Our guest columnist, Erald Kolasi is 19 years old and was born in Elbasan, Albania on August 7, 1986. Erald lived in Albania for the first eleven years of my life, but in 1997 his family moved to the United States. Erald has lived in the state of Virginia for these past nine years and now attends the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA . Erald has just finished his first year and plans to double-major in History and Physics. Erald has been interested in military history since a very young age. His focus on French military history began after studying Napoleon and his impressive campaigns.–
Few annals in history have recorded as much drama as Franco-German military rivalry. Popular conceptions of the struggle between these titans are often confined to the two world wars, but French and German-speaking peoples had been warring for centuries prior to the modern era. These struggles reflected everything from competition for strategic positioning to deep-seated ideologies and opportunism. They were frequently accompanied by complex and dynamic alliance systems that yielded a plethora of results on the battlefield. As so often in history, victory and defeat depended more on underlying sociopolitical and economic structures than on oft-cited factors like courage or motivation. Humans are famous for personalizing and politicizing history, and the epic saga between these two combatants has, unfortunately, suffered from much of that, particularly among recent American public opinion.
If our story has a strict beginning, it would be 843, when the Treaty of Verdun split the Carolingian Empire between the sons of Louis I. The roots for what later became France and Germany were sown here, and the new powers, West Francia (later France) and East Francia (later Germany), conducted several wars over the next century to settle outstanding issues that mostly concerned territorial authority. The early part of these struggles occurred between Charles the Bald and Louis the German, who had earlier fought and won together at Fontenay (841) to restrict the ambitions of their brother Lothair. Louis invaded West Francia in 858 to overthrow an unpopular Charles, and although militarily successful because of light opposition, he eventually turned back upon realizing that he would not be crowned king of the West Franks. When Louis died in 876, Charles struck back in an attempt to capture East Francia, only to be badly beaten at the Battle of Andernach on October 8 of the same year.
After Andernach, large-scale military encounters between the two would have to wait until after the reign of Charles the Fat, who for a while was king of both East and West Francia. After Charles died, Odo became King of West Francia (888) while Arnulf was ruling in East Francia after having declared himself king in 887, interrupting the reign of Charles in that area. The two fought for three years (894-897) and Arnulf came out ahead, forcing Odo to yield some minor territory from his kingdom. In the early tenth century, a conflict emerged between Louis IV and Otto the Great over a territory whose name would haunt Franco-German history ever since: Lorraine. Louis supported the rebelling Eberhard III, Duke of Franconia, and Giselbert of Lorraine, but their defeat at the Battle of Andernach (October 2, 939) saw Franconia incorporated into Otto’s German Empire. Otto then invaded France and forced Louis to recognize German hegemony over Lorraine. Although neither side knew it at the time, the stage had been set for an explosive period in world history over a thousand years later.
These early clashes between East and West Francia were super-imposed upon numerous Viking, Saracen, and, later, Magyar invasions. It is difficult to know the extent of the impact these intrusions had on preventing the total domination by any given part of the former Carolingian Empire over the others, but certainly they contributed significantly. East and West Francia devoted a sizeable portion of their ‘national’ resources and will to combating foreign invasions. The battles of Saucourt-en-Vimeu (881, French victory), Leuven (891, German victory), and Lechfeld (955, German victory) were some of the more memorable triumphs over those invaders.
Otto’s involvement in Italy shifted the German strategic focus. The Holy Roman Empire would now be mired in controversies with the Pope and in battles with Italian city-states. The situation in France also changed dramatically; the Carolingian line of kings collapsed when Hugh Capet was elected king in 987, and later Capetian rulers spent much of their efforts controlling recalcitrant nobles and battling with the English after the successful Norman Conquest of England in 1066. As a result, from about the late tenth century until the early thirteenth, Franco-German military rivalry included mostly blips on the historical radar screen. French and German armies, however, did participate in some crusades together as allies.
