French lessons of the Great War


A group of 13.2 mm-armed AMR 35s, belonging to 4e RDP, 1re DLM; the vehicle in front, N° 87347, is the second produced and shows the large rosettes typical of this unit from 1938.

The French believed that they had mastered the lessons of the Great War. They, of course, had entered the Great War with one of the most offensive-minded doctrines of any of the combatants and had suffered crippling casualties. Well into 1917 the French army continued to embrace the offensive, but tempered its doctrine. Failures along the Chemin des Dames led to the virtual refusal of some units to adopt anything other than a defensive posture. In 1918, cautious infantry attacks supported by massed artillery and swarms of tanks secured victory. The French, having turned their collective backs on the offensive doctrine of 1914, easily made a transition to a defensive doctrine. As a result, defensive-mindedness shaped French planning, training, and acquisition during the interwar period.

After the Great War, there were occasional calls for the development of a broader mechanized force capable of independent, and possibly offensive, operations. In the mid-1930s, a French army officer, Charles de Gaulle, went so far as to propose the establishment of a small, mechanized, and professional army to supplement the mass army that France had relied on throughout the history of the Third Republic. De Gaulle’s plan was a Gallic version of a somewhat similar proposal in Britain advanced by retired Captain Basil Henry Liddell Hart, who had suggested the conversion of the entire army into a professional mechanized force. While De Gaulle’s call for the development of a professional mechanized army appears reasonable, it was politically unacceptable and demographically and fiscally unrealistic. France was already committed to the development of the Maginot Line (see “The Maginot Line”), and given the lean years—the demographic population hole caused by the casualties suffered during the Great War—there were not enough men to support both forces. As a result, resistance came not only from most of the army’s senior commanders, but also from a broad spectrum of political leaders. Nor were the French people clamoring for such a development. De Gaulle’s proposal, whatever its military virtues, was inconsistent with the concept of a nation in arms and lent itself to offensive operations.

The French army remained committed to the defensive and the 1918 formula—what became known as the “methodical battle.” The high command envisioned tightly controlled engagements marked by heavy reliance on massed artillery and the commitment of infantry offensively, in short bounds, led by heavy support tanks, only when the prospects of victory were overwhelming and the likelihood of casualties much reduced. Given this doctrinal mindset, in combination with the popular revulsion to the horrors of the last war, it was easy for the French to adopt the defensive not solely as a doctrinal posture, but also as national policy.

It would also have been very difficult to alter that doctrine. First, under the French system during the 1920s and the early 1930s, draftees served for only a single year and then entered the reserves. Extensive reliance on the reserves during a general mobilization made it difficult, and disruptive, for the French to stage large-unit maneuvers to test new equipment and doctrine. Thus, the French rarely undertook divisional-level or higher training as often as did the Germans. Nor were the regulars in the army long enough to digest new ideas and concepts. Second, until the advent of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, subsequent German rearmament, and the formation of the first armored panzer divisions in 1935, the French army had no reason to suspect that its doctrine might be inadequate. While the Germans were able to quickly add an additional armored component to an already coherent military doctrine, the French faced the prospect of a veritable chaotic doctrinal and organizational revolution on the eve of crises that could easily lead to war.

Adherence to a predominantly defensive doctrine also had a deleterious impact on the development of French armored forces. For most of the interwar period, French tanks remained under the control of the infantry arm. Only slowly did the other arms participate in a broader mechanization. Nevertheless, by the mid-1930s, the French had developed a fair number of excellent armored fighting vehicles. In 1933, the French formed their first division légère mécanique (DLM), a converted cavalry division equipped with 240 armored cars, tanks, and other motorized vehicles, designed primarily to play a reconnaissance role. (The Germans had yet to form their first panzer, or armored, division.) As stocks permitted, additional cavalry divisions slowly made the conversion to the new mechanized form. When the French published a new doctrinal manual in 1936, the DLMs’ mission expanded to include employment in the main battle itself.

Nevertheless, the heavier French tanks remained committed to infantry support, and the DLMs lacked infantry, possessing only four battalions of motorized dragoons. As a result, when war began in 1939, the French had as many tanks as the Germans, but the tanks were not concentrated in powerful units capable of sustained combat. Not until 1940, after the fall of Poland, did the French hastily form their first division cuirassée de réserve, or armored division. By May 1940, when the Germans struck west, the French had formed three such divisions, with a fourth still forming. Unfortunately, at that time, the French had not yet fully developed a doctrine to employ their armored units.

Nor were many of the French tanks designed for mobile warfare. Most French models were well built and heavily armed and armored, especially compared to German tanks. In some technical respects—electric turret traverse and transmissions—French tanks were superior. But the heavier French models were designed primarily for infantry support during a slow-moving methodical battle. All but command tanks often lacked radios. In some models, tank commanders doubled as gunners. In fast-paced tank-versus-tank actions, French tank commanders quickly found themselves isolated and overwhelmed, unable to maintain a sense of what was happening while simultaneously attempting to sight their gun.

This doctrine also had a negative impact on the development of French infantry. The goal of the methodical battle was to limit friendly casualties through set-piece tactics that relied primarily on artillery and supporting tanks to suppress and destroy enemy positions. Infantry played a tertiary role in this formula. The basic French infantry platoon possessed fewer machine guns and generated far less firepower than its German counterpart. As a result, when the higher-than-expected tempo of operations of the spring of 1940 left French infantry without tank or artillery support, those units were at a severe disadvantage, not only unable to hold off German armor, but also unable to handle German infantry attacks.