough of Hitler’s threats, and support for resistance against further aggression was growing…but there were still strong voices for appeasement. And these was a pervasive sense that something was deeply wrong with French society. Jean Renoir’s film La Regle du Jeu, opened in July 1939 but banned as “too demoralizing” by September, portrayed, in Brendon’s words, “a corrupt and disintegrating society held together only by deception. ‘We live at a time when everyone lies,’ says one of the characters, ‘drug ads, governments, radio, movies, newspaper.’”

The most splendid Parisian ball of the 1939 season took place on a warm July night at the Polish embassy. Brendon describes the scene:

Ministers and diplomats sipped champagne while an orchestra played and beautiful women in frothy gowns waltzed with military officers. “In the gardens white marble sphinxes gleamed beneath the stars…and pots of red fire threw on the scene the glow of a conflagration.’ The polish Ambassador, Julius Lukasziewicz, believed that Bonnet was “definitely seeking some legally valid escape” from French obligations, news of which accounted for increased “blustering” in Berlin. The shadows quivered. All thought war imminent and some were reminded of the ball “given by Wellington on the eve of Waterloo.” Watching a mazurka, Reynaud (who became Prime Minister just before the attack of 1940-ed)  remarked: “it is scarcely enough to say that they are dancing on a volcano. For what is an eruption of Vesuvius compared to the cataclysm which is forming under our feet?”

24 thoughts on “RERUN–a Neglected but Significant Anniversary”

  1. A sidelight to the German invasion route is the information that the Ardennes plan was not the original plan. A german officer with the war plan in his possession was captured during “the phony war” and those plans were scrapped as compromised. Hitler actually had a lot to do with the Ardennes plan as a substitute.

    It was called The Mechelen incident .

    In the short term no damage appeared to have been done but it has been argued[23] that in the longer term the consequences of this incident were disastrous for Belgium and France. When the real invasion came, on 10 May 1940, the Germans had fundamentally changed their strategy and this change resulted in the swift Fall of France, whereas arguably even a partial German victory would have been far from certain if the original plan had been followed. Determining the exact nature of the causal connection between the incident and the change in strategy has however proven to be problematic.

    Interesting speculation.

  2. I bought a vintage French Army rifle in very good condition at a gun show a few years ago. What a great I got. It was never fired and only dropped once.

  3. GFV…

    French casualties in WWI: 1.3 million killed plus 4.2 million wounded.

    French casualties in WWII: 92,000 killed and 250,000 wounded (in the 1940 campaign)

    French resistance casualties in WWII: 33,000 killed in action or captured and shot (very rough estimate)

    French casualties in Vietnam: 65,000 killed plus 64,000 wounded (may include local allies)

  4. Don’t forget the Algerian War.
    26000 Frenchmen dead in seven years vs perhaps a million Algerians killed, tortured, or “disappeared”.
    They were saving the big fight for their possessions apparently.

  5. “French resistance casualties in WWII: 33,000 killed in action or captured and shot (very rough estimate)”

    There is considerable controversy about the French Resistance and how much it contributed. Early in the war, here was not nearly as much activity as there was around 1944 when the outcome looked clear. I have also read about the peasants of Normandy and there attitude toward the invasion. I can’t say I blame them much.

  6. The French/British won WWI only because a million heavily armed mechanized US troops showed up suddenly and tipped the balance of allies vs Germany. Wilson forced the Versailles treaty down German throats then took his million man army home leaving no one to enforce the treaty.

    Germany immediately rearmed. France built a series of forts design to repel a WWI infantry attack. French officers on horseback marched their men, on foot, into the face of a panzer blitz. The French were rolled up. Pikes that can stop a mounted cavalry attack were useless against tanks. The French infantry grounded the butts of their rifles with bayonettes fixed and got run over without firing a shot. That’s why so many French rifles were never fired and dropped only once.

    France was hopelessly lost before reserves could be called up. That’s why so few died. The forts were all bypassed and starved into surrender. A fool’s peace ended with a renewal of WWI called WWII. Again US troops tipped the balance of power but instead of leaving after winning – they stayed.

  7. “French officers on horseback marched their men, on foot, into the face of a panzer blitz.”

    De Gaulle was a prophet of mechanized warfare and may even have been an inspiration to Guderian. The French generals ignored Colonel De Gaulle.

