China on the Offensive
How the Ukraine War Has Changed Beijing’s Strategy
ACOMMANDER-IN-CHIEF is not in a position to begin a war as a chess player may begin a game with a new gambit. He has to take over a play which has been opened by others, that is, the statesmen, and then carry it through according to the rules of the game. His strategical opportunities are thereby limited. In the long history of war more campaigns have been lost on account of a wrong political start than by subsequent strategical mistakes. More wars have been won by the élan, the passion, and the will to sacrifice of whole nations than by the genius of commanders.
It is in the political preparations and the use of political opportunities that we find the outstanding distinctions to be made between the strategical situation which faced Germany in 1914 and that which faced her in 1940. The German Army and German leaders of 1940 profited by mistakes of the past even more fully in the political field than they did in the field of purely military operations.
In 1914 the war began with the political odds against Germany. Close collaboration between the Chancellor and the Chief of the General Staff was needed urgently after the Bülow period, but it did not exist. The Chancellor, Dr. Bethmann-Hollweg, clung to the hope of reaching an understanding with England. The Chief of the General Staff, General Helmuth von Moltke, had no such hope. He had no political imagination and he lacked the ability to foresee the psychological and political effects of his strategical manœuvres. He wavered between the fear that the Austro-Hungarian Empire might break up if the war were postponed and the fear that the German Army would not be ready for its superhuman task before 1916. He was perturbed by the shift of the French General Staff in 1911 from a defensive to an offensive strategy. His only idea of parrying this threat was to speed up mobilization and to plan to attack Liège on the fifth day after mobilization. His whole plan was rigid and bound to a strict timetable. His army commanders likewise became academicians. No last-minute change to meet unforeseen alterations of the political scene was possible.
In the summer of 1914 the rulers of Germany were not able to show any flexibility of mind in meeting the changed conditions created by the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and by the early Russian mobilization. Neither the Chief of the General Staff nor the Chancellor was able to take advantage of Britain's hesitation to define her obligation under the Belgian Neutrality Pact of 1839. If the British Cabinet had decided that the German passage through the valleys of the Meuse and Sambre did not violate that Treaty, then General von Moltke would have been justified, at least politically, in carrying out the plan to attack Liège on the fifth day after the beginning of mobilization. Since a majority of the British Cabinet decided for the opposite interpretation, as any good judge of the prevailing temperament could have foreseen, the premature attack on Liège became a major political mistake even though only a minor military one. It took the Chancellor by surprise. Germany was brought into a disastrous impasse, diplomatically and politically, without gaining any decisive military advantage.[i]
The combination of constructive military and political imagination in one and the same man is extremely rare in history. Frederick the Great had it. Napoleon had it. In 1866 and 1871 no one man in Prussia had it. However, William I managed to prevent the frequent differences of Bismarck and Moltke from attaining serious proportions. Again in 1914, as we have just seen, no one German had it. In France, too, in 1940, there was no such combination in one person, and no personality capable of enforcing close collaboration between the political and army leaders.
There is a striking parallel between the way in which the strategical position of Germany slowly deteriorated before 1914 and that in which France's did before 1940. In each case the process was due to neglect of political opportunities. It seems to be an inevitable psychological sequence that the fibre of a victorious nation softens in time, while that of a defeated nation stiffens. No statesman or general can isolate himself from the mentality which surrounds him. In the words of Moltke, an army is never so weak as on the evening of the day when it has been victorious. The same holds true for a nation which assumes that a lasting political superiority can be guaranteed by a "total peace." Such a nation underestimates the jealousy of former allies and neutrals. It will try to postpone new military risks at all costs. It will accept a series of diplomatic defeats. But eventually there will be a violent reaction within the nation itself which may force the political and military leaders to give battle at a moment when it would be wiser to accept one more diplomatic defeat.
Of course, there is no comparison in magnitude between the diplomatic defeats of France in the decade preceding this war and those of Germany in the two decades before 1914. The descent of French power and prestige in the years before 1939 was without parallel in its swiftness. In the summer of 1931 Germany still was totally disarmed, Great Britain had voluntarily disarmed, and all Europe, with the exception of France, was near economic collapse. At that moment France's military alliances with the Little Entente and Poland made her appear so overwhelmingly strong that the French thought it possible to dictate their own financial and political terms to the rest of Europe. Here was the beginning of the estrangement of Anglo-Saxon public opinion from France. At the same time the countries of southeastern Europe began to realize that their economic future lay not in France but in Germany. The European financial debâcle, for which French politics were partly responsible, was bound to have repercussions in France as well. Nations which face the consequences of such crises immediately and courageously, in spite of violent internal reactions, will be stronger in the end than those which try to escape by purely monetary expedients.
