Neocolonialism in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa

In the decade following World War II, three sub-Saharan African territories threatened the French project of maintaining its empire as the reformed French Union or French Community. In targeting Madagascar and Cameroon, Paris strove to preserve the French Union. In making an example of Guinea, which had refused junior partnership in the French Community, Paris hoped to demonstrate that nation’s inability to assume the responsibilities of independence and to dissuade other territories from following its path. French victories were short lived. By the end of 1960, virtually all French sub-Saharan African territories had become sovereign independent nations. The UN trust territories of Cameroon and Togo claimed their independence in January and April 1960, respectively. In June, Senegal, French Soudan, and Madagascar declared independence. They were followed in August by Dahomey, Niger, Upper Volta, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Ubangi-Shari, Middle Congo, and Gabon. Finally, in November, Mauritania became a sovereign state. Thus, by the end of 1960, the eight territories of French West Africa, the four of French Equatorial Africa, the two UN trusts, and Madagascar had declared their independence from France. Having devised the means to maintain dominance through economic and military agreements, France was ready to relinquish political control – and to unburden itself of the onus of colonial rule. None of the territories that achieved independence in 1960 was subjected to the dire consequences imposed on Guinea two years previously.

The French African territories were independent but weak. Most of the new nations were small and impoverished, and France remained a significant force in their political and economic affairs – in a relationship that typified neocolonialism. Africa remained France’s most important source of raw materials and, after Europe, its second most important market for exports. French state-owned enterprises invested heavily in African oil and minerals. In a number of former colonies, France continued to control the radio, telecommunications, and military communications networks. In many countries, French citizens retained important positions in government and influenced economic, foreign policy, and military decisions. Thousands of government-sponsored teachers, technicians, and medical and military personnel, as well as tens of thousands of private entrepreneurs, lived and worked in the former colonies. Decades after the colonies became independent, France exploited their natural resources, profited from investments in their economies, and propped up or overthrew their governments. No other former imperial power intervened to the same extent in the internal affairs of its onetime possessions.

Once African territories became independent, French-African affairs were directed from the Africa Cell, a secretive body that was separate from the Foreign Ministry and worked under the personal direction of the French president. From 1960 to 1974, the Africa Cell was headed by Jacques Foccart, who not only shaped France’s Africa policy but also directed the activities of the French intelligence agency, SDECE, throughout Francophone Africa. As such, Foccart had enormous power in making or breaking African governments. Successive French presidents and heads of the Africa Cell cultivated close personal ties with the leaders of Francophone African states and established pacts that stressed loyalty and reciprocity. Until the early 1990s, the personalization of politics bound France to its African clients, even after the extent of their corrupt, repressive, and authoritarian practices had been exposed. Personal ties were strengthened by annual Franco-African summits that included French presidents and their Francophone African counterparts.

France’s ties to its former colonies were formalized by a number of cooperation agreements signed in the early 1960s and subsequently updated. The agreements covered economic, monetary, and foreign affairs; defense and security; strategic minerals; and other domains. Whereas the French Community agreement of 1958 gave France sole authority in these areas, the new cooperation agreements were billed as giving African nations a voice. In reality, they perpetuated French dominance. Although most former French territories signed such agreements, four of them – Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Cameroon, and Gabon – constituted the pillars of the postcolonial system. Their political and economic policies were crafted to protect French interests, and their rulers, boasting close personal ties to France, reigned supreme for periods ranging from two to four decades. If the regimes or their policies were threatened, Paris used its political, economic, and military clout to restore the balance.

The postindependence economic cooperation agreements preserved the mercantilist relationship between Paris and its former colonies. For France, they guaranteed markets for exports and privileged access to Africa’s raw materials, the most important of which were critical to French aeronautical, nuclear energy, and armaments industries. The former colonies agreed to limit their imports from other countries. As a result, France remained the dominant supplier of goods and services, even though French prices generally exceeded the world average by substantial amounts. Even after the 1963 Yaoundé Convention opened Francophone African markets to all members of the European Economic Community, France continued to maintain a large trade surplus with Africa, in part because French foreign aid and loans to African governments were tied to French goods and services. Large French trading companies still controlled the import-export market, and French industries continued to dominate African manufacturing sectors.

Economic cooperation agreements were complemented by monetary accords. Most former French colonies joined the African Financial Community (CFA) or franc zone, a monetary union whose participants shared a common currency, the value of which was linked to the French franc. Membership in the franc zone bestowed a number of benefits on its African participants. The CFA franc was convertible – unlike the currencies of many individual African countries. The currency’s convertibility meant that the French Treasury would exchange any quantity of CFA francs for hard currency. Moreover, the CFA franc was guaranteed by the Bank of France. Countries with balance-of-payments difficulties were able to draw on the foreign exchange reserves of members with a surplus. However, membership in the franc zone also had drawbacks. African participants surrendered their economic autonomy. Monetary and financial regulations – and, by extension, economic policies – were determined in Paris. The issue and circulation of currency was under French control. France was permitted to devalue the CFA currency without consulting African governments, and French administrators could veto the decisions of African central banks. Lack of restrictions on capital transfers meant that French firms repatriated significant portions of their profits rather than reinvesting them in African economies.

These shortcomings were not merely theoretical. In the late 1980s, when many African countries were in economic crisis, the French Treasury was forced to bail out a number of clients threatened with bankruptcy, repaying their IMF and World Bank debts. The bailouts constituted a huge expense for French taxpayers and resulted in a dramatic revision to French policy. In 1993, Paris took the unprecedented step of suspending the free convertibility of the CFA franc and announced that, henceforth, prospective aid recipients must implement IMF and World Bank structural adjustment and good governance programs before receiving French aid. Moreover, France would no longer bail out corrupt countries with failing economies. In January 1994, France made another unforeseen move, unilaterally devaluing the CFA franc by 50 percent. Shock waves spread across the franc zone. Import costs doubled, and foreign exchange earnings plummeted. Household income and living standards declined precipitously. These critical actions were taken without input from African governments.

Like the postindependence economic and monetary accords, military cooperation agreements provided the framework for permanent French involvement in the former colonies. Parties to the agreements were required to buy French weapons and equipment and to hire French military and technical advisors. They could also appeal for French military intervention to quash internal or external threats to their regimes. In exchange, France was guaranteed access to strategic raw materials in the signatory countries. Most important among these were oil, natural gas, and uranium, the critical element in nuclear-power production. France was granted a priority right to buy such strategic materials and to limit or prevent their export to other countries if such actions were determined to be in “the interests of common defense.”9 Related military training and technical assistance agreements guaranteed French training to African armed forces, while the French intelligence agency trained African intelligence operatives as well as local police forces. From the early 1960s through 1992, France trained some 40,000 African military officers. In some instances, French officers remained after independence to organize, train, and advise the new national armies. In others, African soldiers were sent for training in France. These agreements gave France enormous influence over the size and capabilities of African armies. As the major weapons supplier in its former colonies, France also had significant influence over the regional balance of power.

The military accords granted France enormous clout by permitting the former imperial power to retain military bases and keep large numbers of troops on African soil. In 1960, when most French African colonies attained their independence, more than 60,000 French troops were lodged in some ninety garrisons in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. The number of troops in North Africa was far greater – with 500,000 French troops in Algeria alone. In the context of widespread decolonization, France determined that it was politically risky to station such large numbers of troops in Africa. As a result, when the Algerian war ended in 1962, France began to diminish its military presence on the continent. Between 1962 and 1964, some 300,000 French troops departed, leaving more than 23,000 French troops in nearly forty garrisons. France closed most of its military bases, retaining only those in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, and Madagascar. In the mid-1970s, after its ejection from the bases in Chad and Madagascar, France established new ones in Gabon, the Central African Republic, Djibouti, and on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion.

Despite these moves, France retained a considerable military presence in Africa. By the late 1970s, some 15,000 French troops were still garrisoned in more than twenty African states and territories, and France continued to maintain transit, refueling, and support facilities across the continent. Nor did the removal of hundreds of thousands of troops herald the end of French military intervention. Contingents in Africa were supplemented by rapid deployment forces composed of mobile airborne troops, which were stationed in France and ready to intervene whenever and wherever necessary. As late as 1993, a rapid deployment force of 44,500 men was ready to leave France on short notice to protect French interests in Africa.

French Military Intervention in African Affairs

During the first three decades of African independence, France was involved in some three dozen military interventions in sixteen African countries, including Benin, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Comoros, Congo-Brazzaville, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Gabon, Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo, and Zaire. In most cases, France acted to protect allied regimes from internal threats to their power rather than from external aggression. In some instances, French intervention was sparked by concern about communist subversion or intrusion into France’s privileged domain by Anglophone or Arab interests.

French government concerns about communist subversion were nearly matched by its antipathy toward American political and economic expansion into France’s “traditional” spheres of influence. Hostility toward the United States had been preceded by centuries of competition with Britain. Paris’s aversion to Anglophone influence in Africa, the so-called Fashoda complex, is frequently attributed to a 1898 incident at Fashoda, Sudan, where a British military challenge thwarted French dreams of building an empire from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Even after the dissolution of its empire in the 1950s and 1960s, France considered its former colonies to be a pré carré (private domain) or chasse gardée (private hunting ground) – off limits to other powers, much as the United States applied the Monroe Doctrine to Latin America. To safeguard its supremacy, France expanded its sphere of influence to include Francophone countries that had been colonized by Belgium (Congo/Zaire, Rwanda, and Burundi) and sought to undermine the influence of Anglophone countries such as Nigeria and Uganda, which it considered to be British and American surrogates. Thus, during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967–70, France was the main source of arms for the Biafran secessionist movement. In the 1990s, France supported a Hutu extremist regime in Rwanda in its bid to destroy the Uganda-backed Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel movement composed primarily of Rwandan Tutsi refugees and their descendants, who had been exiled in Anglophone Uganda. It was these Hutu extremists who perpetrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide that claimed nearly one million lives. Paris also supported Zaire’s brutal dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko (formerly, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu), until he was driven from power in 1997 by a Zairian rebel movement supported by Uganda and RPF-led Rwanda.

Six cases of French military intervention are briefly considered here, including those in Cameroon, Niger, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Chad, and Zaire. In each case, French predominance was believed to be threatened by communist, Anglophone, or pan-Arab interests. Two countries, Cameroon and Gabon, were among France’s four political and economic pillars on the continent. All six countries possessed important deposits of strategic minerals, particularly uranium, which France desired for both weapons and energy production. Protection of France’s privileged access to uranium was a factor in French intervention in Niger, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Chad, and Zaire. Gabon and Chad also possessed important oil reserves. Diamonds were found in the Central African Republic and Zaire, while the latter also claimed rich deposits of copper, cobalt, and a plethora of other strategic minerals.

Although all six cases displayed a number of commonalities, they also exhibited differences. In Cameroon, France engaged in a long-term counterinsurgency operation, which diverged from the more common pattern of thwarting or supporting military coups. Following its expulsion from the RDA and banning by the French government in 1955, the UPC had transformed itself into a guerrilla movement. With longstanding ties to the PCF and to nationalists in British Cameroon, the UPC sparked French concerns about both communist and Anglophone infringement. Immediately after Cameroon’s independence, President Ahmadou Ahidjo, who was closely tied to metropolitan interests, requested French assistance in quashing the UPC insurrection. France sent 300 military officers to orchestrate the Cameroonian government’s response and five French battalions to enact it. In the ensuing months, some 3,000 rebels were killed, and thousands of civilians died as a result of the war. Ahidjo subsequently banned all opposition parties and, with SDECE support, established an extensive domestic security apparatus. The insurgency was quelled in the mid-1960s, and Ahidjo clung to power until 1982.

