Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Vichy-labeled surrender monkeys.

Robert O. Paxton says that the French military got a bad rap for 1940, especially vis-a-vis their British compeers:
. . . Morale was not the only reason for the French defeat, and perhaps not even the principal one. While French artillery and tanks were not inferior to the German, the French army had crucial defeats in communications, air cover, and reaction time. The wildly overoptimistic defense plan of the French commander in chief, General Maurice Gamelin, bears perhaps the heaviest responsibility. Far from proposing, as [Niall] Ferguson says, to "refight World War I along their heavily fortified Maginot Line," Gamelin sent his best units not just into Belgium but all the way to Breda, in southern Holland, in an effort to engage the advancing Germans as far northeast of French soil as possible. But since Belgium had declared its neutrality in 1936, this rush northeastward could not begin until the Germans had already attacked.

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

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

The tenacious notion that French defeat was mostly a matter of morale and the Third Republic's decadence has a curious history. It was first proclaimed by Marshal Petain soon after he took power in July 1940. It was a politically charged message. Petain was determined to exonerate the generals (except for the republican Gamelin) and to replace the Third Republic with a tradition-oriented authoritarianism. Long after almost everything else associated with the Vichy regime has been ignominiously swept away, Vichy's interpretation of the defeat of 1940 continues to hold sway.
Robert O. Paxton, "It Wasn't Just Morale," The New York Review of Books 59, 62 (Feb. 15, 2007) (Letters). Paxton's letter responds to this article by Niall Ferguson. On France's defeat in 1940, I enjoyed Ernest May's Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France, a book discussed by Brad DeLong and Josh Marshall in the middle of this archive page.

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