Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Fall of France, 1940, Explained

Marc Bloch, a French officer in WW2, wrote a book about the defeat of France. This book, titled "Strange Defeat" survived the war, although the officer did not. After the French surrender, he joined the resistance and was captured and killed by the Nazis a few weeks before France was liberated.

The Wikipedia entry for Marc Bloch has a link to a small Wikipedia article on the book "Strange Defeat". I found a much bigger entry for "Strange Defeat" on Wikipedia in French. I wrote a translation, which I have included below. (Disclaimer: Although I understand French well enough, I am not a translator, and for me this entry was a bit difficult to follow.)

A translation of the French Wikipedia entry about the book "Etrange Defaite" or "Strange Defeat"

The analysis of the French Army by Marc Bloch starts at the bottom and goes to the top levels.

A Sclerotic Army

He denounces first the bureaucratic character of the army, attributing it to peacetime habits: in particular the "cult of beautiful stationery" [maybe "Desk Jockeys"?], and also the "fear of displeasing one with power, today or tomorrow.". These habits led to a dilution of responsibility between too great a number of hierarchies, as well as a delay in transmitting orders. He sees as a prime cause the the advanced age of the French Army's staff, little renewed, as opposed to a much younger German army.

This bureaucratic organization is also founded, according to him, in the training of the officers, which revolved around a cult of theory and tradition. The main source of this education is the "Ecole de Guerre", where Marc Bloch had refused enroll, which he pays for in not being allowed to be promoted past the rank of captain. Based on the experience of the First World War, the teaching of this school, in fact, advocated the superiority of infantry and artillery, as opposed to mechanized units (tanks and aircraft, among others), supposedly "too heavy to move". Similarly, education policy is based on theoretical rules of engagement, elegant and abstract, which do not pass the test of practice. This teaching is associated with a culture of secrecy, which slows the transmission of information, and a cult of command, in reaction to the questioning of authority that took place in 1916 and 1917.

The association between the bureaucracy and rigid training leads, on the field, to general disorder, with three captains who succeeded to his post in a few months, and especially serious shortcomings in the management of men and equipment. The soldiers are poorly housed and physically relocated regardless of their ability to move, wasting energy in marching forward and back again. Similarly, materials are in short supply, facing a well-equipped German army. The French army lacks in quantity, military budgets have been sunk in to the fortification of the east border (Maginot Line, among others), leaving open the north. It also lacks concentration, the tanks are scattered in many corps, which makes any concerted movement impossible. Soon this mess on the ground was found at all levels, with rotations too rapid for staff to have time to learn their duties, and a carelessness in upkeep of the premises and records, that in a bureaucratic context, completes the paralysis of the French army.

The incapacity of intelligence services [edit]

The army becomes exhausted, most often, not knowing where the enemy is, and Marc Bloch blamed the intelligence services. It is above all, he believes, due to poor organization. As a captain in charge of gasoline (supply of fuel and ammunition to troops), he will only receive low-level information bulletins, as important information was classified secret and communicated too high in the hierarchy. All information passes through excessively long reporting lines, and ends up being out of date by the time it comes to people who need it.

It becomes impossible to know how soon an order can be executed, which leads to other unforeseen delays in maneuvers, such as retirement of the armies of the Meuse and Sedan, which exposes the rear of the troops in Belgium. Faced with this situation, each corps and almost every officer, including himself, sets up its own intelligence operation, leading to a disastrous competition in services and the insufficient contact between the various levels of command, to the point that the officers often do not know where their own troops are.

The intelligence services have also seriously underestimated the scale and mobility of the German army, causing them each day to send the troops too late to the German advance. It highlights in particular a chronic inability to properly estimate the speed of movement and the number of German tanks and aircraft, by the French armed forces who are still obsessed by infantry and artillery. This inefficiency of information leads to great surprise in the French high command.

This concentration of information, on what was not the spearhead of the German Army, is the sign of a rigid and outdated strategic thinking from the French command. Rather than respond to the errors in estimation, the senior officers are continually surprised that "the Germans simply had advanced more quickly than what appeared to conform to the rule", the rule in question is based on the study Napoleonic campaigns and the previous war. Similarly, officers are often locked into basic plan that they knew to be obsolete, not having been trained to adapt to new situations. "In a word, because our leaders, amid many contradictions, argued, above all, to redo the war of 1915-1918. The Germans were doing the war of 1940."

This neglect naturally had a serious impact on the morale of the troops, beaten down both by a feeling of helplessness and fear, the enemy was never where they were expected by the army command. A man can better endure an expected danger, than the sudden threat of death at a bend in a supposedly secure road.

Command responsibility

"We have just suffered a tremendous defeat. Whose fault was it? The parliamentary system, the troops, the English, the fifth column", say our generals. Everyone, in short, but them. "

Marc Bloch's indictment against the French General Staff was particularly heavy. He first noted a crisis of authority. The big chiefs were reluctant to change collaborators, resulting in a "divorce" between command and those who carry out the orders. He noted especially the inconsistencies within the command, where leaders have a near-total impunity despite major deficiencies, while subordinates are harshly punished for little mistakes. This impunity leads to less accountable leaders who are able to dodge the necessary solutions, as long as they to buy into the thought patterns of the War College. Promotions based on age over competence, which makes it even more difficult because of the [high?] average age of officers. Coordination of command also disappears in turf wars between chiefs, and rivalries between multiple offices and between various army corps.

