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Excess Of Caution

July 2024
3min read

Yet this is where the shoe really pinches. The professional soldier, probably of necessity, spends his life learning how to beat an enemy to his knees, and he does his best to learn this by studying the ways in which the last enemies were beaten. Then the world moves out from under him, and his body of knowledge becomes a hindrance rather than a help—and, once again, history turns a corner.

A French military historian, Colonel A. Goutard, examines this problem in The Battle of France, 1940 , and the book makes a good companion piece to the study written by Mr. Falls. Colonel Goutard says bluntly that the soldiers of France—a nation whose army had a military tradition as good as any in Europe —had learned from World War I nothing except a few outmoded lessons in tactics, and that France lost its part of the Second World War as a direct result.

The French, Colonel Goutard suggests, missed the boat several times: specifically, right at first, by consenting to the inactive phase of the “phoney war,” from the moment war was declared in the fall of 1939 to the outbreak of the German offensive in the following May. Germany was vulnerable then, he insists, and a sharp French offensive might have settled things in short order. He quotes German generals as confessing, much later, that a French drive in the fall of 1939 could have crossed the Rhine and occupied the Ruhr; after which, as the Reich’s General Westphal admitted, “the whole face of Europe would have been changed.”

The Battle of France, 1940 , by Colonel A. Goutard, with a foreword by Captain B. H. Liddell Hart. Ives Washburn, Inc. 280 pp. $4.

But this was the last thing French military thought could contemplate. The French Army was put on the defensive, not because it was unprepared, not because the government had not given it proper equipment and training, but because the wrong lessons had been learned from the earlier experience. The overriding principle was to sit tight, to play for time, to wait until this, that, or the other circumstance would make a real show of force advisable.

Unfortunately, the Germans refused to play it that way. Colonel Goutard is blunt about it: “Our defeat in May 1940 was achieved by tactical and strategic surprise against our High Command. The tactical surprise was because our ideas were inherited from 1918, as against the German lightning war.” The Germans had learned something—one lesson (its sharp edge presently to be blunted) being that a modern war, whatever else it does, had better be short if the people who have made it hope to get what they want. They hit hard and suddenly, they tossed the supposed tactical teachings of 1918 out the window, and they knocked France out of the war. And this, Colonel Goutard insists, was not because France was overmatched. Once the German offensive began, there were plenty of opportunities to restore the balance. The will to take advantage of the opportunities was lacking. The French generals “did not fight”; and although inviting chances for counterattack were offered, “in actual fact no one really wanted to counterattack.”

The French defeat, of course, was a complicated business. In part it came out of political mistakes made during Hitler’s rise to power, out of general confusion among the soldiers regarding what the government really wanted, out of tactical blunders in the field, out of the decision to surrender rather than to carry on the war from North Africa. But in the main Colonel Goutard’s verdict holds: “Fundamentally, … our defeat was due more to our conservatism of outlook and our unrealistic and preconceived ideas than to any military weakness inherent in our nation.”

The soldiers, in other words, to whom much had been given and of whom much was expected, had learned their lessons wrong. In the olden days this might not have mattered so much. In the modern world, where incalculable things hang on the outcome of a war, it mattered beyond reckoning.

Consider what these French generals were carrying on their shoulders in the fall of 1939 and the first six months of 1940. Just about everything that has happened in the world since then would have happened very differently if they had learned to understand something more about war than the mere technique of waging it. (That they learned that technique wrong was an additional error which compounded the effect of the basic error.) Understanding nothing but the business of fighting, they played the military game in a vacuum. Strategy, as Colonel Goutard truly says, parted company with common sense, and the result was unrelieved disaster.

Generations ago the professional soldier needed to know nothing but the intricacies of his own profession. Wars were limited, once; the soldier used the means that had been given him, did the best he could with them, and in ordinary circumstances his country could live with the result. It is not like that any longer—has not been like it, indeed, for a century and more; and simply because nations today fight wars with the utmost intensity of which they are capable, the soldier’s responsibility once war begins has a weight of terrifying proportions. All-out war is revolutionary war, even though no one means it that way. When we begin a war we invite the future to change.

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