Military history


The Front in France

Movement of the B.E.F. to France — Fortification of the Belgian Frontier — Advantages of Aggression — Belgian Neutrality — France and the Offensive — The Maginot Line — Accepted Power of the Defensive — Unattractive French Alternatives — Estimates of the British Chiefs of Staff — Hitler’s Error — Relative Strengths in the West — Possible German Lines of Attack — Opinion of the British Chiefs of Staff; Their Paper of September 18, 1939 — Gamelin Develops Plan D — Instruction Number 8 — Meeting of Allied Supreme Council in Paris on November 17 — Plan D Adopted — Extension of Plan D to Holland.

IMMEDIATELY UPON THE OUTBREAK, our Expeditionary Army began to move to France. Whereas, before the previous war at least three years had been spent in making the preparations, it was not till the spring of 1938 that the War Office set up a special section for this purpose. Two serious factors were now present. First, the equipment and organisation of a modern army was far less simple than in 1914. Every division had mechanical transport, was more numerous, and had a much higher proportion of non-fighting elements. Secondly, the extravagant fear of air attack on the troopships and landing-ports led the War Office to use only the southern French harbours, and St. Nazaire, which became the principal base. This lengthened the communications of the Army, and in consequence retarded the arrival, deployment, and maintenance of the British troops, and consumed profuse additional numbers along the route.1

Oddly enough, it had not been decided before war on which sector of the front our troops should be deployed, but the strong presumption was that it would be south of Lille; and this was confirmed on September 22. By mid-October four British divisions, formed into two army corps of professional quality, were in their stations along the Franco-Belgian frontier. This involved a road-and-rail movement of two hundred and fifty miles from the remote ports which had been closed for landing. Three infantry brigades, which arrived separately during October and November, were formed into the 5th Division in December, 1939. The 48th Division came out in January, 1940, followed by the 50th and 51st Divisions in February, and the 42d and 44th in March, making a total of ten. As our numbers grew we took over more line. We were not, of course, at any point in contact with the enemy.

When the B.E.F. reached their prescribed positions, they found ready-prepared a fairly complete artificial anti-tank ditch along the front line, and every thousand yards or so was a large and very visible pillbox giving enfilade fire along the ditch for machine and anti-tank guns. There was also a continuous belt of wire. Much of the work of our troops during this strange autumn and winter was directed to improving the French-made defences and organising a kind of Siegfried Line. In spite of frost, progress was rapid. Air photographs showed the rate at which the Germans were extending their own Siegfried Line northwards from the Moselle. Despite the many advantages they enjoyed in home resources and forced labour, we seemed to be keeping pace with them. By the time of the May offensive, 1940, our troops had completed four hundred new pillboxes. Forty miles of revetted anti-tank ditch had been dug and great quantities of wire spread. Immense demands were made by the long line of communications stretching back to Nantes. Large base installations were created, roads improved, a hundred miles of broad-gauge railway line laid, an extensive system of buried cable dug in, and several tunnelled headquarters for the corps and army commands almost completed. Nearly fifty new airfields and satellites were developed or improved with runways, involving over fifty thousand tons of concrete.

On all these tasks the Army laboured industriously, and to vary their experiences, moved brigades by rotation to a sector of the French Front in contact with the enemy near Metz, where there was at least some patrol activity. All the rest of the time was spent by our troops in training. This was indeed necessary. A far lower scale of preparation had been reached when war broke out than that attained by Sir John French’s army a quarter of a century before. For several years no considerable exercise with troops had been held at home. The Regular Army was twenty thousand short of establishment, including five thousand officers, and under the Cardwell system, which had to provide for the defence of India, the greater part of this fell upon the home units, which in consequence became hardly more than cadres. The little-considered, though well-meant, doubling of the Territorial Army in March, 1939, and the creation of the militia in May of that year, both involved drawing heavily upon the Regular Army for instructors. The winter months in France were turned to good account, and every kind of training programme was woven into the prime work of fortification. It is certain that our Army advanced markedly in efficiency during the breathing-space which was granted it, and in spite of exacting toils and the absence of any kind of action, its morale and spirit grew.

