An Unexpected Defeat

‘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 plan 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 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.”

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 can anyone doubt that a military attack or a major terrorist attack today would meet with considerable political response mirroring that of the French Deputy quoted by Mandel?

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.  Similarities to the situation in America today are obvious and disturbing.

It is worth noting that there were divisions in France that has originated at the time of the Revolution, and had persisted.  The hostility between anti-Clericals and Catholics was one of the most significant of these.  See Lead and Gold for a discussion of how this played out in the First World War:  “As absurd as it sounds, the political and intellectual classes in France feared the Catholic church more than the armies of the Kaiser.”  Our political divisions in America today don’t go back nearly as far–but are they as serious, and becoming as entrenched?

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?”

(This is a rerun, with updates, of a piece that I’ve previously posted several times previously, most recently here)

43 thoughts on “An Unexpected Defeat”

  1. I stumbled across a limited series on Netflix – about a scratch group of anti-Nazi Americans in Marseilles, who facilitated the escape of thousands of Jews through sheer neck and anti-Nazi inclinations, in the perilous period between the German invasion, and the moment that America joined the war after Pearl Harbor. Interesting series … although slightly marred by presentism values. Will post something about it all, when I have finished watching the series.

  2. Good points about the similarities between France on the verge of WWII and BidenLand today. One of the big differences of course is that French people in 1939 had vivid memories of the very high human cost of WWI which had ended only 20 years earlier — well within many people’s memories. The high costs of war must have figured in many individual’s assessments of the wisdom of surrender rather than fight. That awareness is absent in today’s US.

    Despite that, there is another element in which the actions of the French rulers seem to prefigure today’s DC Swamp Creatures. Remember — it was the French (along with perfidious Albion) who declared war on Germany, not vice versa. And, having declared war on Germany, the French then did … nothing effective. There was the period of the Phony War, in which life went on much as before. The Swamp Creatures declaring proxy war on Russia through the Ukraine, and talking up future war on China, while doing nothing effective seems like a policy the French rulers of 1939 would have recognized.

  3. ere was good reason for the polarization of France in the 20s and 30s. Czarist Russia had bought influence in pre WWI French government, in fact the French cabinet was in St Petersburg when Russia declared war on Germany. No one should forget that the Left cheered the news of the defeat of the French forces in parliament when the fall of Dien Bien Phu was announced. France has always been a less than unified nation, remember Napoleon and the revolutionaries killed 100,ooo fellow Frenchmen in Brittany, Normandy and Bissau after the Revolution.

    The French hatred of the Church can be seen today in the restoration of Norte Dame. I see few parallels between the USA and France. The French are simply the French, the people most responsible for disturbing the peace of Europe for centuries and the most opportunistic and aggressive of any nation in history.

  4. Playing “what if” in history in intriguing. Years ago I read the biography on Churchill, The Last Lion by Wm Manchester, and he went into great detail about the political situation in Europe in the 1930s.

    If only…..

    The French hadn’t been so vindictive with reparations the Weimar Republic might have had a chance, but every time they started to get on their feet…Then too you have to remember what France looked like after WW1. There is a video circulating on YouTube of a French balloonist (actually a motorized 1 man dirigible) touring what was the Western Front in 1919 – and lit looks like the landscape of the moon.

    After the march across the Rhineland in 1936 (and the Wehrmacht then was so weak Hitler, in an effort to deceive the world and inflate the numbers, had the same soldiers repeatedly march across the bridge – if they had invaded the Rhineland at that time, Hitler would probably have been gone.

    And wasn’t this plan of the Germans for France sort of an “alternative” plan advocated by 1 general? I think among the German generals they anticipated another fixed fortification battle like WW1?

    I have told people – as I am getting older, that when I was 23 and in Germany with the Army in 1973, I thought WW2 was ancient history. After all, it had ended 5 years before I was born!

    28 years ago.

    Now, this year, I will have been out of the Army for 50 years.

    But around my barracks near Saarbrucken, you can see the remnants of the Siegfried Line. And our Group headquarters building, in the Kleber Casern, one of the Caserns the Army seized from the Nazis and had its origins in WW1, you could still see the remnants of the Nazi eagle over the front entrance (with the head and swastika chipped off).

