A Policy of Defeat
David Campbell and Jesse McIntyre III
Time Magazine commented in August 1939 that French Army General Maurice Gamelin was head, by unanimous acclaim, of the world’s finest military machine. The sentiment was echoed by English Prime Minister Churchill who remarked that the French had an incomparable military machine and that the French Army was the most perfectly trained and faithful mobile force in Europe.1 Just nine months later, Germany launched a military offensive in France and the Low Countries that remains one of the most remarkable campaigns in Western history. The decisive victory over a first-class military, arguably one of the most impressive ever, shocked the world, not for its horror but for the lack of it.2
This work intends to assess how the German military achieved in six and half weeks in 1940 what it could not accomplish in over four years of fighting a generation earlier.
Six major reasons given for French defeat include: 1) Deficiencies in morale, caused by widespread defeatism., 2) Faulty French military doctrine and policy, 3) Inadequate training of reserves in peacetime, 4) The detrimental effects of the Maginot Line, 5) Incompetent aged leadership, 6) Irreconcilable political divisions within France’s Third Republic.3 A seventh additional reason is security agreements that committed France to countries that lacked reciprocity. While all of these contributed to France’s defeat, Faulty French military doctrine and policy significantly failed in preparing the French Army for the demands of modern warfare.
The end of World War I left France and its allied partners victorious. French political and military leaders recognized that France had been greatly weakened during World War I. Over 4 per cent of the French population was dead, a significant portion of the countryside damaged by the war, and the economy burdened with a debt of 34 billion Francs.4 The horrors and sacrifice experienced left a general feeling of revulsion against war and all things military in those who participated in the war. Small defense budgets due to post war economic issues and public anti-military sentiment forced French civilian and military leaders to consider new options in defending France.
French military leaders formulated a doctrine that emphasize firepower, strength of the defense, and methodical battle. The French firmly believed that new weapons and greater firepower made the battlefield more lethal. This lethality strengthened the defense and served as a powerful deterrent to any potential attacker. The French titled their doctrine “bataille conduite” or the “methodical battle”.5
Methodical Battle doctrine favored a highly rigid battle where units moved obediently between phase lines and adhering to strict timelines. French military leaders believed this was necessary to command and control forces in modern warfare. They also believed they could weaken an attacker with defensive fires before destroying the attacker with a massive “battering ram’ attack. Contrary to perception, French doctrine did not abandon the offense but placed greater emphasis on the strength of the defense.6
Faulty French doctrine and policy was also reflected in communications where the French Army only spent 0.15 percent of its budget on communications equipment during the period 1923-1939.7 Methodical Battle did not require flexible communications as battles were developed with a slow operational tempo. This meant that commanders could utilize field telephones and couriers as the French Army did in World War I. Instead of an overarching communications system, these field telephones and couriers would connect various elements of the defensive system. The lack of flexible communications denied staffs a common operating picture, agility, and options.8
The French Army failed to improve its doctrine during the interwar years. The 1936 manual included improvements including discussion on the employment of large motorized units and light mechanized divisions, but a complete transformation of doctrine did not occur as it became more restrictive. The commission which wrote the manual explained that the new advances permitted a certain acceleration of the rhythm of battle but did not believe that this accelerated rhythm required the Army to change its philosophical approach to command and control. The French Army policy further exacerbated French Army doctrinal challenges. The French Army made several attempts to improve the quality and mobility of artillery. Despite improvements in motorization and mechanization between 1919 and 1939, only forty-four of over two hundred artillery regiments were motorized or towed by truck or tractor. The rest was horse drawn.9
French Army policy to continue using surplus World War I 75mm artillery pieces over adopting the 105mm howitzer denied French forces greater range and lethality. A French officer noted with pride in 1940, “Our artillery system is not essentially different from that of the last war.”10 Policy also determined that centralization of command was essential in ensuring massing of fires. As a result, long range, heavy artillery was under the command of corps and higher commands. Forward observers were not required to accompany units they supported. Lack of decentralized fires, lack of immediate and responsive fires to tactical commanders, and lack of mobility denied French forces from massing their fires on maneuvering German forces and targets of opportunity in 1940.11
French doctrine and policy regarding the mobilization of citizenry reflected its Levee en Masse tradition, economic constraints, and experience in World War I. French policy makers viewed any potential conflict as “total war or nothing” or levee en masse requiring complete mobilization of reservists. While this was perceived viable in responding to total war in Europe, it limited France’s viable options in responding to an international crisis.12 Economic realities and a surplus of WORLD WAR I equipment would result in reservists being issued and trained WORLD WAR I equipment with little or no time for individual or collective training. This deficiency would become glaringly obvious in 1939 -1940 when mobilized French reservists found themselves digging positions and filling sandbags instead of conducting training in preparation for war with Germany. Recently mobilized reservist Pierre Roussel noted in his diary “We are forced labourers rather than soldiers…I hardly ever see a rifle and only have the vaguest notion how our key weapons work and should be maintained.”13
