Military Defeat And Myths Of Moral Failing
Reading into the Battle of France, 1940
Alistair Horne, To Lose a Battle: France, 1940. Penguin Books, 1969.
Philip G. Nord, France 1940: Defending the Republic. Yale University Press, 2015.
“This is not peace,” Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch said of the Versailles agreement. “It is an armistice for twenty years.” In retrospect, his spot-on estimate has the air of inevitability.
Writing a generation after the Second World War, Alistair Horne wrote that “reparations, with the international hostility they caused, did more than anything else to clear the way for the Second World War.”
Every page of his book evokes a sense of inevitability, a determinism in the fate of France, an inevitable result of flaws in the French nation and the flawed peace that ended the previous war.
“With the collapse of each successive government, it proved just that much harder … to create a majority with any promise of stability,” Horne writes of France in the interwar period. “A mad game of musical chairs ensued, to be played at a giddier and giddier rate until Hitler’s Panzers finally stopped the music.”
Paul Reynaud, prime minister of the 109th government in the 69-year history of the Third Republic, had no time or power to fix what was broken. When the German attack came, he was at war with his own Chief of Staff, Maurice Gamelin, who in turn served “under suspended sentence” for his sluggish, bureaucratic command style. Fear of a military coup was always present in the Third Republic; Gamelin was only in the job because of his reliably republican politics.
After 1918, Horne says, French politicians made three key assumptions that proved false. First, they assumed that Germany could be made to pay France’s war debts; second, that their allies would forbear the debts of France; third, that the value of the franc would stabilize. It never did. All their wartime inflation-prevention measures simply delayed the inevitable, and so the French currency inflated quickly after the war, and kept on inflating.
Horne points to 1934 as an important waypoint on the path to defeat. During that year, a series of political crises and scandals led to repeated collapses of government. Communists such as Simone de Bouvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were far more interested in the glorious revolution of the proletariat than stopping the rise of militant fascism, for they believed their own myth of the inevitability of history. Strikes in defense plants slowed the production of new weapons. Instead of the Army recruiting them to fight fascists, French police began jailing the French left. New weapons went under-developed while a surplus of old weapons moldered in storage.
Too flawed and disunited, France simply did not get its act together until far too late. Military morale suffered for poor training, inadequate equipment, and lack of strategic focus prior to 1939. French passivity upon Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland, his “first and most desperate gamble,” had emboldened him to dare everything that came after, and France had been too slow to appreciate his earnest aggression.
Horne’s historical thesis that a combination of moral and material factors accounts for the fall of France remains common wisdom. It was his criticism of the “French soul,” however, which made him a favorite historian of the political right.
Fans included Israeli Gen. Ariel Sharon, conservative commentator William F. Buckley, former president George W. Bush, and the Cold War lich lord himself, Henry Kissinger. Among his final works, Horne wrote a glowing account of Kissinger’s diplomacy during 1973, when China and the United States formed a new relationship and the US Army withdrew from Vietnam. The late Nixon ratfu*ker and right wing radio host G. Gordon Liddy was also a great fan of Horne, and cited his book to argue that Americans should avoid the French example, preferably through banishment of all naysayers and defeatists.
No standing army has a better battle record in the modern period than l’armee, a fact which does not fit the popular conception across the English-speaking world of France as a perpetual loser. Horne is the main literary reason why the French nation remains a watchword for defeat through insufficient morale in said English-speaking world today. Emphasis English.
As Horne wrote his book, the former French colony of Vietnam had just split, and so American opinion about the war to “contain” communism in the northern half of what had once been known as Cochin China was aslo splitting. Horne complains about the state of the Maginot line in 1939 while standing in the shadow of French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1969. His historical argument thus subsumed a debate about the war that was still going on when it was published, another war that France had already just lost.
Historical reassessment began in the decade after Horne’s book was published.
The Maginot Line, actually a series of fortifications along the international boundary of France with Germany, ended at the Belgian border on purpose. Despite the deteriorating cooperation with Belgium under Leopold III, neither diplomatic nor material or financial limitations forced this decision. It was deliberate. Nor is the terrain in the region suited to construction, having a famously high water table and soft soil.
France was at a manpower disadvantage versus Germany, so even with powerful fortresses and a determination to avoid repeating the bloodbath of Verdun, victory was impossible without bringing in allies. By leaving the Belgian border open, France invited the Wehrmacht to invade through Belgium again, as in 1914, stimulating the same intervention response from the United Kingdom. It worked.