The next encounter between the two was unforgettable and would change history. Before the Battle of Bouvines (July 27, 1214), the very existence of France was being threatened. Afterwards, Philippe II had become the most powerful monarch in Europe, King John of England was forced to sign the Magna Carta, German Emperor Otto IV was deposed, and the resulting political fragmentation in the Empire gutted German strength for centuries. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. How did this amazing battle come about? How did the French army defeat a larger and combined Flemish-German force in what was perhaps the greatest pitched battle of the Middle Ages?
The events leading to Bouvines are lengthy and convoluted, but they can be largely traced back to the ascension of Henry, who in the twelfth century was Duke of Anjou, Normandy, and Aquitaine, on the English throne as Henry II. The resulting ‘Angevin Empire,’ as it is sometimes called by historians, encompassed England and significant portions of France, presenting a major strategic challenge to French ambitions, which could not allow such a major power to exist that closely. The battle was preceded by the formation of (perhaps) the first great continental alliances in European history, and certainly the most significant up to that point. From 1197 to 1208, Otto IV of Brunswick (Welf) had been battling Philip of Swabia (Waiblinger) for control of Germany. Philip was murdered in 1208 and Frederick II became Otto’s new rival. Frederick allied himself with Philippe and Otto went with John I of England. By 1213, John was ready to strike against Philippe and reclaim lands lost some years ago. He would invade France from the southwest as a diversion while Otto would lead a Flemish-English-German army across the Flemish frontier.
The decisive clash took place between Tournai and Lille. The two armies deployed in front of each other and Guérin, the Duke of Bourgogne, opened the battle by leading 300 cavalrymen against the German left. The French right and German left became entangled in the ensuing melee, with Ferrand, Count of Flanders, being captured. Otto then sent his infantry towards the French center; the communal militia broke easily, but the more veteran French knights hung on and defeated Otto’s soldiers. The attack on the center had exposed Otto’s right flank, which the French now assaulted with full vigor, destroying Salisbury’s heavy cavalry. The German center was also feeling the pressure and French chivalry gradually began to carry the day; Otto fled the field and his army, defeated on all fronts, followed quickly after, but not before Reginald led a heroic rearguard of Brabancon pikemen that significantly slowed the French advance. It was a complete and total triumph.
It is futile to comment on numbers and casualties too definitively. The only certain thing is that Otto’s army probably outnumbered the French and his casualties were also much higher, the vast majority of them being prisoners. While Philippe was winning at Bouvines, his son, Louis, had defeated John to the west. Although Bouvines was not the most impressive of military victories from a tactical standpoint, it was unequivocally the most important battle in French history. Otto was deposed, replaced by Frederick, John was forced to sign the Magna Carta by his barons, and France became more centralized under the monarch. The opposite was true in Germany: a lengthy period of decentralization followed, one which undercuts our story by reducing Franco-German military conflict.
France was preoccupied with England for much of the later Middle Ages; after its ultimate victory over England in 1453, France became involved in Italy. The decades-long Italian Wars led to sharp French defeats against Charles V and Spain, which became the dominant European power in the sixteenth century. From about 1562 until 1598, the Religious Wars crippled France. Meanwhile, Germany was being gripped by the Protestant Reformation. The two did not have good prospects going into the seventeenth century.
Nevertheless, outstanding religious issues plunged Europe into one of the most vicious struggles it had known up until then. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) involved almost all major European powers and laid the roots for the nation-state system and a renewed sense of Franco-German rivalry. France did not enter the conflict until 1635, but the wait for Sweden and the United Provinces was well worth it: after a slow start, French armies were unstoppable and steamrolled their way to victory after victory: Rocroi (1643), Nördlingen (1645), and Lens (1648) were all instrumental engagements that played key roles in ending the war. Turenne’s brilliant campaigning in Bavaria during the mid-1640s would foreshadow Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’ over 200 years later. French armies brutally ravaged, burned, and pillaged Southern Germany, something that the local population would remember rather unkindly for a long time to come. Victory in the Thirty Years War left France as the greatest power in Europe and highly wont to intervention in German affairs, both militarily and politically. German states were numerous and politically fractious, an unfortunate combination when having to go against a militarized France with one-sixth of Europe’s population in the seventeenth century.
