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Questions about France in 1940

Discussion in 'Western Europe 1939 - 1942' started by brndirt1, Aug 6, 2009.

  1. brndirt1

    brndirt1 Saddle Tramp

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    After using search, I found nothing to which this could be apropos so I figured I would simply start a new thread and ask the "powers that be" to move it is it doesn't belong here. I ran across this old file and figured I would share it here. This was posted by a fellow named James Quinn, back in 1999 on the now lame History Channel forum. He moved on for his PhD. studies after posting this, and is (to the best of my knowledge) teaching at the university level somewhere.

    To an observer in 1940; the French nation seemed well defended. The French army was large, equipped with modern small arms. French industry was constructing the best tanks in the world. Older French armor was plentiful and equal to most tanks it would encounter in battle. French artillery was the envy of the world. The French air force had stumbled badly between the wars but was now rapidly equipping itself with modern aircraft, both from internal and external sources. The French officer corps was lead by men with extensive combat experience and a life time of training and excursive.

    General Maurice Gamelin, supreme commander of the French military, was considered a brilliant combat tactician and an excellent administrator, even the German general staff shared this view of the aging but vigorous leader. Couple this French force with the Belgian, Dutch and BEF, a rapid collapse on the Western front from a brisk German attack seemed unlikely. A catastrophe on the level of what occurred in May/June 1940 seemed remote.

    How did it happen? I started asking myself this question years ago, and finally seriously tackled it this year. Over the several months I have read 13 books on the battle of France and on Allied inter-war defense planning. I feel I have answered my original question and have arrived at some very solid beliefs. Some beliefs that I originally held have been dispelled by my education, chief among these; that the French collapse could largely be contributed to lack of spirit within the French nation.

    The French soldiers were just as brave and willing to sacrifice in 1940 as they were in 1914. During the inter-war years the French people disagreed about much, their shifting and unstable government displays this, however they never reached the point of finding France a place not worth defending. Accounts of communist members of the French military spreading dissent and encouraging their units not to resist the German invasion were never substantiated.

    When French solders faced German soldiers in a battle of a form that they had been trained for, they accounted for themselves adequately. Large scale surrender only occurred when French units found themselves cut off from supply and command and were forced to fight in battles of encounter, something the solders had not been prepared for. The French defeat of 1940 was a military defeat. Not a moral defeat. The French were defeated because their military tactics were not able to match the German tactics. The military situation deteriorated so rapidly after the German breakthrough in Sedan that the French were dazed and paralyzed by the blow. They were unable to recover in time to adjust their tactics and defend themselves.

    Criticism of the French military is wholly justified. In the end they did not accomplish their task. However the German blitzkrieg also swept up many other opponents in similar fashion. The Poles, The Belgians, The Dutch, The Serbs, The Greeks, and The Soviets, all fell victim to the German onslaught initially. It was not until 1942 that the German offense was effectively parried. It is unreasonable to single out the French alone for their failings.

    No force, including the BEF, proved more effective then the French during the early years of the war. After the battle a myth was started that the French defeat was not the military’s fault but the fault of the corrupt and leftist government. That the French people had gone soft under Socialist governments and lacked the stomach for the upcoming fight. This interpretation was started by the Vichy government because it was a government largely formed by conservative members of government and by military leaders. To accept the blame themselves these leaders would be invalidating their own efforts. Finger-pointing in an unfortunate trait common to the French. The creation of this myth is not a conspiracy. I believe that the Vichy government leaders and other member of French society truly believed they were seeing the situation correctly. However history has not supported their argument. History can be written in many ways but in the end the truth finally succeeds.

    The French prepared themselves for war. They armed themselves as well as they felt they could. They fully mobilized all manpower. The socialist government of Blum appropriated more money to the military then even the army had asked for. They lost the battle but they did not loose for lack of trying to win. To belittle the French military effort is ridiculous. In 1940 the French stood up to aggression and entered into a total war situation with Nazi Germany. Comparatively, England sent a small expeditionary force to France and attempted to fight a cut-rate war on the peripheries. America cocooned itself in denial. The Soviets bought time with French blood. If any nation should be proud of itself in 1940 it should be France.

