The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
WE know in fairly accurate detail the attitude of the French and the British Governments in the long period of waiting before war at last broke out again in Europe. We know that they did not really decide to defend themselves until eighteen months after Germany had uprooted the first frontier markers, until the balance of military power in Europe had been changed seriously to their disadvantage. But the activities of the French High Command in the decisive years between the summer of 1935 and the summer of 1939 have been left in obscurity. It had the supreme responsibility of evaluating, at each successive moment, the chances of military victory. The time has come to make an examination of its policy.
On March 7, 1936, the date when the German Reichswehr marched into the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland, General Gamelin had been Commander-in-Chief of the French Army for fourteen months. On this occasion he gave evidence of caution. He did not refuse, as has been reported, to occupy the Saar. But he was unwilling, if he was expected to carry out that movement, to accept Premier Sarraut's suggestion that no more than the three most recent classes of the French trained reserves need be called up. He said that if any military action were taken, the French Government must be ready to carry it through to the limit; and that the Government therefore must be prepared, if necessary, to proceed to a general mobilization. The French military machine was rigid; no risks should be run of breaking it by setting certain parts of it in operation without the others. For the first time we learnt the inconveniences of a lack of elasticity -- a lack we were to pay for so heavily in 1940. Meanwhile, however, Gamelin also made plain that if the machine were used under proper conditions he had every confidence that it would prove unbeatable.
Early in September 1938, at the time of the Nuremberg Congress, General Gamelin showed his hand again. Accompanied by Generals Georges and Billotte, he visited Premier Daladier and gave him assurances that the democratic Powers would be able to "dictate the peace." Called to London on September 25 of that same year (just after Prime Minister Chamberlain's visit to Godesberg), he expressed himself again in similar terms in the presence of Mr. Chamberlain and Sir Thomas Inskip, M. Daladier and Ambassador Corbin. Later, having heard that M. Bonnet was interpreting certain of his statements tendenciously, and that this had upset Mr. Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, he sent a letter to Mr. Hore-Belisha, Secretary of State for War, setting forth his exact position.
General Gamelin made his attitude clear once more on the very eve of Munich. In a letter to Premier Daladier, he laid down the limits of the concessions which he thought could be made to Hitler. He underlined that neither the main line of the Czechoslovak fortifications, nor the Czechoslovak strategic railways, nor the chief Czech munitions factories, ought to be handed over to the Nazis.
The evening of March 14, some six months after Munich, I met General Gamelin at dinner in the house of a foreign ambassador in Paris. The German troops were already marching on Prague. Nobody could any longer hope that the German flood could be held back by diplomacy or compromise; it could be done only by force. I asked General Gamelin if a test at this moment would not be made in less favorable conditions for us than had prevailed before Munich. "Undoubtedly," he replied, and he added: "On balance, Munich was against us." He went on to explain why. There had been an increase both in the quality and in the quantity of the German troops. There now were 140 German divisions as against 100 in 1938 (50 of them insufficiently trained, moreover, and lacking the proper number of experienced officers). There were five armored divisions in place of three in 1938, and the number was about to be doubled. The three Czechoslovak armored divisions not merely would be incorporated into the German army but would furnish the latter with valuable models. Goering's air force now counted something like 6,000 machines against 3,500 or 4,000 the year before. The Siegfried Line, which in 1938 consisted of hardly more than field fortifications, was now made of steel and concrete. Germany's war industry was at full flood, while our engineers were still debating between various prototypes and still working over all sorts of production problems. Finally, not only would the equipment of 30 Czech divisions fall into the hands of the Nazis, along with the Czech fortifications and all the matériel contained in them, but the excellent Czech factories would also begin working for the Reich.
In spite of all this, in spite of recognizing that our strength had shrunk relative to German strength since before Munich (aviation excepted: here Franco-British inferiority had probably improved from a ratio of one to ten to a ratio of three to ten), Gamelin remained confident of an Allied victory. I saw him again in July. He was still of the same opinion. At that time, he expected war about September 20. He thought Mussolini insisted on waiting till that date, when the first snows would have strengthened Italy's Alpine defenses.
Then on August 23 came the signature of the non-aggression pact between Ribbentrop and Molotov. Russia definitely was not to be in our camp, and might even be in the enemy camp. The Anglo-French military conversations in Moscow broke down at the same moment that the political conversations did. Even M. Bonnet, who had been hostile to the idea of coöperation with Moscow, and who even had tried to hamper the English talks with Russia (as if Mr. Chamberlain needed any seconding!), had become alarmed in the early part of the summer at the imminence of a German attack on Poland and had been doing his best to win Stalin over. The Soviet-Nazi pact was a severe blow to French and British diplomacy. The principal aim of the German general staff after 1918, namely to avoid at any cost having to give battle again on two fronts, had been crowned with success. Once Germany had finished with Poland in the East, she now could concentrate her forces in the West and deal France a tremendous blow. In 1936 General von Fritsch, then in command of the Reichswehr, said to the Belgian Military Attaché: "We shall never pardon Hitler for having given France a chance of seducing Russia." Hitler had made good this earlier error.