The fall of the Doumergue Cabinet in 1934 and the failure to pass urgent reforms were symptomatic of the illness from which France was suffering. Everywhere on his diplomatic tour of Europe Barthou encountered skepticism regarding France's ability to solve her internal problems and to meet her military obligations to her allies. This skepticism was increased by France's failure to oppose the military reoccupation of the Rhineland in March 1936. The sacrifice of Locarno was a turning point in European history. The French General Staff hesitated to act unless the Government authorized a full mobilization. The mere order for total mobilization would have been sufficient at that moment to bring about the collapse of the Hitler régime. From then on the deterioration of the European order was rapid. The sanctions against Italy left Mussolini dependent on Germany for economic support. The financial consequences of the Spanish war, and the German occupation of Austria, increased this dependence. Germany's rearmament proceeded at full speed. Britain and France still procrastinated.
The German occupation of Austria directly threatened the strategical position of Czechoslovakia, and hence the existence of the Little Entente. Instead of facing the facts, the French indulged in utopian legislative controversies and changes of government. The consequence was social unrest among all classes of the population, a condition unfavorable for any military action in a modern war. On the basis of our present knowledge, we cannot say definitely that France, Britain and Czechoslovakia were in a military position to make war successfully at the time of Munich. From the purely military point of view it would certainly not have been wise to start the war only to save a few Sudeten German counties for Czechoslovakia. But the Siegfried Line had not yet been completed. For the Allies to sacrifice half Czechoslovakia's military strength to the Nazis, and then to await the completion of the Siegfried Line, was tantamount to suicide.
The final occupation of Prague completely altered the military balance of power in Europe. Five Czechoslovak panzer divisions, and forty other Czechoslovak divisions, disappeared from the list of potential Allied forces in the event of war with Germany. With the Czech arms thus acquired, Germany was able to arm forty divisions which until then not only had not been well trained but had not even been fully equipped. The actual shift in favor of Germany in the military balance was therefore equivalent to eighty divisions. Nor was that all. Poland's strategical position became precarious. France, which four years earlier could have mobilized half of continental Europe against Germany, was thus isolated. In case war came before 1941, she now could rely only on the Poles putting up a desperate struggle for a short while and on weak assistance from Great Britain. From this moment European politics were a race for time. The Chief of the French General Staff must indeed have been depressed as he counted over how many of his military trumps had been discarded in the vacillations of French and British politics.
The breakdown of the Locarno guarantees had already created for the French Chief of Staff conditions similar to those which faced the German Chief of Staff in the decade before the war of 1914. It narrowed the scope and possibilities of strategical action by France and Great Britain. Thus General Gamelin must have seen that in the event of war he was like a chess player who has lost his queen. After the occupation of Prague and the completion of the Siegfried Line he must have been fully aware that an offensive against Germany was no longer feasible. He knew, too, that he was unable to bring any decisive support to the last remaining pillar of the French system of continental alliances, Poland. It would be interesting to know positively whether General Gamelin favored giving guarantees to Rumania and Poland in the spring of 1939, or whether he was opposed. If, aware that he could not bring any effective help to save Poland from destruction, he did not foresee the disastrous consequences of the guarantee which Britain and France gave her, he is primarily responsible for his own subsequent defeat.
To guarantee the frontiers of Poland and Rumania, and then to start negotiations in Moscow, was a slap in the face for any Russian Government. No Russian Government could have omitted to utilize the opportunity of a war between Germany and Poland in order to recover Bessarabia, the Baltic countries, and the Curzon Line in Poland. In case of war, whether or not Great Britain and France had given the guarantees in question, Russia would certainly have been forced, with or without Hitler's consent, to occupy Poland up to the Curzon Line and at least some of the Baltic areas. Of course, lacking a previous agreement with Germany, she might have hesitated to march into Finland or Rumania. The point is that for Britain and France to guarantee Poland and Rumania, without simultaneously mobilizing British and French forces, could not save Poland and could not ward off the danger of a Russian agreement with Germany.
Why did the Polish General Staff decide not to retreat at once from the Corridor salient to the Rawka-Bzura-Pilica line? Was the Chief of the French General Staff told that Polish strategy had been shifted to the offensive? Was he aware that the Poles did not have enough military strength to carry offensive operations through without a simultaneous French offensive? He could at least have ordered the bombing of the armament plants in western Germany, for which the airdromes in eastern France offered excellent bases. He could also have harassed the Siegfried Line more seriously than was actually done. He should have threatened to resign if the British and French Governments were not willing to bring all possible pressure to bear on the Belgian Government to permit the occupation of the Belgian fortifications by combined French and British troops. Polish neutrality having been violated, the violation of Belgian neutrality would no longer have meant very much in the moral judgment of the world. Instead, the French left the German Army more or less unmolested, and Germany gained time to build up her armaments and increase enormously the number of her divisions. In the Allied camp nobody had imagination enough to foresee the consequences of a simple technical differential. Germany's war production had been in high gear for two years. That of France and England had not. The Allies were not able to bring their production to full capacity even in the eight months following the outbreak of war. Between the end of the Polish campaign and May 1940 each month added three times as much to the German armament output as to that of the Allies.
