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It Wasn’t Just Morale

In response to:

A 'Miracle of Deliverance'? from the November 30, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

Niall Ferguson exposes with his usual brilliance the flaws in the familiar myths about the escape of the British army from Dunkirk in June 1940 [“A ‘Miracle of Deliverance’?,” NYR, November 30, 2006]. Unfortunately he leaves intact the familiar myths about the French collapse. French soldiers mostly ran away, he tells us, as a result of the “slow, creeping demoralization of the Third Republic.”

A lot of interesting new work has been done on the campaign of May–June 1940. Alistair Horne’s To Lose a Battle: France 1940 has long ceased to be “the definitive account.” Even if one is limited to works in English one can now consult Julian Jackson’s masterly synthesis The Fall of France, Ernest R. May’s refreshingly iconoclastic Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France, reviewed by Tony Judt in these pages,* and the new English translation of a German myth-undermining work, Karl-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West.

An author can select instances of heroism as well as their opposite in all the armies involved in this campaign. According to Colonel Frieser, even the SS Totenkopf Division experienced local panics during the British counterattack at Arras on May 21, correctly identified by Niall Ferguson as the most effective Allied action of this campaign.

French soldiers, no less than the British, responded diversely to the German onslaught. The weak reserve divisions facing Sedan, where the principal German tank attack fell unexpectedly, notoriously collapsed, imprinting an indelible image on the whole French army. But in Belgium two French mechanized divisions under General René Prioux held off two Panzer divisions under General Erich Hoepner from May 12 to May 14, inflicting superior losses, only to have to fall back because the daring German paratroop capture of the fortress of Eben Emael had leapfrogged Belgian defenses. At Dunkirk, to return to the case at hand, it was 30,000 French troops (not only British, as Ferguson implies) that defended the perimeter in the last days of the evacuation.

Morale was not the only reason for the French defeat, and perhaps not even the principal one. While French artillery and tanks were not inferior to the German, the French army had crucial defects in communications, air cover, and reaction time. The wildly overoptimistic defense plan of the French commander in chief, General Maurice Gamelin, bears perhaps the heaviest responsibility. Far from proposing, as Ferguson says, to “refight World War I along their heavily fortified Maginot Line,” Gamelin sent his best units not just into Belgium but all the way to Breda, in southern Holland, in an effort to engage the advancing Germans as far northeast of French soil as possible. But since Belgium had declared its neutrality in 1936, this rush northeastward could not begin until the Germans had already attacked.

When the principal German attack force sliced unexpectedly across northern France from the Ardennes, the best French units were cut off further north. The absence of a strategic reserve, correctly noted as crucial by Ferguson, resulted from the perverse effects of Gamelin’s dispatch of forces all the way to Holland. Contrary to the popular myth, therefore, the problem was not an overcautious French high command but a French maneuver embodying risks as breathtaking as General Manstein’s Sichelschnitt through the Ardennes.

Recent scholars like May and Frieser have noted the acute anxiety within the German command that the Allies would cut off the long vulnerable German salient by attacking from both flanks. The defeat of France turns on the failure of repeated efforts by Gamelin and by his successor General Maxime Weygand, after May 20, to organize simultaneous attacks on the salient from north and south. The real issue, therefore, is not how bravely the British soldiers fought (as they did indeed when they were ordered to do so) but why Lord Gort, the British commander, either could not or would not engage the British Expeditionary Force after May 21 in Weygand’s projected attack southward by French, British, and Belgian armies. Instead Gort withdrew the BEF from Arras (northward to close the line in the British version of events, toward the Channel ports in the French version), pulling the rug out from under Weygand’s perhaps already stillborn plan.

The tenacious notion that French defeat was mostly a matter of morale and the Third Republic’s decadence has a curious history. It was first proclaimed by Marshal Pétain soon after he took power in July 1940. It was a politically charged message. Pétain was determined to exonerate the generals (except for the republican Gamelin) and to replace the Third Republic with a tradition-oriented authoritarianism. Long after almost everything else associated with the Vichy regime has been ignominiously swept away, Vichy’s interpretation of the defeat of 1940 continues to hold sway.

Robert O. Paxton

Columbia University

New York City

  1. *

    Could the French Have Won?,” The New York Review, February 22, 2001.

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