I have never known, except at second-hand, how the Commander-in-Chief felt in the decisive days between Soviet Russia's defection and the beginning of the German attack on Poland. But I know that M. Bonnet, who questioned him about a week before the declaration of war on Germany, did not find him discouraged. In other words, General Gamelin was not distressed that all possibility of carrying on a war of movement against Germany in the plains of Eastern Europe, between the Baltic and the Carpathians, had now disappeared. He foresaw that the Polish Army's resistance would be rapidly beaten down, and that France would thus be left fighting for the liberty of peoples without the support of a single one of the East European nations most evidently menaced. But this sudden reversal of French calculations left him unafraid.
On September 3 there came another chance to reëstablish the balance of forces which had been turned even more heavily against us by Russia's "defection." Italy declared herself neutral. But it was a very special sort of neutrality, in full harmony with the "pact of steel" signed the preceding May 22 between the Fuehrer and the Duce. This meant that Mussolini intended fighting by Germany's side in every way except with arms, but at the same time wished to enjoy the prerogatives of neutrality. The two despots exchanged telegrams showing that this was the meaning of Italy's "non-belligerency." We were faced with the choice of submitting to this trickery or of demanding that Italy came to terms with us.
I talked in October with the best French expert on Italian affairs. Despite the fact that the "pact of steel" had postponed recourse to war for three years, and despite the way Ciano had been treated recently at Salzburg, Mussolini on September 3 wished to enter the war at once. Badoglio and the other army chiefs restrained him, pointing to the impossibility of fighting without artillery and citing all the other arguments against immediate Italian participation. My informant said the Italian High Command at that moment would not have hesitated even to undertake a military coup d'état if Mussolini had refused to pay attention to its warnings. Italy lacked many of the most elementary supplies. She had built hardly an airplane since September 1938. She simply was not in a position to choose between war and peace. We had only to "put her on the spot" while Germany was occupied in Poland. But we failed to act. Molotov's deal with Ribbentrop had broken the circle that France was trying to throw about Germany. Italy's declaration of non-belligerency gave warning that another circle was about to be created, one which threatened to hem us in in Western Europe. By intimidating Italy we would have reversed the tendency once again, we would have shown that we still could invest the enemy.
General Gamelin understood no better than the Daladiers and Bonnets, nor indeed than most French parliamentarians, what a shining opportunity lay open in the Italian peninsula. Like the others, he shied away from facing the problem. Towards the end of August the Committee for National Defense discussed what might be attempted if Italy took the field against us. General Vuillemin, in charge of the French air forces, was all in favor of sending our bombers from Tunisia against strategic points in Italy. Gamelin on the other hand contented himself with saying that he would put himself "au balcon," by which he meant that he would send French troops to the top of the valleys leading down into the plains of the Po so as to be ready to invade Italy in the spring of 1940. Darlan, the French naval commander, who generally liked to pose as a bully, kept quiet. I have been told that General Weygand saw quite well what French interests demanded. But at this point he had no authority.
How are we to explain the imperturbable calm with which the Generalissimo looked forward into a future of fire, iron and blood? The answer is that he accepted absolutely the credo of the Maginot Line.
This credo contained the following articles of faith: First, belief in the superiority of defensive weapons over those of the offensive. "The attack must have three times as many infantry effectives, six times as much artillery, and twelve times as much ammunition, if it hopes to dominate the defense." This sentence from Gen. Chauvineau's book, "Is an Invasion Still Possible?", is cited with approval in the preface, signed Pétain. Second, belief that, whatever the Germans might say, they had not found any sure way of breaking the front. The plane and the tank could not do what the combination of infantry and artillery had not been able to do in the last war. Third, belief that for the foregoing reasons war would be a war of attrition. The Maginot Line would permit France and Britain to mobilize their resources at leisure and to choose the time to attack. It was this disdain for great masses of effectives which accounts for the half-hearted way the British set out to create more divisions, and for the inadequacy of the plans for recruiting colonial troops drawn up by Georges Mandel, Minister of Colonies. The Maginot credo nevertheless did not exclude the possibility of a counter-offensive in the event that the Reichswehr became disorganized in the course of its attacks. Even a battle in the open was considered, if the Germans could be taken by surprise on the German-Belgian frontier.
These ideas about the superiority of the defense were not peculiar to Gamelin. They were accepted by Pétain, Weygand, all the top flight of army leaders, active or retired. Colonel de Gaulle warned his countrymen repeatedly, from 1933 on, that planes and tanks made it possible to break the front. He was considered a heretic. Weygand sent Paul Reynaud a note, acknowledging receipt of a book containing a chapter giving the de Gaulle thesis, saying, in effect: "It has interested me greatly, but I am not in agreement with your views." There were other young officers who echoed in various forms the old proverb: "In war everything immobile will be destroyed." But their arguments either never reached the top of the military hierarchy, or failed to convince those they did reach.
But did not the war in Poland, coming on top of the lessons of the Spanish War, invalidate all the official conceptions? Not in the eyes of the military high priests. They took the position that Poland's military weakness forbade any positive deductions.
The eight months of breathing-space given us by the Germans on the Western Front seemed at first sight to confirm the doctrines of the French High Command. The respite was unexpected, and Gamelin received it with joy. It took an enormous weight off his mind. Neither the mobilization nor the concentration of the French army was disturbed. He found himself presented with time to make good the deficiencies of the military system, to fortify the French frontier from Montmédy to the sea, to hasten industrial production and to imbue the troops and their leaders with enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, these things were not done. Gamelin did not shake off his torpor, and he did not break the hold of either the military or the civil bureaucracy. He did not concern himself with the morale of the men and of their officers, who waited around idly in their cantonments and often became corrupted by the totalitarian propaganda of sheets like Gringoire and Je Suis Partout. This side of the French tragedy is well enough known and need not be stressed here.
