We have talked about the Maginot Line and rearmament, now it is time to look at what the French army was planning to do.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 68 - The Third Republic Part 8 - The French Army. We started this series of episodes with a lengthy discussion on the Maginot Line. The entire thesis of that episode was that it can be dangerous to judge decisions based on outcomes, or the in case of the Maginot Line judge a series of fortifications based on whether or not the nations who built those fortifications won the war they were designed to participate in. Over the last 6 episodes we have taken a fantastic voyage through French politics during the 1930s. The goal of which was to provide background for why certain decisions were made around rearmament and reactions to other events in Europe, and as we will discuss today, around how the French military planned to fight a future war. This is a topic where it can once again be very easy to start at the end and work backwards hunting for reasons for failure. In the summer of 1940 the French military would, almost in its entirety, fail at its primary task of preventing a German invasion of France. There were several key trends in the French military in the decade before 1939 that would lead to this outcome, two of the ost important were a distinct feeling of inferiority and a completely incorrect read on what the future of war would be. The constant feeling of inferiority when compared with Germany, especially after rearmament efforts began, would push the French military into an incredibly defensive stance. This would feed into their complete misinterpretation of what war would look like in the years and decades the followed, which left the French military theory of 1940 feeling archaic. The second of trend is far more interesting an complicated to really dig into because it requires some discussion of why such mistakes were made, and then some estimation about the quality of French preparations for the war they believed they were going to fight, even if that was not the correct type of war. To close out ths introduction, I have to make sure to mention the really keystone source for this episode, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939 by Robert Allan Doughty. Lontime listeners of History of the Great War might remember my constant praise of Doughty for what is probably the best book focused on Fernch efforts in the First World War: Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War. Doughty continues his discussions of the French military in Seeds of Disaster, and I really cannot recommend it enough. We will start off with a quote from Seeds of Disaster that kind of frames everything “Governments construct their military system based on an analysis of the requirements of their political system, the demands of their country’s unique geographical settings, and the memories of their nation’s historical experience with war and with the use of military force.”
To try and undestand why the French Army made the decisions that it would make in the 10 years before 1940, we have to talk about what they thought would be the dominant factor on future battlefields. To put it simply, they believed that firepower would dominate future wars. The ability of armies to marshall and direct firepower meant that any battlefield would be an incredibly lethal place for any man or machine that was unfortunate enough to find itself on it. Critically, they also believed that firepower would overwhelm any other changes made within the military sphere, particularly changes made to mobility due to motorization and mechanization. This was a conclusion drawn from the French experiences during the First World War, and was also in some ways a reaction to some pre-war French thoughts. Looking back from after the First World War it seemed clear that French military leaders before the conflict had underestimated the power of firepower. This had resulted in the French Army creating an offensive framework that ws overly optimistic about what a soldier could accomplish. After they First World War they would attempt to not make this same mistake. Unfortunately for the French, trying to avoid that mistake would cause them to stumble into another one. The First World War had been a period of rapid military technological and theoretical evolution. In 1914 men were advancing across northern France in close order against artillery that would at times be firing over open sights. By 1916 this would shift into massive battles of annihilation where both sides would collect more artillery than either side could have dreamed of before the war. This increase in artillery power would continue in 1917, but then something else would start to occur. During 1918 the artillery, while still very very important, began to be overshadowed by what occurred after the bombardment, particularly when looking at how the various armies managed to actually start mounting reasonably successful offensives. There were still serious challenges involved, and the largest being mobility of attacking units, and they really needed to be able to move forward at a pace faster than foot speed, but the German offensives of Spring 1918 and the allied offensives of the 100 days began to show that the future of war might be more dynamic than what 1915-1917 had shown. This would be one of the driving forces beghind the focus in other nations on armored theory during the interwar period. Both the British and Germans woudl put a lot of time and focus on armored doctrine in the years that followed, and over the course of the interwar years they would be greeted by constant, if at times slow, technological developments. The French were not ignorant of these technological developments, they just believed that they did not override the experiences of the last war. Artillery was still seen as the key to the battlefield, and the key was to make sure it was in the right place at the right time. This meant that as militaries began to motorize and mechanize, the French match that with an effort to motorize the artillery. They understood that as other nations mechanized that the pace and positioning in battle would have to accelerate, they just really underestimated how much additional speed would be present. One of the major problems that was not addressed was the lack of innovation within the French arillery. They were still incredibly reliant on the old reliable 75mm field gun, which was showing its age in terms of size and power. More