French intervention in Niger included thwarting a coup d’état, supporting a coup d’état, and waging a counterinsurgency operation. In 1963, French troops helped crush an attempted coup against Hamani Diori’s government, which had granted France priority access to uranium deposits and other strategic minerals. In 1964–65, France assisted Diori in putting down a rebellion led by Sawaba, an outlawed organization that had emerged from the Nigerien Democratic Union, Niger’s renegade RDA branch. Sawaba, like the UPC, played into French fears of communist and Anglophone infiltration. The organ-ization’s guerrillas were trained and equipped by the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc countries, Cuba, China, and North Vietnam. They also received support from radical African states, including Algeria and Ghana. Equally worrisome, Sawaba’s popular base was linked ethnically, culturally, and economically to Nigeria, France’s Anglophone nemesis in the region. French intelligence officers, who continued to dominate Niger’s security apparatus, kept close tabs on Sawaba’s activities, while French security officers supervised the beating and torture of captured Sawaba guerrillas. French soldiers were stationed in several Nigerien cities, and Paris retained military bases in Niger until the end of 1964, when the conclusion of the Algerian war rendered their presence less crucial. French support for Diori waned with his loyalty. In 1974, the Nigerien president attempted to negotiate more favorable terms for uranium sales, at a time when Nigerien uranium constituted two-thirds of that used by French nuclear reactors and French firms held significant shares in Niger’s uranium exploration and production. Shortly after negotiations began, Diori was overthrown by a military coup. The French military did not intervene to support him.

In Gabon, where France had extensive investments in uranium, oil, natural gas, manganese, iron, and timber, Paris supported a client regime by suppressing domestic dissent and restoring the president to power following a military coup. In 1960, SDECE intervened in Gabon’s presidential elections to ensure the victory of Léon M’ba, who was willing to cater to French interests. In 1960 and 1962, France helped M’ba put down internal unrest aimed at his increasingly repressive government. In February 1964, 600 French paratroopers reinstated M’ba after he was toppled by a coup d’état, which French President Charles de Gaulle believed was orchestrated by the CIA to give the United States access to Gabon’s oil, uranium, and other strategic resources. In Gabon, there were widespread protests against the dictator’s reinstatement.

After M’ba’s death in 1967, his successor, Omar Bongo, was handpicked by SDECE’s Africa chief, Jacques Foccart. During Bongo’s forty-two year reign, French paratroopers and pilots were permanently stationed near the Gabonese capital, and French officers trained the country’s military and intelligence networks. Notoriously repressive and corrupt, Bongo siphoned off Gabon’s oil wealth to become one of Africa’s richest rulers. The year after its client was installed in Gabon, France intervened in the Nigerian Civil War, hoping to undermine the power of the Anglophone giant. SDECE agents convinced Bongo to recognize the Biafran secessionists and to permit France to use Gabon as a resupply area. Over the course of the war, France covertly supplied the Biafrans with 350 tons of weapons, transferred through both Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire.

In the Central African Republic, France supported regime change to safeguard its interests – failing to intervene in some cases and aggressively intervening in others. In 1960, France actively supported David Dacko as the nation’s first president. Military and economic cooperation agreements permitted France to station troops in the country and to control uranium exploration and production. Dacko quickly instituted a one-party state that was rife with corruption. Hoping to gain popular support by demonstrating his independence, Dacko eliminated French monopolies on diamonds and lumber and accepted Chinese aid. On New Year’s Eve in 1965, Dacko was overthrown in a military coup led by army chief of staff Colonel Jean-Bédel Bokassa. French troops in the capital did not intervene.

Claiming that he was saving the country from international communism, Bokassa began a decade and a half of brutal dictatorial rule. He changed the name of his country to the Central African Empire and was crowned emperor in a ceremony reputed to have cost $30 million. Concerned that Bokassa’s repressive policies and erratic behavior threatened French interests, SDECE planned another coup. In September 1979, in what Jacques Foccart called “France’s last colonial expedition,” French paratroopers and intelligence agents deposed the emperor and restored Dacko to power. As before, Dacko permitted a strong French military and bureaucratic presence in the country. However, in September 1981, when Dacko was overthrown by army chief of staff General André Kolingba, who had important French military connections, France again chose not to intervene. Another in a long line of corrupt dictators, Kolingba maintained close relations with France through the end of the Cold War.

French intervention in Chad, which occurred in 1968–75, 1977–80, and 1983–84, was perhaps the most drawn-out of France’s military actions in postcolonial Africa. Bordering on six states, Chad was rich in uranium and oil and an important source of cotton for the French textile industry. Concerned about Soviet, Libyan, and American intrusion, Paris acted to ensure the survival of a regime friendly to French interests. During the colonial period, France had focused its development efforts in Chad’s predominantly Christian and Sara south, neglecting the heavily Muslim northern region. As a result, Sara and other southerners dominated the state at independence. In 1962, President Ngartha François Tombalbaye, a southerner, outlawed all political parties except his own and appointed primarily southerners to the government and civil service. Discrimination against the Muslim north led to the establishment of the multi-ethnic Front for the National Liberation of Chad (FROLINAT) in 1966 and the commencement of armed struggle. Between 1968 and 1971, the French military helped Tombalbaye’s regime recapture most of the rebel-held regions. In the meantime, Captain Muammar al-Qaddafi came to power in neighboring Libya following a 1969 coup d’état. When Nasser died in September 1970, Qaddafi assumed the leadership of the pan-Arab movement, which supported Arab emancipation and unity in Africa and the Middle East. Hoping to draw Chad into the Libyan sphere, Qaddafi openly supported the Chadian rebels, contributing to tensions between FROLINAT’s primarily Arab leadership and Tubu fighters on the ground.

By 1975, when Tombalbaye was killed in a coup d’état, Chad’s north-south division had been replaced by a more complex pattern of ethnic and intra-ethnic conflict. At one time or another, France and Libya supported most of the factions with military and economic aid. Although the factionalism was domestic in origin, foreign involvement made it particularly lethal. General Félix Malloum, chair of the newly established military junta, incorporated more northern and eastern Muslims in his government, but southern Sara continued to dominate. Among the northern rebels, rivalry between Arabs and Tubus was further complicated by divisions among Tubu groups. Goukouni Oueddei’s Tubu faction, residing near the Libyan border, identified strongly with the peoples of southern Libya. Hissène Habré’s Tubu faction, located further south, was oriented toward Sudan in the east. Under Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s center-right government (1974–81), France provided covert assistance to Habré, while Libya supported Goukouni Oueddei. The United States, which considered Libya to be a Soviet proxy as well as a sponsor of international terrorism, supported whichever side was opposed by the Libyans.

By the spring of 1978, half of Chad was under rebel control. Malloum appealed for the return of French troops and made an alliance with Habré, who joined the government as prime minister. France supplied 2,000 troops and Jaguar fighter-bombers to stem Goukouni’s advance. By March 1979, more than 10,000 Chadians had died in the violence. A peace accord was signed in August, followed by the establishment of a Transitional Government of National Unity (GUNT), which was recognized by the OAU as Chad’s legitimate government. Goukouni assumed the position of president, and Habré was named minister of national defense. By late March 1980, it was clear that GUNT had failed. French troops and OAU peacekeepers stood by as Habré’s forces took control of part of the capital. Libya responded to GUNT’s appeal for assistance, providing money, training facilities, and troops.

Under François Mitterrand’s socialist government (1981–95), France again changed course. Committed to backing the OAU solution, the new French government threw its support to Goukouni, offering economic aid and support for an OAU peacekeeping force in exchange for Libyan withdrawal from Chad. Goukouni agreed, and Libyan soldiers departed. The Reagan administration, however, believed that Qaddafi was an agent of international communism. Worried that Chad, Sudan, Egypt, and Nigeria would fall like dominos, President Reagan authorized the CIA to funnel large amounts of cash, arms, and vehicles to Habré’s rebels, undermining the OAU peacekeeping operation. In June 1982, largely as a result of American covert funding and military support, Habré returned to power. In another about-face, France recognized the Habré government as a fait accompli and the one most likely to protect French interests.

Goukouni again turned to Libya for assistance. In June 1983, Goukouni’s forces, armed with sophisticated military equipment and backed by 2,000 Libyan regulars, attacked Habré’s forces in Chad. France, the United States, and their regional proxy – Zaire – came to Habré’s rescue. While the United States provided military advisors and aid, and Zaire sent aircraft and paratroopers, France supplied some 3,000 troops, as well as weapons, equipment, and logistical support. The Chad campaign of August 1983 to September 1984 was France’s largest military intervention in Africa since Algeria. Habré ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, when he was ousted by his former chief military advisor, Idriss Déby. Habré’s brutal eight-year reign was marked by the systematic use of torture and thousands of political murders.

Paris also had a strong presence in Zaire, which followed France as the world’s second most populous Francophone country. French businesses had important interests in the copper and cobalt mines of Shaba (formerly Katanga) Province. They helped build the massive hydroelectric dams near the capital city and assisted in the construction of ports, airports, and telecommunications infrastructure. In the 1970s and 1980s, France bailed out the nearly bankrupt Mobutu regime and provided it with sophisticated military equipment – including Mirage F1 fighter jets, Alouette III helicopters, armored cars, and weaponry – as well French instructors to teach Zairian soldiers how to use them.

France also intervened in Zaire militarily. In 1977 and again in 1978, Zairian rebels based in Angola attacked the mineral-rich Shaba Province. Claiming that it was repelling a Soviet-backed invasion from MPLA territory, France helped Mobutu ward off the first wave of attacks in April 1977 by transporting Moroccan troops and military vehicles to the embattled region. In May 1978, Paris sent 1,000 French paratroopers to break the siege of Kolwezi, an important Shaba mining center. In a strategic region challenged by Anglophone interests, Zaire was France’s final hope. As a result, the French courtship of Mobutu endured for two decades. Having “lost” Rwanda in 1994 to the English-speaking RPF, Paris was determined to retain Zaire for “la francophonie.” In 1997, as Mobutu’s regime crumbled under a rebel onslaught backed by Uganda and RPF-led Rwanda, France ran a covert military operation against the rebels that included three combat aircraft and some eighty European mercenaries. While the United States distanced itself from Mobutu, who had little value in the post–Cold War world, France supported its protégé to the bitter end.


The 1916 Battle of the Somme Reconsidered I

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (CO 204) Men of a battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment resting after an attack in July 1916. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: the battle on the Ancre (13–18 November 1916) was being fought, an Allied High Command conference at Chantilly was considering plans for a co-ordinated offensive on several fronts in the Spring of the following year. A key element in such an offensive would be a renewed Anglo-French drive on the Western Front. 1916 had seen the defeat of the Romanian component of the Entente but there was evidence elsewhere that the continued exertion of pressure on the Central Powers had sown the seeds of a military harvest which could be reaped in the Spring. Such thinking was far from being universally held in the corridors of political power where the perspective was frequently framed by an antipathetic view of the military mind. Ministers of State looking at the Somme through this lens saw their judgement irrefutably confirmed.

Lloyd George, in 1915 a member of the War Council which had approved the Gallipoli operation, was in November 1916 Secretary of State for War. He was deeply convinced that an alternative way had to be found to get into the heart of the Central Powers and bring about their defeat. The continuous battering at a bolted front door, as seemed to him the unimaginative, indifferently callous, even stupid, High Command directive for the Somme, convinced him of the inappropriateness of such methods, re-confirmed his vision of an Eastern approach and determined him on Haig’s unfitness to command. This depth of political/military cleavage was given awesome significance by Lloyd George’s assumption of the Premiership in December under circumstances which make quite as good a story as those which had seen Haig reach his position as Commander-in-Chief BEF twelve months earlier.