As for what was done to improve matériel, here is the picture:
In the month of September 1939 the French Army had approximately the arms and ammunition necessary to fight a war of the 1914-18 type. In everything else it was sadly deficient. But even the weapons and munitions of the older types were going to be used up by May, even under the slow rhythm of operations which prevailed. A flood of new manufactures must begin rolling in by spring. But little by little we saw that we should not be ready, at the very best, until the end of the summer or even until autumn.
Only a few fragments of the pitiable story are known. I shall set them down here without any attempt to draw the whole picture.
The chapter on artillery is the most satisfactory. The old matériel was abundant: more than 4,000 75's, including the new model with a range of 11 kilometers, and more than 3,000 heavy cannon. The factories were busy making the 105 mm. gun, intended to replace the 75's. The chief problem here was the lack of shells -- except for the 75's, which by March or April had a full supply. The 105, the 155 and the 25 anti-aircraft guns lacked ammunition. There was a hot discussion on the type of fuse to adopt: it never was settled.
We possessed two weapons which, it seemed, had no equals in other countries -- the 47 mm. anti-tank gun and the 90 mm. anti-tank and anti-aircraft gun. The latter can penetrate 90 mm. armor at a range of 1,800 meters. Unhappily, there was nothing to put in these two guns. The first thousand shells intended for the 90's were not received until April. At the end of May a total of 5,000 shells had been delivered. This is why in the Battle of France it became necessary to fall back on the old 37 mm. infantry gun, the 25 mm. anti-tank gun, and the 75's -- all out of date or unsuitable.
In April the Staff still had not yet decided whether to fix its monthly needs at three, four or five million shells. With respect to quality, it still hesitated between a steel shell and an iron-and-steel shell. The latter could be made more cheaply, and therefore in greater quantities, whereas the former was more effective. It might be noted in passing that there were no gas bombs on our side. If the Germans had thrown this weapon into the fray, we would have been unable to reply. As for land mines, instead of just copying the German model we looked for perfection. Endless studies were made, and never finished.
We entered the war with some 1,700 tanks, and we had 3,600 on May 10.[i] These were mostly 20 and 30 ton tanks, though a few were of 70 tons. Some were grouped in three armored divisions, and in another division which was half-organized. Others were scattered among the light motorized divisions, etc. The Samua factories were to deliver 4,000 tanks in September, and more later. These were splendid instruments. However, there were few trucks actually in service -- from 600 to 900 at most, and this was fatal, for each tank needed three trucks to service it, one going, one coming, the third filling up. In one of the battles of the North a magnificent armored division ran out of fuel and had to form a square in the manner of a Boer convoy, and shoot without moving.
When war was declared, we had from 1,300 to 1,400 planes, but practically none of them were bombers. When the "de facto armistice" ended on May 10 the same number of planes was in line, but behind them a reserve had been built up from the monthly production of some 350 units (70 of them bombers) and the monthly American contribution of 70 or 80. These are the figures given by M. Guy La Chambre, M. Daladier's Air Minister. But some experts consider them inflated.
Details like these reveal the whole general picture. Gamelin and the other army leaders who saw the crisis coming in the spring simply did not know how to impress the Minister of Munitions with the imperative need for haste. There were any number of faults in the army organization itself as well. Take the single striking fact that there were not enough proper maps, first of Norway, then of Belgium. And though the actual mobilization had taken place with clock-like precision, various articles of equipment and clothing were found to be lacking.
It should not be deduced from the foregoing that this General Gamelin, who reigned at the apex of the French military pyramid, was not a man of great intelligence. He was a man of greater intelligence, perhaps, than the other military leaders who had been his rivals in the past or still were in the present. He was 68 years old, but he had lost none of his vigor of mind or body. His reports to the Committee of National Defense were models of lucidity and precision. Léon Blum, very much the intellectual, very hard to please in such matters, admired them to the point of seeing something of himself in them, and hence, perhaps, of feeling a vague sense of mistrust. Gamelin dominated most persons who discussed military matters with him, and this was notably the case in the Franco-British Supreme Council.
What, then, were his weak points? "Gamelin is not a fighting man," Lord Gort said to the English Ministers. But he had won and deserved the name of "fighting man" in 1918, when he kept an almost completely surrounded division in the fight. And he did not show himself lacking in imagination when, as an officer of Marshal Joffre's Bureau of Operations, he was the first to suggest the counter-offensive called the Battle of the Marne. The truth is that he became "academic" with the passage of time. He buried himself in the lessons of the last war. His ideas became ready-made -- he ceased to examine whether they still were valid. He felt that he had foreseen everything, calculated everything, arranged everything, and that he had nothing more to do. Aristotle had fallen into scholasticism.
He was not an executive but a thinker. Every organization needs a spur as well as a plan. Nobody who talked with him could call him sluggish or say that he liked red tape. But he allowed military life to be routinized. Initiative was frowned on. In June General Weygand told the story of a General of Division who on receiving instructions regarding the different ways of destroying tanks telephoned to G. H. Q. to ask which article of the regulations justified one method recommended, namely the throwing of bottles of burning gasoline. There were no human bonds between the Generalissimo and the army. He was a cold light, an abstraction.