importantly though, changes had not been made to artillery doctrine that would allow it to really function on a much more fluid battlefield. Simple things like fire support requests did not have a quick path from officers at the front to the artillery batteries, and instead it would have to wander a bit up through the chain of command. This was not seen as a critical area of concern because of the French belief in just how influential firepower would be, and how it would force the entire war into a defensive slugfest, not that dissimilar to the First World War. The general belief was that after some initial chaos, which the French would mitigate with preparations like the Maginot Line, things would settle down and the French could move into their preferred methodical battles. These battles would only be launched one everything was prepared and they would involve the full use of firepower to slowly push the attack forward in well prepared steps. Each step would involve strict time tables and perfectly coordinated infantry advances. This view of what a war woudl look like was both informed by the realities faced by the French military, but then also informed some other decisions that they would have to make. We will talk about some examples in each of these categories, but first any military doctrine is only as good as its match up with what everybody else i sdoine, and that would be the real weakness of the French plans. The Germans would do everything in their power during the 1930s to avoid the exact type of war that the French were planning to fight. In Germany this push would influence many different areas of their military planning and preparation, for exmaple tank designs would prioritize speed and mobility. it also forced discussions about where and who should be making decisions,because with mobility came challenges in command and control. This was less preseeing for the French, who were more comfortable with more decision making happening at higher levels of commander because they beleived that centralized control was a huge benefit, even if it slowed decision making at the tip of the spear.
That the French misjudged what the future held is not their worst problem during these years. It can be very tempting to underestimate the uncertainty present in any future predictions on the nature of warfare in an environment with rapidly advancing technology. The biggest problem was a lack of ability to adapt. The official statements of French doctrine in the form of Army manuals would see two major revisions during the interwar years. The first revision would be written in 1921, with Petain and 12 other officers drafting the instructions which indexed incredibly heavily on the events of the First World War. That document would remain in force all the way until 1936, at which point a revision was undertaken to account for technological changes of the previous 15 years. There would be some changes in details, but no real restructuring of the instruction manuals from 1921. Information was added about mechanized and motorized divisions, but the core remained the same, a focus on firepower and its ability to dominate. The most effective militaries during the early years of the Second World War were those that made meaningful changes to how they planned to fight a war in the decade before 1939. The French simply did not do this, instead of taking the technological changes that had been made after 1918 and crafting a doctrine around them, they instead just incorporated those changes into pre-existing assumptions of what a war would look like.
Back in episode 61 we discussed some of the challenges that influenced French military preparations during the 1920s, and particularly those that led to a focus on defensive efforts which culminated in the Maginot fortifications. These same challenges would also influence overall military planning as well. One of the political decisions that had to be considered by Army leadership was the introduction of a one year service policy for all men of military age. In the decade after the First World War, all men eligible for military service served for two years of active service before moving through the various levels of reserve. When this was reduced to a single year in 1927, where it would remain until 1935, there were two important impacts. The first was the most obvious, the soldiers had less training during their period of active service. Most of their year would be spent on only the most basic of military trianing, and they were only really useful as soldiers in the last half of that year. The second, and equally important, was that it meant that the standing army in France was very small. There simply were not that many soldiers in the army at any given time which made certain essential functions difficult. A great example was getting experience for officers that commanded units at divisional level or larger. They were only really able to command real units of troops during fall maneuvers, but these were often far below the strength and size that they would be expected to command after mobilization. For example, wartime corps commanders might only have ever commanded 1 or two divisions in maneuvers. Another challenge was that when mobilization was orders, outside of the Eastern Districts whichwould be called upon to run into the Maginot defenses in the hous after mobilization, there would be quite a bit of resource shifting as long term planning and strength was prioritized over short term cohesion. Eventually the one year service law was reverted in 1935, and it was moved back to two years, but the results were less than what might be assumed. This was because of the small wartime generations that were at tha tpoint aging into military service starting in 1935, which meant that the doubling of service time was almost entirely counteracted by the reduction in the sheer number of men available. This reduction had been foreseen since 1918, and was one of hte reasons for such a massive push for defensive preparations. Without the defenses it was probably going to be beyond the capability of the French military to defend the French borders. The small size of the peacetime army made this more important because of how many relatively poorly trained the massive number of reservers that would be brought into the army were. This meant that the french required a lengthy period between mobilization and combat to refresh training for everyone, and the hope was that the fixed defenses could provide that time.