Lloyd George’s sudden turnabout as Premier, his temporary conversion to the idea of victory on the Western Front through a new deliverer, Joffre’s replacement as French Commander-in-Chief, General Nivelle, and the direct repercussions this would have for the BEF and its Commander-in-Chief in 1917–18. They are, however, deserving of one’s awareness as it is basically Lloyd George’s and Churchill’s verdict on the Somme, carried forward into the present by some, that we must address in any attempt to evaluate High Command direction of the battle.

The two political Titans, by definition conditioned to be reactive to opinion, trends, shifting ground, disappointments and quite naturally to the search for scapegoats as well as alternative, cheaper, shorter visions of how the war might be won, were to set themselves up against the military men while the war was being waged, most particularly in the case of Lloyd George. In their perception, the ‘Brass Hats’ exercised their authority with a total lack of imagination and a callous disregard for the human material put into their hands to win the war. For their part, military High Command did indeed think differently, being convinced that at this time of great industrialised nations with mass armed forces being locked in struggle, the war had to be fought as they were fighting it, by attritional methods to deplete the strength and will of the enemy.

What irony there is in that while the military men were grimly proved to be right, the politicians, in keeping with the post-war spirit of the times, wrote the more convincing self-justificatory memoirs and histories of the war, identifying the ‘villains’ responsible for its shameful cost and length. A battle won with a pen, casualties limited to reputations and a proper understanding of the war.

As weary British troops embarked on consolidation of their positions from late November 1916, two things were happening which in different ways illustrate some of the problems which require consideration in approaching a verdict on the Somme in its centenary year. First, Haig was penning his official despatch on the battle. It is dated 23 December 1916. In it he deploys the benefit of hindsight – what he had learned from his experience in directing the Somme Offensive – to underplay his pre-battle hope of a breakthrough, and, till at least mid-September, his retention of some hope of that breakthrough. If hindsight for the historian is at one and the same time his weapon and potentially his Achilles heel, then so it must be for the Commander-in-Chief. Certainly Haig’s failure to acknowledge in this official document that the first great offensive waged under his command had educated him in how this colossal struggle inexorably would have to be fought, – simply by wearing out his enemy – seems to diminish him as a man, but surely, if one were to believe him correct in his assessment, does the omission seriously diminish him as a Commander-in-Chief? That judgement that is less clear.

The second point is that as Haig was writing his report, the Germans were pressing on with the preparation of the new defensive line to which they would withdraw from February to April 1917. Well before this, in Germany on the Home Front, the exigencies produced by the war in general, blockade in particular, and not least the strain of the Somme, were stimulating strikes, disturbances and peace protests.

The Somme had played a major part in undermining German High Command in the West though it was the opening of a new front in Romania which led to Falkenhayn’s removal and Hindenburg and Ludendorff being summoned at the end of August to take over in the worsening crisis in the West. What weight may we place on this, on the withdrawal, and still later developments, in evaluating whether the British and French were indeed to have won the Battle of the Somme?

John Terraine maintained that the Somme in 1916, and Third Ypres in 1917, were essential elements in the August-November 1918 defeat of the German Army on the Western Front. His argument has been further developed in the tri-nation research of William Philpott’s history of the Somme, Bloody Victory – ‘[Attrition], loathsome as it may be, worked.’ The historian made the further point that Lloyd George, who had been pre-eminently in a position to halt such procedure in prosecuting the war, did little so to do until deploring the means after the war. Philpott might quite reasonably have added, as many would, that he ‘did nothing except consistently undermine in Westminster, Whitehall, with the Press and with French politicians and generals, the position and reputation of his own Commander-in-Chief BEF’, but Philpott is unequivocal concerning the strategy of attrition, originating from the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Cumulatively, the effects of attrition combined with repetitive and increasingly frequent battlefield defeats were to bring on the German army’s eventual collapse. The issues may not be easy to quantify but, as marshalled by these two historians, and others distinguished in the field, the argument convinces.

Some attention was given to the place of the battle in the generational passage of our history: what the Somme has come to mean to us and the extent to which that was a true reflection of the actual experience of the battle in 1916 and its significance to the outcome of the war. Here, an attempt will be made to restrict the perspective to the original setting. Was it a necessary battle; to what extent was there choice available to Haig over its location and timing; what can be said about the manner in which it was waged and the awful price? Was it unjustifiably prolonged and, within the 1916 time-scale circumscribed; was there identifiable profit from such expenditure of human and material resources? To some extent the answers to these questions have already been indicated, but they need summary and attention given to the further fundamental question of how the men of the units which saw prolonged service on the Somme coped with the experience in terms of their morale?

The reality of the constraint upon Haig’s freedom of action as Commander-in-Chief BEF, lay in the relative difference between the British and French material contributions to the Western Front in December 1915 when Haig was appointed to his command: in miles of front held, about 50 as against 400; in divisions of troops employed on the Western Front, about thirty-eight as against ninety-five. The disparity between the British and French commitment was so striking that there could be no question that the overall strategic direction would be in French hands. This situation, by definition paralleled in reverse for naval strategy, was formalised by the conclusions reached at the Inter-Allied Military Conference at Chantilly on 6–8 December 1915 and then at the end of the month by the instructions given to Haig by the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener.

First, at Chantilly, Joffre had secured unanimous support for what amounted to his strategic overview – concentration upon the main, rather than subordinate battlefronts, co-ordination of planned offensives for those fronts to be launched as soon as possible and designed collectively to be decisive. On 28 December, Haig received his instructions from Kitchener and they made it unarguably clear that British troops were in France primarily to combine with the French to defeat the enemy: ‘The closest co-operation of French and British as a united Army must be the governing policy …’ As John Terraine, long ago, consistently maintained, no matter what clauses followed about Haig not coming under French command, the reality of his terms of reference was caught in the expression ‘the governing policy’. Hence we have a uniform inter-Allied consensus for a co-ordinated offensive and it can be inferred beyond dispute that Haig would work with the French design and timing of that offensive on the Western Front. Furthermore, it would follow that a much heavier burden of such an attack would fall upon the BEF because the nearing readiness of the New Armies would enable the imbalance of the Allied effort on the Western Front to be considerably redressed. The Chantilly Conference had quite specifically referred to the need for the ‘wearing down’ of the enemy by operations conducted by those powers which had reserves of men, all this materially to help a concerted effort. In the West this meant Britain. There was no longer a reservoir of French manpower on which to call, and of course there is irony in the fact that the number factor dictated that strategy would be French-determined and yet it also dictated that the price in men would have now to be paid by Britain to a far greater extent than hitherto.

We have to accept then that there was no disagreement that a major offensive was needed and no possible issue over the fact that the BEF would foot the larger proportion of the bill. It cannot be seriously maintained that Haig’s belief that Flanders was where the ultimate decision might be won, made him obstructive over Joffre’s insistence that the offensive should be well south of where the BEF had so far undertaken major operations. What Haig wanted to do was to convert the idea of subsidiary wearing-out fights before such a great battle took place into the drawing together for more profitable use of all the resources necessary for that larger endeavour. To this end, attacks immediately prior to the general action would be justified as they would distract the enemy and draw in his reserves committing them to operations of secondary consequence; attacks launched earlier would be profitless.

In conference discussion with Joffre on 14 February, Haig’s point was conceded but the same conference also fixed the scene and the date for the Allied offensive – the Somme on 1 July. There is no need here to examine the reasons why Haig would have preferred Flanders: it is sufficient to say that Joffre required the Somme. Again there is an irony. Here on the Somme in an attritional battle, Joffre would be able to fix the British into playing a major part. Haig would be looking for something different, a front to be broken but, in truth, with no strategic objective behind that front. In Flanders there were two such objectives, Roulers and the ports of the occupied coast of Belgium. On the Somme there was nothing of similar significance.

In parenthesis, it is tempting to consider whether Haig’s lack of recognition for French achievements on the Somme, at the time and subsequently, something for which he has been criticised, had its roots in the British C-in-C having to dance to the French tune, being uncomfortable with this and with the fact that, in military terms, the French were at this time dancing the better – their artillery programmes and concentration, and their infantry tactics in the assault.

On 21 February, the German onslaught at Verdun made an indelible imprint upon all Allied planning for the Western Front. Haig had not yet jettisoned all thoughts of Flanders but such thoughts were held now under inescapable restraint. Readily he undertook what he had so recently refused, the immediate taking-over of the line held by the French Tenth Army. In French perception, the Somme, by its relative proximity to Verdun, could assist in the holding of the historic city; Flanders certainly would have no such effect. At a stroke, Verdun added a preoccupying urgency to all planning for the Somme and it would determine that a date earlier than 1 July might be contemplated for the opening of this offensive, a date later could not be. Haig, on 26 May, had made his preference for a later date clear to Joffre but he was not ungracious in accepting the priority of French need over British readiness for the battle.

The battle then had been judged necessary by French-led, inter-Allied agreement. It was given British Cabinet endorsement conveyed to Haig on 14 April. The location of the battle was decreed by Joffre, the timing decided by both Allied intention and German intervention. Haig’s role had been entirely proper – professionally rather sceptical but, from the reality of his subordinate position, seeking at this stage to raise the prospect above that of une bataille d’usure and of loyally concentrating the available resources for what was now a threefold concept – a major element in the co-ordinated Allied offensive planned for 1916, the very necessary rescue of an ally and the development of the possibility of a decisive breakthrough.

Concerning the way in which the battle was waged, the divergence between Haig and Rawlinson over the question of ‘breakthrough’ or ‘bite and hold’ has been stressed. In his book British Generalship in the Twentieth Century, E. K. G. Sixsmith suggested that Haig was in pursuit of ‘true strategy’ which of course sought surprise, and examined the nature of the ground to see which objectives, once taken, offered hope for exploitation. Even with the closeness of the opposing lines offering unpromising chances of securing surprise, we should remember that some strategic surprise was won. British military activity from the Belgian coast southwards did delay German realisation that the real effort was coming between Serre and Montauban and the Germans did not anticipate that the French would be able to take on any offensive role at all. A shock certainly awaited them on the French sector. Sixsmith is one of several authors who stress quite appositely that in the earliest stage of the planning for the Somme Haig had wanted an infantry advance led by lightly-equipped infantry patrols but his three Army Commanders had opposed this and Haig conceded their point. Sixsmith maintains that Rawlinson was more concerned with the means at his disposal and the method of attack and that while Haig was able to insist on planning for the swift seizure of some key objectives – Montauban for example – his inability to answer the problem of the enemy wire other than by prolonged bombardment led him largely to accept Rawlinson’s tactical approach. Hence, a preliminary bombardment that was long enough and heavy enough would leave the infantry with the reduced task of taking possession of destroyed defences and consolidating them against counter-attack. Successive waves advancing behind a precisely timed artillery bombardment which would lift exactly as previously decreed onto the next target, would be the subsidiary infantry role in what was basically an artillery battle. Capturing the first line of enemy trenches was not, however, to be the relatively simple task envisaged.