    If you have interest in this aspect of World War II I would recommend Seeds of Disaster by Daugherty and Republic in Danger by Alexander. Two excellent books that will dispel (some) myths. How can some one defend the French military's performance in 1940. It would be an impossible task. How could someone say the French taught their soldier proper tactics to use in a moble fluid battlefield. no one. But how I want to punctuate this response is this; "who can say the French laid down and didn't attempt to vigorously defend themselves in 1940" ( no one). "Who can say the French military was ineffective due to the French people's changing character" (no one). Those are the often repeated myths that I am trying to do my small part in dispelling.


    (me again) In most respects I agree with Mr. J. Quinn, in a least one other not so much. I myself find the appointment of Gamelin after Weygand to be the crux of the problem for the French. He may have been a brave and worthy soldier/commander in the past, but by 1940 he was still fighting a static war in a fast moving tactical situation. He should have altered his battle plans to more closely reflect the now known "Blitzkrieg" tactics of the German forces.

    How does Mr. Quinn's position hold up on this forum?
     
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  2. LJAd

    LJAd Well-Known Member

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    Brndirt 1:generally,I agree ,some points:the appointment of Gamelin was a disaster :the man was not suitable:to old,an executant ,he had no ideas,he never took any responsability ,he was a bureacrat,beying appointed by political friends,he lived in an old fort without communications,the result was the French reactions always to late,he did nothing to the bad morale in the winter .He had a lot of tanks,but did not know how to use them and when the disaster arrived he was paralysed .Other reasons:in WWI there were 50 British divisions ,in 1940 10(not including the traning ones ). The doctrine was defensive (in WWI they had lost 1.5milions in futile offensives),in WWI ,when there was a break-trough there always was time to send reinforcements .And a last point:in 1914 the German s invaded France,everyone knew why he was fighting,in 1939 no one was interested in Dantzig .The French army did nothing while Hitler eliminated Poland ,thus a lot of people were doubting the why of the war. When Hitler invaded France it was to late.
     
  3. urqh

    urqh Tea drinking surrender monkey

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    Holds up completely with me clint and thanks for posting... Command paralasys at critical times is my view... And not enough sympathy is ever given to the fact they were allied to my own country who as always and we are quite good at it thankfully were playing the great game of survival at smallest outlay we can get away with untill caught out... Quinn directly challenges ernest may's strange victory here... And wisely done.
     
  4. kipoyph

    kipoyph Member

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    Considering how the Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians, fought like rabid animals against the Germans on both the occupied and unoccupied areas, and Britain's preparation of the populace in the anticipation of the invasion and their steadfastness during the aerial Blitz all the way to 1944, the very quick fall of France is a puzzle to me.

    And honestly, the only answer I can come up with would be insulting to the French, so I'll keep it to myself.

    It was always bewildering to me that the French never seem to want to fight within Paris just because it was a "cultural center".

    By contrast...
    The Russians endured gruesome starvation in Lenningrad for 900 days, 4 million prisoners of war, wiped out villages and families, and fought virtually leaderless during the Summer of 1941.
    London was bombed for most of the entire war.
    Berlin was bombed and fought over to the very end.

    And the French high-brow attitude during the Free French Years (as if everybody owed them) despite the fact that they were existing entirely because of Allied assistance didn't allow me to soften my opinion of them either.

    Maybe someone can change my way of thinking in this...
     
  5. T. A. Gardner

    T. A. Gardner Genuine Chief

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    The number one, overwhelming, cause of the French defeat in 1940 was an instutionalized doctrinal failure called Methodical Battle. Without going into detail, this doctrine was not only hammered into the French army but, it was so ingrained and institutionalized that Gamelin himself issued an edict prohibiting any French officer from questioning it, writing any ideas to the contrary or, basically thinking outside the box. DeGaulle paid the price for his publishing a trease on mobile warfare. He was passed over for general and remained a colonel.
    So, it really wasn't so much "command paralysis" as it was simply the entire army literally was acting almost cluelessly to events around them. They were on page 2 when the Germans were on page 100. The French were literally trying to react to a situation that they couldn't comprehend. It was much like a race between a bicycle and a formula 1 car. The French were done before they started.

    A secondary cause was the rampant and often tumultious politics of France in the 1930's. Socialism won out as an economic system there bringing with it all the sloth and lethargy that union protected jobs and a system that rewarded mediocrity brought with it. With various governments fighting to hold power military budgets suffered unusual ups and downs with each successive parliment.

    What resulted was an army seeped in mediocrity and doctrinal incompetence along with continious shortages of equipment that itself was often of poor quality. Is it any wonder the French collapsed so rapidly in 1940?
     
