The Inter-War French Army and The Maginot Line

"This is not peace. This is an armistice for twenty years [how right you were!]." ~ Foch on the Treaty of Versailles.

Winston Churchill in 1933 exclaimed to the British Parliament, "Thank God for the French Army!" Without a doubt, coming off the spectacle of the victory parade in 1919 on Quatorz Juillet it was easy to believe the French Army was the superlative instrument of the First World War. But all was not well, and just as the great marshalls like Foch and Joffre withered and died, so did the premiere military force in Europe.

Internal Political Struggle
The problem was twofold, the first being the internal strife in the French government. Between 1936 and 1939 there were a total of eighteen separate governments in France, in what Allistair Horne describes as "a game of musical chairs, with the pace becoming giddier and giddier until Hitler's panzers stopped the music." With respect to the Western nations, France was the one most affected by the rise of Bolshevism, its own revolutionary history (both of 1793 and the Commune of 1871) conspiring to breed a very large Socialist left. Through the 1920s and 30s this Left was at loggerheads with that of the militaristic Right (which the socialists described in hyperbole as Fascists) and their mindset of the glory of France.

Fragmentation of French Politics
The unifying force (described as the Union Sacree) in French politics up to the Treaty of Versailles was the recovery of province of Alsace Lorraine, lost to Germany in 1871. The treaty of Versailles gauranteed its return, and by most accounts the French victory (and they did consider they had won the war almost by themselves) restored the honour and glory of France lost to Moltke's Prussians. Once these grievances were removed, there came disastrous splits in the parliament leading to a loss of confidence in all government institutions (what a suprise that the French would not trust in authority!). The Left, in particular,would not support re-armament of any sort through the mid 1930s. The French Army thus had to make due with the transport and doctrine of 1918 to fight a 1940 Germany.

The Lasting Impact of Verdun
The second problem was the deep memories of the war, especially that of the Battle of Verdun. The fact was France could not survive another Verdun, having lost the most men per capita of any nation except little Serbia during the war. They took the lessons of Verdun in the wrong way, developing the strategic doctrine of maintaining a "continuous front", as well as developing a strong line of underground forts that they had believed saved Verdun from the Kaiser's hordes. The fruit of this train of thought was thus born as The Maginot Line.

It is impossible to exagerrate the impact of Verdun upon the French Army in 1940. The general staff was made primarily of veterans of WWI, with then army commanders now commanding corps, battallion commanders now commanding divisions, and company commanders now in charge of battallions. The majority of these officers were fed through the meatgrinder at Verdun, but drew the wrong conclusion. In stark contrast to the German Verdun experience (for example Von Rundstedt who believed the attrition and frontal attacks were no way to win a war), Gamelin now supreme Allied commander still believed in the doctrine of the continuous front and fortification. 

Outdated Military Doctrine
It can be said that the everyone in the western world (excluding the Germans) believed they would jump right back in their trenches they had left in 1918. They had not had the experience of the Eastern front, where the mobility of the fighting would profoundly influence German military thought. The French high command composed of old veterans of the Great War; as Allistair Horne points out "Where then are the young men, with the young ideas?"

Much critized for their lack of doctrinal foresight, it is clear to us now that even had the French wished to engage in a battle of maneuver they were decisively limited in ability. The Maginot Line, originally intended to delay or deter German attacks through attrition, quickly took on a mythical status of a shield which would make up for the lack of French manpower. The actual cost of the Maginot, especially its maintenance made it nearly impossible to provide funding for modernization of the army (which the French hoped would come from German reparations).

It became increasingly clear the French could no longer afford the casualties of WWI, and this became even clearer when Germany annexed Austria and Czechloslovakia. The French population of 42 million now faced a combined German nation of 76. Nor did they possess enough strategic reserves between the Belgium frontier (where the Maginot line was never extended) and the manpower needs of the Maginot in Alsace-Lorraine. Their air force was wholly inadequate in terms of numbers, equipment and command. Nor did they possess the necessary mechanization, or flexibility of supply transport that the Luftwaffe and the Heer relied on.

The nail in the coffin was not its terribly ostracized and frittering command and control system (to which an order received was a 'great basis for discussion') , nor the outdated tactical doctrine or political equivocation. There was an inexplicable weakness among the French army, exacerbated by long nights of boredom during the "Phoney War" (Sitzkrieg) and the constant barrage of Communist/Nazi propaganda. The rallying cry was no longer "To Berlin!" but rather "Lets get this over with". Discipline was in a terrible state, with men taking their own leave for the weekend and returning on Sunday or Monday; many men would not even salute their officers.

Gone was the need for revenge from 1871, and gone was the glorious victory spirit of 1919. It seemed to them as if it may be possible by refusing to fight they would ensure the survival of France's institutions and more importantly what little remained of her menfolk. Thus was the plight of the French army in 1940, already defeated long before the actual war began.