How different Foch had been, with his thoughtful but also ardent face! Foch was physically incapable of losing hope, of giving up. Gamelin's temperament was just the opposite -- he sat at his military table as if at a chessboard. He was quite capable, at a given moment, of saying "All is lost!" and of upsetting the pieces. Marshal Pétain is of the same type. General Gamelin changed gradually into a functionary, a very high functionary, who felt he was safe so long as he had expressed some reservation or posed some condition in a letter to the Premier. He was not dominated by a passion for getting results. Temperamentally a mere officeholder himself, he created about him, in his image, other officeholders, high, medium and low. The Republic of 1875 lived in the fear, inherited from December 2, 1851, of "coup d'état generals." It hoped that it had rooted out the breed after the Dreyfus Affair. In fact it had succeeded only too well!
Gamelin had gotten into the habit of compromising with the politicians. Instinctively he sought the middle ground. But despite this, and despite what people say, his relations with Daladier were not really of the best. Between January and March 1940 he tried, if we can believe him, to resign eight times. He irritated the Premier by his negative turn of mind. "The Premier doesn't understand me," he said, "and I don't understand him." On the day when Paul Reynaud became Premier, Gamelin hastened to invite to luncheon the men he thought would be influential under the new régime. And they laughed over it. In conversation it was difficult to catch and hold his eye. I ought to say that when I saw him he expressed himself in the most direct terms. He was extremely courteous. But it was pretty disillusioning when he accompanied you to the door and you turned to find him bent in a bow, his eyes fixed on his shoes.
At his headquarters in the keep of Vincennes he lived in an atmosphere of adulation and flattery, surrounded by a small military cabinet of fifteen officers known for their devotion to his person. None of them ever stayed at the front for any length of time. In this little circle they prided themselves on high culture -- books on history and on art were in favor. An officer who spent two weeks there after serving in a combat unit never had a chance to speak of his months in the field. Nobody thought of questioning him.
The General Staff itself was established at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, around General Georges, Commander-in-Chief of the armies of the north and north-east, that is to say of all the front from the North Sea to Switzerland. There were assembled all the academic celebrities of the army, all those who had shone in tests and competitive examinations -- a thousand officers or more. It will be interesting to know what were the discussions that went on in this military convent, but doubtless we shall have a long wait before the story is written.
General Georges was a product of Foch's staff; and Weygand, if he had had the power, would have chosen him as his own successor in January 1935. He was reputed to be a vigorous leader, and, more than Gamelin, had the confidence of the army. He did not have Gamelin's intellect, but he was supposed to have energy. However, he had been terribly wounded on October 9, 1934, with King Alexander and M. Barthou, and had never recovered completely.
The division of commands dated from a time when General Gamelin believed he would have many fronts to superintend (on the Italian frontier, in North Africa and in Eastern Europe, as well as in Northern France), and when he was entitled to think that his title of Chief of Staff of the National Defense (distinct from that of Inspector-General or Commander-in-Chief of the Army, which was not conferred on him until early 1938) would subordinate all the fighting forces to him, on land, on sea and in the air. Thus if everything had worked out, Gamelin would have held the place of General Keitel, and Georges that of General von Brauchitsch. But Russia's defection, Italy's non-belligerency, and the resistance of interests and of individuals cut down Gamelin's own field of action to a point where it coincided very nearly with that allotted to Georges.
The two men therefore met as rivals. The paradox was that the General Staff, the organ of the High Command, was grouped around the subordinate commander. To mitigate this shocking situation, Gamelin contrived in December to dismember the G. H. Q. and install part of it (including the Bureau of Operations and the new Fifth Bureau, an annex to the Intelligence Office) at Meaux, halfway between La Ferté-sous-Jouarre and Vincennes. To sum up: the Commander-in-Chief and a military cabinet at Vincennes; Headquarters No. 1 at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre; and a Headquarters No. 2 at Meaux. The result was divided authority.
There also were disagreements between Gamelin and Darlan, the Commander-in-Chief of the sea forces -- "the Admiral of the Fleet," as he improperly styled himself, adopting a British term. Admiral Darlan was a curious character. The son of a southern politician, he grew up under the protection of President Fallières and Georges Leygues, both of them from his home district, the Department of Lot-et-Garonne. In recent years it had become his ambition to be named Chief-of-Staff of the National Defense, e.g. to have the same rôle as Keitel in Germany. When the office was intrusted to Gamelin, he tried to limit and weaken it. He affected the rough language of a sea dog, which had the advantage of concealing his natural vulgarity. He was always elbowing the Generalissimo on the Committee of National Defense. He did not like to be called on to give his ideas in broad outline because he soon got tangled up. He preferred to throw into the debate brief remarks, exclamations, fragments of a sort of dialogue with himself. Gamelin exasperated him and he did him an ill turn whenever he got the chance. As for his navy, he pretended to think that everything was easy for it, that no enterprise was beyond the forces under his command, and that he could readily dispense with British assistance. Driven into a corner (for example, in connection with the projected action at Petsamo or in the Black Sea) he got out of the difficulty by the simple manœuvre of laying down preliminary conditions which could not possibly be fulfilled. "If diplomacy doesn't know how to do its job, if it doesn't get me the two ports I need, then don't ask anything of me!" He repeated the same phrase both for Norway and for Turkey. He flattered the English, but underneath was jealous of them and detested them. "I won't shout it from the housetops, but if I hadn't lent them six torpedo boat destroyers, etc. . . !" With that, he had some really good qualities -- a taste for detail and a gift for organization.