    Getting old gives one a different perspective on time.

  5. As for viewing everything through the lens of domestic politics: it was said elsewhere that when everything is seen as politics then things that are obvious to everyone else will be overlooked/ignored by the Politics Uber Alles crowd.

  6. David, I thin you and Alan hit it pretty well on the head, France has had serious divisions since the Revolution. To the examples you cited, I would add the period with the socialists and Jaurès prior to July 1914 which was only “resolved” by the socialists throwing their lot in with the war effort. I would also argue that there are currently serious divisions symbolized by the Macron presidency which, as mediocre as it is, exists only to keep Le Pen out; what would happen if she did win? Add to it the remarkable letter from two years ago from 25 retired generals stating the country is on the brink of civil war due to Islamism.

    I would extend the connection between the debacle of May, 1940 and the decayed/polarized situation in France at that time. The French Army never really recovered from the Battle of Frontiers and the failure of Plan XVII which emphasized both the strategic and tactical offensive. By contrast the French interpreted the post-WW I military developments as favoring the tactical and strategic defensive and acted accordingly in using armored primarily as infantry support. The French were broken by their experiences in WW I; a nation geared toward not losing the last battle instead of winning the next one is a nation headed toward catastrophe. However France was not a country that had the confidence to think of terms of the offensive and lacked the imagination to think of the implications of not doing so, It also didn’t help that the Germans displayed creativity in both its tables of organization and operational doctrine as well as brilliance and initiative at tactical level. Even then it was a close thing

    I would argue that the problems and polarizations in French society really came to fore after the armistice in 1940. Keep in mind that while the French viewed defeat as a catastrophe there was not a universal resistance to German occupation, for German military personnel France was a desired posting and Paris a great way to spend leave. . Also Vichy France had a great deal of support as well.

    Comparisons to our present day?

    We have had very serious divisions before. I was reminded this the other week while in DC when I reflected on the proximity of the Vietnam War Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial. As far as our present day, let’s not forget the vitriol and hatred in our public life that stretched from the late 1960s on, it all didn’t start with Trump and in reality it started well before then with FDR warning of a “yield(ing) to the spirit of fascism” if he should lose in the 1944 election and Truman actually likened Dewey to Hitler as a fascist tool.

    I think we should be very worried. First these division extend beyond any single election or politician, I would trace them back to the Tea Party movement of 2009-2010. Second the divisions have been reduced to symbols. Take “Make America Great Again” Yes we have the President of the United States using the slogan of his once and perhaps future opponent as label for those who threaten the American way of life. However as I was at the Lincoln Memorial I also reflected on the experience of Nicholas Sandmann at the same spot in 2019 when the pictures and video of him with Nathan Phillips went viral leaving Sandmann depicted worldwide as a racist. The clincher of the images, the picture worth a thousand words, was his wearing a MAGA hat. For millions of Americans, nothing more needed to be said.

    We’re at that level and given that Trump is probably the only thing keeping the Democrat’s electoral hopes alive I don’t expect it to get better. More relevant to your analogy of 1940 France is the development of “Christian Nationalism” is an epithet by those of the Left; think of the protesters cosplaying as characters from the Handmaid’s Tale with the red cloaks and white hats. I see the term used more and more everyday in regard to anything stretching from “reproductive rights” to “gender-affirming care” to the “traditional family” As with MAGA it’s part of an ongoing effort to make any political opposition not just wrong, not just illegitimate, but an existential threat.

    Another connection to May 1940 is of course what’s going on with the U.S. military, which is in a state of crisis. In the best of the worlds we would be rushing to revamp for near-power conflict a military that has been configured to fight the equivalent of colonial wars and a supply chain that has been optimized for a P&L statement.

    I am a bit old school on military matters. While the military does many things below the violence horizon, its essence is the application of violence for a political end or if you wish its telos is killing. In my presentations on the topic I point to the work of the Canadian pacifist Gwynne Dyer who had a PBS series in the 1980s. One of the episodes, “Anybody’s Son Will Do” delves into the psychology of militaries with a special focus on the Marines. Dyer’s ultimate point is that war and the armies that fight them demand a certain mentality that is at odds with civilian (normal) world. I argue in my presentations that you cannot understand the jarring and terrifying boot camp scenes of the first half of the first half of Full Metal Jacket without viewing the second half of the movie when the protagonist goes to war and Dyer admits he finds the Marine approaching refreshing in its honesty.

