French soldiers in the German village of Lauterbach during the Saar offensive.
The ‘bounty’ of the ‘le Probekrieg’.
Ineffectual French offensive at the beginning of World War II. On 19 May 1939, French and Polish military officials agreed that their armies would attack Germany if Germany moved against either state. Supreme commander of French land forces General Maurice Gamelin pledged that he would invade Germany with the majority of his troops no more than 15 days after mobilization began. Britain and France also promised that in the event of a German attack, they would move against Germany immediately from the air.
Despite the Allied pledge, the French military strategy for war with Germany was to remain on the defensive, wearing down the enemy until France’s own army was strong enough to seize the initiative. During World War I, 1.5 million Frenchmen had perished, and it was unacceptable that such a military holocaust be repeated. Gamelin declared he would not open this war with a new Battle of Verdun, a costly, allout assault on fortified positions. His deputy, General Alphonse Georges, vowed to resign if ordered to lead an invasion. The French military philosophy was summed up in the phrase “Stingy with blood; extravagant with steel.” Given this mindset, any French military operations on behalf of the Poles were destined to be extremely cautious.
On 1 September, Germany invaded Poland. Six days later, the Polish General Staff radioed an appeal for Gamelin to act quickly, in hopes that Germany would divert units from the invasion to the west. The French mobilization had just begun, and most heavy artillery was still in storage. The army’s 85 divisions were dispersed to guard against possible attacks from fascist Spain and Italy while also defending the long border with Germany. Regardless, honor demanded some action on behalf of the Poles.
If France’s troops could pass through Belgium, they might outflank Germany’s West Wall defenses (known as the Siegfried Line by the French). Belgium, however, insisted on remaining neutral. With the northern route thus closed, Gamelin had little choice but to attack within a 90-mile-wide sector between the Rhine and Moselle Rivers in the Saar, directly into the teeth of what he believed to be strong fortifications. The invasion force was designated 2nd Army Group. General André Prételat was its commander. Chief of staff of the Fourth Army in 1918, Prételat had since 1934 been a member of the Supreme War Council, a group wedded to defensive strategy.
On the night of 7–8 September, a few light French units entered German territory along a 15-mile front southeast of Saarbrücken. On 9 September, stronger forces from the Fourth and Fifth Armies followed, while the Third Army advanced into the Wendt Forest slightly to the west. Despite Gamelin’s earlier pledge to use the majority of his troops, no more than 15 divisions crossed the frontier; most French authorities believe only 9 of the 85 divisions on the northeast front were used.
The French advanced against a pitifully inadequate German force in the west. Adolf Hitler had gambled on a Schlieffen Plan in reverse, throwing the bulk of his resources against Poland while leaving only weak covering forces in the west on the correct assumption that the French would be slow to move. The German army had a maximum of 25 divisions in the west, the bulk of which were inadequately trained and poorly equipped reserves. The mechanized and motorized troops had all been committed to the fighting in Poland, and artillery had been stripped from the West Wall. German forces in the west had no tanks, little artillery, and virtually no aircraft.
In the west, only light skirmishing occurred. So cautious was the French advance that a single automatic weapon halted an entire platoon. Artillery of both sides lobbed shells in the general direction of the enemy. Modern Char B heavy tanks supported French infantry, but the French government, fearful of retaliation against Paris, refused to authorize bombing, and the Royal Air Force readily complied with French requests to follow the same policy.
While Polish cities shuddered under German bombs, the 2nd Army Group inched forward. It advanced a mere five miles by 12 September, capturing 20 deserted German villages. Gamelin then ordered Prételat to halt short of the Siegfried Line and prepare for retreat should the Germans counterattack through Belgium. Five days later, as it was clear the Poles were collapsing under the German hammer blows, Soviet troops invaded eastern Poland. By the end of the month, the Poles were finished.
Not a single Stuka or panzer had been diverted from the invasion of Poland by Gamelin’s timid “invasion.” On 30 September, Prételat was ordered to withdraw his troops secretly at night. By mid-October, Germany had 70 divisions in the west. On 16 October, a handful of infantry attacked the remaining French troops, and in two days Germany reoccupied all the territory the 2nd Army Group had required two weeks to capture. Casualties on both sides in the ineffectual campaign were light. Most French losses resulted from a thick belt of German mines and booby traps.
The French High Command lamented that Poland had not been able to hold out until spring when a proper offensive might have been undertaken. Gamelin later justified the feeble effort by saying the governments of France and Poland had not ratified a parallel political treaty to complete their mutual support agreement, although France had signed the political agreement on 4 September.
Given France’s reliance on large numbers of reservists, its troop dispersions, and its defensive mentality, a stronger offensive may not have been a realistic option, but German observers believed that a more determined French effort would have carried to the Rhine and changed the course of the war. It is worth noting that Britain, which also had a solemn obligation to defend Poland, did nothing to assist Poland beyond the dropping of propaganda leaflets. By the time of the French offensive, the British Expeditionary Force had not even completed its assembly. Both states would pay a heavy price for their lack of military preparedness.
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Kimche, Jon. The Unfought Battle. London: Weidenfelds, 1968.
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Shirer, William L. The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969.
Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.