The Allies

Because of his position, Marc Bloch is often in communication with allied forces, and he draws a gloomy assessment. He first pointed out the difficulties with the soldiers and people.

Although professional soldiers, the British apparently have a disastrous "rape and pillage" behaviour. This reinforces among the peasant population, whom they despise, a latent historical Anglophobia. This feeling is again reinforced when one realizes that the British have turned tail and are fleeing first, and are jockeying to be evacuated, blowing up bridges to cover their retreat without worrying about the French troops remaining behind. "The British refused, naturally enough, to commit themselves to a disaster for which they felt they were not responsible." The British, meanwhile, judge the inadequacies of the French army harshly ("our prestige had outlived itself and they did not try to hide it from us"), and the French command in turn resorts to Anglophobe propaganda to hide its own failures.

On several occasions, as with the breakthrough to Arras, the British did not provide promised aid, seeing the faults of the French strategic plan. These failures led to an abandonment of collaboration between the staffs, a failure of the alliance. The armies were no longer coordinated by common authority following the encirclement of the GHQ (General Headquarters). Without effective linkages, or camaraderie, the French army remains ignorant of the weaknesses of the British army. In the United Kingdom, subsequently, the population welcomed the French, but for the authorities, a "a stiff bit of suspicion" remained.

Examination of Conscience by a Frenchman

Bloch does not attribute responsibility for the defeat solely to the army. He connects the shortcomings of the former with the unpreparedness and the myopia of the French people as a whole.

The State and the parties [edit]

His first target is the State and parties. He denounced "the absurdity of our propaganda, its irritating and rude optimism, his timidity, and above all, the impotence of our government to honestly define its war aims." The inertia and the softness of the ministers are stigmatized, and the abandonment of their responsibilities to technicians, recruited on the same corporate basis (Ecole Polytechnique and Sciences-Po, above). All these petty functionaries are advancing in seniority in a shared culture of contempt for the people, of whom they underestimate the resources.

Political parties are also stigmatized in their contradictions. Thus, the right-wing parties, who forget their Germanophobia, bow to defeat and to pose as defenders of democracy and tradition. Similarly, the left votes down the military budget and preaches pacifism, but calls for guns to Spain. Bloch accuses the unions of philistinism, obsessed by their own immediate interests to the detriment of their future or the interest of the country as a whole. Similarly, he condemned pacifism and internationalism as incompatible with the worship of the country, criticizing in particular their pacifist preaching that war is a matter of rich and powerful that the poor have no power to interfere (a Marxist interpretation of the conflict)

Workers and citizens [edit]

In the population as a whole, he denounces back to back, workers and bourgeois. He accused the former of seeking "to provide the least possible effort, in as short a time as possible for as much money as possible" in disregard of national interests, resulting in delays in war production.

Conversely, he accuses the bourgeoisie of selfishness, and blames them for not having informed the man of the streets and fields on the challenges of the country or even in providing a basic education (reading problem). It depicts a bourgeoisie living off investments, studying only for for their own pleasure and thinking only of having fun. He thus describes "the great misunderstanding of the French, who are facing a bourgeoisie whose investment income declines, threatened by the new social strata, forced to pay for themselves and finding that workers work less and less, and people are poorly educated, unable to understand the gravity of the situation. It highlights in particular the sharpness of a bourgeoisie which has never recovered from the Popular Front. Away from people, the bourgeois "unintentionally deviate from France as well."

In the more immediate level, Marc Bloch describes a people poorly prepared. Propaganda maintains a sense of security, although we have known since Guernica there is no more "sky without threat". Despite the image of Spain in ruins, "we had not said enough to make us afraid, and not enough so we would accept the inevitable new or renewed war."

The class of 1940 had hardly been prepared, and as we did not want war, we went with no zeal, with resignation. Bloch suggests instead that, faced with national peril, no one should have immunity, even women can fight the war. But the politics were to avoid the death and destruction of the previous war: "We thought it wiser to submit to anything rather than accept, again, this type of loss." In this context, the outflow is from a common cowardice, especially the lack of effort by the people to understand, who prefer to return to the rural life and refuse modernity.


Marc Bloch notes therefore a shared responsibility, which leads to a surrender, too quickly, of a war that may have been continued. Few people are blind, but one dares not speak up and denounce the deficiencies before they are revealed by the conflict and, therefore, no one dares to question conventional wisdom.

Picture: Hitler in Paris 1940.

1 comment:

  1. It is axiomatic that many (if not most) generals tend to plan for fighting the last war, believing (or perhaps hoping) that the strategies and tactics of the previous conflict will achieve victory in the future.

    But the situation in France in the 1930s was more egregious than usual. The country was politically unstable and the losses of WWI encouraged a defensive mindset, resulting in conservative military policy. The most obvious of which was the construction of the Maginot Line, reflecting a complete lack of appreciation of the changes in military strategy foretold by the appearance of aircraft and armour during WWI.

    The Wehrmacht clearly understood the significance and possibilities of those new technologies.

    It's interesting to contrast French defensive planning during the 1930s with that of the British, who developed an effective air defense system using radar, a communications network and advanced fighter aircraft. As a result, they were successful in resisting the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

    Although, in inimitable British fashion, the planner responsible, Sir Hugh Dowding was quickly fired after this British success.