    What we have in the present day is not just a presidential administration, but really an entire part of society that treats military as really another government bureaucracy, albeit an expensive one and one with many guns. A bureaucracy that will use batteries instead of ICE for its vehicles in order to fight climate change, a bureaucracy that makes everyone go through DEI programs while the billion-dollar Bonhomme Richard burns up at the pier because personnel lack the necessary fire-fighting skills, and a bureaucracy that feels the way to make up for recruiting shortfalls for an organization committed to war is to use Harpy Daniels as an ambassador.

    Btw if you want to know how bad things are note that the military we have difficulty finding enough recruits for is 39% smaller than in 1987 despite the fact that our current population has nearly 100 million more people.

    The difference between our 2023 military and that of 1940 France is that their deficiencies could be blamed on a sense of ennui while ours derive from choice.

  7. Mike…see Picasso’s response to Matisse, when the latter asked in 1940 “What about our generals, what are they doing?….Picasso responded:

    “Our generals? They’re the masters at the Ecole des Beaux Arts!”…ie, men possessed by the same rote formulae and absence of observation and obsessive traditionalism as the academic artists.”

    Entirely consistent with Andre Beaufre’s observations about the French General Staff.

    When Formalism Kills:

  8. David,

    I’I think the main problem with the French generals was that France lacked the geographic space to overcome their incompetence. Britain, US and the USSR also had really bad flag officers to start the war but because of geography they had months to recover; the French had only 5 days. Also due to the direction of the German axis of advance there wasn’t going to be any replay of the Marne.

    The problem with the French is that they didn’t understand the new realities of armored warfare. To be honest I’m not sure most of the OKH really grasped it as well. More than mobility or the rapid delivery of firepower, Blitzkrieg was about getting inside of the enemy’s OODA loop. There was substantial resistance within OKH to Manstein’s plan because of the risk factors involved (leaving flanks exposed, narrowness of thrust), but he understood that with enough speed that the French would be unable to react in time. It also helped that he had dynamic leadership at the point of attack in Guderian and Rommel who did things such as not waiting for orders to cross the Meuse but instead kept the momentum of the advance.

    One person of course who did understand the essence of armored warfare was Patton. But he also knew how to defeat an armored thrust as well as leading one. The German Ardennes offensive of December 1944, was essentially a replay of May 1940 but unlike others at SHAEF who panicked Patton saw the opportunity where the Germans had exposed his flanks (“The Kraut has stuck his head in a meat grinder, and this time I’ve got hold of the handle.”) The rest is history in one of the great feats of WW II Patton pivoted his 3rd Army and marched it 100 miles during one of the coldest winters in decades

    We learned two key concepts on the first day of operational planning training. 1) Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth 2) In every opportunity there is a problem and in every problem there is opportunity, Manstein understood the risks he was running with his exposed columns, after all once you get into your enemy’s rear he is also by definition in yours. However he felt with enough speed the risk was manageable given the quality and organization of the French army. In 1944, the German offensive was sufficiently slowed that those dangers became apparent; where Eisenhower’s staff saw danger, Patton saw opportunity.

    This same analysis holds true for Lee’s great victory at Chancellorsville. He understood that he was running tremendous risks in splitting his forces because he would be very vulnerable even after Jackson crushed Hooker’s flank. However Lee thought speed and the ability to disorient the Union army would negate the risk and he was proven correct.

    I’m willing to cut the French generals in 1940 some slack; I’ll paraphrase what they say about Mexico and the U.S. – “so far from God, so close to Germany.”

  9. We’re at that level and given that Trump is probably the only thing keeping the Democrat’s electoral hopes alive…

    Pardon me for cheery-picking this one line to complain about, but I would like to express my vehement disagreement with this notion.

    I’m pretty sure some large fraction of the Gee Ohh Peeeeee establishment actually believes it- I’ve heard it expressed elsewhere- but it’s pure 24k nonsense.

