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Nations at war
Kiesling, Eugenia C. Arming Against Hitler: France and the Limits of Military Planning. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1996
List of Abbreviations; Preface; Introduction; Notes; Selected Bibliography;
Eugenia Kiesling poses a stinging question in her Preface:
It is commonplace to deride France for two kinds of
failurethe failure to prepare for war against Germany and the failure to
perceive the weakness of French national defense policies. What will future
historians say about current Western societies that, facing threats to
their quality of life at least as grave as that posed by military conquest,
understandably prefer, as interwar France understandably preferred,
business as usual to unpleasant sacrificeand therefore assure themselves
as their world decays around them that things really are not all that bad?
Indeed, although she does not always explicitly say so, many of the
historical issues and options she disinters from the grave of the Third
Republic also face political and military leaders today, and
the examples here can be very instructive.
As Kiesling enumerates in her Introduction, many books have been written
about various aspects of French national defense in the inter-war years. (For English-language accounts, she recognizes in particular titles by Doughty, Young, Alexander, and Gunsberg.) Of
the many themes which have been discussed in those books, she takes up
threenational security policy, military organization, and
military doctrineand places them under her finely focused microscope
for close and careful inspection. This inspection commences with an
analysis of the manifold constraints under which French leaders operated,
the options open to those leaders, and the reasoning behind the fateful
choices they made. The emphasis is not on "what France did wrong" but on
how France made and implemented decisions.
...At every level of action, from national security policy to squad-level
tactics, French possibilities were severely limited, and the resulting
policies, plans, and doctrines ranged from suspect to demonstrably
inadequate. Still, neither Army nor nation resigned itself to defeat,
collapse, disaster, or catastrophe. Instead, French leaders mobilized their
defense resources within the limits of what the polity allowed. The results
were less than perfect but were deemed to be good enough. Choosing optimism
over cynicism or despair, military and political leaders alike dismissed
French weakness, exaggerated French strengths, and persuaded themselves of
the intrinsic merits of arrangements that they had neither the ability nor
the inclination to alter.
The first chapter, "Mobilizing the Nation in Arms", demonstrates the
difficulties faced by France, as by any nation attempting to reconcile
peacetime rights and traditions with wartime requirements and sacrifices.
From 1922 efforts were made to draft, finalize, and ratify a Loi sur
l'organisation de nation pour le temps de guerre (Law for the
organization of the nation in time of war). This was exactly the sort of
legislationfor girding the populace, economy, and military for total
warthat would in hindsight prove to be the prudent foundation for
formulating and planning the integration of manpower, industry, and
strategy in an increasingly dangerous international environment. The bill,
however, suffered a rough passage from committee to Chamber of Deputies and
Senate where elected representatives of all persuasions debated,
criticized, and amended the measure over mere wording as well as
substantial issues such as conscripting women for national service, rules
for government requisition of personal property (such as trucks), and even
whether legislators should be required toor prohibited fromserving in
the armed forces. Kiesling stresses this debate issued not from inability
of unwillingness to face the real possibility of renewed threat from
Germany, but rather from genuine concern over the extent of personal,
political, and economic liberties France could afford to sacrifice in the
cause of protecting those very liberties.
Although the billcontroversial and unpassedwas shelved for six years, the
government in the meantime legislated and funded other critical defense measures such
as military reorganization and the Maginot Line. Reintroduced in 1935, the
measure was finally ratified and signed into law in 1938, but
only after further lengthy debates caused it to be amended
almost beyond recognition.
The sixty-eight articles of the new Loi sur
l'organisation de nation pour le temps de guerre called upon the
government to make peacetime preparations for the mobilization of the
population and resources of France to meet the exigencies of war. It
delineated the responsibilities of the various civil and military
authorities and imposed national service obligations upon all male
residents of France over eighteen years old. The state was empowered to
negotiate with private citizens for the wartime use of property, and
resources not secured by peacetime negotiations were subject to requisition
with the payment of an indemnity. Legislators enrolled in the first reserve
would be required to fulfill their military obligations; whether they could
also exercise their political mandate was left for the two houses to
determine. The government was to be assisted in preparing for wartime
mobilization by a chief of staff of national defense, the Conseil Superieur
de la Defense Nationale, and the council's subordinate agencies. The
specifically military aspects of national security planningincluding
the employment of armed forces, the creation and execution of armaments
programs, and industrial mobilizationwere the responsibility of the
Comite Permanent de la Defense National. At the outbreak of hostilities,
these military concerns shifted to a new Comite de Guerre chaired by the
president of the republic. The war committee would issue directives to the
service commanders-in-chief and could choose to delegate to a single
individual the power to coordinate the actions of the army, navy, and air
force. The nation's economic mobilization was to be organized by special
bureaus within the ministries. Acquisition and distribution of each scarce
resource would be the responsibility of a single ministry, and similar
centralized control was to be imposed on the national transportation and
communications networks. Finally, a substantial portion of the law, eight
of the sixty-eight articles, dealt with measures to protect the population
of France from aerial bombardment.
