Saturday, July 11, 2015

Revisiting the Battle of France

These past months have marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of France--the principal subject of William Shirer's The Collapse of the Third Republic (just reviewed here).

Reading Shirer's book, it seems plain that the disaster was overdetermined. Relative to Germany, France was a declining power--demographically, industrially, and therefore also militarily. And of course, France's government was far from making the most of what resources it did have, participating with Britain in making mistake after mistake. Their repeated failure to oppose Germany's overturning of Versailles (the reinstitution of conscription, the march into the Rhineland, the annexation of Austria, the destruction of Czechoslovakia) strengthened Germany's strategic position by increasing its resources and depriving France of crucial allies, while diminishing the credibility of the Western powers--so that Belgium opted for neutrality, and Hitler was emboldened. The hesitation of the French government to come to terms with the Soviet Union cleared the way for Molotov-Ribbentrop, and the attack on Poland--during which the Western Allies let slip a significant opportunity by failing to attack western Germany while its forces were engaged in the east.

Still, even if being confronted with Hitler in the first place was the result of a staggering chain of miscalculations (some more understandable than others), when the Battle of France began, the Western Allies were hardly at a disadvantage in either numbers or quality of equipment (except, perhaps, in the air), one reason why their quick collapse in 1940 came as such a shock at the time--one that staggered contemporary observers, who groped for explanations.

Alongside the profound failures of diplomacy and grand strategy, there was military failure, with much often made of the French leadership's falure to appreciate the significance of the battle tank.1 However, the fact remains that the French had about as many tanks as the Germans, and better-built tanks. It would therefore be more accurate to say that they failed to appreciate the offensive potential of the tank--and that this was not a matter of simple technological short-sightedness, but larger and deeper-set mental blinders.

Prior to World War I, the French army had been gripped by the "cult of the offensive"--the mind-over-matter stupidity that held the elan of French soldiers would somehow overcome machine gun fire. Some have attributed this to the influence of the deeply anti-rational Modernist philosopher Henri Bergson--the intellectual equivalent of basing military theories on T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland."

A million or so dead in No Man's Land later, the reality finally sank in--and in a turnaround worthy of Moliere's Orgon, the French army switched from the cult of the offensive to the "cult of the defensive." This was reflected in a whole host of ways, like the French doctrine regarding responses to enemy breakthroughs. Rather than massing their forces for a counterattack, they dispersed them to "prevent infiltration"--and were quick to fall back in the interest of maintaining a continuous defensive line. The accent on the defensive, the dismissal of the offensive, also meant a lower premium on the speed of movement, or on the communications technology necessary to conduct a fast-moving battle. Thus, the French army made do with motorcycle-riding dispatch riders instead of telephone, teletype and radio as ways of delivering orders drawn up and acted upon in leisurely fashion.

Given these assumptions, it was natural for the French high command to think of tanks as infantry support weapons, to be dispersed among its infantry units rather than concentrated into a handful of hard-hitting divisions. Natural, too, that it use rail cars to move its tanks over even short distances, and that it not bother to equip its tanks with radios (and that the air force neglect close-air support).

In short, the French high command's appraisal of the tank reflected its broader appraisal of warfare more generally--a product of deep national trauma and equally deep attachment to the apparent causes of past victories, the hold of which was the greater because in the French army the senior officers of World War I were, often, the senior officers of the '30s (Maurice Gamelin, Maxime Weygand, Phillippe Petain).

It was by no means the only mistake the French commanders made in organizing the country's defense. The lack of unified command (the French Army had three separate headquarters, as well as an incoherent division of responsbility between Generals Gamelin and Georges); the astonishingly wrong-headed dismissal of the possibility of an armored charge through the Ardennes so that only scanty and weak forces covered the area (despite the warnings of, among others, Basil Liddell Hart); the failure to provide a reserve in case of a breakthrough (extreme even by the standards of the cult of the defensive); the failure to utilize the air force (much of the fleet of aircraft never even going into action); were each colossal in themselves.2

It might be noted, too, that the Western Allies having arrived at this juncture, not all the mistakes were France's. The British were no more far-seeing when it came to the new style of warfare, and the Belgians too slow to prepare for the German attack, let alone collaborate with the British and French. Still, the weaknesses in the essential doctrine and organization of the French forces insured that there was no recovery from these mistakes. That propensity for dispersing forces and falling back, that slowness to make its moves, turned retreats into routs, contributed to the disorganization of what resources remained available, and left the commanders--an astonishingly superannuated, enervated bunch--further and further behind the evolving situation so that the counterattack which could have thwarted the invasion never materialized.3 (To use the contemporary terminology, the Germans were able to continually get inside the French "decision loop.") As a result the Germans' high-risk gamble on an armored thrust through Sedan to the Channel paid off beyond their wildest expectations.

In hindsight, it all seems a reminder of the price of drawing the wrong lessons from history; the worship of old pieties making open questions seem as if they have already been settled for all time; failing to appreciate the ways technology interacts with culture, and the latter's hampering the former, even while being disrupted by it; and the staggering mediocrity, delusion and incompetence of those who typically wind up in high office--all problems by no means exclusive to the military sphere.

1. The claims about a "Maginot mentality" scarcely seem worth discussing. Fortifications, when properly conceived, built and maintained, are not a substitute for other forms of military power, but a support to them--and the French seem to have appreciated this. The Maginot Line, which the German commanders knew better than to take head-on, did its job by confining their attack to limited portions of the frontier. Additionally, the French were never totally reliant on it, having as they did the field army that they moved into Belgium, and which they could have positioned to block the attack through the Ardennes.
2. Weygand's mind, appallingly, seemed stuck not even in the last war (1914-1918), but the war before that (the 1870 Franco-Prussian War), the French "generalissimo" obsessing over combating an imaginary Communist takeover of Paris as German forces swept to crushing victory.
3. Overwhelming as the detail in Shirer's account of the campaign can seem, it does masterfully show exactly how the failures of doctrine, organization and the commanders' nerve led to tactical, operational and strategic disaster, where a reader of a briefer and simpler account would have to be content with the generalities.

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