As recognised in all accounts of the battle, there was an insufficiency of guns, in particular of heavy guns, of high explosive shells and, we might well remind ourselves, that the instantaneous fuse, so essential for the destruction of barbed wire, was not available for 1 July. The artillery programme for the assault has been considered by many to have been inflexible and, given the known insufficiencies and inadequacies in the instrument of delivery, unrealistic. Furthermore, even if the plan were to have been the masterpiece claimed by a recent historian of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, General Sir Martin Farndale, there was a considerable variation in Corps and Divisional understanding of the programme, and in the capacity to implement it or willingness to implement it. The same must be said of the use of meteorological information and newly-developed techniques like reliance on the map for ‘predicted’ rather than pre-registered shooting. In the case of the New Army, the lack of experience at all levels in the science of gunnery was a very serious matter. Additionally, in the light of all this and the inability to locate and destroy German batteries, an insufficient awareness of the true strength of the German underground defence system and that the British bombardment was to be rendered still less effective by the high proportion of defective shells and worn or dated artillery pieces, there was still another fatal flaw. This was the failure to require the infantry to exercise speed, keeping up with the barrage and being in on the defenders before they manned their parapets. This was the only way in which some element of tactical surprise could be achieved and, as fate was to decree, it was also the only way there would be any protection to the infantry as the men were exposed crossing No Man’s Land. With too much faith put in the artillery completely to fulfil its role in the battle and no widely-held confidence that New Army infantry could operate in any other way than methodically walking across and occupying destroyed positions, over- and under-confidence respectively were to combine in the production of the tragedy of the first day of the battle.

There was more. For reasons of artillery observation, the French refused to countenance an earlier hour than 7.30 a.m. for the infantry assault. This compounded the problem on the British front where the artillery had not done its work effectively and that which would be clearly observed was not the German positions but the British infantry in their approach of them.

Hindsight compels us to witness and re-witness in our mind’s eye the awful inappropriateness of heavily-burdened men attempting to make measured progress across No Man’s Land in successive lines of companies in extended order, with the artillery not having been effective in protecting them. The issue of some battalions, and New Army battalions too, having been trained in different procedures and carrying them out successfully, has to be followed up with, ‘then why were not all the Kitchener men so trained?’

Contemporary source after source lays emphasis on the New Army’s unreadiness in terms of training for the assault they would have to make – that is of course in contrast to their exhibiting an outstanding readiness in terms of elan. Were the battalions of the Regular Army and of the Territorial Force required to attack using precisely the same procedure? No, but by whatever means the men of the BEF attacked north of Montauban, success was minimal and the price still dreadful.

It is difficult to make a convincing argument that the New Army infantry, given the chance of May/June training behind the lines in France, could have developed a real proficiency in advance, by detachments, in the lozengeshaped ‘artillery formation’ or by the Regular Army pre-war ‘fire and movement’ procedure to build up a firing line, platoons alternatively giving covering fire and then advancing as they themselves were given protection. High morale there certainly was but there was not the marksmanship to take advantage from such procedure and, in fact, the nature of the more elevated German positions, secure in their concreted depth also, was surely not going to be taken by such methods at this stage of the war with morale of the defender unbroken.

There is then a strong temptation to state quite simply that the German positions were too strong and the enlarged BEF not ready for the Somme when the battle had, for all the reasons previously stated, to take place. Battle experience in this ‘new’ world war was everything. By definition, Kitchener’s men had not had Neuve Chapelle or Aubers Ridge or the experience of the Battle of Loos as a grim guide and if High Command and its staff did indeed have such experience, the insufficiently-tuned instrument at their disposal was going to have to be played and there was not the rehearsal time for learning radically new techniques before the performance – Verdun saw to that.

A counter-argument can be developed but it leads to a quagmire for the politician. If it were to be maintained that in the development of appropriate tactical training procedures for the men of the New Armies, first in the United Kingdom and then in France, the Army authorities had shown a slowness to adapt to the changed circumstance of warfare on the Western Front, the truth of this in general terms could perhaps be conceded but behind this lies the harsh reality of the Nation’s unreadiness for the war in which it found itself. Partnered by and matched against huge conscript armies with their nations’ industrial systems more readily placed upon a war footing, Britain was paying a high price in every direction as she embarked upon what was needed, the fundamental transformation of her society, economy, institutions and Government to meet the National emergency of a European and World War. Would she have been better prepared, indeed might she have been more of a deterrent to German ambition to make or risk war had she possessed that which was unthinkable to the pre-war Liberal administration, a conscript army?

Yes, the infantry tactics used on 1 July proved on most sectors disastrously inappropriate. Some changes were made, most notably in the hour of launching an attack and in attempts to infiltrate No Man’s Land before the attack was delivered but the tactics remained vulnerable. It is surprising that Haig’s belief in the possibility of breakthrough was not translated into allowing a night attack on 15 September after the initial success achieved by such timing on 14 July. It can be added significantly, even if depressingly, that when new tactics were developed by all three major antagonists on the Western Front, it still needed special circumstances for them to be effective – first, and little surprise here, in the development of a new highly sophisticated programme of bombardment and second, in serious flaws in the defence of the objectives being attacked. Such circumstances were certainly not present in the Summer of 1916 on the Somme.

Returning to the question of the readiness of the BEF for the battle, several sources echo the Official Historian’s emphasis on the relative inexperience of some of the Corps and the Divisional Commanders in managing units of that size. In one important sense the lament is more anachronistic than a fair charge to be made against any individual or the Army as an institution – the sheer size of the BEF was unprecedented and there was by definition no earlier school of experience for the large number of senior officers required. This still leaves open the competence of those promoted to senior positions and here the Canadian historian, Tim Travers, brings some of his most savage criticism to bear upon the system of promotion in the ‘old army’ and upon Haig in particular. There is abundant evidence of the tensions which developed as a result of the Edwardian army having to digest the lessons of the Second Boer War and ready itself for war in Europe. The old ways survived in awkward juxtaposition with attempts to modernise, make more professional, and develop more technical competence. In such a setting, power, privilege and prejudice advanced the careers of some, arrested those of others. Those who progressed were not always those best fitted for the requirements of the new war. This of course was not a scenario unique to the profession nor to the period, as the world of industry, business, politics and education for example, across any time scale, could doubtless testify. Travers made the point that ‘a still largely traditional officer corps [attempting] to fight a modern [technological/firepower] war as though it were a fully prepared and professional group of senior officers and staff, led to a strong tendency to cover up errors during the war, and to achieve alterations in the subsequent military record and then in the Official History’.

There is some truth in this but if this were the whole truth one is left to wonder how the war was won. It has been argued that victory was earned to an overwhelming though inter-related degree by the Royal Navy, also that the psychological factor of the scarcely-tapped resources of the United States was the key. British skill in the realm of propaganda is stressed too (with just a touch of irony) but there is the need to explain the absence of a collapse in the attacking endeavours of the BEF in 1916 and in late 1917, the absence of a collapse as its soldiers desperately defended in the March/April 1918 crisis and then surely its leading part in the three months of hard fought unbroken victory terminating in the Germans suing for an Armistice. Can the military events following upon July 1918 all be attributed to a shrewdness of German High Command policy in withdrawal, French resurgence, American troop arrival in strength and the work of the Australian and Canadian divisions?

Returning to the military direction of the 1916 battle, it is possible that more could have been made from the success at Montauban on 1 July in conjunction with the adjacent French achievements. Perhaps Gough’s reserves should have been swiftly given the chance to prove themselves here. Rawlinson’s decision to halt and consolidate on the first objective was, some consider, all the more regrettable as Balfourier’s XX Corps on his right had also reached its first objective and was anxious to push on to Peronne if the British were also to advance. The northward direction of any exploitation developed here would have been a serious outflanking threat to German defences which were holding firm against frontal assault.

On two further dates, questions have to be raised over the seizure of opportunities or of the reality of such opportunities. On 14 July, it does seem that the cavalry was not in a position swiftly to exploit advantage, again on the right of the British advance. One is almost conditioned to deride the potential usefulness of cavalry in France and perhaps the opportunity of which some have written was but a mirage. Nevertheless the mounted arm was expensively, and hence it must be presumed, purposefully, maintained, yet here we have it ordered up too late and then from too distant an assembly station to have any real chance of fulfilling its purpose. This matter, of great moment or otherwise, lay within Rawlinson’s command.


Saint Chamond and Schneider CA-1 Tanks

The first French tank. Based on the Holt Tractor design, the first were ordered beginning in February 1916. The Schneider Char d’Assaut 1 (CA1) went into action on the Chemin des Dames on 16 April 1917, during the Nivelle Offensive. Later the Japanese purchased a few. Designed primarily for infantry support, the CA1 had poor cross-country mobility and trench-spanning ability; gasoline tanks were vulnerable to enemy fire.

 Ordered slightly after the CA1, the St. Chamond first saw action in the April 1917 Nivelle Offensive. At end of the war 72 of 400 were still in service. Later Lithuania and Spain secured some examples. Dual controls allowed the St. Chamond to be driven from either end, but like the Schneider it suffered from poor cross-country performance.

Although the British built the first tanks, the French actually built many more of them (4,800 French tanks to 2,818 for the British). The French first became interested in a tracked vehicle in 1915, as a means to flatten barbed wire. Then, that December, a French artillery colonel, Jean E. Estienne, wrote General Joffre suggesting that the French build caterpillar-type vehicles similar to the Holt tractors he observed in use by the British to move about their artillery. Estienne, who stressed the need for speed in development, proposed an armored box that would mount a quick-firing gun.

In February 1916, following an investigation of the possibilities, Joffre ordered 400 of these from the Schneider Company and, shortly thereafter, another 400 from the Compagnie des Forges d’Honecourt at Saint Chamond. The first Schneider CA1 was delivered to the French Army on 8 September 1816. It was not an innovative design. It basically consisted of an armored box hull mounted on a Holt tractor chassis. The chief changes from the original design were that the Schneider had a crew of six men rather than four and mounted a short 75mm gun instead of a 37mm main gun. The Schneider weighed some 32,200 pounds and had a vertical coil suspension system. Double doors at the rear provided access for the crew, and there was a ventilator attached to the top. The 75mm main gun was mounted on the right-hand side facing forward; the Schneider also had two machine guns, one to each side. Maximum armor thickness was 11.5mm and its 70-hp liquid-cooled engine could drive the tank at a maximum speed of 3.7 mph.

The St. Chamond was far bigger than the Schneider. It weighed 50,700 pounds and had a 90-hp engine that produced a maximum speed of 5.3 mph. Dual controls allowed the tank to be driven from either end, but it had poor cross-country maneuverability. Its crew of nine men manned a 75mm main gun and four machine guns. Its 75mm, unlike that on the Schneider, was a normal rather than short-barreled gun. Unlike the British, the French did not place great emphasis on trench-spanning or cross-terrain capability in their armored vehicles and thus their types were inferior to those of their ally in cross-terrain capability. The Schneider could only span a trench of 70 inches, a major shortcoming. The St. Chamond could span an 8-foot trench. As with all the early tanks, the St. Chamond was mechanically unreliable; and with the moving parts of the engine exposed inside the tank, the tank interior was a dangerous place for the crew. The St. Chamond seemed superior on paper to the Schneider because of its superior main gun, longer track, and an electrical as opposed to mechanical transmission, which made driving it far easier. But its greater weight made it less maneuverable over soft ground, and the front of its hull projected well over the tracks, greatly reducing its trench-spanning ability. It also was far less reliable mechanically than the Schneider.

By the summer of 1916 the British and French were producing numbers of tanks, but unfortunately for the Allied side, there was no design coordination or joint plan for their use. The British, who had the lead in their production, were also the first to employ tanks in battle.

Astonishingly, the French and British worked on the new war weapons quite independently. As with the British, the French endeavored to keep their work secret; but unlike their ally, the French resisted the temptation to use the new weapon before they thought they had sufficient numbers. One can thus imagine the chagrin of the French to learn that the British had employed their tanks first. The French did not deploy their tanks until seven months later, during the April 1917 Nivelle Offensive on the Western Front.