The topographical conditions of northwestern Europe do not admit many variations in war between Germany on the one side and Great Britain and France on the other. But the complete change in the meaning and importance of space and time in military strategy as a result of the development of mechanized warfare greatly reduced the chances of an Allied victory unless Allied troops had already occupied Belgium before Germany could shift her whole military strength to the West. When the German General Staff struck in the spring of 1940 their numerical and geographical advantages had reached their highest point.
No German commander since the Napoleonic wars had enjoyed such favorable conditions for undertaking an offensive against France. No danger threatened from the East, as had been the case in 1914. Strategically, Germany can survive a European war only because she has the "inner line." In 1914 she began to make full use of it only after the first battles had been waged in France. In 1940, as a result of preceding diplomatic moves, the German General Staff was able to reap all the advantages of the inner line even before the Battle of France started. The maximum number of divisions was available, ready for attack on any given day. The road to Russia and the Balkans remained open, so that the Allied blockade could not be truly effective. Once the Allied Supreme War Council had decided against occupying Belgium while the Polish campaign was still in progress, even the best French military plans might have ended in failure. Because the French and British Governments had followed such an unimaginative policy in recent years General Gamelin was compelled to make a "back to the wall" fight, just as, for similar reasons, the German Army had been forced to do in 1914. If Britain and France, together with Poland and Czechoslovakia, had been prepared for modern warfare and had struck in 1938, Germany's position would have been utterly hopeless, as her armament industry was exposed to air attack from all directions. She would have been the besieged fortress from the very beginning of the war. The policy of the Allies, however, permitted the reverse to occur.
Only with this fact in mind can we make a fair comparison between 1914 and 1940 in their purely military aspect. The limited strategical possibilities in northwestern Europe have been studied many times. There is no leading General Staff officer in France or Germany who does not know by rote all the major and minor variations of a campaign in that eternal battlefield. Thus the actual lines of the German Army's advance in Holland and Belgium and France could not have surprised anybody. The accounts of brilliant German strategy in Belgium might be justified if they were restricted to the efficiency of the German organization, the daring of the troops, and the fact that the German General Staff had profited by the mistakes of 1914. But beyond that they are a myth.
There can be no doubt that the French General Staff, in the general disposition of their forces, foresaw the possible lines of advance as clearly as the German General Staff did. Both were aware of the fact that fortifications of the type which existed along the Dutch and Belgian frontiers facing Germany could not resist for more than a few days. Only a Maginot Line from Utrecht to Montmédy, strongly manned, could have resisted for a longer period. It is always possible to filter even large forces through fortifications of the Liège type. Thus the main questions posed for the Chief of the Allied forces were these: "How long can these fortifications resist? What will be the probable daily rate of advance of the German divisions after they have filtered or broken through? After that has happened, when and where will it be most opportune for us to meet them?" The questions were the same, with a few notable exceptions, in 1914 and 1940. In 1914 the German Commander-in-Chief had to take into consideration a French offensive southeast of Metz. In 1940 a French offensive in that area was impossible. Furthermore, the transference of reconnoitering from the cavalry to the air forces, and the mechanized speed of the spearhead forces, had made the time factor much more decisive in 1940 than it had been in 1914.
After operations had begun in 1914 between Metz and the Scheldt, even a break-through by one army would not necessarily have meant a major defeat for the other. In 1940, however, the audacious use of mechanized divisions could prevent a retreating army from undertaking a successful reorganization within a distance of one hundred miles. Joffre won the Battle of the Marne because he had an opportunity to retreat far enough, the pursuer being unable to follow at the same pace. Ludendorff in August 1918, facing for the first time a modern combined air and tank attack, failed to see that a retreat undertaken for the purpose of regrouping his armies had to be a long one if it was to be successful. In Joffre's case, a retreat of one hundred miles was sufficient to gain decisive strategical advantages. To achieve the same results in 1940, a commander would have had to retreat until the inherent weakness of panzer and motorized divisions -- namely, their length on the road (four times that of a normal division) and the enormous difficulties of fuel supply -- slowed down the pursuit or halted it.