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  6. kipoyph

    kipoyph Member

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    ^
    Good post.

    But that only explains the military factor. France not only surrendered immediately as an army, it surrendered as a country, as a people, without so much as a real fight.

    Socially, the French wanted its Army to fight, but never supported them totally like the British populace or the Russian populace, or even the American populace.

    Someone commented that France has become a country of editors. Criticizing the government for failing to protect Czechoslovakia or stop Hitler from moving into the Rhineland with his Army.

    In other words, France had become a country of armchair generals, too enamored with past glories but suddenly shut up the moment the German Army hit their borders.
     
  7. Jaeger

    Jaeger Ace

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    I think you would should read up on a few issues before making such a bold claim.

    Take a look at the german losses for starters. Then consider the evacuation of the northern areas (Strasbourg became a ghost town), then look at the two staged exodus of the French population, look at the number of civillians killed during the campaign and the number of houses destroyed.

    Then look at the efforts made by the resistance after the campaign. I think that the French have little to be ashamed of.

    Compared to the population greeting the germans in the USSR with flowers I think that the population and government did well.

    TA touches on French armed forces inability to defeat the Wehrmacht. This was not out of lack of will, as anything else. We have all seen or read about semi skilled russians rushed to the frontline in Stalingrad with two men to a rifle. Very few comment on the French reserves doing the same thing during the campaign in '40.
     
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  8. TiredOldSoldier

    TiredOldSoldier Ace

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    You must put the Fench surrender in the context of 1940, WW2 at the time was far from the savage affair it became later, nobody was talking total war or unconditional surrender in 1940.

    So when the French lost a quarter of their army, including most motorized forces, plus the BEF Belgian and Dutch forces, due to the succesfull German encirclement surrender looked like a reasonable option, the alternative, war to the death on their own soil against a, by then, superior enemy was suicide.

    In WW2 only the Soviets and Germans fought to the death, Britain may have but was never put to the final test. Both had a totalitarian and ruthless regimes whose leaders were fighting for their personal survival. The Soviets also had the advantage of nearly limitless space to retreat as long as the will to resist held, something Hitler's policies towards the local population practically ensured without any any help from the Kremlin's residents. When the alternative is practical slavery or extermination and I'm offered a half decent weapon I know what I would choose.

    In Italy and Japan the "war party" was overthrown by an higher authority (king / emperor) when it became obvious the war was lost and something similar happened in most axis minors, a coup by the "peace party" followed by an armistice, I'm not sure Finland even had a coup but then the continuation war with it's very limited objectives was as far from total war as you can immagine.

    Elewhere there was more variety, some countries surrendered, some created governments in exile, and some just disappeared from the map while everybody turned a blind eye like the baltics, the one that came closest to war to the death was Yougoslavia where the geography and the Germans having other priorities avoided it having even worse results than the pretty horrible historical ones.

    So the French surrender was the "normal" result in the circumstances "war to the death" is an exception to the rule.
     
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  9. Volga Boatman

    Volga Boatman Dishonorably Discharged

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    I can give a reply in one word, a word that should conjure up thousands of other words. The principle reason for the quick collapse the of Third Republic was...

    VERDUN

    This terrible battle changed everything. A short list...

    ATTITUDES: Who in their right mind wanted to go through it again? Steaped as they were in the last war, French Generals balked at the idea of feeding the French Army through a 'materialschlact' yet again.
    TACTICS: Verdun ensured the construction of the Maginot Line. The nature of the 'victory' at the "Mill on the Meuse" ensured the defensive arrangements for the country as a whole would include what Verdun lacked in 1916....Modern, self contained fortifications.
    EQUIPMENT: Because the Maginot Line sucked up French defence budget allocations, it left little room for much else. Nevertheless, France went to war with parity in several important fields of equipment, but the "Maginot Spirit", founded at Verdun, ensured that none of it would be put to a use that was coherent with the remainder of French military thinking.
    STRATEGY: Too much faith was placed in the effectiveness of fortifications for French strategists to care much about wars of manoeuvre. In 1914, they had gone to war with DeGrandemason's doctrine ('attack to the hilt') firmly in mind. The cost was so awe inspiring that no French strategist could bring themselves to resurrecting it. This 1914 mistake was born of French tardiness in 1870, when the State of Prussia had caught the French Army and encircled it in it's fortifications whilst a large proportion of it had still been mobilizing. Verdun gave a false impression of the effectiveness of fortification, so 1940 strategy was simply a swinging of the pendulumn back, another over-reaction to the wounds of 1916.
    POLITICS: The fact that so much of the French military had experienced "The Mincer" meant that many of it's survivors had their political thinking changed forever. Consequently, French politics swung toward a radical stance, reflected in the number of times the government changed hands. No-one wanted to put the future of the country in the hands of Generals, but could not agree on which political style was right for the country.

