France in World War II

In 1939 France’s Third Republic was sixty-eight years old, despite church and state rivalries, corruption, and political factionalization. At the start of World War II every major politician and every political party had their own newspaper disseminating their own propaganda.

Born out of the humiliating defeat of 1871, the Third Republic had survived a punishing Great War that cost 1.3 million dead and over 4 million wounded. Entire towns lost their young men, forcing leadership to go on into the 1930’s that should have been long retired. Focused on those millions of casualties, the French government prepared its people to fight the last war. Security prevented widespread use of radios. Communication was slowed by telegraph and dispatch riders. André Maginot, the defense minister in the early 1930’s, pushed through his vision of a solid wall of concrete and steel to hold back any future German onslaught.

But it was a mistake to term everyone in France as a defeatist. France had better tanks than the Germans, and good planes and artillery. Her Navy was second only the British, and she was building, slowly, new battleships. Middle rank leaders like Charles DeGaulle showed new techniques. But the French leadership was slow to adopt them.

France was also slow to read the warnings that were growing in 1939 and 1940. Contrary to popular opinion, the French Intelligence service did not see the writing on the wall any more than Gamelin or Weygand, the senior French Generals. Weygand and Gamelin seemed to bicker with each other and other commanders as much as plan for war.

The plan, in retrospect, seems as purposeful to prevent French casualties as it was to stop the Germans. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French main force would march into Belgium as soon as German troops crossed the Belgian frontier. Belgium demurred from that plan, as it put them in the center of the fighting. They hoped to stay out by maintaining their neutrality.

The Germans invaded Holland and Belgium on May 10, 1940. True to plan, as the Germans expected, the Allies marched into Belgium for the main force engagement. Some Belgians tried to stop both the Allies entering from the South and the Germans entering from the Northeast. Little attention was paid to communication and intelligence between the three Allied Armies.

Thus, what could have been a powerful coordinated Allied Army became three separate armies speaking several different languages. The Allies never practiced or trained together, and they often neglected to even tell their own countrymen where they were during the battle. France and Britain were completely unprepared for German General Heinz Guderian's tanks to burst out of the Ardennes, and the Allies failed to stop them at Sedan. By May 28, when Belgium surrendered, the situation was critical and the BEF was evacuated from Dunkerque by June 4. Weygand replaced Gamelin as senior commander and put a stop to Gamelin's plan to reroute the first line French forces to march against Guderian. That sealed France's fate and on June 22nd, the new Vichy government under Philip Petaín sued for peace.