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The French Army Between the Wars

At the core of French civil-military relations for the past two centuries had been fear on the part of the political left of repression by the regular army. The regular army had repressed leftist uprisings in bloody confrontations in 1789-90, 1848, and 1871. It had supported rightwing coups d'état in 1799 and 1851, and a possible coup by General Georges Boulanger had alarmed the politicians in 1889.

One of the principal issues in the Dreyfus Affair of 1894-1906 was the claim by the army that the word of its officers was not subject to question by civilian authority. The politicians prevailed over the officers and seized every opportunity to weaken and humiliate them. The Combes and the Clemenceau governments in 1905-07 forced Catholic officers to supervise the seizure of church property, degraded them in the order of precedence, and appointed a Dreyfusard general as minister of war. A right-of-center government in 1910 used the regular army to crush striking railway workers, confirming the leftists' perceptions of the army as their enemy.

In 1914, a central tenet of the Socialist program was replacement of the regular army with a popular militia. The left won the election of 1914 but could not enact its program because war began two months later. During the war, the generals assumed extraordinary power and robbed the left of its electoral victory. But in 1924, the left again won control of the government and moved swiftly against the regular army. A series of laws in 1927-28 reduced the army from a combat force to a training establishment, a 1931 law mandated laying off 20 percent of the regular officers.

More than any other participant in the First World War, France retained the positional warfare concept in its postwar regulations. Under the influence of Marshal Philippe Petain, the French Army produced the Provisional Instructions for the Tactical Employment of Larger Units (1921). This regulation was not entirely defense-oriented, but to minimize casualties it did insist on careful, methodical preparations before attacking.

The infantry would move forward by short bounds of 5 kilometers or so, under massive artillery support, and at that point, the advance would halt in accordance with specific phase lines, so that the artillery could deploy forward, and the battle could be rejoined, on successive days. Within the carefully coordinated circumstances of a set-piece offensive, battle would involve all Arms to assist the infantry: "The infantry is charged with the principal mission in combat. Preceded, protected, and accompanied by artillery fire, aided where possible by tanks and aviation, it conquers, occupies, organizes, and holds the terrain."

In the 1921 Regulations, the French General Staff expressed the view that technology had so changed the battlefield that firepower was now the primary element in warfare. Firepower made the defense extremely powerful. The French Army, however, also determined that only the offense could bring victory and a successful conclusion to the campaign. Therefore, a great part of the French doctrinal thought was tied up in the methodical battle, which is in essence an offensive doctrine.

The methodical battle had its origins in the campaigns and methodology of 1918. After the disasters of 1916 and 1917, it seemed that the French Army had finally discovered the secret of success on the battlefield, by carefully planned offensives with massive firepower. These forerunners of the methodical battle proved their effectiveness in the Summer and Fall of 1918. In its essence, the tactics of late 1918 were geared to the minimization of casualties of the French Army.

This conception had two flaws. First, such a meticulously planned, centrally controlled operation was unable to react to sudden changes. The German offensives of 1918 had already demonstrated that any enemy action that disrupted the defender's linear deployments and lockstep planning would catch the French headquarters off guard, unable to reorganize a defense against a highly mobile attacker. More generally, the French doctrine viewed combined arms as a process by which all other weapons systems assisted the infantry in its forward progress.

Tanks, in fact, played a very large role in the French methodical battle. But tanks were considered to be "a sort of armored infantry," subordinated to the infantry branch. This at least had the advantage that armor was not restricted purely to tanks. The French cavalry experimented extensively during the 1920s with armored cars and ultimately half-tracks. These half-tracks sometimes formed combat teams with armored cars, towed artillery, motorcycles, and light tanks carried on trucks until contact was made. In fact, the French half-tracks may well have been the models for later German and American infantry carriers. Having once led the world in half-track production, the French virtually ended development of the half-track in 1933. Half-tracks were most suitable for rapid operational maneuver and motorized units, however, which at the time were not emphasized in French doctrine. Thus, deployment of half-tracks was dropped for lack of interest.