Behind our front immense masses of stores and ammunition were accumulated in the depots all along the communications. Ten days’ supply was gathered between the Seine and the Somme, and seven days’ additional north of the Somme. This latter provision saved the Army after the German break-through. Gradually, in view of the prevailing tranquillity, other ports north of Havre were brought into use in succession. Dieppe became a hospital base; Fécamp was concerned with ammunition; and in the end we were making use, in all, of thirteen French harbours.

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The advantage which a Government bound by no law or treaty has over countries which derive their war impulse only after the criminal has struck, and have to plan accordingly, cannot be measured. It is enormous. On the other hand, unless the victory of the aggressors is absolute and final, there may be some day a reckoning. Hitler, unhampered by any restraint except that of superior force, could strike when and where he chose; but the two Western Democracies could not violate Belgium’s neutrality. The most they could do was to be ready to come to the rescue when called upon by the Belgians, and it was probable that this would never happen until it was too late. Of course, if British and French policy during the five years preceding the war had been of a manly and resolute character, within the sanctity of treaties and the approval of the League of Nations, Belgium might have adhered to her old allies, and allowed a common front to be formed. This would have brought immense security, and might perhaps have averted the disasters which were to come.

Such an alliance properly organised would have erected a shield along the Belgian frontier to the sea against that terrible turning movement which had nearly compassed our destruction in 1914 and was to play its part in the ruin of France in 1940. It would also have opened the possibility of a rapid advance from Belgium into the heart-centre of German industry in the Ruhr, and thus added a powerful deterrent upon German aggression. At the worst Belgium could have suffered no harder fate than actually befell her. When we recall the aloofness of the United States; Mr. Ramsay MacDonald’s campaign for the disarmament of France; the repeated rebuffs and humiliations which we had accepted in the various German breaches of the disarmament clauses of the Treaty; our submission to the German violation of the Rhineland; our acquiescence in the absorption of Austria; our pact at Munich and acceptance of the German occupation of Prague – when we recall all this, no man in Britain or France who in those years was responsible for public action has a right to blame Belgium. In a period of vacillation and appeasement, the Belgians clung to neutrality, and vainly comforted themselves with the belief that they could hold the German invaders on their fortified frontiers until the British and French Armies could come to their aid.

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In 1914, the spirit of the French Army and nation, burning from sire to son since 1870, was vehemently offensive. Their doctrine was that the numerically weaker power could only meet invasion by the counter-offensive, not only strategic but tactical at every point. At the beginning the French, with their blue tunics and red trousers, marched forward while their bands played the Marseillaise. Wherever this happened, the Germans, although invading, sat down and fired upon them with devastating effect. The apostle of the offensive creed, Colonel Grandmaison, had perished in the forefront of the battle for his country and his theme. I have explained in The World Crisis why the power of the defensive was predominant from 1914 to 1916 or 1917. The magazine rifle, which we ourselves had seen used with great effect by handfuls of Boers in the South African War, could take a heavy if not decisive toll from troops advancing across the open. Besides this there were the ever-multiplying machine-guns.

Then had come the great battles of the artillery. An area was pulverised by hundreds and presently by thousands of guns. But if after heroic sacrifices the French and British advanced together against the strongly entrenched Germans, successive lines of fortifications confronted them; and the crater-fields which their bombardment had created to quell the first lines of the enemy became a decisive obstacle to their further progress, even when they were successful. The only conclusion to be drawn from these hard experiences was that the defensive was master. Moreover, in the quarter of a century that had passed, the fire-power of weapons had enormously increased. But this cut both ways; as will later be apparent.