In general, high French army circles were too much like an exclusive club. From 1920 to 1940 the lieutenants of Joffre, of Foch and to a lesser degree of Pétain enjoyed the privilege of a sort of apostolic succession. Dissenters were deliberately persecuted. The age regulations ordinarily guard against the formation of cliques and monopolies; but after 1919 exceptions were often made for those most highly placed. Marshal Pétain relinquished the command of the French army in 1931 when he was 75 years old, and General Weygand in 1935 when he was 68. Compare this with Hitler's action in placing two vigorous men in their fifties at the head of the Wehrmacht in February 1938. Some remarkable men have commanded the German army since 1919 -- von Seeckt, von Hammerstein, von Fritsch. Not one of them held on to office, and not one of them, once gone, was ever recalled.
Now we must follow Gamelin's rôle in the war. After Russia signed her pact with Germany, and after Italy proclaimed her non-belligerency, the Commander-in-Chief never wanted to carry the war on land outside of Western Europe. He was convinced that sooner or later Hitler would throw the Reichswehr into an assault on the Low Countries and on France. He believed the attack was imminent on November 12, on January 15 (although on this occasion he did not completely share Belgium's sudden fears), and again in April. On April 3 General Weygand was invited to a meeting of the War Cabinet. He made a long speech in favor of establishing a front in the Balkans. He was sure that the three French divisions in Syria and a fourth brought from France or from Tunis would soon rally the 100 divisions scattered among the four Balkan states friendly to the Allies. Gamelin raised his eyes to heaven. He felt such schemes dangerous and absurd in view of the fact that the Germans would soon outnumber us and the British almost two to one on the western front, and that their offensive might begin any day.
The blockade held an important place in Gamelin's strategic plan. However, under pressure of the neutrals it had to be relaxed. This meant that we were compelled to strike at the source of raw materials. In this connection Gamelin, like Daladier, was torn between two conflicting wishes -- not to divide his forces, not to set the German avalanche in motion by undertaking expeditions to outlying areas, and yet to cut off Germany's essential supplies.
First as to oil. In the matter of air raids on the Caucasus oil fields, the British refused to furnish the bombers, as they were unwilling to divert a single one from the defense of London. We bowed. On the other hand, they wanted to destroy the depots of synthetic gasoline in Germany. We were afraid this would arouse reprisals. We interposed a veto,[ii] and did not lift it until early May; moreover, we stipulated even then that the raids should begin only when the Germans had already entered Belgium.
In the effort to cut off Germany's iron we were bolder, even too bold. The Finns, having received arms, asked for men to help them fight against Russia. Intervention in Finland would give us the opportunity to seize Narvik, the main outlet for iron ore on the North Sea. Daladier prepared "volunteers" for Marshal Mannerheim with such ardor that he risked driving into conflict with Russia, which would have complicated our problems and added to our burdens. Gamelin agreed sourly. Then the Finns delivered us from that risk by signing the Peace of Moscow on March 12. Gamelin thereupon allowed the 58,000 French and English troops that had been collected as the nucleus of an expeditionary corps to be dispersed. For this he was much censured in April, when troops were needed for Norway at short notice.
On March 28 Premier Reynaud had Gamelin with him in London when he recommended more direct action in the matter of iron -- intervention in Norwegian waters. On April 8 the British fleet took the Norwegian waters under its control, and the German riposte came on the ninth. But the British Cabinet did not dare to risk sending warships against the batteries which commanded the entrance to the Trondheim fjord. This meant the loss of central Norway (April 27). Reynaud resigned himself, but he blamed Gamelin, who had been opposed to the widening of the operation as likely to use up increasing quantities of troops and arms. Fourteen thousand Frenchmen had been transported to Norway: in his opinion that was enough.
Gamelin emerged from the Norwegian affair under a cloud. Hitler's success in Norway no doubt encouraged him to go ahead in the Low Countries. On May 10 his troops entered Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. Immediately Gamelin rushed 22 picked French divisions (including two armored divisions), together with nine English divisions and an enormous matériel, to the rescue of the Belgian army. The latter comprised 18 or more divisions.
Here arises a great problem -- a problem over which controversy will rage for years to come.
Ever since 1937, when the new Belgian policy called "neutrality and independence" came into effect, Gamelin had been constantly telling all French premiers that since he had no staff agreements with Brussels he would be forced to put strict limits on the aid given Belgium. The formal warning which he addressed to the Belgian General Staff on January 16, 1940 (via Daladier and the Belgian Ambassador) was to this effect. As in November, when Brussels similarly had sounded the alarm, 22 French divisions were thrown forward into advanced positions. "We cannot have this tremendous and dangerous disturbance every two months," Gamelin now declared. "Make up your minds before eight o'clock this evening. Either you call us in by way of prevention, in which case we shall attempt a grand coup -- we shall fall on the German army, which is off its guard along your whole frontier because it thinks that you will never give us the initiative and that in any case we would fear to accept it.[iii] Or else you decide not to appeal to us until your soil has already been invaded. In this case, French troops will go to your rescue. But then do not expect that with the Germans upon you our troops will be able to go far beyond our frontier." This was clear. Unhappily, actions were not so unequivocal as words.