Despite the years of wrangling delay, this was not the law of a nation
studiously avoiding the possibility of hostilities. On the other hand,
Kiesling also points out "Those parts of the Loi sur l'organisation de
nation pour le temps de guerre that government agencies did not like
were simply ignored."
When war came, the gaps and inadequacies in the law, as well as the
failures to heed some of its provisions, led to chaotic problems in areas
such as organizing the railways for military purposes, balancing competing
manpower requirements, and mobilization of the armed forces. "[The French]
made do with a law that was politically acceptable and then told themselves
it would be adequate...."
In the following chapter, Kiesling outlines the rather grand conception,
contentious birth, and entirely stilted, unproductive existence of the
"National War College". Originally intended to be "a tool to prepare for and
to prosecute 'total war'", combining selected officers from all three
services as well as civil servants from important ministries in an
environment designed to imbue them with the axiom of "unity of war" and
prepare them to understand and conduct strategie generale ("the art
of directing, in war and peace, all of a nation's forces and resources for
struggle"), inter-service bickering and an orthodox, uninspired curriculum
of stale historical cases robbed the College of vitality and relevance.
Most interesting is the description of the 1938-1939 "case study" wargame
involving a hypothetical war in October 1939 brought about by German
aggression in central Europe. In the scenario, the College students offered
as their only offensive maneuver an attack against Germany's ostensible
...Even this plan struck Admiral Castex [head of the College] as too
ambitious, and so great was his alarm that he delivered an unscheduled
lecture reminding the class of France's long-war strategy and, therefore,
of her commitment to maintaining a defensive posture in all theaters of
Kiesling's judgment is swift. "At the [College], as in the nation as a
whole, the government pretended to have a viable strategy and the armed
forces pretended to be able to carry it out."
Kiesling next points out the difficulties of keeping the Army
trained and ready for action. Beginning with the class of 1930, conscripts
were required to serve for only one year. In order to ensure that
sufficient numbers of "trained" men were always on hand, the annual class
of conscripts was inducted in two groups six month apart. This allowed only
six months for a training cycle, although in World War I this kind of
training had required a cycle of nine or ten months. Furthermore, the
conscripts were inducted into the active Army where they served with a
small cadre of professional soldiers. This meant the largest proportion of
the active Army comprised raw recruits who had not completed more than a
fraction of their training. A number of schemes were tested for maximizing
training, but there was no good solution to semi-annual conscription for a
single year of service. The problems were exacerbated by the need for the
active Armystill laden with raw recruits of short term serviceto
provide cadres for the annual training of the reserve Army. Funding
reductions also progressively limited the supply of ammunition for training
in the three years before the war. Training with transport was equally
spotty: the French Army possessed only 30,000 trucks and would need to
requisition over 300,000 from civilian sources during mobilization (which
was one of the sticking points of the long-delayed Loi sur
l'organisation de nation pour le temps de guerre).
The most mundane material wants interfered with peacetime
training. Some units could not provide soldiers with a second pair of shoes
or trousers and cancelled exercises in inclement weather because their men
would not have dry clothes to wear afterward. Conscripts were offered
reimbursement for supplying their own boots, belts, wool socks, spoons and
forks, and blankets. Reservists were encouraged to wear their own shoes for
training periods, but most chose to suffer with ill-fitting army issue as
the reimbursement would not replace a decent pair of civilian shoes. An
armor battalion inspected in December 1939 proved not only to be without
it allotment of tanks and vehicles but also poorly housed and inadequately
fed. Items in short supply included beds, uniforms, boots, leather jackets,
helmets, water bottles, and the goggles essential for motorcyclists.