It was now a very different France from that which had hurled itself upon its ancient foe in August, 1914. The spirit of Revanche had exhausted its mission and itself in victory. The chiefs who had nursed it were long dead. The French people had undergone the frightful slaughter of one and a half million of their manhood. Offensive action was associated in the great majority of French minds with the initial failures of the French onslaught of 1914, with General Nivelle’s repulse in 1917, with the long agonies of the Somme and Passchendaele, and above all with the sense that the fire-power of modern weapons was devastating to the attacker. Neither in France nor in Britain had there been any effective comprehension of the consequences of the new fact that armoured vehicles could be made capable of withstanding artillery fire, and could advance a hundred miles a day. An illuminating book on this subject, published some years before by a Commandant de Gaulle, had met with no response. The authority of the aged Marshal Pétain in the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre had weighed heavily upon French military thought in closing the door to new ideas, and especially in discouraging what had been quaintly called “offensive weapons.”

In the after-light, the policy of the Maginot Line has often been condemned. It certainly engendered a defensive mentality; yet it is always a wise precaution in defending a frontier of hundreds of miles to bar off as much as possible by fortifications, and thus economise the use of troops in sedentary roles and “canalise” potential invasion. Properly used in the French scheme of war, the Maginot Line would have been of immense service to France. It could have been viewed as presenting a long succession of invaluable sally-ports, and above all as blocking-off large sectors of the front as a means of accumulating the general reserves or “mass of manoeuvre.” Having regard to the disparity of the population of France to that of Germany, the Maginot Line must be regarded as a wise and prudent measure. Indeed, it was extraordinary that it should not have been carried forward at least along the river Meuse. It could then have served as a trusty shield, freeing a heavy, sharp, offensive French sword. But Marshal Pétain had opposed this extension. He held strongly that the Ardennes could be ruled out as a channel of invasion on account of the nature of the ground. Ruled out accordingly it was. The offensive conceptions of the Maginot Line were explained to me by General Giraud when I visited Metz in 1937. They were, however, not carried into effect, and the Line not only absorbed very large numbers of highly trained regular soldiers and technicians, but exercised an enervating effect both upon military strategy and national vigilance.

The new air power was justly esteemed a revolutionary factor in all operations. Considering the comparatively small numbers of aircraft available on either side at this time, its effects were even exaggerated, and were held in the main to favour the defensive by hampering the concentrations and communications of great armies once launched in attack. Even the period of the French mobilisation was regarded by the French High Command as most critical on account of the possible destruction of railway centres, although the numbers of German aircraft, like those of the Allies, were far too few for such a task. These thoughts expressed by air chiefs followed correct lines, and were justified in the later years of the war, when the air strength had grown ten or twenty-fold. At the outbreak they were premature.

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It is a joke in Britain to say that the War Office is always preparing for the last war. But this is probably true of other departments and of other countries, and it was certainly true of the French Army. I also rested under the impression of the superior power of the defensive, provided it were actively conducted. I had neither the responsibility nor the continuous information to make a new measurement. I knew that the carnage of the previous war had bitten deeply into the soul of the French people. The Germans had been given the time to build the Siegfried Line. How frightful to hurl the remaining manhood of France against this wall of fire and concrete! I print in Appendix J, Book II (called “Cultivator Number 6”) one kind of long-term method by which I then thought the fire-power of the defensive could be overcome. But in my mind’s outlook in the opening months of this Second World War, I did not dissent from the general view about the defensive, and I believed that anti-tank obstacles and field guns, cleverly posted and with suitable ammunition, could frustrate or break up tanks except in darkness or fog, real or artificial.

In the problems which the Almighty sets his humble servants things hardly ever happen the same way twice over, or if they seem to do so, there is some variant which stultifies undue generalisation. The human mind, except when guided by extraordinary genius, cannot surmount the established conclusions amid which it has been reared. Yet we are to see, after eight months of inactivity on both sides, the Hitler inrush of a vast offensive, led by spearpoint masses of cannon-proof or heavily armoured vehicles, breaking up all defensive opposition, and for the first time for centuries, and even perhaps since the invention of gunpowder, making artillery for a while almost impotent on the battlefield. We are also to see that the increase of fire-power made the actual battles less bloody by enabling the necessary ground to be held with very small numbers of men, thus offering a far smaller human target.