Although hope may not have sprung eternally for Germany at this point, there were hints of good news. The state of Brandenburg (later Prussia) would become the banner for German aspirations; blessed with able and determined leaders, it made several successful reforms in civil and military administration. Slowly but surely, Prussia grew more efficient and stronger. It did not yet have the power to stop French incursions-that job fell mostly to Austria, Spain, and England, whose success was mixed anyway (as in the War of the Reunions, when France overran several Spanish possessions, or in 1704, when after a deep invasion through Bavaria, the French suffered a horrible defeat at Blenheim at the hands of Marlborough and Eugene)-but it had made sufficient progress to present more than a serious challenge to the Habsburgs during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Despite being somewhat historically aberrant, France and Prussia fought this war as allies. Both were fairly successful on most major fronts, but the political settlement simply returned the status quo ante bellum, with the exception that Prussia was allowed to keep Silesia. Maria Theresa of Austria was unhappy with the war and forged what has since become known as the ‘Diplomatic Revolution:’ France, Austria, and Russia joined together for the purpose of crushing Prussia once and for all, and so began the Seven Years War (1756-1763).
November 5, 1757. Students of military history will recognize it as one of the black days of the French army. The Battle of Rossbach shocked the French; the sting of defeat was exacerbated by the fact that they had not only lost badly, but they had lost badly to Prussia. Prior to the war, the French generally did not consider Prussia a serious contender. However, Prussian military supremacy was demonstrated in every way at Rossbach: superior drill, impressive inter-arm coordination between the infantry and artillery, and wonderful command decisions. The Prussians broke from camp, fooled the French into thinking they were retreating, feverishly marched around the French on the Janus hill, and then fell on the enemy flanks. For about 500 Prussian casualties, Frederick had inflicted over 7,000. The Seven Years War was a wake-up call for French military intelligentsia; Rossbach would not be the only defeat in the European theater, they would be beaten again, perhaps most famously at Minden (1759), but the conclusion of the war permitted a serious re-evaluation of French military doctrine. The men who began to carry out the necessary reforms of the French army were hampered by entrenched Bourbon conservatism, but the work they started would be very useful in the long run.
The French Revolution established a new era in military history. The fall of the Bourbons allowed more liberal assemblies to take chances by turning military theories into practice. Organization, tactics, officers, and the very ethos and nature of what war was about changed: the French Revolutionary Wars can be thought of as the first modern ‘total war’ because they mobilized French society in a spectacularly unknown way; mass conscription made the first entrance in human history (August 23, 1793, courtesy of the National Convention) and saw an explosion in the size of French armies. Europe now had to contend with this new behemoth. France would eventually be defeated, but not before some more chapters were added to our story.
The most significant armed meeting between France and Prussia in the early stages of the war started in 1792 occurred at Valmy on September 20 of the same year. France won. But it wasn’t much of an impressive military victory; total casualties numbered around 500 and the battle was noted more for its artillery duel than any brutal fighting. Politically, however, it was huge. The Prussians lost heart and decided to withdraw from France after the defeat. Two days later, the First Republic was proclaimed (September 22, 1792).
After victories against the first two coalitions (1792-1801), a sense of fragile peace, but peace nevertheless, hovered over Europe. Napoleon took this time to train and improve his armed forces. The French army exercised at the famous Camps of Boulogne and added the final touches on what would be a ferocious military machine. They swept forward at an alarming pace when the Third Coalition formed in late 1804 and early 1805: the Austrians surrendered at Ulm (October 20, 1805), Vienna fell (November 12, 1805), and a Russo-Austrian army was famously defeated at Austerlitz (December 2, 1805). Prussia could have intervened and seriously threatened Napoleon’s exposed lines of communication and retreat; their absence from the Third Coalition would cost them dearly in 1806.