    Jeb! Bush of “please clap” fame- the preferred establishment candidate of 2016- had exactly zero chance of defeating Hillary Clinton. The other establishment possibilities were no better. I think we can safely assume the establishment knew this full well, because when Trump won they had no sort of legislation ready to go, on any topic. If they actually expected to win, with any candidate, then they should have had bills fully written and ready to be voted upon, immediately. In 2020, the gop spent its time conniving against Trump and somehow didn’t get around to actually offering up a primary challenge against the supposed disaster of his term.

    Bluntly, the GOP establishment that actually exists has zero chance of defeating the left, because if nothing else it doesn’t even want to. It wants to cut a deal and put the grubby peasants in their place. This is not a recipe for political success.

    Btw if you want to know how bad things are note that the military we have difficulty finding enough recruits for is 39% smaller than in 1987 despite the fact that our current population has nearly 100 million more people.

    But it’s worse. The military is offering large reenlistment bonuses for the sort of routine job that had no bonus of any sort when I was in. I take that to mean that large numbers of experienced people would leave otherwise, which is an even worse problem than missing quarterly recruiting goals.

    To a great degree, I think the American people have given up on the regime, including its political theater and its military adventure force.

    I don’t blame them.

  10. Most likely, there would have been no Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.

    When you roll the dice with alternative history, you never know if Stalin will decide to take seriously his “revolution in one country” or his avowed goal of “worldwide revolution.” Would Stalin stand down Icebreaker or would he think “save his fellow socialists* with whom he’d just signed a treaty. Liberate Germany for Socialism.”

    Jerry Pournelle used to tell a story about how socialists, following the alliance, celebrated the liberation of Paris by socialism in 1940.

  11. The French hadn’t been so vindictive

    If only the winners had been more vindictive. No one insisted Austria-Hungary remain intact. Germany had only existed for fifty years. Restore Bavaria, Saxony, Prussia as independent states, and then a few dozen more principalities. Restore and expand the German holdings of the Windsors, so that part of “Germany” was in personal union with Great Britain.

    All because a bunch of fools believed that just because everyone spoke the same language* they should have one government. Let me know when the Anglosphere is a single state.

    * Not entirely true, btw, and if that weren’t enough, they dismembered Czechoslovakia twenty years later. Without even asking.

  12. Weirdly enough I left a long comment at another site about this even nearly a month ago. Did you know there is a Wikipedia page about the decadence of the Third Republic?

  13. when the “enemy” across the aisle is hated more than the enemy in the bombers overhead.

    Pedophilia or Christianity?
    So Islam or Drag Queens?
    You make the call.

    I know which side the LGBTPDQ+ choose: any “America” except a free, prosperous, Christian America. Their “defense” of America’s borders, proves.

  14. Most likely, there would have been no Communist takeover of Eastern Europe

    Stalin had been preparing to invade through Poland, Austria, and Romania. Most of the Red Army was massed along the border with tanks designed to operate on the better roads of Western Europe.

    I think a more likely outcome of the failure of the German Invasion of France in 1940 would have been Soviet dominance of the entire European continent.

  15. Germany was left intact after WWI as a counterbalance to the USSR. France and Britain did not want the responsibility, so they decided to keep Germany together so it would be Germany’s problem. A lot of the Versailles Treaty was aimed at keeping Germany strong enough to deal with Russia, but too weak to threaten France. It was a fool’s errand.

    The myth of the impenetrable Ardennes was on France. Germany came through the Ardennes in WWI as well as twice in WWII. (Succeeded two out of three times.)

    But early in 1914 the French decided with the Germans flowing through the Flanders plains that the Ardennes was the perfect place to launch a counteroffensive against the Germans. So, they did and got stopped butt-cold by the Kaiser’s boys. As a result (and ignoring earlier German movement through the Ardennes), the French declared it impenetrable, because if it wasn’t that meant they were incompetent. And they could not have that.

  16. Per Mike’s comment, I have been amazed at the speed, though not the direction, with which ideas of the family and human life accepted by great thumping huge majorities, if not nearly everyone, 30 years ago, have been actively demonized. Not remotely content with opening up more space for other ways of living and identities that were seeking that space then, progressives have cooked up new identities, new language, enforced their acceptance, and can now get away with treating some of the blandest tropes of heterosexual life as potentially when not actively sinister, the blandest expressions of (Christian) religion as practically or actually theocratic, and the blandest ideas of patriotism or nationalism [here understood as love of country and as placing country first, both of which I endorse] as inherently fascist, and anyone who endorses them all in any degree as a fascist ‘Christian Nationalist” and/or “white supremacist”.

