Strange defeat

One of the consequential puzzles of the Second World War was the sudden, catastrophic collapse of the French army following German invasion in 1940. This is the subject of Marc Bloch’s Strange Defeat, written in 1940, and it is an event of major historical importance and mystery. The mystery is this: France was a powerful military force, it had declared war against Germany following the Nazi invasion of Poland, it had ample warning that Germany would wage war against it soon following the invasion of Poland, and it had invested heavily in defensive materiel against an anticipated German attack. And yet when the attack came in May 1940, France was surprised, French armies were quickly defeated, and France capitulated after only six weeks of fighting.

Most people who have written on Bloch’s account have focused on the high-level hypotheses to be found in the book: incompetence in the French high command, political dysfunction within the French elite, and a predilection for “Hitler rather than Blum” among the elites. However, upon rereading, it is evident that Bloch has other ideas about the failure of the French military besides these large conflicts within French politics and society. As a staff officer with responsibilities for the organization of logistics, Bloch had ample opportunity to observe the behavior and decision-making of line officers and staff officers. And he focuses a great deal of attention on issues having to do with the mindset and expectations of French military men: what they understand about the battle situation, how they anticipate future needs, and how they communicate with other important actors.

The ‘thinking oneself into the other fellow’s shoes’ is always a very difficult form of mental gymnastics, and it is not confined to men who occupy a special position in the military hierarchy. But it would be foolish to deny that staff officers as a whole have been a good deal to blame in this matter of sympathetic understanding. Their failure, when they did fail, was, however, due–I feel pretty sure–not so much to contempt as to lack of imagination and a tendency to take refuge from the urgency of fact in abstractions. (34)

So cognitive and mental framework shortcomings rise to the very top in Bloch’s analysis of French army failures in the conduct of the war:

What drove our armies to disaster was the cumulative effect of a great number of different mistakes. One glaring characteristic is, however, common to all of them. Our leaders, or those who acted for them, were incapable of thinking in terms of a new war. In other words, the German triumph was, essentially, a triumph of intellect — and it is that which makes it so peculiarly serious. (36)

These limitations of imagination and worldview issues were worsened by what Bloch identifies as a crippling organizational deficiency in the French army — the strict separation between line officers and staff officers. This led to a very large separation in their worldviews, expectations, and ways of thinking about military matters between line and staff officers. Neither group knew what the other group was thinking or presupposing about the complex conditions of war in which they operated.

One simple and obvious remedy for this state of affairs would have been to establish a system which would have made it possible for small groups of officers to serve, turn and turn about, in the front line and at H.Q. But senior generals dislike having the personnel of their staffs changed too often. It should be remembered that in 1915 and 1916 their opposition to any reform along these lines led to an almost complete divorce between the outlook of the regimental and the staff officer. (35)

Associated with these cognitive framework failures was the French military’s failure to adjust to the new “tempo of war” created by German tactics. Bloch recognized through his own experience that the German strategy relied on a tempo of action that outpaced the ability of the French high command and army to react effectively. “From the beginning to the end of the war, the metronome at headquarters was always set at too slow a beat” (43).

This “tempo” problem was not restricted only to the high command:

But it would not be fair to confine these criticisms to the High Command. Generally speaking, the combatant troops were no more successful than the staff in adjusting their movements or their tactical appreciations to the speed at which the Germans moved. (47)

This too can be unpacked into an organizational point: the line officers throughout the chain of command had too little training and readiness for initiative and adaptation; and when plans went wrong, chaos ensued. “They [the Germans] relied on action and on improvisation. We, on the other hand, believed in doing nothing and in behaving as we always had behaved” (49). Bloch is explicit in recognizing that initiative and improvisation could have substantially improved the French position:

That is why the Germans, true to their doctrine of speed, tended more and more to move their shock elements along the main arteries. It was, therefore, absolutely unnecessary to cover our front with a line extending for hundreds of kilometres, almost impossible to man, and terribly easy to pierce. On the other hand, the invader might have been badly mauled by a few islands of resistance well sited along the main roads, adequately camouflaged, sufficiently mobile, and armed with a few machine-guns and anti-tank artillery, or even with the humble 75! (50-51)

And the battlefield consequences of the French military’s organizational discouragement of initiative and adaptation were severe:

But I am very much afraid that where this sort of self-government and mutual understanding did not exist, contacts between units and their senior formations, or, on the same level, between one unit and another, left a good deal to be desired. I have more than once heard regimental officers complain that they were left too long without orders, and it is very certain–as I have already shown by citing notorious examples–that the staff was imperfectly informed about what was happening on their section of the front. (66)

Bloch’s account has many other strands of organizational observation concerning features of the French army that led to poor performance — about “discipline of troops”, about the intelligence organization, and about the poor liaison relationships that had been developed between French and British army staff.

There is an important lesson to draw here: Bloch’s account is usually read as an indictment of French politics and society in the 1930s, but not as a detailed military and organizational study of failure. And yet, it is clear that Bloch has provided a great deal of content that contributes to exactly this kind of micro-level analysis of military dysfunction. Bloch, it turns out, was an astute organizational observer.

There is an interesting parallel between the collapse in 1940 and the comparably dramatic collapse of French armies in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian war (link). In both wars there was an obstinate rigidity in the French general staff that impeded adaptiveness to the changing and unexpected circumstances of the war that quickly engulfed them. Michael Howard’s excellent history, The Franco-Prussian War provides extensive details about the sources of military failure in 1870.

It is worth observing that the defeat of France was not the only “strange defeat” that occurred between 1939 and 1941. Poland’s very weak defense against Hitler’s invasion in 1939, Stalin’s unconvincing effort to invade Finland in 1939, and the stunning successes of Hitler’s Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 all represent military catastrophes that were on their face unlikely. In the Barbarossa case, much of the explanation falls on Stalin directly: his murderous purges of the Red Army officer corps in 1937, his mulish refusal to accept intelligence about a likely German invasion in summer 1941, his disastrous interference in strategy, placement of armies, and his unconditional orders that made maneuver impossible all combined to produce catastrophe in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Russia itself in the first six months of the invasion. This suggests that perhaps explaining successful largescale military undertakings is harder than explaining failure and defeat. There are many ways to fail in a large, complex and highly coordinated activity like an invasion, and only a few ways to succeed.

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