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4 Defense Policy in a Fractured France, 1925–39

Anthony Clayton Indiana University Press ePub

In the years 1925 to 1939, the bulk of the interwar years, Weygand’s life fell into three phases. The first was from 1925 to the end of his tenure as director at the Centre des Hautes Etudes Militaires (CHEM), the second from 1930 to 1935 when he held senior military staff and policy appointments, and the third from 1935 to 1939 when he was technically retired but still possessed very great influence. The whole period was one of both ever-sharpening political and social division, which was worsened in the 1930s by the Great Depression and within the military by the onset and spread of what Marshal Alphonse Juin was to describe, after the end of the Second World War, as a military “sclerosis.” The immediate cause of the former lay deep in post-Revolution France. The causes of the second were the loss of so many of the army’s sharpest intellects in the trenches, financial stringency, divisive and deep-seated disputes, and, in the 1920s, overconfidence and errors of judgment.

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6. The First World War, 1914–17

Anthony Clayton Indiana University Press ePub

ALTHOUGH SOME OF THE THEORY advanced by Schaw and Home at the end of the nineteenth century was to prove of value in close combat in the First World War, much was quickly overtaken by the advance in technology, particularly in artillery and machine guns, and the sheer vast scale and prolonged intensity of the war. No army had foreseen the likely nature of land warfare; none had even trained for trenches, let alone forests. Throughout the war numerous battles took place in woods and forests, some large conflicts involving two or more divisions, others involving one or two units but just as hard fought and often as significant politically and militarily as the greater ones. This work can only offer a selection of the most instructive.

The land war can be seen as falling into three main phases. The first consisted of movement on the Western Front as the Germans strove hard to repeat their victory of 1870–71; this phase, which lasted until late September 1914, also included movement on the Eastern Front with the German invasion of East Prussia and the fighting in Galicia that went on longer. The second phase, on the Western Front, was marked by trench warfare battles conducted from long lines of timber-strengthened trenches stretching from the Swiss frontier to the sea. In these battles, fighting for or in a wood, occasionally a forest, was frequently dramatic and bloody. The third phase, in which the German general Ludendorff’s final offensive, 1918 offensives, and the later Allied counteroffensive saw a return to movement, also led to battles that the generals of the Seven Years’ War would have understood and appreciated.

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1. Introduction

Anthony Clayton Indiana University Press ePub

ARMY COMMANDERS AT ANY LEVEL from general to lieutenant do not like woods or forests. No one knows for certain who or what may be concealed among the trees: ambushes, regiments preparing for a sudden flank attack, stay-behind special forces or other units tasked to strike at an advancing army’s rear guard, lines of logistic support, or just simply concealed observation posts watching and reporting their adversary’s movements from the forest’s edge. Until very recently, inside a forest all the advantages have lain with the defender even if his force is much smaller, provided he has made a careful plan and pre-positioned and concealed his men. An attacker is likely to find it exceedingly difficult to reconnoiter, and later to retain control of his men, particularly if the forest has thick undergrowth; his attack will lose vital momentum. Perhaps as few as one hundred yards into a wood, soldiers may lose sight of one another and their officers, sometimes also losing their own sense of direction. Traditional fire and movement tactics become impossible to control and coordinate. When brought under fire soldiers will run for cover, no longer keeping in line. Some, in fright, may well decide not to advance any farther or to retreat to safety. Terrifying noise may prevent shouted or even bugle orders from being heard. Among trees, radio signals equipment may deaden or not function at all. Flat trajectory weapons fired by either side will be deflected, malfunction, or send splinters flying dangerously. If forests are large, maintaining basic food and water supplies for an attacking army can soon become a serious problem, especially in extreme cold or heat. Unless there are roads, tracks, or beaten paths, the use of wheeled vehicles from chariots to tanks is nearly always impossible in woods; horses may be of more use. Tracks can also be easily blocked. Most frightening of all is the sudden unnerving appearance of enemy soldiers from behind trees or from undergrowth inflicting heavy casualties, perhaps encircling small groups of attackers.

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6 Minister for National Defense, June–September 1940

Anthony Clayton Indiana University Press ePub

Among the new ministers, Weygand was to be minister for national defense, with Huntziger as minister for war.1 Most of the other ministers, however, reflected the policy aims of Marshal Philippe Pétain, now eighty-four years old, the hero of Verdun, the general who had restored the morale, discipline, and self-respect of the French Army after the “mutinies” of 1917, the only one of the First World War marshals still on his feet, but a man whose mental clarity of vision and analysis was already noted by observers as declining during the course of the day.2 He was no friend of Great Britain; in the bitterness of defeat he saw Britain as simply trying to use France to suit British needs. He had been much influenced by the Spanish Civil War, which confirmed his belief that social order and some form of firm moral regeneration were needed in France. The pattern for this was to be that of the new national slogan, Travail, Famille, Patrie. Youth organizations and schools would be restructured along very authoritarian lines, as would labor and agriculture. These changes would take shape later in the institutions of the “National Revolution,” the semimilitary youth organization Chantiers de la Jeunesse, the Secours National, the Corporation Paysanne, and the Légion Française des Combattants, and in institutionalized anti-Semitism.

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3 Versailles, Warsaw, Syria, 1919–24

Anthony Clayton Indiana University Press ePub

Accompanying Foch in November and December 1918, Weygand visited the devastated areas of France that had been occupied by the Germans. He saw wanton German destruction of towns, villages, and farms and talked to surviving inhabitants about the suffering that they had endured. The impressions that he formed were strong and to be recalled in the 1930s: this must never be allowed to happen again, and his country, France, must play the lead role in ensuring that it did not. The impressions were to last his life, especially in May 1940. In these views he followed Foch, who saw French security as the prime issue in the peacemaking. This belief was only strengthened by the events in Germany in late 1918 and early 1919: the German army’s triumphal march through Berlin on December 19, the salute taken by the chancellor, Friedrich Ebert, and the rhetoric of the army returning unbeaten from the field of battle, soon to be extended to that of Dolchstoss, a stab in the back by politicians. Further, following the Russian Revolution, it seemed clear that France would not expect any massive support on an eastern frontier, while Austria would join Germany.

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