Rations were inadequate even in the officers' mess, and the men ate cold
meals because of the distance between the kitchens and the barracks. For an
economical evaluation of the material defects of the French army, one need
only note that even after the 14-million-franc procurement program of
1937-1940 had been supplemented in 1938 with an additional 12 million
francs, the allocation deemed necessary after Germany's annexation of
Czechoslovakia was more than 64 million francs. This "eloquent sum,"
remarks Pierre Hoff, reveals "how much the French army fell short of being
a truly modern army."
The relationship between the active forces and the reserve forces was critical.
All conscripts spent part of their time in each.
Under the provisions of the army organization laws of 1927
and 1928, healthy French males were liable to military service for
twenty-eight years, of which only the first year was intended to be spent
on active reserve, or, more precisely, in training to become a combat-ready
reservist. By the time a soldier was fully trained, his active duty
obligation was finished and he graduated to a ready reserve called the
disponibilite. For the next three years, he remained attached to his
active-duty regiment, was liable for a three-week training period, and
could be recalled to the colors by the minister of war. In the event of
war, each active infantry regiment absorbed about 2,000 men from the
disponibilite and left behind for further training its 700-1,000
first-semester recruits. After the disponibilite came sixteen years in the first-line reserve, during which the reservist could be called up twice for three-week training periods. Military obligations concluded with eight years in the second-line reserve, theoretically including a seven-day exercise.
The reserve-training obligation totaled nine or ten weeks, but its actual incidence depended on funding by parsimonious and antimilitaristic parliamentarians. At seven francs a day per man, reserve exercises were an expense that the French government chose to avoid from 1919 to 1927. In spite of the provisions of the 1927 law, no class of disponibilite was called up for reserve training until 1933, and the next two years saw convocations from the disponibilite but not from the first-line reserve.
In theory such difficulties were to be assuaged in part by the system of military regions and creation of units which were conscripted from a single locality, trained there together, and lived in proximity during peacetimethus providing the units with a certain amount of esprit and cohesion. In practice, most units drew their manpower from a variety of scattered regions and were further subjected to a bewildering array of special rules, assignments, exemptions, and exceptions so that such local recruiting and cohesion meant little. Furthermore, as a soldier moved from one level of service to another, this accumulation of complexities usually meant that he moved from one unit of strangers to another. This also meant that reservists had suddenly to acquire new military specialties.
In fact, in September 1939, a regimental commander discovered that a sentry who did not know how to present arms had done his conscript year as an officer's batman and that fully 150 of the men in his regiment were products of the navy, the air force, the cavalry, or the tank arm. These men, who had never undergone the basic "school of the soldier," had to be removed from their companies to be trained as infantrymen.
Thus, for her active force France relied on a small number of regular soldiers engaged in training the mass of raw, short-term recruits who would need to be detached and left behind in the event of war, and on reserves who had likely moved to unfamiliar jobs in unfamiliar units with little additional training.
Kiesling's next topic involves a rarified discussion of French military philosophy between the wars. This is the most theoretical and hypothetical chapter of the book, and seems to underline French military conservatism as the author compares and contrasts, with much quoting of Doughty, the "historical" and "material" methods of argumentation in formulating doctrine. Whatever the philosophical underpinnings, she concludes "Surely, it was a concern for safety, a fear that innovation might lead to bloody errors, rather than conservatism for its own sake that guided doctrinal development by the French high command." She also notes that, despite popular perceptions, the French high command did not believe in the "inviolability of prepared positions" (notably the Maginot Line) and did not reject the concept of maneuver. She goes on, however, to scrutinize the French Army's definition of maneuver and determine that it did not equate to the Anglo-American concept of fluid movement and mobility. The bottom line? The development of French doctrine was sorely constrained by the nature of its predominantly under-trained conscript and reservist divisions, and at every turn the generals were forced to match their textbooks and regulations to the capabilities of their troops. All in all, despite that important point, this is the least elucidating and least successful chapter.
The book concludes with its strongest chapter. When Kiesling begins to examine the specifics of doctrine itself, rather than its formulation, she quickly foreshadows her theme: "Investigation of the elements of the doctrine so often blamed for the French debate in 1940 suggests, however bad the result in 1940, the French Army would have found it very difficult to fight differently." She covers the following elements:
- "Firepower and the Defensive" "The indisputable key to interwar French military doctrine was respect for the murderous efficacy of artillery and automatic weapons."