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No frontier has ever received the same strategic attention and experiment as that which stretches through the Low Countries between France and Germany. Every aspect of the ground, its heights and its waterways, has been studied for centuries in the light of the latest campaign by all the generals and military colleges in Western Europe. At this period there were two lines to which the Allies could advance if Belgium were invaded by Germany and they chose to come to her succour; or which they could occupy by a well-planned secret and sudden scheme, if invited by Belgium. The first of these lines was what may be called the line of the Scheldt.2 This was no great march from the French frontier and involved little serious risk. At the worst it would do no harm to hold it as a “false front.” At the best it might be built up according to events. The second line was far more ambitious. It followed the Meuse through Givet, Dinant, and Namur by Louvain to Antwerp. If this adventurous line was seized by the Allies and held in hard battles, the German right-handed swing of invasion would be heavily checked; and if their armies were proved inferior, it would be an admirable prelude to the entry and control of the vital centre of Germany’s munition production in the Ruhr.


Since the case of an advance through Belgium without Belgian consent was excluded on grounds of international morality, there only remained an advance from the common Franco-German frontier. An attack due eastward across the Rhine, north and south of Strasbourg, opened mainly into the Black Forest, which, like the Ardennes, was at that time regarded as bad ground for offensive operations. There was, however, the question of an advance from the front Strasbourg-Metz northeastward into the Palatinate. Such an advance, with its right on the Rhine, might gain control of that river as far north as Coblenz or Cologne. This led into good fighting country; and these possibilities, with many variants, had been a part of the war-games in the Staff Colleges of Western Europe for a good many years. In this sector, however, the Siegfried Line, with its well-built concrete pillboxes mutually supporting one another and organised in depth with masses of wire, was in September, 1939, already formidable. The earliest date at which the French could have mounted a big attack was perhaps at the end of the third week of September. But by that time the Polish campaign had ended. By mid-October the Germans had seventy divisions on the Western Front. The fleeting French numerical superiority in the West was passing. A French offensive from their eastern frontier would have denuded their far more vital northern front. Even if an initial success had been gained by the French armies at the outset, within a month they would have had extreme difficulty in maintaining their conquests in the East, and would have been exposed to the whole force of the German counter-stroke in the North.

This is the answer to the question, “Why remain passive till Poland was destroyed?” But this battle had been lost some years before. In 1938, there was a good chance of victory while Czechoslovakia still existed. In 1936, there could have been no effective opposition. In 1933, a rescript from Geneva would have procured bloodless compliance. General Gamelin cannot be the only one to blame because in 1939 he did not run the risks which had so erroneously increased since the previous crises, from which both the French and British Governments had recoiled.

The British Chiefs of Staff Committee estimated that the Germans had by September 18 mobilised at least 116 divisions of all classes, distributed as follows: Western Front, 42 divisions; Central Germany, 16 divisions; Eastern Front, 58 divisions. We now know from enemy records that this estimate was almost exactly correct. Germany had in all from 108 to 117 divisions. Poland was attacked by 58 of the most matured. There remained 50 or 60 divisions of varying quality. Of these, along the Western Front from Aix-la-Chapelle to the Swiss frontier, there stood 42 German divisions (14 active, 25 reserve, and 3 Landwehr). The German armour was either engaged in Poland or had not yet come into being, and the great flow of tanks from the factories had hardly begun. The British Expeditionary Force was no more than a symbolic contribution. It was able to deploy two divisions by the first and two more by the second week in October. In spite of the enormous improvement since Munich in their relative strength, the German High Command regarded their situation in the West while Poland was unconquered with profound anxiety, and only Hitler’s despotic authority, will-power, and five-times-vindicated political judgment about the unwillingness of France and Great Britain to fight induced or compelled them to run what they deemed an unjustified risk.