French defense policy to protect its overseas colonies in North Africa resulted in diverting scarce defense funds to build modern warships and ports like Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria. The buildup of the French navy reflected France’s desire to retain its image as a colonial power. By 1939, France possessed the fourth largest navy in the world. The waste of resources on French naval building program did not contribute to defending France. The French navy failed to draw blood with the Germans. The diverting of scarce resources to build the French navy would have been better used in defending the French homeland.14
Considerable criticism has been directed at the Maginot Line for its exorbitant costs and instilling a passive spirit into the French Army. French policy makers saw the Maginot Line as sophisticated version of the French defensive lines that worked so well during World War I. The line would not only protect the French frontier bordering Germany but would force any future German attack through the Low Countries. This would provide additional time for French military forces to respond to any German attack and to execute its methodical battle doctrine. While the Maginot Line’s presence was successful in altering German planning and inflicting significant number of German casualties, its exorbitant construction costs resulted in the lack of long-range fire power which enable attacking German forces to bypass.15
Germany conducted many very intensive studies to learn lessons from World War I. Their desire was to learn lessons not just from their operational conduct but also from what the Allies had done or failed to do. The Germans did not limit themselves to studying only the battles that they had won, but also the ones that they had lost. But, even after that lose they were able to not only think about the next war, but also develop innovatively sound doctrine. They could retained a 100,000-man army. 16 This army accordingly, after Hitler rose to power, was developed as a cadre system. On the eve of World War II their army grew at a rate no one expected. It was “Divided into sixteen divisions, the 100,000-man army of the Weimar period was to be brought up to a total strength of 580,000.”17
Within, their development of the theories of armored warfare they identified key concepts that crossed these theories these were: Exploitation, Speed, Leadership from the front, and Combined Arms.
The Germans did not look at the application of these things just from the offensive mindset, but also from how these could be defended against. The Germans had amassed more first-hand knowledge during World War I in coping and adjusting their operations against the Allies more numerous tanks. The first large scale application of the tank was at Cambrai, where on 20 November 1917, 476 Allied tanks attacked and swept aside the German defenders.18 The German defensive positions collapsed, this achievement only cost 5,000 Allied casualties. But, there was not sufficient reserves available to maintain the initiative and secure the captured areas. Within, a week the German counterattack and pushed the Allies back to beyond their starting position.
The results of the Germans observations and studies was that they concluded that tanks needed not only speed and reliability, but also needed to be employed as a concentrated force.10 Under General von Seeckt the German Army directed at least fifty-seven different committees to study Worlds War I.19 These studies coupled with the ability to observe British maneuvers combined with advances in automotive technologies rendered a more reliable and faster machine. In 1924 the Germans published a new doctrinal manual titled Troop Leadership, which was based on a complete assessment of World War I.20 In 1927 the Germans established a tank development school in Kazan in the Soviet Union. In this environment, the Germans and Soviets could see issues that could occur in highly mechanized warfare. It also, allowed them to develop the tactics that would be utilized in the opening phases of World War II. The Germans were also, able to observe the 1926 British maneuvers where it was noted the already increased speed that now allowed tanks to strike out on their own. Also, contained in the report was the capability of the supporting infantry and artillery had to be motorized to allow that the tactical unit could travel together.21 By moving together these units could provide quick and timely support to overcome any unforeseen obstacles.
What the Germans developed from both their studies and the ability to practice in Russia is what is the “Blitzkrieg.” This new armor doctrine incorporated what they had identified in their studies as critical doctrinal components. This emerging doctrine can be considered not so much as revolutionary as evolutionary.22 Also, contained was the observer’s experience from watching the British maneuvers, and their own mock tank maneuvers that were utilized to build a base of experience in their army. The Germans were not only looking at armored warfare from the offensive, but also from the defensive aspects. In this way, they could develop countermeasures based on what they had studied and observed in the exercises. After the invasion of Poland, the Germans quickly applied the lessons they had learned and further refined their doctrine and assigned each armored division its own air force element. They also, realized that the supporting truck-mounted infantry could not accompany tanks on cross country maneuvers, they would require more vehicles with cross country mobility and some armor protection.23 German armored forces—employed in mass, surprise, aiming at weak points, and well supported by tactical aircraft-enjoyed rapid success.