The French and British Governments did not denounce the declaration of March 1937, in which they had undertaken to defend Belgium, even though that state broke its alliance with them. More than that. After the alarm on November 12, Gamelin came to an understanding with the Belgian staff by which he would advance to the Namur-Louvain-Antwerp line. Some say that the British, desiring to protect the Belgian coast, won him over to this. That is not correct. They accepted his plan only after several days of discussion.
For practical purposes, Gamelin's message of January 16 meant only that he reserved the right to limit future operations if the circumstances demanded. The main point is that he had not felt it incumbent on him to require M. Daladier and Mr. Chamberlain to abandon the declaration of 1937; hence he now felt himself morally bound to execute the political obligations of Paris and of London to the full extent of his forces. Here in Belgium, a zone so vital for France, just as in Norway, the Commander-in-Chief did not coördinate his thought and action.
On the morning of May 10 the French and British entered Belgium. There was no air attack on their marching columns, such as the French staff had feared. Instead, the enemy aviators rained blows on the rear, on railway stations and supply lines. The very ease of this advance should have aroused suspicion. But there was no suspicion -- not even caution. According to the original orders, the advance was to take place at night only. But under the calm, unguarded sky the Allied troops pushed forward during the day as well.
Instead of moving the bulk of his troops forward toward Sedan, Givet and Namur, as many people expected, so as to cover the historic path of German invasion, Gamelin dispatched it toward Antwerp and beyond. General Giraud, the most impetuous soldier in the French army, even pushed on into Zeeland. Nevertheless, he disapproved of the entire operation, for he saw that as the Belgians had not sent for us until after their territory had been invaded, the initiative no longer belonged to us.
I shall not recapitulate the details of the campaign in Belgium. Suffice it to say that Gamelin calculated that the Belgian Army would resist for five days on the Albert Canal and that thanks to this delay he could establish the French troops on the Namur-Antwerp line, a course consistent with his offers in November. The defensive theory would have counselled awaiting the German attack in the fortified lines in the north of France, or at the most along the Upper Scheldt. Yet Gamelin undertook a much more audacious course. How did this happen?
There are two possible explanations. Gamelin knew that two days earlier Reynaud had decided to replace him in the high command by Weygand -- or even by Giraud or Huntziger -- on the score that he was not being energetic enough. Psychologically he might like to prove himself capable of a decisive movement, even a risky one.
But there is a more likely explanation. Gamelin, always an apostle of the counter-attack, believed that he had a wonderful chance to bring the war to a quick and successful conclusion. He ruled out any direct attack on the German fortifications; but he thought that if the German forces attacked a line of steel and concrete they would be thrown into disarray and could then be attacked successfully. He expected the Belgian fortifications along the Albert Canal, the fortified region of Liége, and the rugged terrain of the Ardennes (penetrable, it was supposed, only with great difficulty) to break the spearhead of the German attack. After the Germans had been slowed down by these obstacles and had suffered enormous losses he counted on being able to polish them off. In fact he was so anxious to try this that he was willing to risk advancing very far from the security of his own fortified lines.
According to information received by the General Staff, the Germans would launch their major attack on Antwerp. This is significant as explaining why Giraud was sent beyond the city. The German army would be caught between the hammer of Giraud's army in the north and the anvil of the mass of the French army coming up from the south. It also explains France's undoing. The French plan was destroyed by the evening of May 10, but the French High Command took five days to realize the fact. Already on the evening of May 10 a commander who was really well-informed about each turn of the battle, and who was ready and able to judge its implications, would have reversed the morning's decision and given the order to retreat. The five days spent by Gamelin, Georges and the others in studying the tactics of the Germans, and then the paucity of their means for launching a counter-attack, combined to make the final disaster all but inevitable.
Gamelin's classic military world of three dimensions met a different military world of four or five dimensions. The blitzkrieg uncovered a series of surprises for the Generalissimo. First of all the Belgians did not stand on the line of the Albert Canal. Before the first morning of fighting was over, the enemy had already crossed the Meuse near Maastricht and the Albert Canal between Maastricht and Hasselt, and had captured part of the fortifications at Liége. From the morning of the second day they were hurtling through the Ardennes, a supposedly impenetrable forest and mountain area, towards Sedan and Montmédy. By the third day, as we now know, they had crossed the Meuse at two points between Dinant and Sedan. The hinge of the French line was already threatened. Thereafter the German machine which obtained these extraordinary results assumed a new function. Not only was it a thing of planes and tanks to pierce the front line; it became an instrument for breaking rear lines, supply lines and morale. It found a beautiful opportunity. The confusion caused by the inability of the Belgians to hold or retake the line of the Albert Canal was augmented when French and British advance units entered the melee without regular battle order, without the normal functioning of their services, and without readily available reserves. The Allied armies were caught in the vast ocean of refugees and disorganized troops and could hardly move.