Hitler was sure that the French political system was rotten to the core, and that it had infected the French Army. He knew the power of the Communists in France, and that it would be used to weaken or paralyse action once Ribbentrop and Molotov had come to terms and Moscow had denounced the French and British Governments for entering upon a capitalist and imperialist war. He was convinced that Britain was pacifist and degenerate. In his view, though Mr. Chamberlain and M. Daladier had been brought to the point of declaring war by a bellicose minority in England, they would both wage as little of it as they could, and once Poland had been crushed, would accept the accomplished fact as they had done a year before in the case of Czechoslovakia. On the repeated occasions which have been set forth, Hitler’s instinct had been proved right and the arguments and fears of his generals wrong. He did not understand the profound change which takes place in Great Britain and throughout the British Empire once the signal of war has been given; nor how those who have been the most strenuous for peace turn overnight into untiring toilers for victory. He could not comprehend the mental or spiritual force of our island people, who, however much opposed to war or military preparation, had through the centuries come to regard victory as their birthright. In any case the British Army could be no factor at the outset, and he was certain that the French nation had not thrown its heart into the war. This was indeed true. He had his way, and his orders were obeyed.

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It was thought by our officers that when Germany had completely defeated the Polish Army, she would have to keep in Poland some 15 divisions, of which a large proportion might be of low category. If she had any doubts about the Russian pact, this total might have to be increased to upwards of 30 divisions in the East. On the least favourable assumption Germany would, therefore, be able to draw over 40 divisions from the Eastern Front, making 100 divisions available for the West. By that time the French would have mobilised 72 divisions in France, in addition to fortress troops equivalent to 12 or 14 divisions, and there would be 4 divisions of the British Expeditionary Force. Twelve French divisions would be required to watch the Italian frontier, making 76 against Germany. The enemy would thus have a superiority of four to three over the Allies, and might also be expected to form additional reserve divisions, bringing his total up to 130 in the near future. Against this the French had 14 additional divisions in North Africa, some of which could be drawn upon, and whatever further forces Great Britain could gradually supply.

In air power, our Chiefs of Staff estimated that Germany could concentrate, after the destruction of Poland, over two thousand bombers in the West as against a combined Franco-British total of 950.3 It was, therefore, clear that once Hitler had disposed of Poland, he would be far more powerful on the ground and in the air than the British and French combined. There could, therefore, be no question of a French offensive against Germany. What, then, were the probabilities of a German offensive against France?

There were, of course, three methods open. First, invasion through Switzerland. This might turn the southern flank of the Maginot Line, but had many geographical and strategic difficulties. Secondly, invasion of France across the common frontier. This appeared unlikely, as the German Army was not believed to be fully equipped or armed for a heavy attack on the Maginot Line. And thirdly, invasion of France through Holland and Belgium. This would turn the Maginot Line and would not entail the losses likely to be sustained in a frontal attack against permanent fortifications. The Chiefs of Staff estimated that for this attack Germany would require to bring from the Eastern Front twenty-nine divisions for the initial phase, with fourteen echelonned behind, as reinforcements to her troops already in the West. Such a movement could not be completed and the attack mounted with full artillery support under three weeks; and its preparation should be discernible by us a fortnight before the blow fell. It would be late in the year for the Germans to undertake so great an operation; but the possibility could not be excluded.

We should, of course, try to retard the German movement from east to west by air attack upon the communications and concentration areas. Thus, a preliminary air battle to reduce or eliminate the Allied air forces by attacks on airfields and aircraft factories might be expected, and so far as England was concerned, would not be unwelcome. Our next task would be to deal with the German advance through the Low Countries. We could not meet their attack so far forward as Holland, but it would be in the Allied interest to stem it, if possible, in Belgium.