In July 1916 Colonel Estienne had been reassigned from his artillery command at Verdun and attached to Joffre’s headquarters in order to organize and command the French tank units, what became known as the “Artillerie d’assault.” Estienne organized the tanks into groups (groupes) of 16 tanks each, each of which was organized as the artillery into four batteries of four tanks. Organization of the Artillerie d’assault began in August 1916 at Marly near Paris (the first group was organized that October). Later the French established a training center at Cercottes near Orléans. Estienne also established his headquarters at Champlieu, where a tank camp was also located. By the end of March Estienne had assembled there 13 groups of Schneiders and two of St. Chamonds. The crews were drawn from the army and even the navy, but for the most part they came from the cavalry, which was steadily being reduced in numbers during the course of the war. As with the first British tank units, the crews for the most part lacked any technical expertise whatsoever, although the French assumed that two to three months’ training would be sufficient.

Much to Estienne’s profound disappointment, the British employment of tanks at the Somme the previous September ended the possibility of a surprise mass attack and caused the Germans to widen their trenches. His original plan had been for a surprise mass attack against the German trenches in which the tanks would precede the infantry. Upon crossing the first trench line, half of the tanks were to pin down the German defenders with fire, allowing the infantry to flow through the gaps opened and secure the German trenches.

Estienne now scaled down his ambitions and developed new tactics. Under these, the tanks were assigned the more modest role of serving as a form of “portable artillery” operating in support of infantry. Their task was to accompany the infantry and reduce those pockets of resistance not wiped out in the preliminary bombardment. This became stated French armor doctrine into World War II.

Estienne’s general order of January 1917 called for tank assaults to be mounted in early morning and in fog, if possible. Attacks were to be continuous with the tanks to be capable of moving at 2 mph for up to six hours to be followed by carriers transporting fuel and supplies. Estienne also stressed the need for thorough coordination beforehand with infantry, artillery, and aircraft. Infantry operating with the tanks were to be specially trained and would assist the tanks in crossing obstacles. Tanks were, however, free to move ahead of the infantry if unimpeded.

Although all 400 tanks ordered from the Schneider Works were to have been delivered by 25 November 1916, only eight were in army hands by that date. These were also of lighter construction, being built for training purposes. By mid-January 1917 there were only 32 training tanks. By April 1917, when their first tanks saw action, the French had 200 Schneiders ready, four times the number the British had used on the Somme. There were only 16 Chamonds available by that date, and the only ones to accompany the Schneiders were four unarmed vehicles used to carry supplies.


At 6:00 a. m. on 16 April 1917, following a 14-day bombardment by 5,544 guns, the French army commander, General Robert Nivelle, launched a massive offensive against the Germans in the Champagne area of the Western Front. Touted by Nivelle as a means to break the deadlock on the Western Front, the offensive is known as the Second Battle of the Aisne and Third Battle of Champagne and also the Nivelle (or Spring) Offensive. Unfortunately the plans had been so widely discussed as to be an open secret; the Germans even captured a copy of the French operations order in a trench raid before the attack. The Germans had built a defense-in-depth and pulled back most of their front-line troops, which meant that the effect of the preliminary French bombardment was largely wasted against a lightly held German forward defensive zone. On 16 April General Joseph Alfred Micheler’s 1.2 million-man Reserve Army Group attacked along a 40-mile section of front between Soissons and Reims, his objective the wooded ridges paralleling the front known as the Chemin des Dames. The brunt of the attack was borne by General Charles Mangin’s Sixth Army and General Olivier Mazel’s Fifth Army.

In the attack Mazel’s Fifth Army deployed 128 Schneider tanks. Although they went into action the first day, they contributed little to the outcome of the battle, their crews finding it difficult to negotiate the rough terrain. St. Chamonds first saw action several weeks later at Laffaux Mill on 5 May 1917, but they experienced similar problems and indeed did not perform as well as the Schneiders. Many broke down during the long approach march and did not even make it to the battlefield. From the group of 16, only 12 made it to the line of departure. Several more were unable to advance, and three were destroyed in action.

The Schneiders and St. Chamonds had little impact on the outcome of the offensive, which the French called off on 9 May with only minimal gains. Far from winning the war, the Nivelle Offensive turned into near-disaster for the French army, as it led to widespread mutinies among the French front-line divisions. New French army commander, General Henri Philippe Pétain, charged with restoring the army, sought to improve conditions for the men and address their concerns. He told them he would not spend their lives needlessly and that he would remain on the defensive until such time as a true war-winning offensive was possible. “I am waiting for the Americans and the tanks,” he declared.

Despite major battles along the Western Front in 1917 and attendant wastages of manpower and military equipment, the Western powers continued to build up their tank strength. Training and tactics also improved. By late November the French had some 500 Schneiders and St. Chamonds.


Fort William Henry 1757 I

The Siege of Fort William Henry L. F. Tantillo

The most ominous problems were taking shape in New York, where Loudoun had left the defense of the lake frontier in the palsied hands of General Daniel Webb, the man who in 1756 had responded to rumors of a French advance down the Mohawk Valley by destroying Fort Bull, blocking Wood Creek with trees, and ordering a retreat to German Flats. Webb’s continued position as Loudoun’s third-ranking officer owed principally to the undiminished confidence of Webb’s patron, the duke of Cumberland, which left Loudoun little choice but to entrust the command to him. Although in one of the last letters he wrote from New York before departing for Louisbourg, Loudoun had urged Webb to establish an advanced post at the north end of Lake George and if possible to besiege Fort Carillon, Loudoun probably realized that he could be expected to do no more than defend New York against invasion. This was only in part because the commander in chief lacked confidence in the “timid, melancholic, and ‘diffident’ ” Webb, with his regrettable tendencies to panic and overreact. Loudoun’s desire to make the Louisbourg expedition an all-redcoat show had made him willing to allot Webb only two regular regiments to augment the questionable fighting capacities of 5,500 untrained provincials. Most of all, however, offensive action was realistically out of the question because Fort William Henry, the British post guarding the main approach to the upper Hudson Valley at the south end (or head) of Lake George, had already been damaged by a surprise attack.

In mid-March a force of fifteen hundred Canadians, French, and Indians under the command of the governor-general’s wiry, sawed-off younger brother, François-Pierre Rigaud, had approached the fort over the frozen lake and harassed its small winter garrison for four days. The raiders had come equipped only with scaling ladders, not cannon, and therefore stood little chance of actually seizing the fort unless they could surprise or stampede its commander. As it happened, Fort William Henry that winter was under the highly competent command of the man who had designed it, Major William Eyre; and Eyre made no mistakes in directing its defense. Before the raiders withdrew to Ticonderoga, however, they burned all of the fort’s outbuildings (including a palisaded barracks, several storehouses, a sawmill, and a hospital), its exposed bateaux, and the half-built sloop that stood on stocks near the lake.

Although its defenders had suffered only a handful of minor casualties and its wood-and-earth walls had been untouched by anything heavier than musket balls, the damage to Fort William Henry as a strategic outpost had been grave. The valuable supplies that would have to be replaced from Albany and the external buildings that would take weeks to rebuild were the least consequential losses. More serious by far was the loss of the fort’s bateaux, without which troops could not be moved down the lake against Fort Carillon; but most damaging of all was the loss of the sloop, which left the fort with only one serviceable gunboat to launch in the spring. As the winter’s experience showed, Fort William Henry was safe from attackers who lacked artillery. Unless the British could dominate Lake George with armed vessels, however, they could not prevent an invading French army from bringing siege cannon from Fort Carillon. It would take weeks of labor, once shipwrights had been brought in from New England, to construct a replacement for the lost sloop. In the meantime, Fort William Henry would be vulnerable to any siege the marquis de Montcalm cared to mount.

There was one other critical way in which Rigaud’s raid had put the British in New York at a disadvantage: the loss of intelligence. At the beginning of the winter Eyre’s garrison at Fort William Henry had included about a hundred rangers under Captain Robert Rogers. But Rogers had led them on a disastrous scout against Fort Carillon in January that had cost nearly a quarter of that number, and he had sustained a wound of his own that required treatment at Albany. He would not recover and return to the fort until the middle of April. Given these circumstances the rangers could not have ventured far from the fort even if conditions had favored them. But following Rigaud’s raid, the woods around Lake George grew thick with French-allied Indians. Word of Rogers’s defeat and of Rigaud’s adventure brought hundreds of Ottawa, Potawatomi, Abenaki, and Caughnawaga warriors to Fort St. Frédéric and Fort Carillon in the spring of 1757. From April through June, under the leadership of their own chiefs and of Canadian officers like Charles Langlade (who had directed the destruction of Pickawillany in 1752 and helped defeat Braddock in 1755), they raided English outposts and ambushed supply trains in the woods between Fort Edward and Fort William Henry. So effectively did the Indians and Canadian irregulars confine the rangers to the vicinity of the British forts that General Webb and his senior officers were deprived of virtually all intelligence concerning French preparations for the coming campaigns. If they had known what was coming Webb and his subordinates might conceivably have prepared more vigorously for the summer, but as late as the beginning of June the garrison at Fort William Henry had not undertaken repairs.

What Webb and his officers did not know was that since late in the summer of 1756 the most successful recruiting drive in the history of New France had been under way among the Indians of the pays d’en haut, the upper Great Lakes basin. The combination of Governor-General Vaudreuil’s enthusiasm for using Indian allies and the widespread reports of French victories at the Monongahela and Oswego attracted warriors from a vast area to serve in the principal campaign planned for 1757: a thrust against Fort William Henry. Montcalm, still unhappy with the uncontrollable behavior of his Abenaki, Caughnawaga, Nipissing, Menominee, and Ojibwa warriors after the surrender of Oswego, entertained more reservations than ever about relying on Indians, but these were overborne by the sheer numbers who presented themselves at Montréal and the Lake Champlain forts between the fall of 1756 and the early summer of 1757. Stories that the Ojibwas and Menominees carried back home to the Great Lakes after the fall of Oswego had “made a great impression,” Montcalm’s aide-de-camp noted; “especially what they have heard tell of everyone there swimming in brandy.” Of equal importance, perhaps, was the news that Montcalm had been willing to ransom English prisoners from their Indian captors after the battle. At any rate, the Indians came in numbers that exceeded even Vaudreuil’s fondest hopes and included warriors who had traveled as far as fifteen hundred miles to join the expedition.

By the end of July nearly 2,000 Indians were assembled at Fort Carillon in aid of the army of 6,000 French regulars, troupes de la marine, and Canadian militiamen that Montcalm was preparing to lead against Fort William Henry. More than 300 Ottawas had come from the upper Lake Michigan country; nearly as many Ojibwas (Chippewas and Mississaugas) from the shores of Lake Superior; more than 100 Menominees and almost as many Potawatamis from lower Michigan; about 50 Winnebagos from Wisconsin; Sauk and Fox warriors from even farther west; a few Miamis and Delawares from the Ohio Country; and even 10 Iowa warriors, representing a nation that had never been seen in Canada before. In all, 979 Indians from the pays d’en haut and the middle west joined the 820 Catholic Indians recruited from missions that extended from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes—Nipissings, Ottawas, Abenakis, Caughnawagas, Huron-Petuns, Malecites, and Micmacs. With no fewer than thirty-three nations, as many languages, and widely varying levels of familiarity with European culture represented, problems of control were magnified even beyond their usual scope. Since Montcalm realized that “in the midst of the woods of America one can no more do without them than without cavalry in open country,” he did what he could to accommodate, appease, and flatter his allies. But as he knew better than anyone else, he could not command them. Montcalm could only rely on the persuasive abilities of the missionary fathers, interpreter-traders, and warrior-officers like Langlade whom he “attached” to each group in the hope of gaining its cooperation.