Mechanized warfare is not a German invention. The British developed it at the end of 1917, and the classic exposition of it was made by Field Marshal Lord Milne in 1927 in an address to the officers of the British Tank Corps. Italian and French generals as well have written understanding essays about it. No more astute analysis of the problems involved in this new type of warfare exists than was presented in a series of articles by a French General Staff officer which appeared in Le Temps between November 1939 and February 1940. These articles, dealing with the Polish campaign, sharply criticized the Polish General Staff for their failure to understand the full significance of the new type of attack. It is all the greater mystery that the mistakes made in Poland were repeated a few months later in France.
With the caution due in the absence of really detailed and authentic documentation, we can yet say one thing about the strategy of General Gamelin and, afterwards, of General Weygand. They did not fully appreciate the importance of the change in the time factor introduced by mechanization. The German Army had an immense advantage in that none of its generals had ranked higher than staff captains or battalion commanders in 1917 and 1918. They had fought in the front line and seen with their own eyes the effect of the combined air, tank and artillery attack of the British at that time. They knew from personal experience that one cause for the German disaster was the fact that even divisional commanders were too far behind the lines and
that the transmission of information and orders by radio was still undeveloped. This time the divisional commanders rode in the first groups of attacking tanks, where they were able to utilize sudden opportunities as they were presented and at the same time could keep the commanders of the armies constantly informed. In contrast, General Gamelin, though he himself was in the right position, received information of the serious extent of the break-through at the Meuse only after a delay of 24 hours. Regardless of all this, the fact remains that, due to the nature of the available terrain, neither side produced any strategy which ought to have come as a surprise to anyone who had followed the evolution of military thought in the years since the last war.
With the exception of Bohemia, France has the best natural strategical frontiers in continental Europe. The only weak part is between the Meuse and the Channel. Invasion is extremely difficult in either direction in the Rhine valley if that sector is defended. A French advance would pile up at the Black Forest; a German one at the Vosges. The creation of the Maginot Line made even a German occupation of the plains of Alsace-Lorraine out of the question. The possibility of a German break-through between the Vosges and the Ardennes as far as Montmédy could be dismissed for the same reasons. But deep fortifications of the Maginot type are impossible between the Sambre and the Lys, a tributary of the Scheldt, because of the nature of the soil. Criticism of the failure to extend the French Maginot Line to the coast, therefore, is not well founded. It is correct, however, if it is restricted to the line of the Meuse between Sedan and Givet. This line, with the exception of certain densely wooded areas, should have been thoroughly fortified. The experience of 1914 ought to have made this absolutely clear. But even such fortifications would not have been adequate without an extension into Belgian territory between Givet and Namur. If the Meuse had been fortified in this sector the Germans would have been forced to concentrate their attack on the fifty mile gap between Namur and Antwerp. A line of fortifications along those fifty miles, though it would have been difficult to build at certain points because of the nature of the soil, would of course have provided an ideal basis for a purely defensive war, even if Holland were overrun. It would have been shorter by fifty miles than any line along the French-Belgian frontier. But political obstacles -- among them Belgian timidity and naïve optimism -- prevented the construction of such a line in peacetime. The same political obstacles operated to prevent its construction and occupation by French and British troops after the war had started.
Specific figures of the strength of the Allied and German Armies on May 10, when the attack in the Low Countries began, are not yet available. The maximum strength of the western German armies was hardly greater than it had been in 1914, that of the French troops probably about the same as it had been then. But since 1914 the French line had been extended by the acquisition of Alsace-Lorraine. In a way the Maginot Line made up for the longer frontier. On the other hand, the immobilization of an important part of the French Army so far to the east left the Germans a good chance of being able to wheel the bulk of their army through Belgium and northern France into the rear of the Maginot Line -- a better chance than had attended their similar attempt in 1914.
The political prestige of having military control of Alsace-Lorraine has always been the bait which has lured the French out of their best strategical lines of defense. It was so in 1870 and again in 1914. This point must be clearly understood. General von Schlieffen[ii] was willing in case of war to allow the French to occupy the whole of Alsace-Lorraine. General Groener, a member of the General Staff in 1914 who had been in close contact with Schlieffen, and later Minister of Communications and Minister of National Defense in the German Republic, went even further and advised allowing the French the Saar and the whole Palatinate so that the bulk of the French troops should be immobilized there. In this way the chances for the successful execution of the ideal plan for a war in France -- that is to say, the bottling up of the whole French Army from the rear in the fortified area of Lorraine-- would have been greatly increased.[iii]
To ward off such a danger the French High Command had to do everything possible to strengthen their centre and left wing. Two alternatives were open. The French troops along the French-Belgian frontier could remain on the defensive or they could advance to meet the German attack on the Antwerp-Namur-Sedan line. The first course was preferable, but it would leave the Belgian Army to its fate. We may fairly assume that General Gamelin would have preferred this alternative, but that the Supreme War Council could hardly allow him to adopt it. A German occupation of the Dutch and Belgian Channel ports would have been of vital concern to Great Britain. Nevertheless, the second alternative, if it had been taken at the very beginning of the war, might have saved the Channel ports as well as the Belgian Army. But to carry it out after the German armies had begun the invasion of Holland and Belgium was tremendously risky. General Gamelin must have known it. The advance into Belgium could have succeeded only if the first line of French-Belgian and Dutch fortifications had held up the invader for at least four days, or if the French had had available another strong army to advance from the south, through the Ardennes towards the Meuse.