Austerlitz severely upset the balance of power in Europe. Prussia could not allow such an affront to her status, and diplomatic gaffes preceding the war only worsened the situation. Pride was at stake, and France now set out with its Grande Armée to take revenge for Rossbach. La Grande Armée invaded Prussia in the now-legendary “battaillon-carré” system: a series of corps no more than a day’s march from each other convergently moving towards a previously-set objective. 180,000 French troops stormed through the Thuringer Wald, unaware where the Prussians really were, and hugged the right bank of the Saale River and the left of the Elster. The Prussians were stationed around Weimar (to the left of the Ilm River), but split in several groups once they heard of the French advance: the main group of 63,000 went northeast to Auerstadt, Hohenlohe took 38,000 to Jena, and Ruchel, with 15,000, held a reserve role. The decisive actions took place on October 14: with an army of 90,000, Napoleon crushed Hohenlohe at Jena, but Davout, one of the greatest of all French Marshals and commander of the III Corps, outdid everyone when his 27,000 troops held off and defeated the 63,000 Prussians under Brunswick (who was mortally wounded) and the king at the Battle of Auerstadt. Auerstadt was a spectacular victory, and more than a fine revenge for Rossbach: whether it was moving with battalion columns supported by skirmishers or deploying in squares, the French did it quickly, efficiently, and with such tactical superiority that Rommel himself would have wept. This battle demonstrated the peak of Napoleonic warfare. Napoleon himself claimed that “the Battle of Jena has wiped out the affront of Rossbach,” but that does a big disservice to Davout, who was the real hero of October 14. The men of III Corps had covered themselves with glory and were the first to enter Berlin in the famous French victory parade.
Prussia’s defeat at Jena-Auerstadt was brutal, but worse was to follow. The French now unleashed themselves after the sad remnants of the Prussian army, and one of the greatest pursuits in history followed. When it was all said and done, Prussia had lost 25,000 in killed and wounded and 140,000 prisoners. After the French went on to beat the Russians in 1807, Napoleon made sure Prussia was humiliated at the Treaty of Tilsit: all Prussian territory west of the Elbe River would go to the new Kingdom of Westphalia, to be ruled by Napoleon’s brother Jerome. Prussia’s loss shocked Germany and Europe. A sense of German nationalism now acquired stronger feelings, and the desire to avenge 1806 certainly fuelled those sentiments. Even though many Germans did not like France, they saw it as somewhat of a model on what a strong, united nation could accomplish. After the French catastrophe in Russia, Prussia joined the Sixth Coalition and helped liberate Germany from French hegemony in 1813. Prussian and Russian troops marched through Paris in 1814, the year that should have marked the final defeat of Napoleon and the fall of the French Empire.
Napoleon had other designs. He left Elba in February 1815 and entered Paris by March 20. European leaders meeting in Vienna declared him an outlaw and prepared for a new war against France. The British, Prussians, and the Dutch were the only ones nearby that could seriously threaten Napoleon, who decided to attack through Belgium and defeat them. Napoleon’s advance initially caught the Allies by surprise. Wellington incorrectly read the strategic situation and could not help the Prussians when they went up against the French at Ligny on June 16. Blucher was defeated, breaking with 16,000 casualties to 11,500 for the French, but not as decisively as Napoleon believed. While Napoleon assigned Grouchy to follow the Prussians, he took the main force against Wellington. At the Battle of Waterloo, Dutch, Belgian, British, and Hannoverian troops managed to fiercely resist against all French charges until Prussian aid late in the day finally turned the tide. When the final attack by the Imperial Guard failed, the French army retreated. Prussian intervention almost certainly saved Wellington, whose center was being brutally battered after the French had taken La Haie Sainte. After Waterloo, Napoleon abdicated for a second time, Paris was reoccupied, and foreign troops would remain on French soil until 1818.