By the time Germany attacked, the four nations at war with them — Belgium, the Netherlands, Britain, and France — collectively had more divisions than Hitler. In fact, Britain and France had equal numbers of airplanes and tanks to the German Army.
Le Deuxième Bureau, French military intelligence, knew that Hitler intended to go through Belgium as early as October 1939. Horne considers this a case of dereliction, but his scorn is misplaced, an artifact of contemporary critics scorning the weak French response to German aggression in Poland. American Senator William Borah called these early months of conflict a “phoney war.” French forces advanced to the Saar, but there was almost no fighting, and French command aversion to casualties was palpable.
Horne over-credits German propaganda and social malaise for the relative quiescence of this period. There was little France could do to aid Poland on the ground, and as he himself explains, France was really in no condition to invade Germany at the time. Equipment and logistics were not up to the task. He also overstates the impact of industrial sabotage. French aircraft production surpassed German in 1940.
What Horne gets right about the morale factors of French defeat in 1940 — the lesson that we must learn from his book — is that a whole army can fail from the top down. Overinflated egos and the wishful thinking of partisans will always fail under the test of battle.
Probably out of personal pettiness, Gen. Alphonse Joseph Georges never recieved the full powers of command in the north when Gamelin sent him to Belgium. For reasons that escape understanding, Gamelin also divided supply and logistics from operations. Everywhere, French formations relied on unburied telephone lines and unfinished fortifications.
“Why had the French gunners not been able to ‘endure’ as their fathers had?” Horne asks, calling Sedan 1940 “the terrible harvest of those years of mutual mistrust, disunity, despair…and defeatism in France.” We could substitute the French Army for France, in that sentence.
A day late and a few francs short, one half-step behind Germans in doctrine and battle experience, its generals and defenses simply were not ready to stop the onslaught. No spiritual explanations are needed to analyze this failure.
Unlike the Germans, who had learned to concentrate their tanks against targets such as concrete bunkers, French tanks were spread throughout the front, unable to support one another. They were actually better tanks, for the most part, as evidenced by the fact that Germans used thousands of captured French tanks against Russia, or provided them to allies against Russians.
It is simply not true that German forces had an advantage in motorization. For every motorized division there were three reliant on horses for their logistics. French formations were more mechanized than the Germans. Four out of five French tanks did not carry a radio, however, and the existing sets were weak.
German doctrine required a radio in every tank, even if it was only a receiver set. German tankers were therefore able to coordinate their actions with infantry and artillery as well as other tank crews.
In the same vein, British and French antiaircraft weapons were too few at the front and spread thin, whereas the German AA guns were concentrated around vulnerable points, such as pontoon bridges. As a result, allied air losses were very high, and did little to stop the Wehrmacht, while Stuka dive bombers equipped with radios provided critical close air support against French defenses during the Battle of Sedan.
This technological gap is underlined by the total absence of a radio set at Vincennes Castle. Gamelin, the French chief of staff, had his headquarters here, where he wrote memoranda during the critical days of May based on information filtered upwards by telephone and face-to-face meetings. His decision cycle was a day behind Erwin Rommel.
As the famous panzer leader created the bridgehead at Dinant from which Gen. Hermann Hoth would descend like a dagger into the heart of northern France, Gamelin was last to know about it. Horne calls this a perfect example of the “ivory tower” in which French generalship had locked itself.
It was also an example of innate French resistance to technological changes in social structures. French industry was inefficient by design, never adopting the assembly line or the Taylorist practices that reduced payroll. It was typical of French naval construction that ships were built many at a time, slowly, for the same reason, and in the event of war only one new battleship, Le Richelieu, would even be completed.
Then, when mobilized, the French force drew so much manpower from the factories that munitions and weapons manufacturing slowed to a crawl, requiring a sudden reversal from Paris. “Some divisions lost half their reservist officers and NCOs,” Horne writes.
All of this might have been handled better by the legendary French bureaucracy if they had adopted modern record-keeping methods. It was only during the Fourth Republic, in 1946, that France at last adopted the typewriter for use on official documentation. Bureaucrats can build perfect job security on being the only person who knows where to find the handwritten records volume, and such people tend to resist changes that might threaten their sinecures.
Whereas France conceived of itself as a scientific and rational country, and even led many areas of technological development, this resistance to innovations and economic efficiencies had always characterized military development there.