The Dutch provinces of Limburg and North Brabant and the Belgian Ardennes are topographically the two areas which condition the speed of any German advance through Belgium. The Liège area is of only secondary importance. The speedy capture of Liège in 1914 was a great and daring feat, but strategically it was not decisive. Unless the German right-wing army infringed the neutrality of Holland it was confined to the few roads in the ten-mile strip between the northern outskirts of Liège and the southern frontier of Dutch Limburg. This retarded the advance of the army, which had to cover greater distances than any of the other German armies wheeling around the hinge of Metz. The roads through the Liège area itself had to be reserved for the Second German Army, on the southern flank of the First Army.
The careful wording of General Groener's studies[iv] does not permit us to say definitely whether his own strategical ideas in 1914 were influenced also by political considerations. But his strong condemnation of the attack on Liège for political as well as military reasons suggests certain definite conclusions. He preferred to mass even stronger forces than Schlieffen planned all along the frontier of Dutch Limburg, in the belief that such a threat would force the French to invade Belgium before the Germans. Once Belgian neutrality had been violated by the Allies, there need no longer have been any hesitation on the part of the Germans to march through Dutch Limburg. This would have given General von Kluck, the commander of the north-wing army, strongest of all the German armies, the possibility of advancing on a broad front. Instead, Kluck was unable to deploy until after his army had passed in deep formation through the narrow strip between Liège and Maastricht. Had he been able to use the Limburg route, he would have gained three precious days and thus have been well in advance of the Allied schedule. In consequence he might have enveloped the northern wing of the Allied Armies at Mons and prevented them from escaping to the south.
The true students of Schlieffen, most notably General Groener, without losing sight of their object of luring the French Army back into the fortified area of Lorraine, advised cutting off segments of the Allied armies in the course of the grand manœuvre. That aim was not achieved in 1914. But the lessons of the failure influenced the dispositions of the German General Staff in 1940.
Dutch Limburg is like an appendix hanging down from the southeastern corner of Holland. Opposite Maeseyck, the vital point in crossing the Meuse, it is barely three and one-half miles wide; yet its length is such that a whole army can pass across it on a broad front. A break-through into Belgium via Dutch Limburg reduces the importance of the fortified Liège area, including one of the strongest fortifications in Europe, Fort Eben Emael, as well as of the whole Albert Canal. A break-through therefore might endanger also the best line of defense for a Belgian-British-French army, the so-called K-W Line between Antwerp and Namur -- unless, that is, it has been occupied soon enough by Allied troops. On account of the geographical configuration of Limburg, the Dutch have no chance whatsoever of holding a German army there for more than a few hours. In September 1938 they fortified a marshy strip a mile wide along the northern bank of the Meuse with a bunker line. The bunkers, on account of the nature of the soil, had to be raised well above ground. They could be destroyed by direct fire from the sandy hills on the German side at the very moment when motorized German troops crossed the frontier. So, indeed, it happened. The Meuse bridge at Maeseyck was captured by motorcyclists fifteen minutes after the beginning of the German advance. A few hours later, even before Eben Emael was captured, the bulk of the German troops were streaming into Belgium towards the Albert Canal, and the following day they crossed the Canal at several points. On the first day, too, German motorized troops crossed the line of the Meuse further north. This movement proved to be decisive in the conquest of Holland; it also endangered the fortified area of Antwerp. The complete occupation of Holland by the Nazis was a threat against Britain. Actually it had little or no significance for the decisive campaign in France.
Thus the march through Dutch Limburg and Brabant reversed the situation of 1914, given the fact that the British and French decided to occupy the Antwerp-Namur line after the beginning of the German invasion. In 1914 the right wing of the German Army had to go as far as Mons in order to overtake the main forces of the Allied left wing. In 1940 the Germans contacted them as early as the third day. Thus the German lines of communication on this occasion were much shorter than they had been in 1914, a decided advantage. But if the German General Staff expected to envelop the Allied forces in eastern Belgium, making escape through Dunkerque impossible, they failed, as neither side moved fast enough. General Gamelin might even have profited from the only military advantage to be gained by moving into Belgium, namely the use of the Belgian divisions intact on the shortest possible front, if he had been able to attack the left flank of the German troops advancing through the Belgian Ardennes.