From their studies and observing the exercises the Germans also undertook far reaching organizational changes, this moved them even further ahead of their future opponents. In the 1920’s they had recognized the operational value of long range, instant communications with widely dispersed elements.24 This requirement allowed for further doctrinal shifts within the German perception of the battlefield. They realized that radio communications to the lowest level would allow them to have greater operational flexibility to take advantage of evolving opportunities, these occurred due to the speed and distances at which units would now be operating.25 This developing capability further permitted the German Army to maintain its tradition of Auftragstaktik (mission-oriented orders). The emphasis during officer training on initiative, risk taking, and leadership from the front at all levels of command. Thus, during the interwar period the German Army was conditioning its leaders at all levels to apply the leadership that would support the principles of a modern, highly mobile fighting force.
The ability of the German Army to secretly conduct exercises at Kazan allowed them to not only study their emerging doctrine of “Blitzkrieg”, but to also make both strategic and tactical adjustments. These adjustments were not greeted with punishment or not distributed only from or by the German High Command. The Germans realized that institutionally these errors were part of the process of doctrine change. This “reframing” allowed the German High Command to generate alternative approaches to challenging operational questions.26 The German Army leadership was willing to listen to the observations of the tank crews in order to get a better feel for how the changes affected not only that one vehicle, but also the entire unit. This Bottom-up feedback nurtured a feeling of ownership from the rank and file. Within, the German Army this process was so internalized that process was accepted and used freely.
The French seriously undertook the study of the results of World War I no other nation had been so devastated by the war. However, chaos within the French army’s command structure allowed small groups of senior officers to take control of doctrinal development within their branches. Surprisingly, the French made no attempt to conduct an all-inclusive study into the conduct of World War I. The studies conducted were narrowly focused on just a few carefully selected battles that took place in 1918, in which they were the victors.27 The French War College took the lead in all doctrinal issues, this lead to the formulation of the “methodical battle”. This doctrine emphasized tightly controlled offensive and defensive operations, in which artillery would be the dominate weapon employed. The French were inclined to a strong defensive mindset, this was demonstrated by the construction of the Maginot Line. The Maginot Line would funnel the Germans into Belgium; thus, the long defensive battle would take place in Belgium.28 The French were attempting to take a rational approach to the next war. They were going to delay offensive operations until the point in which they had established a marked level of material and personnel advantage in the battlespace.
Discussion in the Council of War, the governing body of the army, when examining limited technical questions was met with that same response from Field Marshal Gamelin that each proposal required further study, instead of action.29 When the Council of War finally decided to authorize two armored division in 1939, they would only consist of four weak and understrength tank battalions.30 Even, as late as 1939 the French had still not decided on the make-up or table of organization required for their proposed armor divisions. This failure to proactively plan how to operationally utilize their armored forces was to play directly into their defeat.
Unfortunately, the approach during the inter-war years fell victim to an organizational vacuum.31 Outside of the doctrinal issues, one must realize a general failure of the French army’s senior leaders. In 1935 General Gamelin established that the high command was the sole arbiter for doctrine.32 From that point on all articles, lectures, and books by serving officers had to be approved by the high command, this action stymied open exchange of ideas at all levels of the French Army. He was not providing leadership or direction to the army.33 But, rather he was managing the many fiefdoms that had been allowed to take root in the French Army.
This lack of attention to doctrinal change is one of the conditions that lead to the defeat of France in May 1940. The Germans did not possess more or better tanks than the French. In fact, the French possessed the better tanks; both the Somua 35 and B.I. were considered superior to any tanks that the Germans fielded.34 Thus, the outcome of the Battle of France was not so much in the materials brought to the battlespace, but more in how they were utilized in the operational spectrum. The French failed to realize that the shift of operational movement had shifted from the cavalry to armor. The static defensive positions that developed during World War I limited the operational strength of the cavalry, whose tactical role was penetration and exploitation. They failed through their studies to realize that the emerging armor forces were replacing the cavalry on the battlefield. By, limiting the review of World War I to 1918 they missed the important implications that were evidenced during the Battle of Cambrini in November 1917. French aviation and armor did not interact due to French doctrine and the lack of radio communications. The French still relied on buried wires and runners. There was several German traffic jams that included both armored units and resupply/maintenance units. These could have been eliminated by French aviation and armor but never happened due to the lack of communications.
Lessons from France’s defeat have implications for countries and militaries today. France’s over-reliance on collective security was a fatal mistake. France’s security agreement with Poland and Belgium forced France into coming to Poland’s defense when it wasn’t ready and into a relationship with Belgium whose concerns for its neutrality did not make a meaningful contribution to France’s security.35 France’s ally Britain embarked upon a war with Germany without the political will to engage in real combat. Chamberlain’s cabinet regarded war as a symbolic act to make Hitler see the folly of violating international agreements.36
France’s methodical battle doctrine overemphasis on fires and the belief they could alone control and develop the fight blinded the French to consider the improvements in tactical mobility and maneuver. Attacking German forces were able to quickly dislocate French forces which eventually resulted in disintegration of French forces. This was further exacerbated by the lack of flexible communications which denied French Commanders and their staffs a common operating picture, flexible timely options to developing engagements, and unity of effort amongst French forces. Battlefields with peers and near-peers require a joint force that is able to quickly assess an engagement, develop flexible timely options, and defeat the adversary with the right application of combat power.