The rest of the nineteenth century witnessed Prussia taking the lead in German affairs. After defeating Austria in the Seven Weeks War of 1866, only France remained as a weighty challenge to Prussian domination of Germany. A number of German states joined Prussia for the Franco-Prussian War, and a term like ‘Franco-German War’ would be more appropriate, though only to signify ethnicities, since Germany was not a national entity yet. These additional troops helped swell German numbers and forced the French to retreat after their early incursions. An extraordinary German victory at Mars-La-Tour (August 16, 1870) was followed by the Battle of Gravelotte (August 18), where the French managed to stop and inflict heavier casualties on the Germans, but inexplicably retreated anyway. Marshal Bazaine’s army was eventually surrounded at Metz and 180,000 French troops ignominiously surrendered (October 23) after a pathetic campaign. During the Siege of Metz, Napoleon III and Marshal MacMahon had formed the Army of Chalons and marched to save Bazaine, but the Germans cleverly intercepted them and forced a withdrawal to Sedan. The resulting battle on September 1, 1870 led to the loss of the entire 120,000-strong Army of Chalons, with about 20,000 captured and 80,000 surrendering. The Germans marched on Paris but found Parisians in no mood to let them in; a heroic four-month siege with several break-out attempts followed, but with appalling conditions in the city, reason finally prevailed and Paris fell on January 28. It is said that future Provisional President Adolphe Thiers broke into tears when he heard the guns of the last fort in Paris fall silent. Meanwhile, ten days earlier, the German Empire was proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Fighting continued, and the French managed to win a relatively irrelevant encounter at Coulmiers, but eventually the Germans defeated all organized and armed opposition.
The theme of France and the Germans imposing harsh treaties on one another, first started by Napoleon at Tilsit, continued with the Treaty of Frankfurt, which was signed on May 10, 1871. France was forced to give up Alsace-Lorraine, pay a hefty indemnity, and stand under occupation until all indemnities had been paid. The loss of Lorraine, which had been part of France since 1766, and Alsace, part of France since Westphalia in 1648, caused deep agitation between the two nations. The two provinces had traditionally been German-speaking regions, and the Germans thought it made sense that they should be part of Germany. France was irate, however, and Alsace-Lorraine became a powerful motivator for French revanchism.
Historians have debated the causes of World War I ad infinitum. Nationalism, complex alliance systems, arms races, mobilization timetables, and imperialism have all been suggested as possible candidates or in combination. Whatever the causes, the ensuing conflict was more horrible than anything humans had ever known, leaving behind at least 10 million dead from 1914 to 1918. France and Germany were both profoundly shaken by the war. The two titans gave humanity a savage redefinition of militarism, one whose horrors have never been forgotten.
Germany’s potential strategic difficulty, having to fight a war on two fronts, was supposed to be resolved by the now famous Schlieffen Plan, which called for the quick defeat of France before Russia could mobilize its huge masses. It is often said that Schlieffen’s inspiration was Cannae, but the plan had far more in common with Napoleon’s famous wheeling movement around Ulm in 1805. Schlieffen did not envisage a double envelopment; his dying words, “Keep the right wing strong,” explain the main idea behind the plan: in case of war, Germany would hurl the majority of the army through Belgium and fall on Paris before the French could successfully react. It was a brilliant plan, but Schlieffen underestimated his opponent.
The French went through a series of strategic conceptions about how to respond in a war with Germany. Early plans were defensive in nature, reflecting the numerical inferiority of the French army. Shortly before the war, however, the French General Staff adopted Plan XVII. This new plan was far more offensive than previous ideas, calling for furious bayonet charges that would be supported by equally furious artillery barrages. Like the Schlieffen Plan, though to a much greater extent, Plan XVII was hopelessly flawed in its underestimation of twentieth century warfare.
Germany’s decision to invade France through Belgium brought Britain into the war. The German army advanced fairly quickly early on, only being slowed at Liège <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li%C3%A8ge_%28city%29> for a significant amount of time thanks to tough Belgian resistance, and scored some major victories in the Battle of the Frontiers (August 7-24, 1914). French casualties soared for little gain and the Germans pressed on. Why Germany was not able to finish the war at this point, after the great victories of the Frontiers and with clear numerical superiority over both the French and the British, has also witnessed much speculation. Russian attacks in the east caused a diversion of some German forces, seen as a break with the Schlieffen Plan, which emphasized defeating France first, troops were shifted from the German right wing to other sectors, the Germans over-reached their logistics, the French jammed the signals of German wireless sets through a transmitter in the Eiffel Tower, hampering communication between the high command and the forward corps commanders, and Joffre, the French C-in-C, replied by regrouping his forces and moving unaffected units to the French left in order to slow the encircling German armies. Some or all of these reasons should be adequate to explain what happened next.