Whether or not the Allies moved into Belgium, their decisive manœuvre to check the Germans would have been to attack from the south into the German flank in the Ardennes. Apparently the French General Staff did not even consider such a move. Why? In 1914 the advance of the French Fourth Army in that direction contributed more to slowing up the German advance than Joffre realized at the time. Postwar German studies demonstrate this very clearly. But General Gamelin could call upon only nine British divisions (in addition, in case he advanced to occupy the Antwerp-Namur line, he could expect the support of a dozen Belgian divisions). Thus he might well have hesitated to start a flank attack in the Ardennes, which would have called for at least ten first-class divisions. Perhaps he did not expect a thrust of panzer divisions through the Ardennes. The Ardennes present a densely wooded mountainous terrain, most unfavorable to the passage of panzer divisions, and there are few east and west roads. The country is such that if the Allies had had superiority in the air the advance of the panzer divisions there would have ended in a German catastrophe. The French, however, failed to reconnoitre properly, either in the air or by means of ground troops. The small detachments of light motorized cavalry which they sent forward were easily dispersed by the Germans. On account of this failure the advance of the strong panzer divisions remained unknown to the French General Staff until too late.
This neglect by the French command is the more remarkable in the light of General Groener's postwar writings. He considered the sharp southward turn of the German army in the Ardennes in 1914 one of the fatal mistakes of the last war. In his view, it should have held its westward course and thus insured a general southwestern direction of the main body of the German armies marching through Belgium. In fact, his chart of such an advance is a preview of the whole scheme of invasion in 1940. General Groener made this plan even though he could not have foreseen that the French would leave the Meuse passages insufficiently covered at some of the very same points which had been unprotected in 1914.
In articles published in January and February 1940, the military correspondent of Le Temps, basing his prognostications on General Groener's principal ideas, though without fully understanding them clearly, predicted the main lines of the German advance. He assumed that three German army groups would invade Belgium -- a very strong one with panzer divisions would force the defenses of the Albert Canal, a second would advance slowly between Luxembourg and Liège, a third, again with very strong armored forces, would move through Luxembourg and the Ardennes to the Meuse. He perceived that both wings would be exposed to the counter-attacks of French-British forces. The provisions made by the French High Command to repulse the attack of the northern German army group undoubtedly met this situation fairly. The advance by French elite troops and one or two large motorized units from between Lille and the Channel was well timed and well organized. But it remains a mystery how the long-anticipated thrust through southern Belgium could have been met by counter-attacks (as the contributor to Le Temps predicted that it would) on the basis of the dispositions actually made by the French General Staff. The only possible explanation is that the French High Command did not take into account the possibility of the daring advance of German panzer divisions along the southern road from Luxembourg to Sedan, paralleling the Maginot Line at a distance often of no more than ten miles.
This failure will remain one of the most amazing facts in modern military history. Articles published in the official organ of the German Army as late as the spring and summer of 1939 expressed apprehension about the risks which German motorized forces might run in advancing on that line. Even hastily constructed field fortifications twenty miles north of the Maginot Line, strengthened by sufficient field batteries, could have stopped the German advance in that region, or at least have slowed it down. This would have permitted General Corap's army to arrive in time to close the gap between Namur and Montmédy. There has been much discussion of the disastrous psychological effect of the Maginot Line on French strategy. It seems to be justified only when it refers to events in this area. Some French army group and divisional commanders plainly forgot the necessity of keeping permanent contact with the enemy at all points, and of trying to harass him. Even if such activity had resulted only in securing a clear picture of the strength and direction of his advance, the benefits would still have been very great.
Did the German High Command foresee the ease with which their troops would cross the Meuse south of Namur and at Sedan? Did the actual crossing change their plans? We still do not know. We do know, however, that the organization of the entire German Army from Montmédy to Antwerp into two army groups prevented a repetition of the mistakes which occurred in 1914 as a result of a lack of cohesion between the Fifth, Fourth and Third Armies and General von Bülow's army group on the extreme right wing. The German commanders were over-worried, on that occasion, about a possible French counter-attack from the south into the Belgian Ardennes. They tried to meet this danger by a tactical frontal attack. In wheeling to the south they neglected the central operative idea.
General Groener had contemplated the possibility of achieving a main break-through at the Meuse in a western direction; but since he could not count on large armored units he discounted its practicability.[v] Nevertheless, his plan to hold all the German armies west of Metz to a strictly southwesterly direction, despite the danger of a French counter-attack from the south into the Belgian Ardennes, left the way open for the execution of such a manœuvre should the opportunity arise. This was the significant advance of the German General Staff over the original Schlieffen plan.
