In Defense of the French Soldier

For Sale:  One pre-war MAS-36 rifle.  Mint Condition.  Never fired. Only dropped once.

So goes one of many snarky remarks aimed at the French soldier of World War II.  Since joining some online discussions regarding France’s conduct of war during the 1940 campaign, I’ve seen plenty of disparaging remarks regarding the French military, often general and rarely identifying which particular policies or practices deserved criticism.  Sometimes, and after a challenge, the critic will provide some semblance of an argument or concede that their comment was a joke.  After several weeks of trying to present individual counter arguments, I am now resorting to this space.

The end of the Great War found France victorious, despite having been bled white by four years of brutal combat.  The northeast French countryside was devastated, the army was exhausted, equipment was worn out, and while morale had recovered from the near-disaster of 1917, it was not exceptionally high.  As a nation, France reflected the state of the military–exhausted.  Politically, France staggered through the interwar period bitterly divided.  This environment did not encourage great innovations or investments in the military.

After the war, French military planning evolved without much imagination–largely depending on the massive fortifications of the Maginot Line and a concentrated and massive advance into Belgium were Germany’s armies to advance that way.  Despite successful French innovations in the use of light tanks in the Great War, military doctrine still centered on infantry as the key to success.  Tanks were viewed more as a novelty that future enemies would be able to counter with new weapons or their own tanks.  While armor still figured in French planning, they were mostly relegated to infantry support or reconnaissance roles.  In the air, France could boast a very large, but obsolete fleet of aircraft.  Modern designs were just starting to come off of the assembly lines when the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.

Thrust into this environment was the French soldier.  On mobilization, France gathered five million soldiers into the ranks of the army.  Front line troops were armed with modern rifles and equipment.  Armored units were fitted out with tanks that were for the most part superior to German tanks.  In terms of numbers, France outnumbered the Germans in almost every significant category, from aircraft to tanks to soldiers to anti-

Surrendering French Soldiers – Reinforcing the Common Image
tank weapons.  Training was thorough, even if tactical doctrines did not prepare most soldiers for the type of warfare that was about to fall on them.  Unit cohesion, at the time of the German attack in May 1940, seems to have been reasonable.  So, how did it happen that the performance of the French soldier came to be criticized so greatly?  As is often the case, there isn’t a single answer.  I am not going to pretend that I know all of them.  I am not even going to discuss all of the reasons that I think may apply.  I will, however, try to make a quick and convincing case that the French soldier of 1940 was not the ineffective figure that many post-war critics have dismissed as cowardly and incompetent and encourage discussion as to whether we need to revisit our collective assessment.

  1. Strategy and Tactics:  As mentioned above, French strategic doctrine focused on infantry and infantry support as the centerpiece of military strategy.  Lessons that should have been learned regarding the concentrated employment of tanks seem to have been lost on most French military minds.  Fortifications, ever stronger and deeper, protected the valuable infantryman.  Maneuver units, including armor, were expected to engage in the same way as their Great War predecessors–frontally.  Infantry units were minimally motorized, and unable to redeploy quickly.  The German attack, when it came, was not something that had been envisioned by French military planners.  The attack, relied on a fast-moving armored and motorized force, which quickly swept past the immobile frontier troops and seized vital road junctions and bridges.  Taking these points not only allowed the Germans to continue moving troops and supplies forward, it also prevented French countermoves.  The French soldiers, unable to keep up with the German advance, continued to fight in pockets–often tenaciously.  German field commanders, including Guderian and Rommel, remarked at how ferociously the French solder fought–even when hopelessly outmaneuvered and outgunned.  Eventually, without hope for resupply, troops ran out of ammunition and other critical supplies and had few options other than to surrender.
  2. Leadership:  While French army equipment was generally of a high quality, field leadership was not.  Likely because of post-war doctrine and the incessant political infighting, French military field leadership did not demonstrate a high degree of either initiative or imagination.  Plans were rigid and contingencies were not contemplated, or they insufficiently accounted for the tactics that the Germans had developed.  The fluid nature of the war being fought required imaginative responses and flexibility in command.  With few exceptions, the French command structure simply did not foster these qualities.  For the average French soldier, this meant that he received orders that did not make sense given the tactical reality he could see.  It also meant that his confidence in leadership was undermined.  Finally, it meant that he likely entered battles feeling like he was already beaten–knowing that his leadership had put him in the wrong place and with unrealistic expectations.
  3. Post-War Analysis:  After World War II, not a lot was written about the French veteran of the 1940 campaign.  French historians tended to concentrate on the glorious exploits of Charles De Gaulle, the French resistance, and the Free French operations in North Africa, Italy, and France.  The French soldier of 1940 was a part of a story that very few French citizens wanted to tell or hear.  A defeat on the scale of the French collapse in 1940 had to be laid at someone’s feet, and while the
    M├ędaille Militaire
    French soldier was not directly accused, he had few defenders.  Lost in the spectacular German victory was the fact that the Germans lost hundreds of tanks
    and aircraft, and over 150,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) during May and June of 1940.  These numbers are significant, especially when one considers what Germany might have done with more aircraft in the summer of 1940 and with more tanks and troops in North Africa the following year.  Even if one considers that British, Belgian, and Dutch troops inflicted their share of casualties, the numbers testify to the effectiveness of the individual French soldier.  Certainly, they do not support the idea that the French solder was a coward who threw away his weapon or waved a white flag at the first opportunity.

Recognizing that a single short blog entry is not likely to change many opinions on the quality of individual French soldiers in the 1940 campaign, I hope that it will at least make some thoughtful people think a little longer before they continue to heap criticism on the millions of troops who fought for their country, and for the tens of thousands to died doing so.  Courage is not a word that is often heard when discussing the French soldier of 1940, but it is one that I am coming to more closely associate with him.