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-

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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
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    Médaille 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.

Bolt Action Rifles of World War II

I need to preface this post by saying that I am far from being an expert in World War II era small arms. That being said, I own a few of them and enjoy the history associated with them. I have tried to obtain a representative bolt action rifle from all major powers during the war, and have gotten seven-eights of the way there; I am still missing a decent quality Chiang Kai-Shek Mauser. Owning pieces of history, even when you don’t know the full story behind them, is interesting for old history majors like me. Being able to put those pieces of history to actual use, however, is nothing short of exciting. This evening, I offer a very unscientific ranking of bolt action rifles from World War II.

Representatives of the major nations that currently reside in my gun cabinet are: 1) an Italian Carcano 91/24, built in 1917 and refurbished in 1924; 2) for the United Kingdom, a Lee-Enfield No.4 Mk.1 rifle manufactured in 1942 by Royal Ordnance Factory Maltby; 3) a Japanese Arisaka Type 99 manufactured by Toyo Kogyo in 1944; 4) a Springfield M1903

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Allied Rifles – Top to Bottom:  Lee Enfield No.4 Mk.1, MAS-36, Springfield M1903, Mosin 91/30.

manufactured in the United States in 1908 by the Springfield Armory; 5) a Soviet Russian Mosin 91/30 built in 1943 at the Izhevsk Mechanical Plant; 6) a Manufacture d’Armes de Saint-Étienne (MAS) 36, manufactured in 1938; and 7) the famous German Mauser Kar.98k, built in 1942 at the Mauser AG Oberndorf. I have fired rounds through all of these firearms (or in the case of the M1903, another rifle of the same model) over the course of the last year–but not all on the same day. The rifles were fired at different ranges, all indoors, at a range of fifty yards, while standing. Other variables that might affect pure ratings include the time of day and the amount of coffee I consumed before shooting, the quality and type of ammunition used, and how well I cleaned the rifle after the last time I shot it. In other words, this will not be a very objective ranking. With all of this out of the way, it is time to get on with the list.

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Axis Rifles – Top to Bottom:  Carcano 91/24, Arisaka Type 99, Mauser Kar.98k.  Note the Walther P-38 I added just for the heck of it.

7. Carcano 91/24: It really isn’t fair to rate the little Carcano. It is the oldest rifle, has had extensive post World War I work done on it, and I do not have the correct round-nose ammunition to put through it. At fifty yards and with Spitzer bullets, I am able to put all of the shots on paper, but just where they passed through is…well…all over the place. The bullets key holed well over half the time and the sights seemed to be adjusting themselves between shots. Truth be known, I fired twenty shots through the Carcano after putting twenty through the Mosin and drinking a few cups of coffee, so fatigue or caffeine might have had some effect on my aim, but I don’t think I am that weak. While the performance of the Carcano leaves a lot to be desired, it is a delightful little weapon, being rather light for an early 20th Century firearm, with en-bloc loading, a very strong action, and a very interesting history. The rifle might well have served in two World Wars, and it has the scars to show it.

6. Arisaka Type 99: I really should have tried to get an early war Type 99. The example I have saw some service and was manufactured at a time when Japanese fortunes were fading and quality was being sacrificed for efficiency and volume. This is a very basic rifle, with some parts simply unfinished and others showing signs of the haste with which it was built. The rifle shoots straight enough; all twenty shots through this one were within about a ten-inch radius circle. The action is strong, but a little loose for my taste, and the whole unit just feels a little wonky. Another negative for me is that it just doesn’t look all that great. I suppose the Japanese designed the rifle for function and not for aesthetics, but next to a Mauser or an Enfield, this one pales in comparison. All-in-all, this rifle gets the job done, but it is not what I would pick up if I had to go to war with a bolt action rifle.

5. Mosin 91/30: Ok, there are thousands–maybe millions–of Mosin fans out there who may want to shoot me with a 7.62×54 round after ranking the venerable 91/30 as fifth out of seven rifles. In terms of accuracy, it is near the top. Twenty shots through my 91/30 landed (with one exception which was wildly off target) in a six-inch group. That is fine,

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Mosin 91/30, along with a bag of my accuracy inhibitor.

except that the group was six inches above where I was aiming. Part of that, I am sure, is that I wasn’t properly accounting for the sights being calibrated to 100 meters. Part of it might be that I just can’t shoot. The main problem I have with the Mosin, though, has nothing to do with accuracy. The bolt on this monster is just too difficult to work. It is solid…very solid…probably the most solid of all of these rifles. In essence, it is a solid piece of hardened steel shaved down to serve as a bolt. It is heavy, resists rapid cycling, and sometimes picks up a cartridge more than it should. Another negative, for me, is that the rifle is just plain heavy. My admiration for the line rifleman of the Red Army has grown greatly since I started really playing with the Mosin. Imagine lugging this monster around over the Steppes of Europe and having to actually use it in combat. On the other hand, the Mosin is a very nice looking and imposing rifle, the history is wonderful, and it was one of the major contributors to winning the Great Patriotic War.