In 1914 the German cavalry failed utterly to fulfill its task. In 1940 the panzer and motorized divisions seem to have been under a unified command within each of the two army groups. This arrangement, and not simply the perfect composition and the new tactics of these modern cavalry units, was responsible for their decisive successes. The French do not seem to have understood all the possibilities of the new arm. Their tanks were not concentrated under a single command, but were placed in relatively small units at the disposal of divisional and army group commanders.
The initial successes of the German panzer and motorized divisions enabled them to advance in the two directions where they could make use of their striking power to the fullest extent. Topographically speaking, there are two lines of advance into France which present hardly any obstacles to motorized divisions once they have crossed the Meuse. The area between the Argonne and the Seine is open country, and so is the area between the Meuse and Abbeville. Both regions offer ideal conditions for operations (such as the military correspondent of Le Temps described in February 1940) by autonomous mechanized divisions fighting in isolation from the main armies.
Exactly what happened in the first two days following the rapid destruction of General Corap's army is not yet known. The Allies' only possible chance of recovery was to retreat at almost any price from Belgium to the lower Somme and simultaneously to attack from the Verdun area towards Rethel, into the flank of the German army group advancing directly towards Laon. The first manœuvre risked losing the entire British Expeditionary Force. The second was impossible because there was no reserve army available for the purpose. Even two modern tank divisions in reserve south of Montmédy could have dealt a shattering blow to the German advance. They were lacking. The inability of the French High Command to execute either of these manœuvres should have convinced it, at the latest by May 24, fourteen days after the beginning of the German attack, that desperate decisions were necessary.
The plan of General von Schlieffen was that the German armies should arrive in full force at the Abbeville-Verdun line on the seventeenth day after the beginning of the attack. In 1940, although the bulk of the German Army was unable to reach the Abbeville-Verdun line on the seventeenth day in accordance with the Schlieffen plan, motorized divisions had already advanced beyond that line and had cut off large detachments of Allied troops.
The French replaced General Gamelin by General Weygand on May 19. They were unfortunate even in their choice of the moment to change the High Command. The shift entailed a four-day lull in planning operations at a decisive time, and the time lost was never made up. When General Weygand finally found himself able to issue new orders it was already too late to withdraw the French left wing to the lower Seine. The Somme-Aisne-Montmédy line was actually the shortest line of defense. But when General Weygand had failed to halt the Germans by May 25 only one manœuvre remained feasible -- to retreat all the way back to the line Loire-Dijon-Belfort. That would have meant sacrificing Paris and the Maginot Line, with an enormous amount of immovable artillery. Such a long retreat might have had a disastrous effect upon French morale. But the choice was between certain disaster and possible survival, and the risk would have been worth taking. General Weygand's decision to make his new stand on the Seine turned the Maginot Line from an advantage to France into a disadvantage.
After the surrender of Belgium and the escape of the British and French forces from Dunkerque, though without their arms, the further advance of the German armies proceeded exactly in accordance with the ideal Schlieffen plan as developed by General Groener. He had taken into account the possibility of a resumption of French resistance along the line Seine-Oise-Verdun.[vi] He presupposed that the French would protect the crossings of the lower Seine with relatively weak forces. In his view, the weakest link in the French line would be the Oise flank, despite its support by the fortress of Paris. He thought the Germans ought to attack across the Oise and across the Seine at the same time. If in meeting these attacks the French were to weaken their front further to the east, along the Aisne, then the Germans could break through on that front between Soissons and Rheims. If the French neglected to strengthen the Oise-Aisne front, the break-through could be made between Soissons and Creil.
Here we reach a very important point in General Groener's calculations. In order to carry out their manœuvre successfully, the Germans had to be on the heels of the French at the Aisne, but they must be careful not to attack prematurely.[vii] In the Groener plan the German cavalry would reach Rouen and Les Andelys (on the Seine) on the twenty-fourth day of the attack. They would be followed by the infantry, spreading west to Beauvais and beyond. On the twenty-seventh day they would cross the Seine at those points. At the same time, an attack on the fortified Lorraine area from the east would be begun. In the actual event -- in the Battle of France, 1940 -- Beauvais was reached on the twenty-fourth day of the attack. On the twenty-seventh day, the lower Seine was crossed at Rouen and Les Andelys, the points indicated by General Groener.
The French decision to make a final stand on the line Seine-Oise-Verdun came, as already mentioned, too late. Looking ahead, General Groener believed that under conditions like those which prevailed in 1940 even the Marne line would not be tenable. He envisaged a wheeling movement of the German right wing, south and southeast through Dreux and Chartres, and then turning eastward to cut off Paris from Orléans. The plan was carried out to the letter in 1940.