    Based on stuff I read decades ago and handfuls of people I knew in university, I am not surprised by the content. I am still a little surprised by the speed and apparent totality of their victory.

    I will leave to Americans the fate of their own country (I’m Canadian, my interest in this aspect of your country is that the mental pollution is heavily received up here and applied with energy).

    I haven’t decided yet whether my country is still my country as I knew it when a young man.

  17. Remember the original German plan in 1939 was an invasion of Belgium similar to 1914. Then a German plane crashed in Belgium in January 1940. It is called The Mechelen incident. The result of the discovery of secret war plans carried in that plane was a change in the plan.

    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.

    Can anyone imagine George Patton in today’s “Woke” army ?

  18. In 1940 France, I like to think I would have been for standing up to Germany and being read to do so, at least with the hindsight that failure to do so would mean the end of France as a great power if not indeed as a sovereign nation. Plus Germany had been the top enemy for a while, and part of a millennial rivalry for dominance, and its regime was at this point distasteful even based on what it had done up to that point.

    Geography, power, identity and history matter, as much as values, although in this case they were all wrapped up.

    Still, if Germany at the time had not been Nazi and I had a better prospect of an outcome that preserved French status in alliance with Germany, it would have been worth considering. No previous German regime had been as threatening or as morally outrageous.

    All that to say, depending on who the outside enemy is, the inside enemy might be worse. Sometimes things have reached that point. The hope and goal is not to reach it.

    In the present case, China is the closest analogue to Germany- a real power, with real capacity to shape a world order to its liking, global reach, and a vigorous ideology and state apparatus capable of enforcing a totalitarian vision. Yes, it still has limits and gaps. So did Germany. Yes the US arguably still has depth and vaster global reach, so did Britain, nonetheless unable to challenge Germany alone. And like Britain’s, US global standing looks rustier and more brittle by the day.

    Russia is Italy. Not friendly, and with some interesting threat capabilities, and a strategic rival. But it isn’t number one foe by nature or power. That the US establishment thinks otherwise shows them villains or fools.

    In the end, I’m stuck. My own country less and less resembles what I inherited in theory or practice. Your country is still a great and powerful ally and yet produces most of the things I consider most threatening. The world order its leaders purport to defend under the name of “the West” or “democracy” less and less resembles the West, and generally disdains the name, and less and less resembles liberal democracy as I knew it.

    I still see plenty that needs to be defended if there is to be hope of recovery. But I see more and more that there is no such hope and the entity to be defended is a future not for me and that hates me. I can’t be alone in that.

  19. I would say that Canada has at least as much at stake with Trudeau’s war on agriculture. Plus the country is filled with oddities like PenGun.

  20. I think that if a study was ever done, and I’m not holding my breath waiting, it would show that it only takes a couple of years after winning a major war for the parade ground martinets and ass kissing toadies to replace 90% of the true leaders responsible for that victory and remain in control through the first six months of the next war. It was France’s bad luck that they didn’t have six months and England’s good luck that they did. Pearl Harbor, Manila, and Kasserine show that it’s actual battle that’s necessary, not just the prospect of it, to eliminate the dead wood.

    The only bright spot in a prospective confrontation with China is that the last war they had, they lost and have spent far more effort on perfecting various scams and their close order drill for parades than anything else in the intervening decades. Certainly, none of our adventures in SW Asia have been existential enough to clear our house, so the initial confrontation is probably a toss up. After that, we’ll see. China is still facing all the internal disasters that have been building over the last few years with no sign of having found solutions.

  21. “… it’s actual battle that’s necessary …”

    Very true. The book “America’s First Battles, 1776 – 1965” demonstrates that the US has rarely had the right people, plans, and equipment in place at the beginning of most wars. And it is tough to think of any war after 1965 that US rulers have “won” in any meaningful sense.

    Let’s be realistic. Our rulers have left the US without the factories to make clothes and insulin. Our rulers can’t put a warplane into the air without imports. They can’t refine enough oil, let alone keep the shelves at Walmart stocked without a tidal wave of imports. Even if the Chinese forces never left their barracks, the US would collapse economically if our rulers were ever stupid enough to try to attack China.