    De Gaulle’s concept called for forming a mechanized corps of six divisions plus a light division consisting of armored and motorized elements. The division was to include an armored brigade composed of a heavy tank regiment, a medium tank regiment, and a battalion of light tanks. The second brigade was to include two infantry regiments and a battalion of chasseurs, all mounted in tracked vehicles. There was an artillery brigade with two regiments of howitzers and an antiaircraft group. Finally, the division was to include a reconnaissance regiment, an engineer battalion, a signal battalion, and a camouflage battalion. De Gaulle’s proposed division was a relatively balanced force of combined arms, intended for the offense based on the strength of its armored vehicles and not the foot soldiers. His light division was to serve as an advance force with faster vehicles. He also proposed an air element to support operations and create a truly combined arms force.

    The French tanks early in the war were superior to the German and the Germans used many French and Czech tanks in the early years of the war.

    After the German offensive shattered the French front by mid-May, Charles de Gaulle took command of the newly formed 4th Armored Division and led it in vigorous attacks in an attempt to break the German offensive spearhead. On June 5, 1940, Reynaud appointed de Gaulle undersecretary of state for national defense (Buffetaut, De Gaulle, pp. 4-7; de Gaulle, War Memoirs, pp. 15-39).

    It was too late and De Gaulle escaped to Britain to form the “Free French.” He was hated by the French officers who lost the war.

  8. Grey Eagle…”a million heavily armed mechanized US troops showed up suddenly and tipped the balance of allies vs Germany.”

    US troops did tip the balance, but it is a matter of definition how highly mechanized they were. Both tanks and aircraft used by the Americans came largely from the French, also much artillery. Concerning truck transport, I’m not sure how much our forces brought with them…all armies were dependent on horse transportation to a considerable extent in that war.

    A good source on the last part of WWI is Hundred Days: the Campaign that Ended WWI, by Nick Lloyd.

  9. In WW1, the American troops did not even use the Springfield rifle they trained with. To maximize cargo transport for moving troops, they used French artillery, machine guns (, tanks, and trucks, and British rifles (Lee-Enfield). No one in that war was truly mechanized. Most cargo was moved by train and truck, with horse drawn wagons also doing a significant amount of work. Most infantry still walked everywhere.

  10. Maginot Line: “a series of forts design to repel a WWI infantry attack”

    Actually, the Line was designed to repel tanks as well as infantry…remember, tanks had been in significant use by the close of WWI and even the dullest of staff officers would have considered them in fortification design. The Maginot Line as constructed was equipped with both anti-tank obstacles and anti-tank guns.

    The problem with the Line was that it could not be extended to cover the entire border, for reasons financial, geological, and political, and was so expensive that the cost of its construction consumed a disproportionate share of the military budget.

  11. The problem with the Line was that it could not be extended to cover the entire border, for reasons financial, geological, and political, and was so expensive that the cost of its construction consumed a disproportionate share of the military budget.

    Not to metion annual maintenance costs. That’s why I am concerned, but unduly about Iran and North Korea having nuke weapons. Having them is one thing, but if you do not have the people and money to maintain them, after a few years, they will not work very well, if at all. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, DoD expenses is maintenance on our nuclear arsenal.

  12. Joe,

    I don’t know how reliable the numbers are that I trolled up on the Internet, but it looks like the nuclear budget is about 5% of total DoD spending. The anticipated spending over the next ten years is about $355 billion, or $36 billion a year, while the annual total DoD budget is about $680 billion a year.

    I suppose that may be the single largest item, depending on how you break everything out, but it’s still a small percentage of the total.

  13. Many blamed Harold Blum, the Socialist prime minister of France, for their fall to the Germans evn though he was out of office by then. He cut defense spending prior to the war. Churchill was a vigorous critic.

    As to US nuclear defense, DoD maintains the delivery systems but the Depart of Energy (NNSA) maintains the weapons and their maintenance infrastructure. That’s a separate budget line item I think.

    The French defensive line was well designed except against flanking. Vauban would be proud.

  14. Leon Blum was Prime Minister of France from June 1936 to June 1937. Not sure what he did on the military budget, but some have argued that his imposition of the 8-hour day was not helpful for defense production. He was succeeded by Daladier, who signed the Munich accords for France. (On his return, he expected to be booed and was surprised when he was cheered instead.) Daladier was in turn replaced by Paul Reynaud in March 1940, ie, just before the invasion.

    Reynaud and Daladier did not like each other, and their rivalry was stoked by their respective mistresses, who truly hated one another.

    When a writer interviewing Reynaud commented that “Nevertheless, Daladier is certainly a man who loves his country,” Reynaud responded: “Yes, I believe he desires the victory of France, but he desires my defeat even more.”