The French and British fought very well in several places -- to the west of Brussels, around Louvain, and between Namur and Dinant. The battle of mechanized units near Saint Trond, in which two of our three or four armored divisions participated, is a glorious chapter. But all this availed little, because on May 12 and 13, from Dinant to Sedan, the Ninth Army under the command of General Corap was smashed. Thence began the formation of the "pocket" which eight days later extended to Abbeville. Blanchard, Gort and Giraud -- all of whom were in the north -- were doomed to rapid retreat or encirclement.[iv]
Gamelin bears the general responsibility for the campaign, but there is also a particular responsibility on the shoulders of General Corap, the commander of the Ninth Army. We do not yet know where his responsibility ends and that of Gamelin begins. Corap's army was the hinge between the line of the Meuse and the Maginot Line. The technical experts of the General Staff always maintained that it would be easy to prevent an enemy from crossing the line of the Meuse, although General de Gaulle held otherwise in a book published in 1933. Corap's army was given very extended lines; indeed they say the division commanded by General Vautier was spread along 26 kilometers. Moreover, garrison life seems to have made both officers and men slack. At any rate, the Ninth Army was late in moving up to the Meuse River, and not all units had assumed their new positions when the attack began.
General Corap had been Weygand's chief-of-staff until 1933, but he was never too able a soldier. Seniority had lifted him to positions beyond his abilities. Certainly he was not the man of tempered steel to save something from the formidable attack which now beset him. He was replaced by General Giraud on May 15. Meanwhile the Ninth Army's general staff had been scattered to the winds. Giraud, travelling about to pick up officers wherever he could find them to form a new army staff, was captured by the Germans on May 18.
It was not until the evening of May 15 that Gamelin really grasped the enormity of the Allied rout. Until then he imagined that everything could still be patched up -- the word he used was "colmaté," borrowed from the war vocabulary of 1914-18. It proved in itself how he had misread the course of the battle. Suddenly, just following the session of the Committee of National Defense which took place that afternoon, his eyes were opened, and on reaching his staff headquarters in the donjon of Vincennes he telephoned Daladier and spoke in the gravest tones. Daladier was overwhelmed.
On May 16 I was awakened by one of my friends who came to tell me what he had just learned from the Countess de Portes. It seemed that since dawn a German armored column had been at Laon. Georges Mandel, the energetic Minister of Colonies, heard the same report. He telephoned Gamelin (he told me) and said: "Sitting before me is a coldly calculating and desperate man." It was Reynaud. The Premier at first refused to speak directly to the Generalissimo whom, for the past week, Daladier had refused to remove. Then after receiving confirmation from him that the Germans might reach Paris that same evening, he sprang to action. The Government was to be transferred to Tours, the archives of the Foreign Office were ordered destroyed. But although the German columns were ready, and were protected from French artillery by their own planes, they did not press on toward Paris. Their first work was already accomplished: they had disrupted the lines behind the French front. They prepared to turn off towards the Channel. By mid-afternoon Reynaud was reassured and the ministers remained.
On the sixth day of the battle, Gamelin, that infinitely serene military Buddha, admitted that he was beaten. The indelibly rigid military system which he inherited from his predecessors, and to which he had given the finishing touches, lay condemned without appeal before his very eyes. As in a flash of lightning, he saw everything. The architects of the Maginot Line, in sacrificing depth and elasticity to rigid strength, had miscalculated. The entire Line must stand or fall as a unit; it could neither be repaired, moved, or rebuilt in some other region. Only in North Africa could its strategic equivalent have been improvised. The wishes of certain generals to retreat and organize new bases in Brittany or in the Morvan, between the upper Loire and the Saône, went up in smoke in the next days.
Is it correct, then, to say that the doctrine of the defense was a colossal error? Not necessarily. How much could the Germans have accomplished if France had had plenty of modern anti-tank guns, if Gamelin had insisted that armaments production of all sorts be rushed? However this may be, the more allowances we make for Gamelin's strategic conceptions the severer must be our judgment of his muddled execution.
To Daladier on the evening of May 15, and to Mandel and Reynaud the next morning, Gamelin spoke frankly and openly, without attempting to hide his own anxiety. But he expected that Reynaud would now certainly dismiss him, and he assumed, vis-à-vis the world, a mask of inscrutability and confidence. With Daladier's approval, but without having consulted Reynaud, he issued his famous order-of-the-day of May 17: "Conquer or perish." It recalls Joffre's appeal on the eve of the battle of the Marne, which Gamelin may well have drafted. Some authors do not know how to find a new vocabulary. Whatever effect that appeal may have had twenty-five years ago, it rang false now. Had Gamelin really regained hope? Or was he more anxious to avoid disgrace than defeat?
As it turned out, Reynaud did not succeed in obtaining Gamelin's dismissal in favor of Weygand at the cabinet meeting on May 17. The next day the Generalissimo pleaded his own cause before Daladier and Pétain, who had just been named Vice-Premier and principal military adviser to the Government. Both men were disposed to accept his argument. Daladier knew that Weygand disliked him; while Pétain, although he had accepted Weygand as Chief-of-Staff in 1928 and approved of his elevation to Commander-in-Chief in 1931, had not forgotten the harsh criticism which Foch and his group (to which Weygand belonged) had often levelled at him.