  22. Good points to MCS- that initial weeding out happens in most or all armies, even the most prepared and least encumbered by deadwood always has some. France entered both world wars with plenty. Britain had a mixed record- some good from the get go, but enough duds to be harmful. The US was hit hard by things like Kasserine, but worked hard and fairly fast to clean up. I’d say time servers and burnouts might have started to be in charge pretty fast after 1945- already a bit of a problem by Korea.

    Didn’t a guy named Kirk used to comment here? On another site he had some excellent points a few years ago about the weaknesses the US Army still showed and did not wholly get rid of even while winning WW2, and on just quickly and badly it deteriorated postwar.

  23. Mike K-

    Yeah- first our energy industry, now agriculture. Pretty soon we’ll only be producing harsh language, hockey players, and guys named Terry. Come to think, guys named Terry are thinner on the ground than when I was a kid. Like Bruce or Lance, it was a very Boomer thing.

    Maybe we’ll make huge profits selling Inuit art works.

    I’ve found one or two points of agreement with PenGun in recent weeks, but sure, mostly not. He’s probably more representative of our country than I am.

  24. A lot of the Versailles Treaty was aimed at keeping Germany strong enough to deal with Russia, but too weak to threaten France. It was a fool’s errand.

    Germany was prohibited from making powered aircraft, weapons…I forget what else. They became adept at sail planes and air rifles, some of which even today are the best in the world. I don’t believe in the above statement.

    Stalin to me is a bit perplexing. Few remember that he voluntarily left Austria.

    His abandonment of “free elections” in his occupied sphere of influence was enough to start the cold war.

    Still, alternative history can be interesting. In the Manchester book, IIRC he listed about half a dozen opportunities in the early to mid 1930s Britain and France could have been rid of Hitler at little cost.

    But if you look at how the war devastated them, you can understand why they were sick of war and confrontation.

    That is an intriguing thought that had the French fought the Germans to a stalemate, the world (at least Eurasia) would have been very different.

    The Czech Army in 1938 was every but the equal of the German Army when Chamberlain bought “Peace in our time”. Much of the German armament after 1938 came from the Skoda Works.

  25. I have always found it helpful to think of the military first and foremost as a bureaucracy. It (very) infrequently is able engage in its intended purpose. In between those times it is really like any other large organization; reliant on procedures and policies, members with personal agendas, and putting a premium on following said procedures and getting along with said members. Those skills are great for maintaining organizational equilibrium, poor for accomplishing the mission.

    Bureaucracies suffer from a temporal disharmony of costs and benefits. Change has its costs certain and upfront but benefits are displaced into the future and are uncertain. When Jacky Fisher introduced Dreadnought, he was criticized because he made every capital ship in the British fleet obsolete. Contrast that with the testing and deployment of the Mk14 torpedo which was stymied by the Bureau of Ordinance. If you are part of a decade-long weapons program that has hit a dead-end are you going to just admit that you were wrong or you going to fight to keep it alive. If you are a peacetime naval chief of staff are you going to listen to some crazy down the hall who is ranting that carrier battle groups are obsolete in near-peer combat when they are the pride of the service ? Why fix something that is not obviously broken?

    There was a great analysis over at War on the Rocks last year(cannot find the link to the podcast) regarding Russia’s problems during the first week of the Ukraine war, The analyst pointed out these problems were recognized by Russian leadership 14 years prior during the war with Georgia which were only overcome by an overwhelming use of force. The analyst pointed out that there was a serious effort at reforming the Russian military but it ended up being shelved because it was too disruptive to the existing equilibrium which was based on cronyism and corruption.

    Contrast that with David Berger and the Corps’ Force Design 2030 program.

    Hey it’s just not the military. I have butted my head against the war in the corporate world when the c-level guy in staff meetings cannot see that we are headed toward stagnation, let alone lower comp, if we don’t reform our personnel policies now. He’s looking at me, looking at the possibility of having to go to war with HR (because they will think of it as war), explain to the CEO why he’s going to war with HR and why cannot we all work together as a team, think of his stock options and the possibility he might retire before the company hits the wall, and then decides it’s better to stop inviting Mike to meetings. Life is more peaceful that way.