This lack of faith in the training of the French military also put limits on what the French Army could do on a tactical and strategic level. In such a scenario a more methodical, well planned, and very by the book kind of offensive operation was seen as far more likely to be successful. It did not depend on experienced officers or enlisted men who were capable of making decisions on the run, or of interpreting an ever changing battlefield. They simply had to follow the very specific instructions given and move to point a on a map at time y. This inflexibly structure, and the belief that it was necessary was also something that was reflected at the very highest levels of the French military leadership. The stability present at the very tip top of this leadership, the Minister of War and the Chief of the General Staff was impressive. From January 3 1930 until the 1940 there would be precisely two Chief of the General Staffs, General Weygand and General Gamelin. On the side of the Minister of War there would be more men who held the office, but the time after 1932 was still dominated by Daladier who would old the position for over 5 years. This level of stability in the leadership positions can be a very good thing, but it also caused a level of stability that was counter productive. During the 1930s change was essential as so much was changing not just in technology and military theory but also on the European political landscape. There would be attempts to fix some of these problems, for example General Weygand would create a body to advise of Armament and Technological advancements. The Technical Cabinet would be the body in charge of collecting information about what was possible and then designing and testing new weapons. Unfortunately they were not given the power to drive those designs, and found themselves instead just constrained to putting together designs for equipment requested by the French Army.
It is generally impossible to discuss military evolution during the interwar years without at least mentioning French thoughts on tanks and mechanized warfare. The French were not without their own specific set of opinions on the roll of the tank in warfare. First up, to be clear, the French thought that the tank would be a very important weapon after the First World War. They knew that the tank, and its future developments, would play a role and the French Army had to learn and utilize it as a new tool. They would make some different choices on how this new tool should be utilized, and they would come down on the distributed side of the distributed vs concentrated debate. This was a major topic of conversation in many different nations during the 1920s and 1930s, and the French would for many years focus on how the tank should be used in a distributed infantry support role. The focus on methodical battles basically mandated that the tank be used in this way, independent armored action as not really a part of their overall theory for methodical battles. Or to quote the 1929 Regulations under the heading “Instructions on the Employment of Combat Tanks” “Tanks are only supplementary means of action placed temporarily at the disposition of the infantry. They considerably reinforce the action of the infantry, but they do not replace them.” This is a good framing of what the French were searching for in terms of tanks and their usage, which then influenced the design of tanks moving forward. The French generally preferred more heavily armoed tanks, which traded mobility for more protection from the growing power of anti-tank guns. The FT-17 tank from the last year of the First world War would continue to be a major part of the French tank arsenal until 1930, but as the 1930s progressed the French would start to design new tanks that took that basic concept, of a tank that had to be able to survive on the battlefield. Not all of their designs were great, but they did have some pretty forward looking ideas. For example in 1932 there was a report that advocated for trying to mount the 75mm artillery gun in a tank turret, this at a time when almost all tanks being produced were armed with at most a small cannon, but mostly machine guns. This basic premise, of a large artillery gun mounted on a tank chassis was basically the foundation of tank destroyers, and the mix of large gun with a lot of armor would be the path that tank design would take in the last half of the 1930s and into the 1940s. But these discussions were happening for very different reasons in early 1930s France compared to those same conversations a decade later. The French wanted to mount a large cannon on the tank not to engage other tanks, but to allow it to better support an infantry attack with point blank fire support. While the evolution of armor theory in France was not the same as what would occur in Germany or elsewhere, it did change and progress. For example by 1936 French tanks would be concentrated in larger and larger groups to allow them to be used as a more proactive tool in French attacks. But any movements in that direction would always be made within the framework of how it related to the artillery, which was still seen as the primary tool of the army. This meant that the role and plan for armored units was, until at least 1939, structured around the limitations present in the artillery. There would be efforts to motorize artillery units to allow them to keep up with and support the tank advance, but the leash kept on tank units was always based on