Joseph Gallieni, the French military commander responsible for the defense of Paris, came up with the plan that would lead to the all-important First Battle of the Marne (September 5-12, 1914). When Kluck’s First Army moved to the southeast, instead of going to Paris, in early September, Gallieni ordered the French Sixth Army to strike at its flank. Kluck wheeled his men around to reply to this new threat, but in so doing he left a 30-mile gap in the German line. The hole was more than exploited by the left flank of the eager Fifth Army, now led by the flamboyant and attack-minded Franchet d’Espèrey, and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) under Sir John French. Kluck’s troops almost broke through the Sixth Army, but the timely arrival of 6,000 men from Paris, ferried by taxis, proved enough to restore the situation. Kluck lost contact with other German forces and ordered a retreat. The westernmost German armies fell back about 30 miles and entrenched behind the River Aisne. Helmuth von Moltke, nephew of the famous Moltke, is reputed to have told the Kaiser, “Your Majesty, we have lost the war.” Joffre was jubilant and wrote the Minister of War, “After the heroic efforts displayed by our troops during this formidable battle, which has lasted from the 5th to the 12th of September, all our armies, exhilarated by success, are carrying out a pursuit which is without parallel in its extension.”
Both men were either exaggerating or were wrong. Germany would have future opportunities to win the war and the pursuit of the Allied armies was not all that vigorous. Nevertheless, the First Marne was a huge victory. With 263,000 Allied (250,000 French and 13,000 British) and 250,000 German casualties, it was not a tactically brilliant victory, but its strategic implications were lost on no one: the Schlieffen Plan had been denied. Period. That very fact alone undid all European conceptions of war; the short, decisive, and Napoleonic-like campaign would not give a verdict in this struggle. Something new had dawned.
Germany, France, Britain, and later America would toil through the hell that was the Western Front for a long time. French and German arms would both see glorious victories-at Verdun, Second Aisne, Second Marne-but ultimate triumph rested with the Allies. It is often said that to understand modern France one must know about Verdun, which is true, but there should be no doubt that the real battle of World War I was the First Marne. Had Germany won there, she would have won the war and dominated Europe; World War II, the rise of America, communism, and the Cold War, all of those would probably never have occurred. The First Marne must stand as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, strategic triumphs of the twentieth century.
The Great War was officially settled by the Treaty of Versailles. Whether or not it was an unfair agreement has been just another one of the many topics relating to the war that historians and enthusiasts have strongly argued about, but more significant may be the fact that Germans themselves thought it was unfair. They particularly resented the Guilt Clause that dumped the responsibility for the war on Germany and Austria-Hungary, but the hefty war indemnities, the marginalization of the German military, and the loss of ethnic German populations to territorial changes (France retrieved Alsace-Lorraine) also did not endear many people to the Treaty of Versailles. France wanted to punish Germany to a level that was unacceptable for Britain and America, but even though the treaty did not go that far, its terms left so much unresolved that a Second World War was required to permanently finish outstandind issues.
World War II was the largest conflict in human history. Its geographical scope was unparalleled, casualties were horrific, and the psychological scars cannot even be measured. Its impact can still be felt today: America’s position in the world, the creation of the European Union, and the fall of militarism were all in one way or another directly or indirectly affected by the Second World War. Most importantly for our story, the greatest conflict humankind had ever known brought to an end centuries of Franco-German rivalry. After World War II, France and Germany went on to become strong friends, their close ties being an essential aspect of European stability and integration.