But Reynaud was not to be intimidated, and at three o'clock on the afternoon of May 19 he appointed Weygand to head the French army. The day previous Weygand had had a brief meeting with Gamelin and had asked to see his register of orders. Reynaud and Baudoin subsequently related that Gamelin was unable to show one, having always allowed his subordinates to choose their own strategy in battle without interference from himself. This testimony may not be altogether reliable. They were worried about how public opinion would accept the news of a change in the high command, and were willing to pile all faults on Gamelin. Weygand himself confided to friends that Gamelin had been unable to tell him the disposition of the French forces, and that he decided he must locate and observe the French lines himself by plane. It is only fair to Gamelin, however, to add that Georges, who was personally devoted to Weygand, could give him no more information than Gamelin. In any case the story does not prove that Gamelin had been negligent, merely that communication between the Generalissimo's headquarters and the commanders on the field had simply ceased to exist.
After Gamelin's dismissal the rumor spread through France that he had committed suicide. But on May 23, when one of his friends visited him, he found him calm and ready to defend his policy. He still believed that although France was in grave peril, it was not too late to save things. Gamelin's friends have pointed out that Communism was rampant in Corap's army. They also have not allowed it to be forgotten that at 10 A.M. on May 19, five hours before his dismissal, Gamelin gave General Billotte, who commanded fifty French, British and Belgian divisions, instructions to counter-attack. Weygand's first decision was to postpone this counter-attack. The apologists continue by suggesting that if Joffre had been dismissed after Charleroi, if the ministry of that day had refused to allow him time to reassemble his armies and lead it anew to battle, France would have had no victory of the Marne.
It is true that the men in power in 1940 were not the equal of those of 1914 -- Poincaré and Millerand. But if Gamelin himself had been really convinced of the likely success of a counterattack, he could have won over the cabinet the evening previous in spite of opposition from Reynaud. If the Allied armies in Flanders never were able to strike across the German salient between Arras and Péronne, if they remained on the defensive until finally the Germans had them completely surrounded, it was because an offensive was impossible both materially and spiritually. In fact things had reached such a pass that the British General Staff had lost confidence in the French General Staff and was drawing up its battle plans alone.[v]
Let us concede Gamelin his fundamental doctrine. Let us forget that the General Staff underestimated the ability of the German army to break through, though for years it had known that Germany counted on that strategy and planned to use planes and tanks ahead of the infantry, with the planes serving as a form of artillery; also that the General Staff ignored the political and psychological weapons at Germany's disposal. We still will find difficulty in explaining why the General Staff rashly abandoned the defensive and threw itself headlong into a counter-attack. And why was the defense of the Meuse -- the historic gateway into France -- so neglected? Why had not more effective fortifications of the Maginot Line type been continued, from beyond Montmédy to the North Sea, in the breathing spell between September 1939 and May 1940? Why were they not garrisoned with permanent troops trained for that particular serivce? Why were not the armies in Belgium, which protected the French left wing, withdrawn before May 15 or 16 so as to fill the gap that yawned behind? Why was no general reserve available to be sent to their aid? Why were such inadequate efforts made to free the French and British armies of the thousands of refugees who, in effect, paralyzed military movements, as lilliputians can enslave a giant by a myriad of small fetters?
Even the most competent military authorities will hardly risk anything but a partial answer to such questions. France, it is claimed, expected the Belgians at least to block their roads and destroy their bridges; they did not. Our line of concrete and steel which reached to the Luxembourg border in 1937 was subsequently extended to Montmédy. West of this, water in the subsoil made it impossible to dig fortifications to the depth of nearly 100 feet, as in the Maginot Line, with the result that the fortifications here were lighter. When the troops sent into Belgium quit these fortifications they sealed up the casements and small fortresses, and when new troops were sent hurriedly to man them there was delay in getting access to them. As the battle progressed, moreover, communications were disrupted and local commanders were left without information of the general strategic situation.
But most of these are secondary matters. One of the profound handicaps was the fact that General Gamelin had failed to measure up to Clausewitz's dictum: "A commander-in-chief must be a statesman." To be a statesman meant that a French commanderin-chief in the 30's would have insisted on powers of an almost dictatorial nature in order to prepare the nation to meet the totalitarian onslaught. But Gamelin was not the authoritarian type. Tardieu, who made him second to Weygand in 1931, and Flandin and Laval, who made him generalissimo in 1935, chose the wrong man. Because Gamelin lacked steel in his will, the duty of giving France the necessary leadership and drive devolved on the parliamentarians. Daladier, and later Reynaud, tried to supply what was missing. For reasons we are not concerned with here they did not succeed.
Even after these pages of analysis the reader will find Gamelin still a puzzle. If the conclusion is that he was blindly convinced of the rightness of his plans, he was, for all his abstract knowledge of military science, an incompetent general. If he realized the weakness of his military machine, but lacked courage to resign and give the country a warning in time, then he was a man without character.
[i] During this period the number of German tanks increased from 6,000 to at least 11,000, and perhaps even to 16,000.
[ii] Supreme Council meeting early in March, the last which Daladier attended as Premier.
[iii] Thus Gamelin's defensive doctrine not merely admitted of a counter-offensive against an enemy disorganized by an attack against fortified lines, but went further and permitted the seeking of battle on open ground -- the war of movement. General Giraud was of the same opinion.
[iv] For details of the whole campaign which cannot be given here see Mr. Armstrong's day-by-day account in FOREIGN AFFAIRS, October 1940.
[v] Weygand later alleged that the British General Staff had disregarded his orders to attack. The British have strenuously denied this. According to a reliable source, Weygand from the beginning held to the idea that the armies in the north must be kept there in order to occupy as large a German force as possible.