From the methods that both sides prepared for the next war it is easy to see that the Germans appear to have taken greater care in both conducting studies and gaining experience from maneuvers. They went about solving the issues related to the Treaty of Versailles by partnering with the Soviets to gain access to resources and training areas away from the prying eyes of the Inter-Allied Military Control Commission (IMCC). This access allowed them to both build and practice with the evolving armored vehicles and their tactics. This also allowed for real time adjustments to the tactics that could then be conducted and reviewed. It created a well-trained cadre with real experience in operating in a fast-moving environment that stressed centralized operations plans, that emphasized decentralized execution. This cadre was a critical component when the German Army exploded in preparation for the war.
The French experiences from 1914-18 pushed their planners into the “methodical battle” doctrine with its tight operational control. They were attempting to avoid the horrible casualties that they had suffered during World War I, but at the same time sustain themselves through a long war. This closed tactical mindset caused them to underestimate the value of the tank and its effect on developing both offensive and defensive operational plans. The resistance of the army’s senior leaders, especially General Gamelin, to new ideas or dissent stifled the needed environment for the fermentation of ideas. Their desire to avoid casualties limited their ability to see or understand the weaknesses that existed in their doctrine. They were preparing to refight World War I, even when their own intelligence suggested a possibility of an attack thourgh the Ardennes it was dismissed.37 If the French had attempted to study at least methods of defense against armored forces they would have realized that a concentration of armored units was needed to defend against a heavily armored force.
The Germans on the other hand approached the study of World War I from a holistic viewpoint. They did not only study themselves but attempted to “see” both sides of both the strategic and tactical questions. They then applied these lessons to develop their doctrine and prepare for the next war. The true proof of the German doctrine is that after the defeat France; Britain and the United States took notice and developed their battlefield doctrines to duplicate the German’s tactics and to develop a defense against them. They by the very nature of being a learning organization were able to quickly learn and adjust tactics and methods. They did not limit themselves to looking at only themselves but gained knowledge of how other militaries were developing and implementing armored forces. This allowed them to learn from the errors of others and at the same time continue to evolve the tactics that would stun the world.
1. Lloyd Clark, Blitzkrieg: Myth, Reality, and Hitler’s Lightning War: France 1940 (New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016), page?)
2. Ibid., 381.
3. Robert Forcyzk, Case Red: The Collapse of France (New York, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2017), 12-13.
4. Ibid., 28.
5. Robert Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939 (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1985), 3.
6. Ibid., 4.
7. Forczyk, Case Red: The Collapse of France, 17.
8. Clark, Blitzkrieg: Myth, Reality, and Hitler’s Lightning War: France 1940, 35.
8. Forczyk, Case Red: The Collapse of France, 17.
9. Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939, 96.
10. Ibid., 98.
10. Forczyk, Case Red: The Collapse of France, 21.
11. Clark, Blitzkrieg: Myth, Reality, and Hitler’s Lightning War: France 1940, 35.
12. Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939, 39.
13. Ibid., 75.
14. Forczyk, Case Red: The Collapse of France, 51.
15. Ibid., 19.
16. Scott Catino, Major themes of the Inter-war Period, https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_402758_1&content_id=_21203059_1.
17. Volker R. Berghahn, Europe in the Era of Two World Wars: From Militarism and Genocide to Civil Society, 1900-1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 98.
18. Bryan Perrett, The Battle Book. (London: Arms and Armour Press), 62.
19. Snead, Clashing Approaches to War in the Innerwar Years. (Bedford).
20. Geoffrey Parker, The Cambridge History of Warfare. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 299.
22. Williamson, Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, 20.
23. Weichong Ong. "Blitzkrieg: Revolution or Evolution?" Royal United Service Institute, 84.
24. Philip L Bolte. "Tanks and Armored Doctine: World War II." Tanks and Armored Doctrine. 1. https://hillsboroibhistory.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/tanks-and-armored-warfare-World War Ii.pdf (accessed September 6, 2017).
25. Williamson, Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, 373.
27. Deal, Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal Reframing Organizations. (John Wiley and Sons), 335.
28. Williamson, Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, 32.
30. Williamson, Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, 33.
32. Ibid, 31.
33. Ibid, 34.
34. Ibid. 31.
35. Douglas Porch, "Why did France Fall." The Quarterly Journal of Military History, 33.
35. Forczyk, Case Red: The Collapse of France, 409
36. Ibid., 409.
37. Kiesling, “The Fall of France: Lessons of the 140 Campaign”, 111.