In the spring Lieutenant Colonel George Monro had brought five companies of his regiment, the 35th Foot, to Fort William Henry to relieve Major Eyre’s winter garrison. Together with two New York independent companies and nearly eight hundred provincials from New Jersey and New Hampshire, Monro’s command numbered more than fifteen hundred men in late June when two escaped English prisoners brought the first reliable intelligence of the eight-thousand-man force that Montcalm was gathering at Fort Carillon. Monro—“an old Officer but [one] who never ha[d] served” in the field—dispatched several ranger patrols over the next several weeks to observe the French and Indian buildup at the foot of the lake. None succeeded, and the lack of serviceable boats prevented Monro from mounting a reconnaissance-in-force until late July. It was only on the twenty-third that he finally hazarded five companies of New Jersey provincials under Colonel John Parker in a raid intended to burn the French sawmills at the foot of the lake and to take as many prisoners as possible. Traveling in two bay boats under sail and twenty whaleboats—virtually all of the vessels available at Fort William Henry—Parker’s command made its way north down the lake toward Sabbath-Day Point. They did not know until the next morning that more than five hundred Ottawas, Ojibwas, Potawatomis, Menominees, and Canadians were waiting for them. According to Louis Antoine de Bougainville, Moncalm’s aide-de-camp,

At daybreak three of [the English] barges fell into our ambush without a shot fired. Three others that followed at a little distance met the same fate. The [remaining] sixteen advanced in order. The Indians who were on shore fired at them and made them fall back. When they saw them do this they jumped into their canoes, pursued the enemy, hit them, and sank or captured all but two which escaped. They brought back nearly two hundred prisoners. The rest were drowned. The Indians jumped into the water and speared them like fish. . . . We had only one man slightly wounded. The English, terrified by the shooting, the sight, the cries, and the agility of these monsters, surrendered almost without firing a shot. The rum which was in the barges and which the Indians immediately drank caused them to commit great cruelties. They put in the pot and ate three prisoners, and perhaps others were so treated. All have become slaves unless they are ransomed. A horrible spectacle to European eyes.

In fact, four of the boats escaped the trap, but three-quarters of the Jersey Blues on the expedition were killed or captured. The arrival of the panic-stricken survivors offered the first tangible evidence of a large enemy presence at Fort Carillon, and it thoroughly rattled General Webb, who was making his first visit to Fort William Henry when the remnants of Parker’s command appeared. Webb ordered Monro to quarter the garrison’s regulars within the fort and directed him to have the provincials construct an entrenched camp on Titcomb’s Mount, a rocky rise about 750 yards southeast of the fort, to prevent the enemy from siting cannon on its summit. Then, promising to send reinforcements, he beat a hasty retreat to Fort Edward.


Fort William Henry 1757 II

Monro needed the promised men badly. When Webb left on July 29, Fort William Henry’s garrison consisted of only about eleven hundred soldiers fit for duty, together with sixty carpenters and sailors, about eighty women and children, and a handful of sutlers. Since its total complement of vessels on the lake now consisted of five whaleboats and two armed sloops (one in need of repair), Monro knew that he could not prevent the French from investing the place with artillery. The larger the number of men in place at the fort on the day the siege began, therefore, the better the chances would be that they could resist the attackers.

And yet Webb, fearful of stripping the defenses of his own post, Fort Edward, persuaded himself to dispatch only about two hundred regulars of the Royal American (60th) Regiment and eight hundred Massachusetts provincials under Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Frye. They arrived on the evening of August 2—the same night that lookouts spotted three large fires on the western shore of the lake at about seven miles’ distance. Two scouting boats were dispatched to investigate. Neither returned.

At dawn the next morning, observers on the ramparts of William Henry could begin to make out shapes on the dark surface of the lake: there, beyond cannon range, bobbed nearly 250 French bateaux and at least 150 Indian war canoes. To officers surveying the scene through field telescopes, the growing light revealed that more than sixty of the bateaux had been joined together catamaran-style by platforms of planks; these rode low in the water, borne down by the weight of the siege guns they carried. “We know that they have Cannon,” Monro wrote to Webb, in one of three pleas for help he sent that day. If anyone had entertained any lingering doubts, it was now unmistakable that the second siege of Fort William Henry would be conducted in the European style.

The three bonfires that sentries at the fort had seen the night before had been kindled by an advance party of six hundred regulars, a hundred troupes de la marine, thirteen hundred Canadians, and five hundred Indians under Brigadier François-Gaston, chevalier de Lévis, Montcalm’s second-in-command. They had been toiling south through the woods “in heat . . . as great as in Italy,” since July 29. Montcalm’s main army, numbering more than four thousand men, needed only a day to traverse the same distance by boat. Unlike the overburdened advance party, they had made the trip in a festive mood. Perhaps the beauty of the lake—a drowned valley between mountain ranges, its waters studded with “a very great quantity of islands”—animated those who rowed and rode in the dark, stolid ranks of bateaux; or perhaps it was the sight of scores of birch-bark canoes in the vanguard, gliding like a cloud over the lake’s blue surface, that lifted their spirits—for, as Bougainville wondered, “who could imagine the spectacle of fifteen hundred naked Indians in their canoes?” Whatever the cause, not even Montcalm’s strict orders for silence could restrain the gaiety his soldiers felt, and they fired musket salutes, beat rolls on the drum, and sounded hunting horns as their flotilla made its way up the lake. Disapproving of the breach of discipline and yet stirred by the fanfares that echoed between the mountains, Bougainville believed that these must have been “the first horns that have yet resounded through the forests of America.”

Lévis’s advance party fired the first shots at the fort’s defenders on August 3. Even before the main body had landed its artillery and supplies, Montcalm ordered Lévis to circle through the woods behind the fort and cut the road leading southward to Fort Edward. This task his Indians and Canadians quickly accomplished, driving a guard of Massachusetts provincials back to their camp on Titcomb’s Mount and seizing virtually all of their livestock—about 50 horses and 150 oxen, most of which the Indians slaughtered to supplement the scanty rations they had been receiving from the army. Meanwhile, as Indian sharpshooters began sniping at the defenders of William Henry from the main garrison garden—a seven-acre plot lying just fifty or sixty yards from the western wall of the fort—Montcalm brought the main body up from the landing place and surveyed the shoreline for a position from which to begin his entrenchments.

At three in the afternoon Montcalm formally opened the siege by sending in a messenger under flag of truce, in accord with European custom, bearing a demand for the garrison’s surrender. “Humanity,” he wrote, “obliged him to warn [Monro] that once [the French] batteries were in place and the cannon fired, perhaps there would not be time, nor would it be in [his] power to restrain the cruelties of a mob of Indians of so many different nations.” With equal gravity Monro replied that he and his troops would resist “to the last extremity.” While the commanders exchanged their ceremonial courtesies, the Indians stood “in a great crowd in the space around the fort,” obeying the norms of their own cultures by hurling taunts at the defenders. “Take care to defend yourself,” shouted one Abenaki warrior in clear (though “very bad”) French to the soldiers on the ramparts, “for if I capture you, you will get no quarter.”

Although Fort William Henry was clearly in trouble on August 3, its position was far from desperate. The fort’s magazines held adequate if not ample stocks of ammunition and provisions; its batteries mounted eighteen heavy cannon (including a pair of thirty-two–pounders), thirteen light swivels capable of raking the wall faces and glacis with grapeshot, two mortars, and a howitzer. A stout stone-and-log breastwork enclosed the provincial camp atop Titcomb’s Mount, which had six brass fieldpieces and four swivels, as well as the small arms of its men, to defend it. The most immediate threat to the fort’s garrison was fire, and Monro soon minimized that danger by ordering the flammable roof shingles removed from the interior buildings and having all stocks of firewood dumped into the lake. The greater dangers were those of the longer term: that a portion of the fort’s wall would collapse under sustained cannonading, allowing attackers to rush through the breach and overwhelm the defenders, or (if the walls held up) that the garrison would be starved into submission.

Since time inevitably favored the besiegers, such eventualities could be prevented only if Webb dispatched a relief expedition to attack Montcalm before he had a chance to organize his own camp’s defenses. Hence the urgency of Monro’s three attempts to notify Webb that Montcalm was about to besiege (or, as he said, using the technical term, “invest”) the fort; for without reinforcement from below, Fort William Henry would be no more immune to prolonged cannon siege than Oswego or St. Philip’s Castle had been. Thus on August 4, as Montcalm’s engineers laid out the first line of entrenchments less than half a mile from William Henry’s north bastion and as his Canadian militiamen began to construct artillery emplacements opposite the fort’s western wall, Monro knew better than anyone that—barring a great mistake on his adversary’s part, the arrival of a relief column from Fort Edward, or a miracle—his garrison’s days were numbered.

Yet Webb, as Monro would not know until August 7, responded to Fort William Henry’s predicament by deciding not to send reinforcements until he himself had been reinforced by militia from New England and New York. As Webb saw it, to weaken Fort Edward’s garrison would expose Albany and the rest of upper New York to invasion. If Montcalm succeeded in seizing William Henry, after all, he would have not only a fort from which to launch further operations, but a splendid road to use in transporting siege guns against Fort Edward. In a letter of noon, August 4, Webb’s aide-de-camp therefore advised Monro that the general “does not think it prudent (as you know his strength at this place) to attempt a Junction or to assist you” at present. Indeed, in view of the eleven-thousand-man strength of the French force that Monro had reported, and the possibility that Webb “should be so unfortunate from the delay of the Militia not to have it in his power to give you timely Assistance,” Monro might well consider how (if worse came to worst) he “might make the best Terms” of capitulation possible. Monro would receive this message only on August 7 because one of Montcalm’s Caughnawaga scouts stalked the courier into the woods after he left Fort Edward and killed him, long before he could reach Fort William Henry. The bloodstained letter, cut from the lining of the dead man’s jacket, came to Monro under a flag of truce together with a polite note from Montcalm suggesting that he take Webb’s advice and surrender.

Colonel Monro declined Montcalm’s invitation on the seventh but knew how far his situation had deteriorated from the relative security of the third. In the intervening days, the chevalier de Lévis had posted his force opposite Titcomb’s Mount, and his Canadian and Indian scouts had made it all but impossible for the provincials to leave the entrenched camp. Indian war parties operating in the woods had cut all communication with Fort Edward. Despite harassing fire from Fort William Henry’s artillery, Montcalm’s sappers had quickly completed the first siege parallel and emplaced a battery from which his gunners had opened fire on August 6. On the morning of the seventh the French had brought a second battery into action and had driven an approach trench to within three hundred yards of the fort’s western wall. From this point, Monro knew, they would dig another parallel trench along which they would site one or more “breaching batteries”; and these guns, firing at point-blank range, would blast passageways through the wall.

When Monro received Montcalm’s message on the morning of August 7, Fort William Henry’s walls and bastions were still intact, which according to the elaborate etiquette of siege warfare meant that Monro could not—yet—honorably contemplate capitulation. But he also could not ignore the effect of the indirect, or high-trajectory, fire of the French mortars and howitzers, which had been raining shrapnel on his men and those in the entrenched camp for two days. Monro had been disturbed to learn that some of the solid shot recovered within the fort bore royal ordnance markings: proof that they, like the guns firing them, had been captured at the Monongahela or Oswego. Meanwhile the guns of his own batteries had been bursting at a fearful rate. Since the first shots had been fired at the French on August 4, more than half of William Henry’s heavy cannon had split from prolonged firing, often injuring their crews as they exploded.

By sunset on August 8, the relentless French bombardment had shattered the morale of Monro’s garrison, most of whom had not slept for five nights running. Already on the seventh Monro had felt compelled to threaten to hang cowards, or indeed anyone who advocated surrender, over the walls of the fort; now his men seemed “almost Stupified” with stress and fatigue, and there was no telling how they would react to an assault if the western wall, weak from sustained shelling, were to collapse.