General Groener foresaw that the French Commander-in-Chief would then face a desperate decision. Would he defend the upper Seine, a decision which offered certain advantages if coupled with an attack on the German right wing from the Loire? Or would he sacrifice the whole fortified area in Lorraine and retreat to the Loire and a line running across to the Jura Mountains on the Swiss-French frontier? The decision would depend upon his temperament. A French counter-attack centering on Chartres could slow up the German advance, but Groener was doubtful whether one could be made because of the probable inability of the French to concentrate sufficient forces for the purpose. He thought the best strategy for France would be to take up the Loire-Jura line, as the German armies would be approaching exhaustion and would have to allow the French a breathing-spell in which they might reorganize their forces. In any case, France would be in a stronger position to negotiate an Armistice.
In this article we have mentioned the difficulties of supplying the enormous quantities of fuel required by motorized divisions. But no attempt has been made to evaluate the effect of German air attack on the French morale or the French lines of communication. Nor is any opinion offered regarding the activities of the Fifth Column. A comparative study of strategy, based on exact data, leads one to conclude that these factors have been overestimated in their actual bearing on the outcome of the war in France.
French strategy was under an evil star before the war began. If it is true that General Gamelin sent an ultimatum to the Belgians via the Quai d'Orsay the middle of January 1940, to the effect that the Allies should either be permitted to occupy Belgium at once or should plan not to enter Belgium at all, then he foresaw all. If he expected to await the German attack on the French-Belgian frontier, without preparing an attack from the south into the flank of the German columns proceeding across the Belgian Ardennes, then he faced carrying on a sterile defensive. But in that event, even though the Germans might have broken through at the Meuse or elsewhere, thus creating disorder in the Allied lines, the envelopment of the British and French forces in Belgium might have been prevented. Probably it would have been necessary to sacrifice the Channel ports; but though that would have been a serious blow to Britain it need not have greatly affected the campaign in France.
Afterwards, an early retreat to the Seine-Oise-Aisne-Montmédy line, and the concentration meanwhile of strong reserve armies in Paris and between the Marne and Verdun, might have set the stage for holding up the German advance. To retreat to the Loire and to abandon Paris and the Maginot Line would have injured a French commander and French prestige. Yet that became precisely what had to be done. This was the innate danger in the French strategical position. The French Army clung to the Maginot Line and became too extended, with too few men per kilometer.
The Germans won not simply because they possessed superior numbers and had mastered a more modern tactical use of mechanized forces in the air and on land. The political mistakes of the Allies had lost them the war in France even before it began. Moreover, the German High Command and the Army Commanders, most of whom had received their previous promotions from General Groener while he was Minister of National Defense from 1928 to 1932, avoided all the major mistakes of 1914.[viii] There was a clear strategical plan. There was a logical subdivision of the army into groups suitable to the new type of warfare. In the mechanized divisions, further, there was daring as well as a capacity to check it when this became necessary in the orderly development of the general plan of operations. In all these particulars the situation of the German Army was the reverse of what it had been in 1914.
German strategy in France, as conceived by General von Schlieffen and developed by General Groener, was completely successful. If the Germans had captured the entire body of French and British troops at the Channel ports, instead of their arms only, the outcome of the war would very likely have been decided last summer. We should refrain from vilifying the leaders of the French Army, or from questioning the gallantry of the common French soldiers, whose exploits in isolated detachments are among the most heroic in history. France was not lost mainly through her army. France was lost mainly through her politics in the period between the two wars. The events still to come will prove whether the Channel is to be a second Marne, and whether France is still to be saved through the resistance of Britain.
[i]Cf. General Wilhelm Groener, "Das Testament des Grafen Schlieffen," p. 216.
[ii] Chief of Staff of the German Army, 1891-1907. His military writings between the time of his retirement and his death in 1913 were published in that year under the title, "Gesammelte Schriften."
[iii] In 1940 French territory extended much farther to the east than it had in 1914. This fact operated to produce exactly the same effect as the French offensive had in 1914, namely to reduce the number of French troops available for the defense of the line Antwerp-Montmédy. Joffre's decision to carry out an offensive in Lorraine forced him to give up the idea of occupying the line Antwerp-Namur. Cf. Groener, "Das Testament des Grafen Schlieffen."
[iv] Op. cit., also "Der Feldherr wider Willen," 1931.
[v] Cf. Groener, "Der Feldherr wider Willen," p. 239.
[vi] "Das Testament des Grafen Schlieffen," p. 228 et seq.
[vii] Evidently when the manœuvre was actually carried out the French General Staff did not understand what was going on. On May 25 the official report regarding the situation on the Aisne read, "Since yesterday we have dominated the enemy."
[viii] General von Brauchitsch, Commander-in-Chief of the German Army in 1940, was a Staff Captain in 1914, and was selected for vital liaison work between Generals von Kluck and von Bülow. Cf. Reichsarchiv, Der Weltkrieg, p. 353.