Conscious of their class privileges, the French nobility resisted both the crossbow and gunpowder. When the modern military revolution required France to invent military professionalization, the aristocrats kept their privileges and largely abandoned service. That did not stop aristocratic behaviors from continuing among the officer corps of both the army and navy, where intense doctrinal fights got mixed up in the interminable politics of the Third Republic.
Reserve armies are a good point of comparison. After 1919, France switched to a short-term conscription system that created large, but barely-trained, reserves to mobilize. This was a political choice imposed by the left, which preferred the levée en masse approach as a “democratic” way of war. Conservatives and reactionaries had resisted the change for decades. One effect was a smaller standing force. Reacting to Hitler’s rearmament, the enlistment period was increased to two years in 1935, but the shortage of trained soldiers was evident in the recoil and defeat of the “B” divisions sent into battle at Sedan.
Whereas Horne dismisses the effects of the Versailles Treaty, however, he has missed the effect that its prohibition on reserve armies had on German manpower as the war progressed. Hitler did not have enough time to build up trained reserves of his own, with the effect that by 1944, he was running out of soldiers who knew how to do their various jobs in a modern military force. Quantitatively, Versailles worked in the long term, just as the French assumption of a long war turned out to be correct.
Horne is at his best relating the vicissitudes of combat at the critical moment of breakthrough: Rommel’s narrow escapes; crossings left undemolished or unguarded; the French artillery that fired “wildly” without effect after the forward fire observer was captured, telephone in one hand, wine glass in the other.
Here is where the demoralized French generals lost their nerve and armies began to crumble. Rather than a defense in depth, Gamelin had tried to create a continuous front. Now commanders began to evacuate headquarters to the rear, spreading confusion and demoralization. Guns and equipment were often simply abandoned. Organization, leadership, training and doctrine: these pillars of military success were all hollow, in the French Army.
About the moral character of France being hollow, however, Horne is wrong, and worse, he is repeating a myth created by the French to explain defeat as a political tool.
Marc Bloch, a rigorous historian who died in front of a Nazi firing squad, was the first Frenchman to write a book-length analysis of L’Etrange Défaite (“The Strange Defeat”), though it was not published until 1946. Bloch was a clear influence on Horne, as well as William Shirer, whose The Collapse of the Third Republic was published the same year as Horne’s book. Bloch’s scathing questions about the defeat framed the subject for an entire generation of historians.
He wrote in an atmosphere of opportunism by enemies of the Third Republic. Addressing the French nation by radio(!) on 17 June, a month after the debacle at the Meuse, Phillippe Pétain blamed “too few babies, too few arms, too few allies” and “laxness” as “the causes of our defeat.” France had been too comfortable, too debauched. “The spirit of pleasure-seeking brings to ruin what the spirit of sacrifice has built,” the hero of Verdun said.
His defense minister, Maxime Weygand, blamed “pacifist schoolteachers” and “twenty years of abdication.” Another American Senator, Joseph McCarthy, later used the word “treason” in place of “abdication” with much the same spirit. As Philip G. Nord explains in his 2016 reassessment of the Battle of France, France 1940: Defending the Republic, the myth of “1940 Syndrome” endured with the inheritors of the Vichy government.
“Pétain instrumentalized the exodus and the defeat to build himself up as a providential man, a savior and father to whom a people in distress might turn,” Nord writes. By 1942, the heavy German hand, and disillusionment with the Pétain dictatorship, had rekindled love of liberté, égalité, et fraternité in France. Although the relative effectiveness and value of the French Resistance are debated, it was indisputably a mass movement that internalized the narrative of a spiritual rebirth of the nation, reframing deafeat as divine punishment for the sins of France and resistance as the expiation of those sins.
Nord notes that the Fourth Republic was seen as a “restoration” of the Third, and with minor alterations its constitution was a copy of the previous one. This revised Third Republic embraced the myth of moral defeat — and moral victory — for its own purposes, and then so did Charles de Gaulle. Still alive and leading his Fifth Republic when Horne’s book was published, de Gaulle inaugurated the revisionist views upon his death. For successive French governments, including the Socialist Mitterand technocrats, the myth of moral failing and defeat in 1940 remained a potent narrative.
“It was the army command that lost the Battle of France, not civilian error or a disinclination to fight, let alone faults, real or imagined, in French society as a whole,” Nord writes. Rommel could improvise at Dinant in ways that French commanders could not.