Still, the subordination of tanks to infantry impeded the development of roles for armor other than close infantry support. Moreover, while half-tracks might be useful in colonial wars or for reconnaissance tasks, infantry still walked in the deliberate assault. Armor was tied to the rate of advance of foot-mobile infantry. The alternative of finding ways to Increase the mobility and protection of the infantry in order to keep pace with the tanks was rarely considered. The slow speed of the Great War vintage FT tank, which equipped most French armor units throughout the 1920s, reinforced this attitude.

Not all Frenchmen held this view.

Despite such limitations, France slowly modernized during the 1930s. The 1921 Provisional Instructions gave way to a much more sophisticated regulation in 1936. The new Instructions recognized the major changes in warfare, including fortified fronts such as the Maginot Line, motorized and mechanized units, antitank weapons, increased air and antiaircraft involvement in combat, and improved communications. The regulation no longer classified tanks by size, but rather designated the particular mission they would perform at any given time. Tanks could either accompany inrantry, precede infantry by bounds to the next terrain feature, or operate independently, especially after the enemy's defenses had already been disorganized.

The 1936 regulation, however, stiil insisted on the primacy of infantry, the careful organization or artillery, and the methodical advance of all elements in accordance with an elaborate plan. As in Britain, French air support to ground forces consisted primarily of reconnaissance in the battle area, with bombing only outside the range of artillery. The regulation repeatedly emphasized the need for "defense without thought of retreat," which tended to mean rigid orientation toward the terrain and the enemy to one's front, rather than toward maneuvering to deal with a threat to the flank or rear. References to antitank defense-in-depth also appeared frequently in this regulation, but France lacked the troops to establish such a defense in 1940.

France entered World War II with a militia army that would require months to organize and train, and with new mechanized formations and modern equipment that had been fielded too late for proper testing, evaluation, and training. Like those of the British, French armored units were specialized either for cavalry missions or deliberate breakthrough attacks; they were not balanced for all types of mobile operations. Given these limitations, the French doctrine of slow, methodical offensive action appeared as the only course that: would allow them to attack at all. Unfortunately, the Germans did not wait for the French to plan and execute such attacks.

Tirailleurs Sénégalais were part of the force that the French government mobilized according to a conscription law of 1919 in French West Africa, the vast colony stretching from Mauritania and Senegal to Niger. Altogether, over 100,000 soldiers of the French army in 1939-40 were recruited in French West Africa, of whom approximately three quarters served in France, while the rest performed guard duty in France's colonies. Some Tirailleurs Sénégalais belonged to black regiments (RTS) and some to mixed units (RICMS). Some sixty-three thousand of these troops stood in the frontlines against the German Wehrmacht in May and June 1940 and approximately forty thousand experienced combat, of which ten thousand were killed and thousands more were missing in action. Thousands of Tirailleurs Sénégalais were still in transit to the front or in training in southern France at the time of the armistice. While German troops, with some notable exceptions, treated white French and British POWs according to the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, they dealt with the black Africans in a way that anticipated the horrors of racialized warfare.

With the exception of communications, the French Army was not badly equipped in 1940. In fact, they possessed good guns, good tanks for the era, and several armored and motorized divisions. The French Army of 1940 can be said to have had a modern level of motorization. In their approach to motorization, the German and French armies were actually very similar. Both armies were supportive of motorization, and studied it intensively. Both were influenced by national strategic considerations, for both countries were net importers of oil, and were concerned about assuring a supply of oil in case of war.

The greatest disparity in ground forces equipment between the French and the Germans was in communications equipment. The French developed relatively few radio systems in the interwar period, and devoted very little money to developing communications equipment. Yet, a high priority was assigned to the development of communications equipment which would be set in fixed installations along the Maginot Line. The Germans, on the other hand, placed a very high priority upon developing communications equipment, and produced a wide variety of effective radios for ground forces, infantry, artillery, aviation and tanks. As of 1940, only French heavy tanks had radios, whereas all German tanks had radios, and numerous other armored cars and vehicles, as well.

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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 12:06:14 ZULU