We understand [wrote the Chiefs of Staff] that the French idea is that, provided the Belgians are still holding out on the Meuse, the French and British Armies should occupy the line Givet-Namur, the British Expeditionary Force operating on the left. We consider it would be unsound to adopt this plan unless plans are concerted with the Belgians for the occupation of this line in sufficient time before the Germans advance…. Unless the present Belgian attitude alters and plans can be prepared for early occupation of the Givet-Namur [also called Meuse-Antwerp] line, we are strongly of opinion that the German advance should be met in prepared positions on the French frontier.

In this case it would, of course, be necessary to bomb Belgian and Dutch towns and railway centres used or occupied by German troops.

The subsequent history of this important issue must be recorded. It was brought before the War Cabinet on September 20, and after a brief discussion was remitted to the Supreme War Council. In due course the Supreme War Council invited General Gamelin’s comments. In his reply General Gamelin said merely that the question of Plan “D” (i.e., the advance to the Meuse-Antwerp line) had been dealt with in a report by the French delegation. In this report the operative passage was: “If the call is made in time the Anglo-French troops will enter Belgium, but not to engage in an encounter battle. Among the recognised lines of defence are the line of the Scheldt and the line Meuse-Namur-Antwerp.” After considering the French reply, the British Chiefs of the Staff submitted another paper to the Cabinet, which discussed the alternative of an advance to the Scheldt, but made no mention at all of the far larger commitments of an advance to the Meuse-Antwerp line. When this second report was presented to the Cabinet on October 4 by the Chiefs of Staff, no reference was made by them to the all-important alternative of Plan “D.” It was, therefore, taken for granted by the War Cabinet that the views of the British Chiefs of the Staff had been met and that no further action or decision was required. I was present at both these Cabinets, and was not aware that any significant issue was still pending. During October, there being no effective arrangement with the Belgians, it was assumed that the advance was limited to the Scheldt.

Meanwhile, General Gamelin, negotiating secretly with the Belgians, stipulated: first, that the Belgian Army should be maintained at full strength, and secondly, that Belgian defences should be prepared on the more advanced line from Namur to Louvain. By early November, agreement was reached with the Belgians on these points, and from November 5 to 14, a series of conferences was held at Vincennes and La Fère, at which, or some of which, Ironside, Newall, and Gort were present. On November 15, General Gamelin issued his Instruction Number 8, confirming the agreements of the fourteenth, whereby support would be given to the Belgians, “if circumstances permitted,” by an advance to the line Meuse-Antwerp. The Allied Supreme Council met in Paris on November 17. Mr. Chamberlain took with him Lord Halifax, Lord Chatfield, and Sir Kingsley Wood. I had not at that time reached the position where I should be invited to accompany the Prime Minister to these meetings. The decision was taken: “Given the importance of holding the German forces as far east as possible, it is essential to make every endeavour to hold the line Meuse-Antwerp in the event of a German invasion of Belgium.” At this meeting Mr. Chamberlain and M. Daladier insisted on the importance which they attached to this resolution, and thereafter it governed action. This was, in fact, a decision in favour of Plan “D,” and it superseded the arrangement hitherto accepted of the modest forward move to the Scheldt.

As a new addition to Plan “D,” there presently appeared the task of a Seventh French Army. The idea of an advance of this army on the seaward flank of the Allied armies first came to light early in November, 1939. General Giraud, who was restless with a reserve army around Rheims, was put in command. The object of this extension of Plan “D” was to move into Holland via Antwerp so as to help the Dutch, and secondly, to occupy some parts of the Dutch islands Walcheren and Beveland. All this would have been good if the Germans had already been stopped on the Albert Canal. General Gamelin wanted it. General Georges thought it beyond our scope; and preferred that the troops involved should be brought into reserve behind the centre of the line. Of these differences we knew nothing.

In this posture, therefore, we passed the winter and awaited the spring. No new decisions of strategic principle were taken by the French and British Staffs or by their Governments in the six months which lay between us and the German onslaught.

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