    I will give you the words of Marc Bloch if you cannot find them anywhere else. For now, one word needs to be pushed forward as the beginning of the end for the Third Republic...VERDUN...VERDUN...VERDUN...
     
  10. Volga Boatman

    Volga Boatman Dishonorably Discharged

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    Furthermore, the French nation conducted itself like a reed in a tide, bending with the waters, waiting for the tide to turn before coming to life again...

    Sun Tzu would have been proud of them. They kept their nation and it's treasures remarkably intact, compared to the Soviets who were almost completely destroyed in the Western portions of the country.

    I would say they did quite well for themselves. Military glory giving way to cultural expediancy.

    VIVE LA' BELLE FRANCE
     
  11. belasar

    belasar Court Jester

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    I think TiredOldSoldier has it about right. France thought they would get an honorable peace, maybe lose Alsace-Lorraine and pay some money, then plan for the rematch in a generation or two.

    It would be ineresting to speculate how things would go from there.
     
  12. Skipper

    Skipper Kommodore

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    Jeez, not those school clichés again....... please use our search engine for more details, I'm getting tired of telling the same things over and over again, but I don't blame you that's what they teach you at school .

    -100.000 casulaties in six weeks (up to 10.000 a day, compare this to D-Day for instance)

    - 3000 German aircrafts downed (more than the Battle of Britain ) 1000 Luftwaffe pilots captured alive. Just imagine what would have happened if the Luftwaffe still had those airplanes during the Summer of 1940...

    -Those who were ordered to stay at Dunkirk resisted to stop 7 German divsions long enough to allow Operation Dynamo (those are Churchill's words) . Those who embarked were sent back to France almost without weapons like canon fudder and still managed to slow down the German advance long enough, so the BEF could leave at Nantes with as many men as possible.

    -16 Generals died during the Battle (I have their names and details)

    Those who fell did not give their lives in vain because they helped the B.E.F. to evacuate, they weakened the Germans and allowed the war to go on. Maybe you should consider that aspect too, relatives of some of the 100.000 casualties may appreciate a postive thought.
     
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  13. kipoyph

    kipoyph Member

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    If you're so tired saying the same things over and over again, then don't. Don't blame me for your problems.
     
  14. Skipper

    Skipper Kommodore

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    My "problem"is having to repeat facts because people do not bother using the search function or check in archives and say things over and over again.

    I am also talking about respect for the fallen . There are many non biased sourced threads about this campaign on this very forum. This is not aimed at you in particular, but notice that others also pointed you to the same direction, take it as an advice and don't get offended because you said something you wouldn't like others said about your nation.
     
  15. hucks216

    hucks216 Member

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    A book that I highly recommend and deals with the problems with the French preperations (or lack of) for war and the appointments of various figures in power - as well as also covering the fighting from both sides - is To Lose A Battle: France 1940 by Alistair Horne...
    To Lose a Battle: France, 1940: Amazon.co.uk: Alistair Horne: Books

    If you have an interest in this campaign then you will want to read this.
     
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  16. Jackal

    Jackal Member

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    Hi all,

    I can understand that UK of 1939 was in no position to help the attacked Ally – Poland. After all it is a nation of Royal Navy traditions with no real land force. At that time France had a largest land army in Europe and done absolutely nothing sitting behind the partially fortified border. The day Germany attacked Poland could have been used to launch a major offensive on the Western Front. Enemy was poorly prepared out there and Hitler gambled by starting Fall Weiss. France instead had done absolutely nothing playing The Funny War of 1940 and loosing war. Later size of collaboration only proved that this nation after Napoleon and Waterloo 1815 have no balls. Comparing with GB every colony French left was an absolute mess. Let me bring Algeria or Vietnam FYA. Even now France is not a partner for NATO at all bringing no support and causing havoc. I am sorry for harsh words but I have no respect for collaborators.