    Really any large organization will fall into sclerosis without strong leadership from the top. Not just because of the need from a top-level vision, but because there is no one else in that organization that can crack skulls and make the different parts of the bureaucracy work.

  26. Mike…also, leaders who have been successful in the past are likely to have high prestige, making it especially different to critique their ideas. In France, that applied to the commanding generals of WWI.

  27. Every organization, civilian or military, is a frog in a pot. The question that anybody seeking to preserve that organization should be asking, more or less full time, is; has somebody lit the fire yet? It’s the difference between differential and integral.

    The product goes out, the money comes in. Until it doesn’t.

  28. When you consider the Anglo-French strategy in WWI consisted of beating the German fist with their face until the German arm became tired, it’s not too surprising that not much good came of trusting the wise gray heads in 1939-40.

  29. There is a pretty good book about the Mark 14 torpedo. It’s called, “Iron Men and Tin Fish.” I had a copy which I lost and then had to buy another. It’s gotten expensive.

    Part of the problem was that the Mark14 was much faster running than the Mark 10 which worked fine. This speed contributed to the depth control problems and the firing pin failures. Of course the submarine admirals were veterans of the Mark 14 development and resisted the criticism. Circular runs were still a problem in 1945 and sunk several subs including Dick O’Kane’s legendary boat. He survived as a Jap POW but lost 35 pounds before war end.

  30. While I’m sure societal problems contributed to French defeat, the biggest factors were military. (1) The French started the transition to modern low-wing monoplanes too late and were just starting to transition from their first generation (MS406) of sort of modern fighters to more competitive ones as of May 10, 1940. Germany maintained air superiority through most of the fighting which allowed them to use their very accurate, but vulnerable to opposing fighters, dive bombers. (2) While the French had a lot of tanks, most of them were awful to fight from, with poor visibility, no radios and one man turrets that required almost superhuman commanders. With a few exceptions, they wore out/broke down remarkably quickly, partly because the French overloaded them with too much armor for their suspensions. Most also used an awful low-velocity 37 mm main gun with little antitank capability. The FCM36 and the S35 were reasonably good for their time, but the S35 broke down far too quickly and were hard to work on, while the FCM36 had the low velocity 37mm gun, which proved a fatal flaw when they went up against early model Panzer 4s.
    3) The French gambled on what they called the Breda variant, which sent seven of the best, most mobile French divisions all the way across Belgium into southern Netherlands, where they would have been in the perfect position to attack the flank of the German invasion they expected. Unfortunately, that put them in the worst possible place to respond to the actual German invasion. By the time they got back, their equipment had two hundred miles of wear and tear on it, which meant a lot of vehicles had broken down (see problems with reliability above)
    4) Unknown to the French, Belgium decided not to fight in the Ardennes, pulling their troops out. Ten days was a reasonable time for the Germans to take to cross the Ardennes if Belgium made some effort to slow them down. If Belgium just blew bridges and left, obviously it didn’t take anywhere near as long.

    The French strategy was to roll as far into Belgium as they dared, pushing in with their best, most mobile units, then establish solid lines with normal infantry and pull the more mobile units back to refurbish them and use them as reserves. It might well have worked if Belgium had made a fighting withdrawal from the Ardennes or if the French hadn’t tried the Breda variant. No Bread variant probably meant S35s in experienced hands against panzer 4s, which would have been a much different fight than FCM36s put up.

  31. Eisenhower, with much less excuse, also made the mistake of believing the Ardennes was impassable in late 1944. By then, the Germans lacked the means to carry the attack home. I’m not sure the 25,000, mostly American, dead appreciated the difference.

  32. Antoine de St-Exupery, who served as a reconnaissance pilot in the 1940 campaign, said that many of the recon planes, including those he flew, lacked radios. Departing for a mission for which he thought return unlikely, he sarcastically suggested that they could communicate the recon information back to base via the techniques of spiritualism.

  33. If they’d had the foresight, they could have developed the technology to launch carrier pigeons from planes without killing them. The old; “for the want of a nail” conundrum. Where do you spend a limited defense budget once the necessities of gold braid and gaudy medals are satisfied?