Knowing now that Webb would send no reinforcements, Monro ordered one of his engineers to survey the damage and report the state of the fort’s defenses. What he heard was that the top three feet of the bastions most exposed to French fire had been shot entirely away; that the casements, or bunkers within them, had been heavily damaged; that all but five of the fort’s cannon were inoperable; and that stocks of ammunition had dwindled to near exhaustion. Nor were the reports he received from the entrenched camp any more encouraging. The Massachusetts troops stationed there had suffered even heavier losses from indirect fire than the fort. As their commander, Colonel Frye, reported, they “were quite worn out, & wou’d stay no longer, And [say] that they wou’d rather be knock’d in the Head by the Enemy, than stay to Perish behind the Breastworks. ”That same night the French completed a breaching battery of eighteen-pound guns within three hundred yards of the fort’s west wall. With so much discouraging information in hand, Monro summoned a council of war from among his officers for the next morning. They unanimously advised him to send a flag of truce to Montcalm and negotiate a surrender on the best terms possible terms.

French Military Doctrine – 1940

What kind of war was the French army expecting and how was it intending to use its arms? It is commonly asserted that, through a mixture of complacency, conservatism, and intellectual laziness, the French had failed to modernize their military thinking and were preparing to fight the previous war again. In 1950, the parliamentary inquiry into the causes of France’s defeat concluded: ‘[T]he General Staff, retired on its Mount Sinai among its revealed truths and the vestiges of its vanished glories, devoted all its efforts to patching up an organization outmoded by the facts.’ Was this true?

The main charge is that the French military had not adapted to the idea of mobile warfare and had neglected the possibility of grouping tanks together so that they could be deployed offensively and autonomously rather than playing an infantry support role as in the Great War. One of the earliest advocates of using tanks like this was General Jean-Baptiste Estienne, the so-called ‘father of the tank’, who started in 1919 to argue for the development of heavy breakthrough tanks that could be deployed independently of the infantry. As Inspector of Tanks between 1921 and 1927, Estienne instigated studies of the development of armour. Although he had a decreasing influence on military policy, the prototype heavy tanks that he commissioned in 1921 were the ancestor of the B1. Without him, France would probably not have had a heavy tank ready at the start of the 1930s.

The modernization of the army started at the beginning of the 1930s under the inspiration of General Weygand, even before the first rearmament programmes had been adopted. In 1930 Weygand launched a programme to motorize seven infantry divisions and he initiated the creation of an armoured division in the cavalry in October 1933. The setting up of this ‘light mechanized division’ (DLM) meant that, far from being mired in the past, France had the world’s first standing armoured division (two years before Germany). At this stage, however, the cavalry lacked a really powerful combat vehicle and the DLM sounded more impressive on paper than it was in reality. The SOMUA tank was developed precisely to meet this need, and once these started to come off the production lines the DLMs had powerful armour at their disposal.8 Even so, the first DLM was not fully operational until the start of 1938. A second DLM was created in 1937 and a third in February 1940. In addition, the five remaining cavalry divisions had been partially motorized and consisted of a mixture of horse and motorized vehicles (‘oil and oats’). These developments did meet with some resistance from traditionalists like General René Altmayer, who thought that the cavalry could best carry out its tasks with horse units, and worried about an excessive dependence on petrol. But there were ardent advocates of modernization like General Jean Flavigny, who had been involved in the development of the SOMUA tanks and became the commander of the first DLM when it was set up.

The DLMs were designed to carry out the cavalry’s traditional tasks of reconnaissance, screening operations, and forward delaying actions. They were not intended to be able to break through the enemy lines. For this task it was necessary to establish more heavily armoured divisions, capable of acting autonomously. But progress towards this objective was very slow. In September 1932 experimental manoeuvres took place to study the possibility of developing heavy armoured divisions. The problem was that since at this time the army only possessed three heavy (B1) tanks, the manouevres had to be carried out by combining these with lighter infantry accompanying tanks (H35, R35). These two different kinds of tanks could not really be used together, and the exercise was considered to have been a failure. Thus, for the moment, the army abandoned the attempt to develop heavy divisions and concentrated mainly on the production of light infantry support tanks. On the other hand, the B1s still continued to roll slowly off the production lines, even if there was no clear idea how they were to be deployed. Given that the French military had at this stage no doctrine for the use of heavy tanks, it is a testimony to the continuing legacy of Estienne that any were being produced at all. But this was also a drawback. It meant that the specifications of these vehicles had not been drawn up to meet the requirements of evolving military doctrine, but that the doctrine would have to adapt itself to the tanks that were being produced (the opposite of the situation of the cavalry where the SOMUA had been designed to meet specific requirements).

The most eloquent and public plea for the development of independent armoured divisions came in 1934 with the publication of the book Vers une armée de métier [Towards a Professional Army] by the relatively unknown Colonel Charles de Gaulle. In 1940 this book was translated into English with the title The Army of the Future. The cover bore the words: ‘A 1934 Prophecy! France disregarded it! Germany worked on it!’ In many respects, de Gaulle’s book was prescient, but it probably did little to advance the cause he was advocating. Indeed de Gaulle possibly even harmed his case by linking the technical issue of tank deployment to the politically sensitive issue of the professional army. While the modernization of the army might have required the recruitment of some specialized personnel—radio operators, mechanics—it did not necessarily imply full professionalization. By making this point the centre of his argument, de Gaulle was bound to antagonize politicians who were suspicious of professional armies for political reasons. De Gaulle’s book is indeed suffused with a romantic and almost mystical celebration of the military vocation and the role it could play in national regeneration. This was not the best way to win converts.

Within the High Command, however, there were others pushing more discreetly, and more effectively, for armoured divisions. The keenest advocates were Generals Pierre Héring and Gaston Billotte; the most sceptical was General Dufieux, Inspector of Infantry. The slow production of B1s continued to hinder the holding of trials, and provided arguments for the conservatives. As Dufieux said after the war: ‘[W]e were able to lay down our regulations only … according to the number and possibility of tanks which we possessed.’ It is difficult to say where Gamelin stood. He was to be found arguing for armoured divisions from 1936, but other comments he made underplayed their importance. In 1939 he remarked that ‘armoured divisions … can handle local operations, like reducing a pocket, but not an offensive action’. He told the army commissions of the Chamber and Senate in July 1939: ‘One must not exaggerate the importance of mechanized divisions. They can play an auxiliary role in enlarging a breach, but not the major role that the Germans seem to expect of them.’ Nonetheless in December 1938 the Army War Council (CSG) finally decided to establish two heavy armoured divisions known as DCRs (Divisions Cuirassées de Réserve [Reserve Armoured Divisions]). Continued bottlenecks in production meant that this order could not immediately be translated into reality, and as a result little was done to disseminate information on the employment of tanks. The contents of the ‘provisional notice on the use of tanks’ that had been drafted in 1938 was kept so secret that General Georges felt compelled to write to the General Staff in January 1940: ‘[T]hey cannot remain secret indefinitely if one wants them to become sufficiently known.’

At the declaration of war, the first DCR was still not ready. But in the light of the German use of tanks in Poland, it was decided in December 1939, on Billotte’s initiative, to create two more. By the start of May 1940, three DCRs were in existence, although the shortage of B1bis tanks meant that they had to be partially equipped with less powerful vehicles that had been designed to accompany the infantry. A fourth DCR was created in the heat of battle on 15 May. Even if one includes this fourth unit, the result was that, of the 2,900 French tanks in 1940, only about 960 were organized in armoured divisions (3 DLMs and 4 DCRs). The others were dispersed through the rest of the army in infantry support roles. The Germans, on the other hand, concentrated all their 2,900 tanks into ten Panzer divisions grouped into Panzer Corps. The DCRs and the DLMs comprised each on average about 160 tanks (about half of them light infantry tanks); a Panzer division averaged about 270 tanks.

Despite the decision to establish the DCRs, French army doctrine allotted them only a limited role. They could launch blows against an enemy that was not well organized defensively or had already been undermined by other action, they could operate in conjunction with the DLMs in counterattacks, and they could exploit a successful offensive. But whatever kind of operations they undertook, they were always to function under corps or army control—that is, as part of larger infantry units. In other words, they had to fit into the army’s prevailing doctrine, which was encapsulated by the idea of the ‘methodical battle’ (bataille conduite). The ‘methodical battle’ started from the premiss that in modern warfare the strength of firepower bestowed an immense advantage upon the defender. Massing the amount of material necessary to carry out a successful offensive was a complex logistical operation that required meticulous preparation. What the army wanted to avoid above all were improvised ‘encounter battles’ where moving armies came upon each other without having prepared their positions. Instead the emphasis of French doctrine was on a tightly controlled battle where decision-making was centralized at the highest levels. This was in stark contrast to German doctrine, which encouraged initiatives by lower-level commanders.

If the enemy managed to break through the front, the French response was known as colmatage, plugging the gap by moving reserves into the path of the attacking troops in order to slow down their advance and restore a continuous front. Infantry remained the key to victory: ‘[P]rotected and accompanied by its own guns and by the guns of the artillery, and occasionally preceded by combat tanks and aviation … the infantry conquers the ground, occupies it, organizes it and holds it.’ These were the words of the 1921 Provisional Instruction on the Tactical Employment of Large Units. This famous document, which codified French doctrine, was revised in 1936, but this new draft asserted that the 1921 version, ‘fixed by our eminent leaders’ must ‘remain our charter’. Having establised this, it did go on to offer some qualifications. It noted the ‘acceleration of battle’ and affirmed that ‘the offensive is the pre-eminent mode of action’ and the defensive the ‘attitude momentarily chosen by a commander who does not feel able to take the offensive’. The document concluded: ‘[H]owever strong fortified fronts, the decision … will only be obtained by manoeuvre in which speed and mobility are essential.’ All this seemed to embody a characteristically Gamelinesque tension between two positions, between the overwhelming imperative of attack and the inherent superiority of defence. The circle was squared by the concept of ‘methodical battle’, which described the conditions in which a successful offensive might occur but set almost impossibly tough prerequisites for success.

In the end, then, while it would not be true to say that the French army in 1940 had learnt nothing and was planning to fight the last war again—the French army of 1940 was very different from that of 1918—or that the military were not engaged in intensive discussions about the most appropriate ways of modernizing the army, the changes which had occurred were basically incremental adjustments, albeit important ones, of a corpus of doctrine that had not fundamentally altered.

Armoured Forces

At the beginning of the war the French Army had no tank divisions whatsoever and the British only one. As has been stressed here, German tanks were not always superior to those they faced and were often markedly inferior. The key to German success on the battlefield was in the tactical doctrine governing their use, as well as in training and leadership.

The Germans were successful in their initial campaigns because they worked out a flexible system that combined infantry, artillery, tanks, and supporting aviation in one integrated military effort. Unit commanders had great flexibility, and they could concentrate forces quickly to exploit any situation that might develop. Command and control between units and even individual tanks was facilitated by the efficient use of radio.

The French, regarded by many observers as having the most powerful army in Europe, in fact lacked the ability to employ their military strength promptly and to good advantage. It was primarily a failure of doctrine rather than any equipment shortcomings that did in the French. The French Army divided control of its tanks between the infantry and cavalry. Infantry commanders saw the tanks solely as a means of infantry support; the cavalry regarded them chiefly in a reconnaissance role. Another consequence of this division was a multiplicity of designs.

Following the declaration of war, the French were slow to mobilize, and in the two weeks it required them to call up reservists and bring artillery from storage, it became clear that Poland was already collapsing. Even so, a vigorous French thrust would have carried to the Rhine with tremendous consequences for the course of the war, as the German strategic plan committed the vast bulk of German strength, some 60 divisions, to Poland and left only a weak force to hold the Rhineland. The latter numbered only 40 divisions (36 of which were untrained), with no tanks, little artillery, and few aircraft. The French moved belatedly and timidly and, after securing a few villages, withdrew the few divisions committed to the effort. Senior French and British commanders had rejected the new theories of high-speed armor warfare. They persisted in viewing tanks as operating in support of infantry, to be spread over the front in small packets rather than being massed in entire divisions.