4. Lee Enfield No.4 Mk.1: I surprised myself ranking this rifle this low. I have spent hours looking over this piece from end to end. I have taken numerous photos of it and posted them on Instagram (look me up @oldmauserman). It is a nice looking and solid rifle. I love how the Enfield feels and I enjoy cycling the bolt. It is also a joy to shoot. I suppose this img_1114one fell to fourth because the remaining three rifles just perform better and have some other factors that make me prefer them. The Enfield is accurate. I can regularly hit the inner circles of a standard target at fifty yards. The weight balance is natural, and aiming is easy. The ten-round magazine means you don’t have to stop and reload as often as with any of the other rifles listed here. The history behind the Enfield family is interesting, and the potential for this rifle being a combat veteran is great. I really don’t have very much at all to say negatively about this rifle.

3. MAS-36: If ranking the Enfield at number four surprised me, ranking the MAS-36 at number three surprised me even more. I bought this unit, mostly, because I wanted to have a representative of France in my collection. When I picked her up, she needed a good cleaning, the barrel was dirty with grease and dust, and the action was sticky. I initially believed I made a mistake and that I should have waited for a better specimen. Once I got the rifle cleaned up, however, my opinion changed…quickly. The action, once free of years of grease and grime, is surprisingly smooth and easy to work. Still, it closes up tightly. Absent a safety, the rear end of this rifle is simple and surprisingly pleasant. The sights,

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MAS-36

adjusted at the factory, are a little difficult to work for range (though that is not a problem at fifty yards), and the bolt handle is oddly bent forward. There is a story behind that, which I will share in a later post, but the forward-bent bolt is very functional and makes it very easy to cycle. I’ve heard the MAS-36 described as ugly and several other words that are even less complimentary. Having played around with her for a while, I don’t think the derogatory terms are fair. In terms of performance, the MAS-36 puts bullets right where you want them. Purely in terms of my non-scientific tests, this rifle shot the tightest group of all. As I explained in the intro, however, there may be circumstances that affected accuracy that cannot be attributed to the rifle. If I had to go to war tomorrow with a bolt action rifle, I would not be afraid to grab this one.

2. Mauser Kar.98k: Moving past the surprises, I was not in the least surprised that the Mauser ended up in the top two. If you are a rifle collector, a historian, a gun nut, an artist, an engineer, a soldier, or someone who just enjoys fine things, how can you not like the Mauser. The history behind this and all other wartime Mausers is the single negative factor that I could attach to this rifle. In terms of performance, it is hard to beat these old warhorses. The Mauser is, all at the same time, accurate, balanced, dependable, easy to

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Mauser Kar.98k

maintain, a delight to shoot, deadly, and even aesthetically pleasing to look at and hold. I can regularly shoot tight groups with this rifle (when I use decent ammunition). The action is as smooth as silk and the sound of the bolt cycling is one of the greatest of manmade sounds. Even little details like the brass tear down disc on the butt add to the desirability of this piece. The rifle pictured above is the first World War II military surplus rifle I bought, and it is one that I’ll not part with.

1. Choosing between the Mauser and the Springfield M1903 was difficult. When applying the “what do I want to grab on my way out the house” test, I would be happy to have the Mauser and the Springfield next to the door. This rifle has, easily, the smoothest action of all of the rifles I own. It is solid, but not too heavy. Once you get used to the sights (for old folks like me, that means

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Springfield M1903

being able to FIND the rear sight), it is dead-on accurate. If I had to find a negative with this rifle, it would be those sights. This rifle is the only one in this collection to feature a magazine cut-off switch, which is interesting if not exactly useful. I have heard and read, from several sources, that the M1903 is the most beautiful rifle ever produced. I’d be hard pressed to offer an argument against that, though the Mauser family would be a pretty close competitor in the firearm beauty pageant. With this rifle, and with a little practice with aiming, I can put twenty shots into a space not much bigger than an iPad. The 30-06 cartridge puts out a lot of bang at the range, and carrying an M1903 around in the local gun shows always invites favorable comments and several cash offers. I don’t think I’ll be parting with this old lady for a long, long time.

So, there you have it. I am thinking about covering each of these rifles in more detail in separate future posts if there is any interest. Each of them have unique and very interesting histories, both in terms of development and combat. I enjoy having these functional relics in my collection, and suggest to anyone who enjoys World War II history–or military history in general–to purchase an old military surplus rifle and take it to the range (following a good inspection to ensure safety). You’re sure to make new friends and you’re likely to end up in a great debate about how to rank bolt action rifles from World War II!Bol