Hitler came to power in the 1930s and violated just about every significant term of Versailles: the Rhineland was militarily reoccupied in 1936, German armed forces were enlargened, and a number of territories were gobbled up by an expansionist Germany. Britain and France fully deserve almost every criticism that has been levelled at them. Their relative inaction and appeasement was driven by the dread-not fear-of having to fight another war like the Great War, but their worries were overblown. For much of the 1930s, the French army was so much larger than its German counterpart that any focused and concerted effort would have undoubtedly led to an easy French victory. Instead, Germany was allowed to grow so strong and large that Britain and France were no longer able to stop it on their own.
World War II opened with a bang: the Germans quickly overran much of Poland in a campaign that foreshadowed their unique blitzkrieg tactics later on. France had tried to aid Poland in the Saar Offensive, but it was a weak attack that did nothing. The resulting Phony War (October 1939-May 1940) saw both sides finalize their plans for the upcoming struggle. German plans initially envisioned a more cautious version of the invasion during World War I, but when a German plane crashed in Belgium and the plans survived, Hitler looked for something new. This was a spectacular boon from the German perspective: now Erich von Manstein’s plan, which called for an armored concentration and a breakthrough through the forested Ardennes area (south of the original invading route through Belgium), was adopted with both great enthusiasm and trepidation. Some German officers hailed its audacity, but other, older commanders were less certain and thought it would lead to failure. The change in German plans was horrible from the French perspective; Maurice Gamelin, the Supreme Commander, had engineered Allied planning to respond to the first German plan: the Maginot Line was expected to contain any attack from the east while British and French forces would be thrown to the north to deal with the invading Germans. Fatally, it was thought that an armored attack through the Ardennes was not feasible because of hilly and wooded terrain. The Germans had decided to try something new, and the results it would yield were enormous.
In the north, German Army Group (AG) B under Bock attacked the Netherlands and Belgium to draw strength away from the crucial Ardennes region that would be assaulted by AG A under Rundstedt. AG A stormed through the Ardennes, routed the French Light Divisions, and advanced towards Sedan, preceded by a hail of Luftwaffe bombers that replaced traditional artillery in punching holes through the French lines. German air superiority was an important aspect to the victory; the French shot down hundreds of German aircraft, but they had never had a significant bomber arm like the Germans to support their ground troops. After hard fighting, the Germans succeeded in establishing pontoons on the Meuse River near Sedan. As the best French troops had been sent north toward Belgium, the German army was fortunate to encounter poorly trained and relatively unenthusiastic troops in much of its run after the breakthrough at Ardennes. The Ninth Army, under its inept commander Andre Corap, completely disintegrated in the face of the German advance. German commanders also showed a spectacular level of boldness, Guderian plunging forward with the XIXth Panzer Corps so far that he enraged von Kleist, commander of the two southernmost German corps. Rommel’s infamous 7th Division had advanced so far westward that it became known as the ‘Ghost Division’ because it had outreached radio contact.
The Panzers temporarily halted and the Allies had to think about what to do next. An obvious move was to crush the German bulge that existed between Allied forces in the north and the south, but this was easier said than done. Although the Panzers were in a dangerous position, Gamelin realized there was not enough equipment with which to counter-attack. Many of the best French units that had been sent to the Netherlands had quickly moved over 200 kilometers, were completely tired, and nowhere near the main theater of operations to the southwest. Scores of French tanks simply broke down; of the 80 SOMUA S-35 tanks in the original arsenal of the elite 1st Division Légère Mécanique, only three would be operational. The Allies eventually decided to maintain their position in the Low Countries and to counter-attack from the south. The 4th Armored Division under Charles de Gaulle launched some moderately successful attacks, but these in no way altered the general situation. After resting on May 17 and 18, the Germans started to attack again. They defeated several British divisions, occupied Amiens, and cut off all Allied troops in Belgium from the south. The Allies tried time and time again to open a link with their surrounded comrades as part of the Weygand Plan (Weygand had replaced Gamelin), but all attempts failed. The French First Army fought heroically until completely encircled, upon which it was forced to surrender. Other Allied units, British and French, escaped from Dunkirk and were taken to Britain. German propaganda poked fun at the British withdrawal, “The British will fight to the last Frenchman,” and Winston Churchill correctly reminded the nation that “wars are not won by evacuations,” but the decision to evacuate was absolutely correct. If these troops had not left, all of them would have fallen in German hands. Ultimately, they were worth far more to the war effort as active combatants (many ended up in North Africa) than as useless prisoners.