artillery capabilities. Even as larger tank unit concentration was being contemplated, there was still the requirement that any action also be in coordination and support of the infantry. For armored forces this generally manifested as large numbers of tanks being parcelld out to infantry units as support vehicles. This reduced the overall strength of those armored units that were created so that infantry would have vehicles that would make them more successful in their attacks on enemy positions. In fact the first French armored division would not be created until January 1940. One of the problems was just how expensive building up armored divisions really was. It was only when rearmament in earnest began after 1936 that building up the number of tanks required for large armored units became really possible. And beyond the simple cost of building them, properly using armored units required better trained units and more specialty personnel, which were further drains on personnel budgets. Even after the first armored divisions were created they were still seen as just very large infantry support units, and their intended purpose was still wrapped around infantry operations. There were however units in the French army that were planning to fulfill a more independent set of operations, and that was the cavalry units. The French cavalry had underwent a large mechanization process in the years before the war. They were equipped with light tanks, armored cars, and had motorized their infantry. With this setup they were supposed to fulfill a very traditional role for cavalry, operating outside of the methodical battle to scout the enemy and exploit any weaknesses that they found. By the time that the war started, these units were also to be used as breakthrough and exploitation units as well, which were very similar to how other armies were planning to use their armored divisions. But as with the armor and gun discussions happening in France, this is once again the French arriving at a similar place for different reasons. The cavalry divisions were not seen as the primary tools of the Army, they were seen as supplementary to what would be the decisive infantry and artillery.
The French made mistakes in how they were planning to fight a war. There was a general lack of understanding in how some of the technological advances of the 1930s fundamentally changed the nature of warfare. But maybe more importantly they were unable to fully recognize how their plans would interact with others, particularly those being made by the Germans. What I have been surprised with when thinking about some of those mistakes is how similar they were to the mistakes made by the French Army in the decade before the First World War. I discussed that evolution in Patreon Episodes 41 and 42 on History of the Great War that anybody can go listen to, but in essence the French had an incredibly offensive based plan that had originated in the last decades of the 1800, and they stuck with that plan even as technological advancements were made. As machine guns, fast firing artillery, and other advancements were made, instead of causing a re-evaluation of the French offensive plans, it was instead just folded in under the justification that it helped the attacker just as much as the defender. After the First World War, even though they were attempting to avoid that same mistake again, by the 1930s they were just making that mistake in the opposite direction. The focus on defensive preparations and a methodical offensive mindset was solidified during the 1920s. During that decade it probably was the correct mindset and the correct plan, a war that might have occurred during the 1920s probably would end up looking a lot like the last two years of the first world war. However, during the 1930s, and as advancements occurred that should have fundamentally shifted this mindset occurred. The advances in armor, aircraft, and motorization capabilities of both other armies and the French Army itself were not properly accounted for. Instead of a more fundamental re-evaluation of previously made conclusions based on the circumstances of the 1920s, the French just folded those advancements into their pre-existing theories. The tank, instead of being looked at as a tool to bring mobility to the battlefield, would just amplify the ability of the infantry to attack prepared positions. Motorization, instead of being used proactively to position infantry units, was instead seen as a way to quickly seal of breaches made in the French defenses. The trickiest part is that none of these conclusions were incorrect, in both of those examples those advancements did help the French plan. However, by just shoving them into the pre-existing plan, the French underestimated their effect on the overall course of a battle and the war. Even with these problems though, they may have been successful if other nations had made different choices about how to fight a war. Every army goes into a war with different plans, but the key difference between France and Germany in 1940 was not just how they planned to use the various pieces of their army, but also how they planned to force their enemy to fight. The French army, with its defensive and methodical mindset, completely lacked the ability to force that structure of war on an enemy. They could not force the Germans to fight the war a certain way, and when they were met with something that they did not expect, they were unable to adapt and adjust quickly enough.