    Regards,
    Tom

    PS KGB made a good use of collaboration related French files after WWII. Specially those that were captured in 1945 Berlin, Gestapo HQ on Prinz Albert Strasse.
     
  17. Skipper

    Skipper Kommodore

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    Jackals will think twice before he spits again on my wife's ancestors who spent five years the trenches, survived the Hell of Verdun and defeated the Germans. This is also for my great uncle who captured a bridge from the Germans in 1945 and gave his life for it. I'm sick of ignorance and clichés, this is supposed to be an enlighted forum . ANY occupied country collaborated but nobody ever drools this crap about Ukraine and Poland, Belgium or Holland. France. France France, ten times a day , with a huge gap between 1815 and 1940 , as if there was nothing in between.
    France not part of Nato..... man get a book, are you even aware they have been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001 and that they are the fifth Nato support in the world ?

    French contribution to NATO - France in the United Kingdom - La France au Royaume-Uni

    I will leave this thread open for now out of respect for those who posted interesting things and because I don't want nice postings to be occulted by a minority of useless inflamatory ones
     
  18. kipoyph

    kipoyph Member

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    I realize you're taking that stance because of your nationality. OK.

    But this is a forum about a war. And there will always be posters who will criticize or admire nations/people for their actions during it. You can't escape it.

    People will always criticize the Germans for following a lunatic. Will they offend the dead who did their duty to their country? Yes, they will.

    People will always criticize the Russians for following a murderer and an oppressive system of government; and for initially siding with the lunatic that later decided to invade them; and for rampaging into Germany without pity or remorse for their actions. Will they offend the dead who defended their motherland and took revenge for dead loved ones. Yes, they will.

    People will always criticize the Italian army's performance. Will they offend the dead who fought for their country? Yes, they will.

    People will always criticize the Americans for... well, everything else. Will they offend the men who died for other people's freedom? Yes, they will.

    But we are discussing a war. And if someone criticizes something, someone will always feel offended because the actions of most of their ancestors were done in the most solemn circumstances making the ultimate sacrifice for causes we may or may not believe in.

    But that's war. And we love to discuss war.

    Has it ever occurred to you that maybe I've read the threads/sources you've pointed out or something similar, but still maintain my original opinion? And I wanted to voice out my opinion in a thread. If you notice that in a forum, people of like opinion simply repeat each other's information in support of each other? Like I said, this is supposed to be a forum. And a forum supposedly invites people to contribute their 2 cents. No rules against repeating old opinions posted by people many years ago. Maybe the poster just wanted to engage in a conversation with anybody who would like to discuss with him.

    On the other hand, nobody forces you to respond if you don't like to. Like I said, if you're "tired" of repeating yourself, you don't have to respond. But you can't just tell the other poster not to post his opinions because someone else posted a similar thing days, months, years ago. That is counter to the purpose of a forum which is not there to serve only yourself. The best you can do is ignore the poster.

    Besides, if you really understood my post, I wasn't criticizing the dead. I was criticizing those who were left behind. And that's just my opinion. Which may be rebutted. Freedom of speech, right? I think we in this forum know better than most that people have died for that right.

    I also realize that you said you weren't talking to me in particular. But I feel I have to speak for myself.

    In a similar vein, authors like Ryan, Ambrose, Hastings, and Beevor have written opinions about thas probably offended a lot of people because they included criticism of individuals/units/countries; and information that has probably been repeated over and over. Should we tell them to not write and just read other sources?
     
  19. Skipper

    Skipper Kommodore

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    Not everything is black or white , some things are grey, for instance I was not born in France, so my stance would have been the same about the U.S or Italy for instance. I just hate clichés. But forget about this, you have given a fair answer about this matter so I suggest we move on and return to the topic.
     
  20. TiredOldSoldier

    TiredOldSoldier Ace

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    I loved that book when I read it the first time over 20 years ago (his books on Verdun an Paris 1870 are also great reads and the one on the Algerian revolt should be compulsory reading for all would be military and political leaders). But Horne is not the definitve book on the campaign, while highlighting the failures of the French military leadership and doctrine that were the main reasons for the defeat, and telling a fascinating story of how the two main combattants came to have those leaders and doctrines, he underplays French resistance and German losses ad his account is nealy entirely focused on the "panzer corridor" and especially the Meuse crossings of May 13.
     
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