Saturday, November 02, 2013

"To Lose a Battle - France 1940".. a review

Oh my, this was a cracker...

This was recommended some time ago now by Tim Gow in a post on his interest in the WWII France 1940 campaign [clicky] and having similar interests (I have a smallish France 1940 skirmish level project, which as a result of this book I'm thinking I might expand slightly to include British, and or Belgian troops!) I immediately 'hot footed' it to Amazon to get myself a copy... (by the way, I have just checked and there are still second hand paper copies for about a fiver, and the Kindle version is also only a fiver at the moment)

So what do you get?? A simply huge book, and in reality the third book in a trilogy but which stands on its own about the performance of the French army in one of the the decisive campaigns of WWII.

In the book the author makes the theory that the events in France in 1940 could be traced to a number of basic causes...  Firstly, to the Franco-Prussian War (which was the subject of the first book), secondly, more significantly to WWI and specifically the Battle of Verdun (second book), and thirdly, to the almost anarchic political situation that existed in France from the end of WWI to the eve of WWII.

680 pages later and I have to say there was a slight sense of relief at having finished..  not because the book wasn't good (far from it), but because the almost endless series of failures in the French army, and the way it was handled, was slightly depressing...

So what was the issue....??  No single issue (as is usually the case) more a combination of many factors..

Incompetent politicians with their own political back yards to protect, and no thought of the greater good as they bickered and argued their way into captivity - with right, left (the Popular Front has a lot to answer for in the eventual failure - especially after Stalin signed his pact with Hitler) and centre all at each others throats.

Industrial unrest - poor wages (politicians siding with owners, or workers) meant factories worked far less efficiently than anywhere else in Europe and especially Germany...  incidences of sabotage were known, new equipment arrived at the front too slowly

Aged and elderly French generals still haunted by the spectre of Verdun where almost an entire French generation died (Horne makes the point that at he start of WWII, Germany had more men of military age available than France did which quite surprised me) and with an almost psychotic desire not to lead their armies into the same situation a second time. Understandably as a result, with few exceptions French army morale was poor - their colonial troops (from North Africa) were not so well equipped but fought better...

Poor strategy - The psychological crutch of the Maginot Line (in itself a bastard son of Verdun) deflected resources from where they could be better used.... and the Maginot line wasn't extended to the Channel as it would have meant offending Belgium who was an ally - their early  (and understandable) decision to surrender left a huge hole just waiting for 5 Panzer Divisions to fill!

Poor tactics - WWI mindsets were no match for Blitzkrieg - the French commanders simply reacted too slowly - again and again they planned their WWI style offensives only to find that their jumping off point was already 20 miles behind the new German front lines, and the German had already overrun the French troops and captured them unprepared... (some of) the French tanks were better overall, but refuelling/rearming/maintenance was poor and they were used WWI style in small numbers to support infantry attacks..

So what of the Germans??  A very balanced view - undoubtedly their tactics were revolutionary and HUGELY successful, but Horne describes how surprised and worried the German high command were by the unexpected successes they experienced in Poland and Holland, and how those were magnified by the sheer speed of the success in France. They couldn't understand why the attack had worked so well, and so fast, and were constantly worried (rightly) about attacks to the flanks of the advance that (largely) didn't materialise for the reasons given above...

Horne also makes the point that only a very small percentage of the German army at this time was mechanised/motorised - as fast as the Panzers moved  (and Rommel advanced 200 hundred miles in 10 days!) they had to wait every now and again for the infantry to catch up (and they were walking!)

...and so we find ourselves at Dunkirk which Horne doesn't go into great detail on (as this is a book about the French army rather than the BEF) but has some interesting thoughts on...  he's no conspiracy theorist (thank goodness!) and puts the successful embarkation of the BEF and a significant number of the French army (my emphasis), down to the fact that Hitler gave the job to the Luftwaffe who were kept grounded by poor weather, and the concerns raised by the British counter attack at Arras (the Matilda's continued to worry the Germans until the end of the campaign, even though by the time of Dunkirk unknown to the Germans the British were down to just one!)

Superb book, ten out of ten and thanks Tim!


  1. Good review - this is not a home period for me, and I recently bought - on recommendation - a copy of James Holland's "The Battle of Britain" (which is also pretty hefty) and was delighted with it - surprised how much I enjoyed it - it was thorough but balanced, similarly to the way you describe Horne's book, though it looks at all the combatants plus the political context. I've often been turned off WW2 books in the past by the "patriotic" distortion, or by the author having some axe to grind - especially true of military men, I find - my view is that I can make up my own mind who the good guys were, just tell me what happened! :o))

    Since my interest in the period is tweaked, I'll check out Mr Horne's book - thanks for the review.

    1. Foy - one of the delights was the even handed manner in which both sides were described - good and bad... it was thorough, very detailed, but still readable.... I think you'll enjoy it

  2. Nice report, I'll look out for this one!

    1. Ray - well worth it... and with those spiffy new Uhlans on your blog, maybe you should pick up the Verdun book as well!

  3. Glad it lived up to my recommendation,

    1. Tim - always a worry when you recommend a book "will they like it" etc. No worries here, this will get a permanent space on the shelves...

  4. Good review, thanks. Another one for the reading list.