What is most striking in this account of France’s defeat is the rigidity of thinking in the French military’s highest ranks. Generals such as Gamelin, Corap, and Huntziger knew what was supposed to happen, and when the battle did not unfold according to plan they were slow to adjust. Even when adjustments were made there was a tendency to relapse into default mode, which was the defensive. This set of attitudes—the inflexibility of mind, the all too deliberate decision-making, the preference for circling the wagons faute de mieux—bled down the chain of command. Not every senior officer was affected, not de Gaulle of course nor Jules Prioux, but enough of them were to make a difference.
French doctrinal style centered on the will of commanders to push their subordinates to advance or hold. German doctrinal style centered on the will of commanders to let their subordinates lead. Of the three crossings, on the Meuse, the one at Monthermé was stopped, the one at Dinant was a close thing saved by Rommel’s initiative, and Heinz Guderian blasted his way through with Stukas. A defeat, yes, but a closer one than appreciated at first glance.
“France’s defeat in 1940 was a military phenomenon,” Nord writes, an “not the inevitable expression of some generalized national malaise or moral deficiency. And it was the army brass, far more than the common fighting man, who deserve the lion’s share of the blame.”
It’s not so much that the Third Republic was a rotten regime, but that post- revolutionary France was saddled with a military establishment that had not made its peace with democratic institutions and would not do so until the 1960s. If there was a flaw in the regime, it lay not in republican political culture but in a military caste as yet inadequately republicanized.
Moreover, parts of the French Army performed very well. The Maginot Line forts held out as long as possible. When Mussolini took the opportunity to bite at Provence, the French Army stopped the Italian Army cold. The Army of the Levant put up stiff resistance against the allies in defense of Vichy Syria and Lebanon. One size of explanation does not fit all cases.
“The Republic in 1940 was done in by its weaknesses, no doubt, but above all by its enemies,” Nord concludes, referring to the domestic enemies of the musical chairs game, as Horne poetically described interwar France.
For even as l’armee continued to fight, there were French elites who “had never much liked the Republic and found in the political crisis consequent on defeat an opportunity to exploit the regime’s weaknesses against it, to do it in and replace it with an authoritarian order more to their satisfaction.”
As the situation degenerated, calls for peace increasingly came from ministers intent on conquering France themselves. “The pro-armistice faction did not just argue about policy: they were interested in regime change, if not from the very outset, then soon enough,” Nord says. Defeat had two stages, a military one and then a political one.
Reynaud resigned on 16 June after the United States refusal to intervene. Replacing him the next day, Pétain announced his intentions to seek an armistice. Weygand, longtime enemy of the Republic, championed giving him unprecedented powers.
It was time to finish with the old order of things, the document explained, with its “shopworn personnel,” its “Masonic compromises,” and its “class struggle.” A feeble birth rate had left France prey to foreign interlopers who, exploiting all too lax naturalization laws, had come to make themselves at home, buying up the nation’s wealth along the way. A “wave of materialism” had eroded family values and the morals of youth. The nation needed new leaders and new principles to live by. It was high time to find a replacement for the Republic’s outdated motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” and Weygand had just such a device in mind: “God, Country, Family, Labor.” Rebirth, purity, authority, such were the watchwords of the Pétain cabinet, a government that had already left the Republic behind even before it left Bordeaux en route to Vichy.
As Pétain spoke, public moral was indeed plummeting across France, and not because of Germans, but the flood of refugees from northern France. Memories of the previous war, and life under German occupation, lingered. From exile, de Gaulle called for France to keep resisting, again by radio.
It seemed that public communications by radio were the only kind of radio communication France was good at, anymore. Information flow was “complicated and hierarchical,” too filtered in both directions along the chain of command. Movements were tardy, reactions were slow, and subordinates remained ignorant of important changes. Worst of all, in the reckoning of Alistair Horne, were the rampant rumors that seemed to spread through entire divisions in the absence of clear orders and information from above.
Every bit of it could have been avoided with more, and better, radio sets.
The fall of France in 1940 is not mysterious. It is not strange. Argue as they might, all the historians agree on the deficiencies of French tactical and operational radio communications. Erwin Rommel valued his armored signals vehicle enough to note when it was put out of action. His French counterparts had none at all, and it showed. Regular readers will know that the history of warfare in the electromagnetic spectrum is something of an obsession for this writer. French defeat in 1940 is a fine example of why the radio revolution matters so much.
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A very interesting article, and for the most part a perspective I have not encountered previously Felling lazy, I am wondering if you have more writings on his subject (besides article you referenced above.