Lessons from the Fall of France

By Copley, Gregory R. | Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, July 2012 | Go to article overview

Lessons from the Fall of France


Copley, Gregory R., Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy


Lessons from the Fall of France Two Roads to War: The French and British Air Arms From Versailles to Dunkirk. By Robin Higham. Annapolis, Maryland, 2012: US Naval Institute Press. 448pp, hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-61251-058-3. ill., maps, indexed, bibliography. $44.95/128.74.

Few books bring into such clear relief the relationship between military strategy and grand strategy, and between social conditions and strategic outcomes, as Robin Higham's Two Roads to War: The French and British Air Arms from Versailles to Dunkirk. His study is more than just a fascinating and comprehensive history of the development of the Royal Air Force and the French Air Force from World War I to the fall of France in 1940. It spells out how societies work, and how their cohesion, or lack of it, determines outcomes when peace turns to war.

Readers enter the book prepared to learn more about the specifics of a period of military history, and soon realize that the book has parallels with the world today. This is critical reading for those engaged in military and national planning, bringing into focus die rôles or personalities, industrial relations, and political processes. And, most importantly, how cultures affect how societies handle the question of their own survival.

There is little doubt that the book will find a less warm welcome in France than elsewhere, but it is clear that Higham's analysis has been reinforced by the most mighty of all facts: the reality that France fell to the Germans in 1940. What is significant from the book is the other reality: that many in France have attempted over the years to apportion blame for this away from France, from French society, and the French military. Equally, it is apparent that - seven decades after the event - some balanced analysis of the event, and its relevance for the 21st Century, is now possible, even though in some respects France is repeating the strategic patterns of the inter- War years, possibly with important ramifications for the relative position of France as a power in the decades ahead.

Higham, however, credits French intelligence capabilities - the Deuxième Bureau de l'État-major général - with having understood the threat from Germany better than most, including the air component of the threat. Indeed, in many respects, this aspect of French strategic preparedness was better than the capabilities being put in place in Britain.

Higham is exhaustive in his substantiation of analysis and sourcing. He is an historian's historian. Even with his broad inclusion of sources, from a range of disciplines, however, it is clear that there are still stories to be told from within the evolution of the French failure to adequately prepare for the war which was to see the nation fall. The author cites, among his extensive sourcing, Stefan T. Possony's 1944 piece in Military Affairs, "May 1940: The Pattern of Bad Generalship", but ignores Possony's seminal piece in Social Research in May 1941: Organized Intelligence: The Problem of the French General Staff". This study, appearing so soon after the fall of France and authored by someone who had been belatedly called upon by the late French Government to help resolve their problems, would have added weight and texture to Higham's conclusions.

Few now recall the profound influence which Possony's revolutionary thinking had on the French Government and others in 1938, when his book To-morrow's War: Its Planning, Management, and Cost, appeared - initially in German, published in Austria, and then in French, and later in English - and galvanized much thinking in French strategic circles.

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