To Lose a Battle: The Battle of France 1940 by Aillistair Horne
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer


shifty said...

good read, glad i found this.


Dave said...

The French novel and feature film A Very Long Engagement offers some insight into the popular French view of the 1914-1918 war. Although not strictly historical evidence, documents such as these and the American film Paths of Glory portray a major rift between the soldiers and people of France and their military leaders. I have to assume that there is some basis for these stories. There is certainly bases in fact.

French honor overcame political and military pragmatism. The generals figured if they could shoot enough deserters and malingers they could get troops to fight. Even if the French had properly defended against the Germans, I wonder if the French people had any stomach at all for another big war.

Several years ago I took a guided tour of Omaha Beach. The French guide was from Alsace and her point of view was "it just wasn't worth fighting. The French just stopped to avoid further useless bloodshed." To them, the capitulation was simple math.

Question: What were Hitler's war aims as to France? To conquer and occupy or did he have some other relationship in mind?

Chase Morrison said...

Jean Paul Satre,the famous existencialist, was a poster boy of the French Left wing at the time. When the classic "The Grand Illusion" came out that portrayed WWI, he was more interested in going to the latest hollywood B movie. The French left in particular had no stomach for any more war, even on screen.

As with anything about Hitler you can usually find his original aims in Mein Kampf. The idea was a plan of three stages: Rearm Germany, engage France and her allies, then begin a war in the east for Lebensraum.

France was essentially the protector of the little eastern countries, such as Poland and Czechloslovakia. The Locarno Pact had secured the Western borders backed up by military force, but left the eastern frontier open for change.

The overriding idea was to defeat France to have a free hand in eastern Europe, as the Germans thought they would be assured of fighting on only one front - against Bolshevism. Secondly it was revenge of course, with Hitler forcing them to capitulate in the same train car Versailles was signed in.

Occupation was an afterthought to crushing them militarily, but would fall under the category of other Lebensraum countries, providing Germany with the resources needed to continue war. The real goal was the typical Clausewitz maxim - destroy your enemy's ability to war.

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CE Patrick said...

Few people can deny the affect that World War I had on the French. Thats why I always hate the attitude that most Americans have towards the French concerning defense and armed forces. The French were outdated and in a bad situation in 39...and if it were us in those shoes, I imagine we would have done exactly the same.

Anonymous said...

May I suggest you read some newer sources?

The effect of WW1 on the French armed forces was huge. They took truly horrendous casualties....but they won. So, there was some reluctance to fundamentally change things. I think this is the difference between the french and the germans in the interwar period. The Germans suffered terrible casualties as well in WW1, but, having lost, they actively sought different ideas on how to win 'round two'. The French fundamentally wanted to do a better job refighting Verdun, or avoiding it altogether if possible.

The political points you make are half-valid. Yes, France was deeply divided, with weak governments that came and went. But let's not blame "the left" for that. Those on the right were at least equally to blame. There was a strong strain of monarchism in the Army's officer corps, which was entangled with the catholic church and rural aristocracy against the urban, much more secular center and left. (You still see this divide in French politics today, but with far less deadly consequences).

The left saw any attempt to strengthen the army as an attempt to also strengthen the Right and possibly destroy the republic, and they were correct to some extent about that. The right suspected the urban workers and so did not always want to employ modern methods they regarded as leftish. Threats to tradition were taken very seriously. The French Army was very highly politicized, nothing like the largely apolitical American Army.

The fact is that even before the war there were certainly large segments on the right in France who were perfectly happy to become good fascists. And the record shows that once the Vichy regime was underway, they were better fascists than, for example, the Italians.

Having said all that - the French Army of 1940 was far better equipped than most folks acknowledge, and had a coherent if deeply flawed doctrine. Their tanks and artillery were at least as good as what the Germans had and in some cases were better.

Their training, small unit leadership and communications facilities were awful, but, this was a product of their doctrine of Battaille Methodique (Methodical battle)which envisioned very deliberate, well-planned, methodical advances along phase lines, heavily supported by masses of artillery. Such a vision did not require flexible organization or leadership, nor a high level of training amongst troops or small unit leaders. Their jobs were to follow orders, not to improvise or take initiative. This was also a product of their political problems, again, while the left had a fear of military strength and the right had a fear of training the populace.

The Germans just absolutely excelled at training and small unit leadership, and developed an excellent tactical system that everyone has been copying ever since. US operations in Desert Storm in 1991 would have been completely familiar to any late-WW2 commander in the US, British, German, Polish or Red armies. But their tactical excellence was not coupled with strategic victory nor any sensible industrial management. They got beat.

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