The defeat of the French army in 1940 came as a shock. How could such a modern army be beaten by, what should have been, an inferior army so quickly? Brig. Gen. Doughty points out that the French were not stupid (”The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-39” by Brig. Gen. Robert A. Doughty, USA (Ret.)).

They did not lack finances. They were open to debate and open to criticism. They made a determined effort not to repeat the mistakes of the past. They conducted experimentation and had inter-war experience fighting wars in the colonies. The French also foresaw the future development of artillery and the importance of the tank. They were innovative (they came up with the modern tank). So, how could the French do everything right but end up so wrong?

French military doctrine was logical and Brig. Gen. Doughty guides us through its logical development. From infantry to tanks to artillery and even the logic and necessity behind the Maginot Line. A logical development that led to a fractured military command. To the idea of a methodological and tightly controlled battle. To an army that was inflexible and unable to adapt to the rapid pace of war that the Germans dictated.

I, however, would disagree with some of what the general says. The development of French military doctrine as presented in the book does show signs of group-think and group-think is a form of stupidity. The fragmentation within the French high command led to competition and decisions that affected the military as a whole had to be reached by consensus. Yes, they were open to criticism and debate but the criticism and debate all circled within the zeitgeist of the times. There was no serious criticism of what they were doing. For example, the logic of the development of the doctrine led to a conscript army and there was no criticism of that. They had no irritating critic playing devil’s advocate. The debate, for example was about one, one and a half, or two years conscription. The closest they came to any form of serious critic was Gen. Charles de Gaulle arguing for a professional army because warfare had become more technical. But even he didn’t argue against the idea of conscription and was easily defeated in the debates as he held such a minority view.

I could also criticise the French’s experimentations. Brig. Gen. Doughty doesn’t go much into them but what he does say makes me wonder if they hit the physical grounding problem; simulate whatever you want to simulate, which is not necessary what you should nor need to simulate. If they had pushed their experimentation to trying to break their ideas rather than just trying to confirm what they were doing they might have seen the limitations and problems they were building before they hit reality in 1940.

What interested me when reading the book, however, were the ultimate causes that led to the chain of events in the first place. Why did the French set off down the path they did? No matter how logical we are if we start off with the wrong idea, it will be difficult to get to the right destination. The development of French military doctrine was like driving from Sundsvall to Stockholm in a new car, following all the rules of the road correctly, only to arrive at Stockholm to find we should have gone to Haparanda.

There are three ultimate causes, as I can see it:

  • Romance and traditions
  • Victory in the First World War
  • Government interference

Doughty points out that in 1914 the French made the mistake of believing that very brave and very courageous soldiers would defeat an invader. And the battlefields of 1914 were full of very brave and very courageous and very dead French soldiers. The French high command realised the mistake and the French army of 1918, as Doughty explains, was very different army from that that went to war in 1914. However, despite the French high command’s attempt to avoid the mistakes of the past, romance came to the fore again in the inter war years. The romantic notions of ”citizen soldiers” and ”every man’s duty to defend the country” led to a conscript army that wasn’t well trained and, therefore, unable to adapt and change rapidly in 1940.

Victory in the First World War meant that the French failed to fully understand the potential of the tank nor were they able to change their own internal culture. You don’t fix what ain’t broken, right? As Brig. Gen. Doughty points out, the French were not trying to re-do the battles of 1918 but they were well rooted in 1918.

The government was another problem. They say the worst thing that can happen to a general is a politician gets involved and the French government did hinder the military development. Doughty goes through a number of examples of this in the book. Going against the Supreme Council of War, for one, or even arguing that the military was too important to be left to technicians (i.e. the military experts who knew what they were doing), for another. Ironically, when France did get a politician as minister of war who understood that he did not understand military matters it made matters worse. Instead of unifying the military, authority was delegated to the various parts of the military command which resulted in increased competition within the military.

The French army of the inter-war years is not the Swedish army of today. There are many differences. For example, the French did not develop the idea of a rapid reaction force. It was total war or no war. However, there are some areas of similarities that make the reading worthwhile with important lessons to be learnt.

The book is also the second book in Lind’s manoeuvrer warfare cannon, thus, should be a compulsory read for everyone in the Swedish Armed Forces (if it is not already). The book lays the foundations as to why we want to do manoeuvrer warfare in the first place.

The author is BEng(hons) PhD EurIng.