The Polish campaign of September 1939 revealed the errors in Allied thought concerning armor. In their invasion the Germans pressed into service all available tanks, hoping that sheer numbers and their employment en masse would make up for any equipment and armament shortcomings. As noted earlier, in all they had some 2,900 tanks, most of them PzKpfw Is and IIs.

The success of the German blitzkrieg lay not in numbers of tanks but in the formation of combined arms teams. The problem in World War I had been the inability of an attacker’s reserve formations to close quickly once a breech had been created in an enemy’s lines; the attacker’s artillery would also have to be repositioned to support a further advance. The new German theory of high-speed warfare called on mechanized reserves and artillery to move at the speed of the tanks, all supported by aircraft, greatly compressing the time line in favor of the attackers.

General Heinz Guderian, who developed the blitzkrieg, saw the need to use the tanks en masse in divisions for breakthrough shock power rather than dispersing them. German forces were to locate weak points in the enemy battle line, then build up strength at these points, holding them with infantry and antitank guns, hoping to lure enemy tanks into attacking and running into the more powerful antitank guns. Such tactics would save the German tanks for the exploitation role.

These reinforced points would serve as pivots, from which the tanks would achieve fast, sudden breakthroughs without warning or the benefit of preliminary bombardment. Infantry would move with the tanks in a column of tracked vehicles and trucks. The whole idea was to keep moving and to stage deep penetrations and encirclements of enemy forces. The attacking forces would be largely self-contained for a matter of three to four days. Vital to German success was control of the air, ensured by having the world’s most powerful air force. The Luftwaffe was basically a tactical air force, developed for close ground support, and the key to this was the “flying artillery” provided by the Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber. Although it later proved vulnerable to antiaircraft guns and high-performance fighters, the Stuka’s early opponents had few of those types of equipment, and it proved to be a highly mobile and accurate artillery platform that greatly aided the advance of the tanks below.

During the Polish campaign, enemy dispositions played into the Germans’ hands. Polish forces were still in the process of mobilization, thanks to the British insistence that the Poles provide no excuse for the Germans to invade. Also, Polish Army leaders placed the bulk of their forces far forward. They were unwilling to yield territory to the Germans (indeed, they expected to carry the war into Germany themselves), but in such forward positions they were more easily cut off, surrounded, and destroyed. Poland was also at sharp geographical disadvantage. Attacked by German forces on three sides, it in fact had little chance. With France slow to move, and then only with a small force, and with the Soviet Union invading Poland from the east two weeks after the initial German invasion (in accordance with a secret arrangement with Germany), Poland succumbed after one month.

Airpower played such an important role in the German success in Poland that the German Army then assigned each panzer division its own air force element. The Germans also learned from the Polish campaign that it was difficult for truck-mounted infantry to keep up with the tanks and that it was impossible for them to move across open country. Trucks were vulnerable even to enemy rifles and machine guns. Accompanying infantry required cross-country mobility and some armor protection, and this meant increasing reliance on armored personnel carriers and other tracked vehicles.

One often overlooked factor in the German success in Poland, as well as in the May-June 1940 campaign against the Low Countries and France, was the short distances involved and thus the assurance of adequate resupply of fuel and ammunition. The blitzkrieg functioned well in the dry, flat terrain and the relatively short distances of Poland and the well-developed road network of France in 1940. It broke down completely in the vast distances and poor transportation system of the Soviet Union in 1941.

The Allies understood the important role tanks could play in stiffening the resolve of infantry. They also introduced some numbers, albeit insufficient, of assault guns and self-propelled antitank guns working with the infantry. Such weapons came to play a key role in armored warfare, as did development of larger high-velocity guns to defeat improved armor protection.


Breguet-Michelin BrM4 biplane

Caudron C. 23 biplane

Farman F. 50 biplane

The idea of aerial bombardment had to await the development of the airship and the airplane before it could become reality-a reality that soon became a nightmare for many after the First World War broke out in August 1914.

From the very beginning of the war, aircraft were used to drop bombs or heavy steel darts on enemy forces. With the exceptions of Germany’s use of zeppelins to drop bombs on Belgium and Britain’s bombing of zeppelin sheds-the destruction of which were aided by the hydrogen within the ships-the results of bombing early in the war produced more of a nuisance than anything else because of the lack of effective bombs and the limited carrying capacity of most early aircraft. The war, however, soon proved the adage that necessity is the mother of invention, as all powers, with varying degrees of success, began developing a new class of aircraft-the bomber- whose sole or primary purpose was to drop bombs on enemy troops or strategic positions deep behind enemy lines. As a result, the nature of the battlefield changed, making it three-dimensional by adding the attack from above, and extending its depth. In addition, the bomber blurred the lines between combatants and noncombatants. Although attempts were made to develop bombsights, these were crude and largely ineffective, making strikes against an intended target more a matter of luck than anything else. These problems were compounded as bombers and zeppelins were forced to operate at night because of their vulnerability to fighters. To the extent that civilians became “fair game,” the bomber helped usher in the era of total war.

After investing heavily in aircraft prior to the outbreak of the war, the French possessed a number of reconnaissance aircraft that were adapted for light bombing roles after the outbreak of the war. Among these were a series of Voisin pusher biplanes-designated Type 1 to Type 6 as more powerful engines were added-that were available at the outbreak of the war and entered service in the first 2 years of the war. Approximately 1,400 of all six types were produced in France, whereas Italy produced approximately 120 and Russia produced approximately 400. Of the Voisin types, the most commonly used for bombing purposes were the Type 3 and the Type 5, both of which had a wingspan of 48 ft 4.75 in. and a length of 31 ft 3.25 in. The Type 3 was powered by a 120 hp Salmson Canton-Unné radial motor, which produced a maximum speed of 62 mph, a ceiling of 2,743 m (9,000 ft), and an endurance of approximately 4 hours. It was armed with a Hotchkiss gun and could carry a bomb load of 330 lbs. The Type 5 was powered by a 150 hp Salmson Canton-Unné radial engine, which produced a maximum speed of 68 mph, a ceiling of 3,500 m (11,483 ft), and an endurance of 3 hours 30 minutes. Like the Type 3, it was armed with a Hotchkiss gun and could carry a bomb load of 330 lbs. Other reconnaissance aircraft that provided light bombing duties included the Nieuport 14 biplane, the Farman M. F. 7 and M. F. 11 pusher biplanes, and the twin-engine Caudron G. IV biplane.

The first French aircraft to see service primarily as a bomber was the Breguet-Michelin BrM4 biplane. It was based upon a Breguet BU. 3 prototype that had been developed in early 1914 and had been selected for production by André and Edouard Michelet, who had offered to build and donate 100 bombers for the Aviation Militaire. The BrM4 had a wingspan of 61 ft 8 in., a length of 32 ft 6 in., and a loaded weight of 4,660 lbs. Fifty were powered by a 200 hp Salmson Canton-Unné radial motor, which provided a maximum speed of 77 mph, whereas the other fifty were powered by a 220 hp Renault 8Gd inline engine, which provided a maximum speed of 84 mph. Both had a service ceiling of approximately 3,870 m (12,697 ft) and were capable of carrying forty 16-lb bombs in underwing racks. The BrM4 was also protected with either a Hotchkiss gun or Lewis gun. It entered service in late 1915 and served into 1916 before being withdrawn from the front and used as a trainer. The French also developed a variant, designated as the BrM5, which came equipped with a .37 mm Hotchkiss cannon. It was produced in small numbers, with most being sold to the British for service with the RNAS.

After concentrating primarily on building reconnaissance and fighter aircraft during the first 2 years of the war, the French military finally conceded to parliamentary demands and began development of aircraft specifically designed for service as bombers. Among the first to emerge from this effort were the Voisin Type 8 and Type 10 pusher biplanes. Both had a wingspan of 61 ft 8 in. and a length of 36 ft 2 in., but the Type 8 had a loaded weight of 4,100 lbs, whereas the Type 10 had a loaded weight of 4,850 lbs. The difference in weight was a reflection of the differences in engine and resulting bomb load capacity. Entering service in November 1916, the Type 8 was powered by a 220 hp Peugeot 8Aa inline motor, which produced a maximum speed of 82 mph and service ceiling of 4,300 m (14,108 ft), provided an endurance of 4 hours, and carried a bomb load of approximately 400 lbs. Entering service in late 1917, the Type 10 was powered by a 280 hp Renault 12Fe inline engine, which produced a maximum speed of 84 mph and a service ceiling of 4,300 m (14,108 ft), provided an endurance of 5 hours, and carried a bomb load of 660 lbs. Most Type 8 and Type 10 bombers were protected with one or two Hotchkiss guns, but some were equipped with a .37 mm Hotchkiss cannon. Approximately 1,100 Type 8 bombers and 900 Type 10 bombers were produced during the war. Even though they carried relatively small bomb loads and had to be used at night, their numbers provided some success in carrying out tactical missions against German troop concentrations and strategic missions against German transportation systems.

Introduced in September 1917, the Breguet 14 biplane provided the French with their most successful daytime bomber of the war; a large number were also used for armed reconnaissance and a few were even used as air ambulance aircraft. Although some of the early Breguet 14s were fitted with a 220 hp Renault inline motor, most were powered by a 300 hp Renault inline engine, which produced a maximum speed of 121 mph and a service ceiling of 5,800 m (19,029 ft), provided an endurance of 2 hours 45 minutes, and carried a bomb load of up to 520 lbs. The Breguet 14 had a wingspan of 48 ft 9 in., a length of 29 ft 1.25 in., and a loaded weight of 3,891 lbs. It was protected by one fixed, forward-firing, synchronized Vickers gun and two ring-mounted Lewis guns. A few were also fitted with a downward-firing Lewis gun and used to provide close ground support. By war’s end more than 3,500 Breguet 14s had been produced. An additional 5,000 were produced after the war until 1927. It remained in French service until 1932, seeing action in many colonial campaigns in North Africa and the Middle East. Numerous countries also purchased Breguet 14s for their air services in the 1920s.

Despite the pressure from French politicians, the French aircraft industry was slow to provide anything comparable to the heavy bombers being developed by other powers. This was partly because the army was more interested in fighters and reconnaissance aircraft and saw bombers as providing more of a supporting role for the infantry than a strategic role. Nevertheless, by late 1918 the French were experimenting with two prototype heavy bombers, the Caudron C. 23 biplane and the Farman F. 50 biplane. Although the former could carry a bomb load of approximately 1,750 lbs compared with the latter’s bomb load of approximately 1,100 lbs, the F. 50 was selected for production because of its superior climbing ability. Powered by two 275 hp Lorraine 8Bd inline motors, the F. 50 produced a maximum speed of 93 mph and could climb to 2,000 m (6,562 ft) in just 12 minutes 30 seconds. It had a service ceiling of 4,750 m (15,584 ft) and an endurance of 4 hours. The F. 50 had a wingspan of 75 ft, a length of 39 ft 5 in., and a loaded weight of 6,834 lbs. F. 50s began to enter service in early August 1918. Despite problems with the Lorraine engine, the F. 50 provided useful service during the Allied counteroffensive by bombing train stations and ammunition depots in a series of nighttime raids in October 1918. Approximately 50 were built by war’s end. After the war a few were sold to foreign powers. Although it came too late to make much of a difference in the war, the F. 50 did serve as the basis for the Farman F. 60 Goliath biplane, which was the main French bomber in the early 1920s.

Hubert Cance Artworks