  15. “I suppose that may be the single largest item, depending on how you break everything out, but it’s still a small percentage of the total.”

    Like everything else these days, I believe the largest item is pensions and health care of retirees.

    I didn’t know about Springfields but the US did not use the BAR because they feared the Germans would capture one and copy it. The Germans had the Maxim which was superior to anything the Allies had. The US used the French Chauchat which was inferior.

  16. I have yet to find a book on what happened to the French Air Force during 1940. They had planes and pilots, yet seemed to have little effect on the battlefield. Why is this?

  17. }}} The French defensive line was well designed except against flanking.

    LOL, because God knows, no one would ever attempt to make a flanking attack… :-D

  18. }}} I have yet to find a book on what happened to the French Air Force during 1940. They had planes and pilots, yet seemed to have little effect on the battlefield. Why is this?

    Fly away!! Fly away!!!


  19. Don’t have any sources to offer, but the RAF was only partially committed to 1940 campaign, and the typical problems of coordination between allies were definitely an issue in France. If you’ve read “A Piece of Cake” or saw the mini-series, the RAF definitely sufferred from doctrinal issues during the campaign. I would expect the French to have had similar issues – the Luftwaffe benefited enormously from the Spanish Civil War in terms of updating tactics out of the biplane era.

    Ground support would have been similar – the allies didn’t really deploy dive-bombers in ground support, and lacked the practical experience coordinating with ground units that the Germans had. The handful of attempts at interdiction (there were attempts made to bomb the Meuse bridges) took heavy casualties from German fighters and failed to damange much of anything.

    Superior doctrine and communications was a huge advantage for the Germans each time they engaged a new enemy. German armor in particular was inferior on a vehicle to vehicle basis when the Germans invaded France, badly so during the 1941 Russian campaign and in the early battles against the US army in North Africa (the Sherman was a better tank in 1942 than the late series Mark IIIs that were the bulk of the Africa Corps). But the Germans’ understanding of modern combined-airs warfare was dramatically better and that was a huge multiplier. In France the campaign was short enough that the Germans won before the French could adapt.

    Personally, I think the Germans would have beaten the French in 1940 even with the original campaign plan. The German offensive in Belgium was driving the allies back even before the Ardennes breakthrough. The allies were just not prepared for what was coming. You can get away with preparing to fight the last war if your enemy is doing the same thing. Not so much if they aren’t.

  20. Our army in the Manilla had the same weaknesses as the army of France. Radio and planes made war so very fast that older commanders failed to understand how fast they must react. Bataan could have completely disrupted Japanese plans if medicine, food, and proper anti-aircraft shells had been provided. The same is true of the French Army. With time and space they could have re-grouped and fought on, but time and space had been conquered by technology.

  21. If MacArthur had implemented War Plan Orange immediately upon hearing about Pearl Harbor and transferred all supplies and most of the troops into Bataan, they probably could have held out well into the summer of 1942, if not longer.

    Hey Trent!!!This might be a good topic for your next opus on the Pacific War………

  22. The French/British won WWI only because a million heavily armed mechanized US troops showed up suddenly and tipped the balance of allies vs Germany.

    … bringing with them the Kansas, er, “Spanish” flu.

  23. Ronald F –
    IIRC there were thousands of airplanes available to the French army, except that the structure of the French army insured that they did not know where those airplanes were, or that they even existed. The airplanes came out of the factories and were sent to army supply airfields. These airfields were a separate command from the army in the field, with, apparently, no communication between the two. The practical result was that the Germans had a large number of french airplanes, some quite good, available to them.

  24. An analysis of the French AF, and its interaction with the ground forces, here. Haven’t read it in any detail, but looks interesting.

    Last paragraph:

    “The relevance of the French experience for leaders of the United States Air Force lies in the fact that the institutional struggle for autonomy and the operational necessity for cooperation are permanent and uncongenial elements of every defense establishment. The U.S. Army Air Service (and Air Corps) endured as much destructive and capricious treatment by uniformed and civilian officials of the army and the navy during the interwar years as did the French Air Force.32 By facing the issue of institutional independence for aviation just after (rather than just before) a great war, American military leaders avoided an interservice confrontation on the battlefield. But the interservice struggle goes on: doctrinal divergence retains its potential to sabotage mutual support among the services in future wars. The French experience can be useful as a cautionary tale about the ease with which institutional loyalties can weaken a national defensive posture.”

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