Nothing could now be done to save France. The Weygand Plan failed completely and the Germans entered Paris on June 14. The French Second Army Group stopped fighting on June 22 and an armistice was signed at a railcar in Compiègne, the same place where Germany had signed the armistice that ended World War I, on the same day. The terms were excoriating: two-thirds of France would be occupied by Germany and a collaborationist government would be set up to the south. It had been a humiliating end; Germany had just conducted one of the most brilliant campaigns in military history. French casualties ran in excess of two million (about 1.9 million were captured) while the Germans lost about 150,000. It was a complete and total German triumph.
But it was not over. On June 18, Charles de Gaulle had given a speech on BBC calling for resistance against the Germans. Not many heard it, not many even knew who de Gaulle was, nor if he had any authority to make such a call (he did not), but slowly the message trickled throughout newspapers in yet-unoccupied Southern France. De Gaulle’s efforts led to the creation of the Free French Forces, which steadily increased in strength as the war progressed. One of the men who joined the Free French would go on to become the most famous French general of the war: Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque (known simply as Leclerc) took a few thousand French colonial troops from Chad, marched them 1,500 miles, and captured the Italian-held El Tag fort (March 1, 1941) of the Kufra Oasis in Southern Libya with just one artillery gun. Leclerc’s forces succesfully joined the British fighting in North Africa and would participate in the Tunisian and Italian campaigns as well. After landing in France, Leclerc’s 2nd Division achieved immortality through herculean exertions: they captured Paris, routed the German 9th Panzer Division along with several other units (inflicting over 13,000 casualties and destroying over 100 German tanks), and rolled into Strasbourg full of pomp and splendor, eventually ending up in Hitler’s resort town of Berchtesgaden when the war was over. In the Battle of Bir Hakeim (May 26 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_26> -June 11 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/June_11> , 1942 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1942> ), the 1st Free French Brigade, with help from the British 7th Armored Division, fought bravely against the Afrika Korps for over two weeks. The Germans requested that the French surrender, but the latter repeatedly refused. On June 11, the defenders at Bir Hakeim successfully escaped after having slowed the German-Italian advance towards Tobruk. In Operation Dragoon, a Franco-American invasion of Southern France in 1944 meant to complement Overlord, French troops under Jean de Lattre de Tassigny liberated Marseille and Touloun and captured over 28,000 German prisoners, suffering more than 4,000 casualties along the way. In May 1945, there may have been a million troops under Frenchs arms; ten French divisions, three armored and seven infantry, were fighting in Germany.
The Germans signed the first Instrument of Surrender on May 7, 1945 at Rheims, France. The second Instrument of Surrender was signed on May 8 near Berlin. At 23:01 in Central European Time on May 8, all forces under German control were officially surrendered unconditionally. De Tassigny represented the French at both events. World War II had ended in Europe.
Tens of millions of people died in World War II, many of them civilians, many of them everywhere from Europe to Asia. World War I was considered the “war to end all wars,” and World War II acquired a similar flair. It failed, but it also succeeded in a way. Since 1945, there has never been a direct and serious conflict between any two major (or super) powers in the world. Franco-German rivalry was obliterated. Charles de Gaulle became the first French head of state to make a formal visit to Germany since Napoleon, and in 1963 France and Germany signed a treaty of friendship. Today, they continue to be strong allies, jointly participating in several military projects. There is even a Franco-German brigade serving under the Eurocorps. Imagine that! The world has certainly profited by Germany and France fighting together rather than against each other.
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- The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71 (1967), by Alistair Horne.
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