The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-39, Robert A. Doughty

The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-39, Robert A. Doughty

In 1940 the French Army was widely believed to be the best in Europe, but in May-June it suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Germans, who were able to break through the French front line and cause chaos as they dashed to the channel coast. One of the many reasons for this defeat was that the French simply weren't expect the sort of mobile battle that the Germans carried out, and instead had a doctrine based on the assumption that any future conflict would resemble the later stages of the First World War.

We start with a look at the problems faced by the French army between the wars. These included an awareness that most of France's industrial base was dangerously close to the eastern borders, and thus vulnerable to attack; a general public desire for shorter terms of military service, eventually dropping to one years service; the difficult issue of how to defend the northern border with Belgium and a general lack of manpower caused by a drop in the birth rate during the First World War.

We then move on to an examination of the strategy that the French army decided to adopt, and the reasons for those decisions. The most important belief was the idea that only very careful preparation could lead to a successful attack given the firepower available to defending armies. This resulting in the doctrine of the 'methodical battle', in which the attacking forces were to advance in carefully planned steps, pausing after each one to allow the artillery to move forwards. The pace was to be set by the speed of the infantry, and the time needed to prepare for the next artillery bombardment. The famous Maginot Line was originally intended to reduce the amount of border that the French would need to defend and win time for the army to mobilise, while the main battles took place further north.  

French army doctrine was the product of a careful series of debates and plans, but once the decision had been made to pursue the 'methodical battle' most future debates had that in mind. We thus find some models of French tanks being criticised for being too fast, as they would only need to be able to keep pace with the infantry!

One thing that did occur to me as I was reading, was that the French doctrine of the 1930s that lead to disaster in 1940 wasn't terribly different from the successful tactics used later in the war - the dashing blitzkrieg of Poland, France and the first part of the war in the East slowed down as more and more anti-tank weapons became available, and by 1944 the Allies in Normandy were supporting attacks with carefully planned artillery bombardments, and it was generally accepted that tanks and infantry needed to work together. The key flaw with the French plans in 1940 was perhaps less with their belief in the methodical battle and more in the cumbersome command structure that meant they couldn't respond quickly enough when the situation changed.

I must admit I wasn't expecting this to be a terribly interesting book, but I was pleasantly surprised. The author has produced a very readable account of the debates within the French army, the constraints the French were operating under and the reasons for their mistakes. This should also serve as a reminder that the possession of a clear, well understood and well worked out doctrine is of no value if that doctrine is actually incorrect.

1 - The Framework of French Doctrine
2 - An Army of Reservists
3 - The Defense of the Frontiers
4 - The Legacy of the Past
5 - Firepower and the Methodical Battle
6 - Institutions and Doctrine
7 - The Development of the Tank
8 - The Creation of Large Armored Units
9 - Conclusion

Author: Robert A. Doughty
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 256
Publisher: Stackpole Books
Year: 2014 edition of 1985 original

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