  34. The Sherman gets a lot of bad mouthing, but its repairability meant it had an availability rate better than the “superior” on paper tanks. A working tank in the hand is worth more than any number of tanks deadlined in the rear. It’s something the Germans did particularly poorly. Changing a transmission in a Tiger required three days, a Sherman took three hours.

  35. Something I thought of today David – I remember reading this sometime ago – but during that French invasion the German supply line was so choked and clogged – that a flight of bombers could have changed the outcome dramatically. Forget where they were clogged but in the confusion of battle…

  36. Bill, “Bomber Harris” refused to use the RAF in France early in WWII. He saved it for “strategic bombing” of Germany. Eventually, the Brits used Hurricanes and P 40s for ground attack in north Africa. The heavy bombers the Brits had were not used for tactical missions. Later, after Normandy, B 17s were used in tactical missions but failed miserably.

    They did manage to kill General McNair.

  37. To build on what Mike K. said, Bomber Harris was a character.

    Apparently there were a few squadrons of light bombers in the area and they were used in a tactical role on the German bridgeheads around Sedan; the planes were pretty much wiped out. There are plenty of stories of the Allies interdicting German columns that were being rushed to Normandy post-D-Day but the planes used were single-engines from other units

    One didn’t mess with the Bomber Mafia.

  38. Mike K – an opportunity lost, and a chance to radically change the outcome of the War. I think the article I was reading dealt with the French bombers, but I suspect the French High Command was in tremendous disarray.

    Speaking of “Friendly” fire, I learned in the Army years ago that a tremendous number of our casualties are due to friendly fire, particularly though artillery and bombing.

  39. In 1940 none of the tactics, techniques or protocols of close air support existed, at least for the Allies. They were all hammered out in North Africa and Italy. They probably had to be, the Harris’s and LeMay’s were too busy winning the war strategically to waste valuable planes pursuing anything as trivial as individual enemy positions, out of sight, out of mind. Not that there were many tactical targets in range of England before D-Day. An attitude that survives today in the continuing need to fight to save the A-10.

    The British planes had radios but nobody on the ground and most especially in forward positions had radios that could talk to them or knew what to tell them or how to keep them from dropping their bombs on the wrong side. German planes weren’t the only ones shot down with bullets paid for by English and French taxpayers. I doubt the ground and air forces were even using the same maps. All these details cost many lives to work out. and still do from time to time.

  40. There were three world-changing events in WW II (at the meta level, i.e. profoundly significant beyond the material outcome).

    1) The Fall of France. What it showed was (as William Goldman remarked of Hollywood choices about movies to produce) “Nobody knows anything”. As of 1 May 1940, the Allied leaders thought they had the war won. Germany hadn’t dared to attack for seven months, and was under strategic blockade that would eventually strangle it. Halder, head of the German General Staff, backed Manstein’s plan because it was the only option that offered any possibility of victory. Then WHAM!

    2) Pearl Harbor. What it showed was that with the advent of air power, a nation could start a war with a devastating first strike against its enemy’s most powerful combat forces. Throughout the Cold War, the great powers kept their forces on alert for such a strike.

    3) The Bomb. What it showed was that if Government gave Science a Lot of Money, Science could deliver Overwhelmingly Powerful Stuff. Which was true once (with the Manhattan Project); but for many years afterwards, Government funded Science lavishly in the expectation of comparable results.

    Incidentally, while the list of French political and organizational deficiencies in 1940 is pretty damning, one could compile a comparable list for Nazi Germany. The Third Reich was riddled with corruption, had many incompetents promoted for political loyalty, and seriously mismanaged its war effort. (For instance, the autobahns were almost useless for Germany, which didn’t have many motor vehicles. And construction of them diverted resources from maintenance and upgrades of the German railroad system, which was actually shortchanged in the 1930.)

  41. “Trump is probably the only thing keeping the Democrat’s electoral hopes alive”

    Whoa. This is nuts.

    Democrats will steal 2024. Just as they did in 1960 and 2020. The only hope the GOP will have is if they choose fighters. Street fighters. Lots of street fighters. The Mitch McConnell-style GOP establishment losers have no chance.

    The Democrat criminal element can win 2024 with a dead Joe Biden, if the opponent is an establishment GOP squish.

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