- "The Methodical Battle" "The companion of French defensive confidence was the belief that attacking was inherently dangerous, and thus for French soldiers to think offensively required either cognitive dissonancebelieving simultaneously that French defenses would stop German attacks and that French attacks would penetrate German defensesor a plan [the methodical battle] to overcome the defender's acknowledged advantage."
- "Motorization" "...like other aspects of doctrinal development in interwar France, the story of armor doctrine is not one of blind conservatism, or sloth, or stupidity, or national poverty either physical or intellectual. It is a story of intractable problems, irreconcilable requirements, and a particular, reasoned set of strategic and doctrinal judgments."
- "Mechanization" "The pace of armor development was glacial during the 1920s, however, for the perfectly sensible reason that the 3,500 existing Renault FTs were, though obsolete by the 1930s, perfectly adequate against an enemy who, thanks to the Treaty of Versailles, lacked anything better.... Historians have tended to emphasize French hesitation to create armored divisions, but for some contemporary military analysts, the DLM represented excessive haste to adopt an untried form of warfare." This section also includes a brilliant interpretation of how the integration of tanks forced the doctrine of "methodical battle" to become only more methodical.
- "Heavy Armored Divisions" "The sledgehammer of massed medium tanks was to be wielded only in conjunction with the other components of the methodical battle. Its missions were aggressive onescounterattack, flank attack, exploitation, and rupture of organized frontsbut it would not attempt to advance until other French forces had silenced the enemy antitank defenses."
- "Sources of Satisfaction" "On the whole, studying German doctrine reinforced French confidence in their own methods. Similarities were stressed, perhaps even wishfully invented. When possible, discrepancies like those arising from conflicting judgments of the relative effectiveness of tank and of the antitank gun were ascribed to German miscalculations."
In closing, Kiesling ties together all the threads of her chapters with a carefully considered summation.
...If French doctrine was not what [the American observer, General Ralph K.] Smith would have chosen for the United States Army or Guderian for the Wehrmacht, it suited the Third Republic. It was not a doctrine created for an ideal army but for the army France had.... More ambitious doctrine would have required a different army, but the mission of the French high command was to heed the nation's political, economic, and psychological limitations and to develop simple, stable, and credible methods appropriate for a nation in arms.
We will never know whether the doctrine of firepower and the methodical battle would have met the case if supported by the kind of training and leadership to which the high command paid rhetorical homage, for the same constraints that reduced doctrinal options undermined the army's combat effectiveness as a whole.
As for Paul Reynaud's warnings that France need to have either "the army of her policy of the policy of her army," one could have replied that France had, if not an army geared to support her diplomatic engagements, one that reflected her politics in the largest possible sense. It was an army unready for war against the Wehrmacht in 1940, but it could not have been different and remained the army of the Third Republic.
French leaders believed, if forced to fight another war with their neighbor across the Rhine, they could only win as part of an alliance, and even then they would need to fight a lengthy war in order to fully mobilize industry and manpower for final victory. Consequently, they adopted the concept of the "methodical battle" to guide a defensive strategy during which no risks would be taken and, eventually, the carefully orchestrated, phase-by-phase offensive that would be required to overwhelm the enemy's defensive positions. From this strategy flowed slow, conservative battlefield tactics which stifled initiative by providing that units should not advance without orders, lose touch with the units on their flanks, or engage the enemy outside the range of friendly artillery fire. On the eve of the Second World War, most military observers considered the French Army, the product of these carefully considered policies, to be the most powerful and efficient in the world. Not until May 1940 would it be clear how the inexorable momentum of pre-war decision-making had taken France to a catastrophic dead end.
Kiesling's is not an inclusive survey of the broad spectrum of military, economic, political, and diplomatic issues in the years leading up to war for the entire French armed forces. Instead, the author has intentionally focused narrowly on a few representative areas. The result is an insightful, analytical volume with much, much to recommend it; it is also a very scholarly work in which the endnotes can be as important as the text. It is no criticism to say that the brevity and narrowness of Kiesling's excellent work generate the desire for a fuller and more rounded history of the limitations confronting France, the options available, the choices made, and the consequences of those choices.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from University Press of Kansas.
Thanks to UPK for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 17 January 1999
Copyright © 1999 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone