Saint-Jacques Tower (Tour Saint-Jacques) is a monument located in the 4th arrondissement of Paris, France, on Rue de Rivoli at Rue Nicolas Flamel. This 52-metre (171 ft) Flamboyant Gothic tower is all that remains of the former 16th-century Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie (“Saint James of the butchery”), which was demolished in 1797, during the French Revolution, – like many other churches, leaving only the tower. What remains of the destroyed church of St. Jacques La Boucherie is now considered a national historic landmark.
“Lafayette, we are here.” US General John J. Pershing salutes the grave of the Marquis de Lafayette as he arrives in France during WWI.
The Marquis de Lafayette is an amazing and fascinating guy. Besides a hero of the American Revolution, he was also one of the few true “Good Guys” of the French Revolution. In France he fought both for representative democracy and preservation of stability and the monarchy. He was horrified by the chaos that that revolution became.
Fun Fact: Lafayette loved America so much he was buried with soil from Bunker Hill.
Australian soldiers blinded in a German gas attack at an aid station near Villers-Bretonneux, France; May 27, 1918.
The Germans were using mustard gas at Villers-Bretonneux. A mild dose would result in the eyelids swelling up to the point where the casualty would be temporarily blinded, more severe exposure could damage their eyes to the point where they’d be blind permanently.
We often joke about “I’ve seen some shit”, but this is a representation of a visceral and downright frightening reality that someone people had to experience. I can’t imagine being subject to something so extreme that my brain had to shut everything down just to cope. His eyes are so hauntingly tragic.
Nothing in history prepared those men for what they faced.
“The worst thing about treating those combat boys from the Great War wasn’t that they had had their flesh torn, it was that they had had their souls torn out. I don’t want to look in your eyes someday, and see no spark, no love, no… no life. That would break my heart.” -Eugene Sledge Sr. (hoping to convince his son not to enlist in the Marines)
Documentary on the subject (in French). Basically, two French officers where sent to North America to get 400 sled dogs before the 1915 winter to help with troop evacuation in the Vosges. Footage of this can be found here.
Once the castle had been taken, Dusenberg took off his helmet and removed a flag he had been carrying for just such a special occasion. He raised the flag at the highest point of the castle and let loose with a rebel yell. The flag waving overhead was not the Stars and Stripes, but the Confederate Stars and Bars. Most of the Marines joined in the yell, but a disapproving New Englander supposedly remarked, “What does he want now? Should we sing ‘Dixie?'”
MG Andrew Bruce, the commanding general of the 77th Division, protested to the 10th Army that the Marines had stolen his prize. But LTG Buckner only mildly chided MajGen del Valle saying, “How can I be sore at him? My father fought under that flag!”
LTG Buckner’s father was the Confederate BG Buckner who had surrendered Fort Donelson to then-BG Ulysses S. Grant in 1862.
*Well, if I ever go to war I’ll bring the flag of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. I’ll die waving that flag!
Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father and only surviving family member, revisiting the attic; May 3rd, 1960.
August 1, 1944 was the date of Anne Frank’s last diary entry; the last paragraph reads:
Believe me, I’d like to listen, but it doesn’t work, because if I’m quiet and serious, everyone thinks I’m putting on a new act and I have to save myself with a joke, and then I’m not even talking about my own family, who assume I must be ill, stuff me with aspirins and sedatives, feel my neck and forehead to see if I have a temperature, ask about my bowel movements and berate me for being in a bad mood, until I just can’t keep it up any more, because when everybody starts hovering over me, I get cross, then sad, and finally end up turning my heart inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside, and keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be if . . . if only there were no other people in the world.
Yours, Anne M. Frank
Her family was captured 3 days later. Of the 7 people hiding in the Secret Annex, only her father survived the holocaust, and he had her diary published.
A virtual tour of the secret annex, for anyone interested.
Four German soldiers in bunk beds who had been woken up for a surprise photograph during World War I; ca. 1917.
I think it’s worth noting that the photo captured the men with their eyes closed because the method of illumination was a flash-lamp, which burned a bit of magnesium in a trough held up by the photographer. That light source burnt long enough for the men to react to it before the shutter was tripped on the camera, thus their eyes are closed.
Today if you were to take this photo with a digital camera and flash, you might capture them with eyes open, since the time between flash and shutter is much smaller and more instantaneous of an image capture.
4 year old Joseph Schleifstein, who survived the Holocaust by being kept hidden by his father, from Nazi officials inside Buchenwald concentration camp, is seen here shortly after his liberation; ca. April 1945
“For a time, Schleifstein was hidden by his father with the help of two anti-fascist German prisoners, but he was eventually discovered. The SS guards took a liking to him and came to treat him as a “camp mascot”, having a small camp uniform made for him and having him take part in morning appells, where he would salute the guard and report, “All prisoners accounted for.”
Massed infantry attacks in the Great War were typically carried out for one of the following reasons:
- To apply pressure on a certain part of the enemy’s line to prevent those troops from being able to rotate out and reinforce another sector (as in the Somme Offensive of 1916, for example; the British push in the summer was intended in part to stem the flow of German reinforcements being sent to the ongoing siege of Verdun).
- To wear down the enemy through sheer, dogged attrition.
- Plenty of attacks were done in hopes of taking certain ground (ridges, bottlenecks, etc.) that would make a breakthrough easier in the future.
(A typical infantry assault on the Western Front from a British perspective.)
First, it had to be decided where the attack was going to take place. Not just anywhere was worth the effort. Would the ground achieved in a theoretical victory be worth holding? Would the topography of the region lead to the creation of indefensible salients? What type of troops do we have on the opposing side? Prussians? Bavarians? Saxons? Have they just rotated in, or have they been there for a while? What have they been doing themselves while they’ve been there? What’s the weather going to be like? What attacks are being planned for nearby sectors? What kind of support can we expect? These are just some of the questions that had to be asked.
Once a sector for the attack had been chosen, the preparations had to begin. Parties of men from the forward line would go out at night to ensure that there were sufficient (though not obvious) gaps at precisely-determined spots in their own line’s barbed wire installations to allow everyone to get through once the attack began. They’d also ever-so-cautiously try to creep up to the enemy wire and cut holes in it, too, for the same purpose. Ammo stores had to be checked and rechecked, equipment thoroughly inspected, all the stuff you’d expect. I won’t bore you with the cleaning protocols in the trench itself.
Now, “surprise” attacks in any sense that we might currently mean when using the term were basically impossible in the Great War, at least on the Western Front. If the enemy didn’t notice the increased bustle in your forward lines – not to mention lots of new troops being brought up to support the attack if it was going to be a large one – he sure as hell couldn’t fail to notice the artillery barrage that would typically precede the attack.
The nature and intention of such barrages varied from case to case, and there were different schools of thought as to how best to employ them even at that. They were necessary as a prelude to an infantry advance because walking into a wall of alert, functioning machine gun nests is not a way to win a war. The barrage would keep the enemy’s heads down while the troops would muster, and would throw the enemy line into a state of disruption and chaos on a practical level. Even a limited barrage of only a few minutes’ duration was useful; the machine guns employed by the Germans at the time could only effectively rotate 30 degrees, so knocking out even a couple of them could create “safe zones” towards which the infantry could proceed to punch through. They’d still have to contend with rifle and small-arms fire, but that was a reality all along the line.
Different types of barrages preceded different types of attacks. The lead-up to the Somme Offensive I mentioned above saw the German lines shelled continuously, day and night, for an entire week. Other attacks might have one lasting only a few minutes. Still others would be accompanied by what was known as a “creeping barrage,” where the shellfire was co-ordinated to fall just in advance of the attacking troops, keeping the Germans suppressed until the last possible moment. It’s worth knowing that artillery accounted for over half of all the deaths in combat throughout the war, and something like three quarters of injuries.
With the artillery roaring away, the first line would prepare to advance. The men would get up onto the firestep in the trench near their respective ladders and await the signal to go over the top. What happened next depended upon both the objectives in play and the stage of the war at which it took place.
Early on, it was more common for soldiers to move forward slowly, trying to maintain an unbroken line of advance. This owes something to the tactics of bygone centuries, certainly, but it was also a practical necessity. The war was still young enough that accomplished veterans did not exist; the entire BEF at the war’s outset was only 100,000 strong, and the need for more, more, more men, as soon as possible, everywhere, meant that the amount of rigorous, professionalizing training they could receive before being sent out was minimal. It was thought (often correctly) that expecting initiative, cunning and intuition from untested privates was a dangerous way to go about it, and the battle doctrine was adapted to the material they had at hand.
The slow line-advance kept everyone in sight of their commanding officer and aware of where they were. It allowed messages to be passed down from man to man if need be. It permitted excellent rifle-fire opportunities – in the war’s early stages, British rifle drill was still so absurdly good that it was even more dangerous than machine gun fire.
It had lots of reasons behind it. It was still awful and amazingly dangerous.
As the war went on, thankfully, everyone involved (who had lived) began to learn from their mistakes. Principles that we now take for granted were developed. With more experienced, better-trained soldiers and a better understanding of what could be accomplished by the weapons involved on both sides, infantry charges began to take on a different character. The single line was abandoned in favour of small, semi-autonomous groups – still technically in a line, I guess, but able to function well out of one as well. Advancing was done with all seemly haste, and with an eye for judicious use of terrain. Most importantly, the advance would be conducted under covering fire: one group under cover would suppress the German line while another advanced still closer. In this leap-frogging fashion, the line went forward.
“Mixed” is the best term I could apply to it, unfortunately. While there was undoubtedly a learning curve (usually thought to be most pronounced from 1916 onward), early large-scale attacks were not well-managed and did not typically succeed. The methods involved were successful when measured against the first two of the three rationales I listed so far above, but in terms of the third – breaking through – they were not.
Breakthroughs were sometimes achieved all the same (the British at Cambrai, for example, or the Germans along a long front during the Ludendorff Offensive of Spring 1918), but following up on them was difficult. The idea was to establish a thoroughfare through which cavalry and more infantry could be dispatched and take the enemy in the rear. It didn’t work out, though the idea itself is sound enough.
Many have asked if it could all have been done differently, and the answer is most certainly “yes.” What that different approach might look like is another matter…
As with most things, it varied greatly from man to man. Certainly it was terrifying for many, as the memoirs and novels of the war amply demonstrate, but others perceived it with ambivalence or even delight.
Here are some standard accounts, if you’d like to read up on it:
- Siegfried Sassoon – Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (fictionalized memoir; written by a veteran; trauma narrative)
- Ernst Junger – Storm of Steel (fictionalized memoir; veteran; author seems to have positively reveled in the experience)
- Robert Graves – Goodbye to All That (highly fictionalized memoir; veteran; very dim view of it all)
- Frederic Manning – The Middle Parts of Fortune (novel; veteran; ambivalent; amazingly good)
- Henri Barbusse – Under Fire (very fictionalized memoir; veteran; almost a horror story)
- A.O. Pollard – Fire-Eater: Memoirs of a V.C. (memoir; veteran and Victoria Cross winner; greatly enjoyed the war)
- Erich Maria Remarque – All Quiet on the Western Front (novel; veteran and fraud; deeply cynical about the experience)
Finally, if you’d like a far more comprehensive and detailed view of infantry tactics of this time, you’d do well to look into Erwin Rommel’s Infantry Attacks and Paddy Griffith’s Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack 1916-18. Rommel’s views on the matter were admittedly idiosyncratic, but it’s an amazing document all the same; Griffith’s volume is far more recent (1994) and offers a detached academic overview rather than a first-hand account.
I have the daily schedule of one Captain Geoffrey Bowen with the 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers on September 3rd, 1917.
I’ll be giving some context in brackets throughout for reading sake:
8.pm. Started [wake up] 9.30 p.m. Arrived. [at trench] 11 p.m. Company arrived. 11 p.m.-3 a.m. Round the line [ie: checking on men, checking positions, maintaining quality control across the line] 3.15 a.m.-4.15 a.m. Sleep 4.15 a.m.-6.am. Stand to. [Night watch, essentially] 6 a.m.-6.30 Reports [from lower level officers] 6.30a.m.-9. Sleep 9 a.m.-9.30 Breakfast: bacon, eggs, tinned sausage 9.30 a.m.-10.10 Round the line 10.10 a.m.-12. Reports, etc. 12.30 p.m. Lunch: Steak, potatoes, beans, sweet omelette 1.45 p.m.-2.15. Daylight patrol. 2.15 p.m-2.30. Sleep. 2.30 p.m.-3.40. Gup [gossip, idle chat] with the C.O. 4 p.m. Tea, bread, jam. 4.30 p.m.-4.35. Sleep. 4.35 p.m.-5.10. Entertain 'Bowes' 5.10 p.m.-5.15. Sleep. 5.15 p.m.-5.25. Trench Mortar Officer reports. 5.25 p.m.-6.15. Sleep 6.15 p.m.-6.35. Entertain Brain and Padre [Chaplains, implied work on mental and religious health] 6.35 p.m.-7.30. Sleep. 7.30 p.m.-8. Round the line 8 p.m.-8.15. Dinner: steak, potatoes, tinned fruit and custard. 8.15 p.m.-9. Round the line 11.30 p.m.-12.30 a.m. Sleep. 12.30-2.30 a.m. Intensive sniping [under fire] 2.30-5 a.m. Sleep.
It’s not nearly as dramatic as you may think. The unfortunate truth for Hollywood is that most of WWI was sitting around improving defenses and doing basically nothing. The conditions were horrific the entire time for most parts but you were not constantly getting out of trenches and charging enemies most of the time. One of the biggest jobs of men on the front is to constantly check, repair and lay down barbed wire outside of their trenches. This was generally done at night for obvious reasons and generally required hundreds of men to cover the workers doing this. At first they had to use mallets and even if they tried to muffle the sound by putting sandbags between the mallet and the stake to hold the barbed wire down, it was still noisy business. This brought the attention of many snipers. Eventually a corkscrew type of device would be universalized which would allow men to ‘screw’ the stake into the ground silently.
However the amount of fighting and what fighting you got depended on your sector. There were generally two types, quiet and loud sectors. Loud sectors were ones where the trenches were extremely close to the Germans — at times less than 25 yards away but usually no further than 100-200 yards away. You are in constant threat of rifle fire but not so much artillery lest each side hits their own men. So your entire existence is painted by avoiding snipers, being under sniper fire, and having bursts of machine gun fired in your general direction in your daily life. The quiet sectors were generally very different. You could easily be 600-800 yards away from the other trench and both sides adopted a ‘live and let live’ philosophy and your greatest threat would be random artillery barrages from miles away. Capt. Dugdale described the experience:
Time passed very peacefully, as the Germans were very quiet. My battalion snipers had the time of their lives; never before had they been given such targets. We literally kept a game book of hits for hte first three days; after that the Germans did not show themselves so much; also they started to retaliate.
Wiring was carried out nearly every night, but not in the style we were accustomed to in the days of the Somme. Our men did not creep through the wire carrying coils of wire, stakes, etc.; instead, a general service wagon was driven into No Man’s Land with the materials on board, which were dumped out when required. At first we expected bursts of machine gun fire every minute, but nothing happened. It must have become a well-established custom, as the enemy did the same thing themselves; we did not interfere.
Nonetheless in the general, the Germans were very keen on disrupting workers parties; particularly with machine guns and offensive patrols. The need for quiet was imperative but not always followed by the more reckless green horns. One account by Henry Gregory describes a particularly loud worker party shouting orders and joking with each other while his company was covering their duties. After about 30 minutes of it the Germans (who were previously pretty quiet) got fed up and unleashed a massive mortar barrage and machine gun attack on the position, killing dozens of men who had no reason to.
Conditions in the trenches were universally awful however. That is one universal thing that can be applied. Many trenches had water up the knees of men and you would have to wade around in this grungy, dirty mud water all day and everything you had would be almost constantly wet. When digging new trenches it was not uncommon to get a sudden and sharp scent of a dead body lying there for weeks or months as you pierced his flesh in the dirt, especially in when repairing trenches taken over from the enemy after large artillery barrages. Everything, once you got up to the front, had to be carried by hand for obvious reasons. Usually in the dark. In knee to waist high water. While being shot at by snipers consistently. You can imagine the frustration and how it could wear on a man.
That’s really what made the war so horrible. You didn’t attack all that much if you were a soldier but your life was still a miserable hellhole. You sat in a crappy trench while being shot on constantly by snipers or being bombarded constantly by artillery depending on where you were — if you were in a perfect spot both at once! You were constantly slightly hungry because of poor rations and if someone slipped and dropped a box of steak in water they were done for and you had just go without. Something that happened enough for men to justify writing about it as a part of their experience. However, for all that, the actual combat was pretty minimal and dare I say cushy, especially for quiet sectors. Your duties if you were a rifleman were essentially forward patrols from time to time and covering worker parties (usually the two duties were combined) which was a dangerous job but not really an all out attack and otherwise maintaining the trench system through constant labor. If you were a machine gunner or a sniper your life was essentially to sit in one spot for hours and harass the enemy and discourage them from performing their own maintenance or making them do it under great duress. And if you were an officer your job was basically to walk around and make sure everyone was doing their job correctly.
Now I’d like to talk briefly about how trench warfare worked. At first it was a crude type of deal, the Generals were literally learning on the fly. The original tactic through 1915 and 1916 was essentially bombard the enemy trench with so much firepower that they couldn’t possibly survive and then mop up the rest with your infantry. This was basically what The Battle of Somme was supposed to be — one of the biggest failures of the war where the British men advancing quickly found that the artillery barrage did nothing to the enemy barbed wire and the Germans just huddled up underground ,waited for the barrage to stop, and then just manned their machine guns again once the assault started. Things like the creeping barrage were developed as well where basically the artillery would ‘creep’ to the German trench as the infantry marched behind it. The idea was that the artillery would hit the trench and within seconds be struck by British and French troops in the immediate aftermath.
Again, the issue was coming with that all out artillery barrages where the men were marching was a horrible strategy. This is most demonstrated at the Battle of Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, where the British attempted to break out of the Ypres salient in Belgium by taking surrounding ridges. The British absolutely unloaded artillery on these positions and when the men went into battle the ground was so utterly destroyed the entire battlefield was composed of flooded craters. The men were literally getting stuck in the mud and could barely move and they were cut down endlessly. The battle was only a half success, only capturing a few ridges with egregious casualties no one predicted even at this stage in the war.
In many ways WWI was an artillery war, but it was a war that was won in the development of infantry doctrine. What generals realized by 1918 was that artillery can not win this war. It could not single handedly destroy the enemy like they believed and the principle of combined arms was developed. Combined arms stated that every component of the army must be used together in equal parts to support each other and win the battle and that’s precisely what happened. Artillery was used in short, concentrated bursts and barrages not meant to obliterate the enemy defense but just shock them and generally create temporary weak points. Infantry stopped being a force that charged into trenches trying to overwhelm a position “shattered” by artillery but rather began doing something we are more familiar with — squad based infiltration tactics. Small squads of men would independently infiltrate enemy weak points, neutralize key points and create an open path for friendly mortars and flamethrowers to move in to create a combined mortar, machine gun and flamethrower assault on the more fortified positions with the infiltrated elite troops attacking from all sides inside the trench as well. Combined with aerial reconnaissance, armor to shield advancing infantry, and short but sweet ‘hurricane’ barrages trenches became all but a stepping stone in the March 1918 offensive by the Germans and then for the Allies in the Hundred Days counter-offensive in August which ended the war.
Holmes, Richard, “Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front “
Simpson, Andy “Hot Blood & Cold Steel: Life and Death in the Trenches of the First World War”
The bright uniforms worn by French infantry in the early months of the war, alongside a reckless doctrine of attack at all times, help explain the staggering losses sustained by the French Army. By the end of 1914 they had lost nearly a million men killed, captured or wounded. Lantern slide from a box of 73 lantern slides, one of two boxes associated with World War One, Western Front, 1914-1916. Published by Newton and Company, 3 Fleet Street, London. One of 29 boxes of lantern slides. Associated with World War One, Western Front (1914-1918).
Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces with gas masks and rubber gloves during a chemical attack near Chapei in the Battle of Shanghai; August 1937.
The Machine Gun in this picture is a Japanese Type 11 Light Machine Gun.
To understand the Type 11 you have to understand the standard issue rifle. In WW2 if you were issued a Rifle in any army except the United States and their Semi Auto M1’s then chances are you would be issued a bolt action rifle. In a semi or automatic weapon recoil or gas works the bolt, in a bolt action you do it by hand. These kind of Rifles fired slowly, they prized accuracy with long barrels and high velocity rounds. Japan used the Type-38, a 9lb, 1.2 meter rifle with a 31 inch barrel and with the 40 centimeter bayonet it was taller than the average soldier.
The reason I bring up the rifle is the loading system, the rifles magazine unlike modern Assault Rifles the magazines was internal, not detachable and usually held 5 rounds. To load it you used a charger/stripper clip, shown here andhere in a rifle. The clip holds the rounds together, to load you push down on the ammunition stripping them off the clip and into the magazine. Now most Machine Guns use detachable magazines, strips or belts in which rounds need to be loaded onto, if you are in battle and the rifles or machine guns run out of ammo then each round would need to be hand loaded onto a belt, mag or clip to share, time consuming, especially while being shot at… unless you develop a system where the rifle and machine gun can share, one like the Type 11 which is loaded with Stripper Clips.
The Type 11’s loading system is a hopper pictured here and a diagram here. The five round clips are inserted in the top to a maximum of 6, the gun eats them from the bottom. With this system any rifleman can refill the machine gun and the machine gun ammo supply can be distributed if needed. The hopper can also be continuously topped off allowing for uninterrupted fire.
The hopper system used however had three problems on the Type 11. 1. If dust and dirt got in the gun would fail, spare hoppers were carried for this reason. 2. Every 5 rounds needed to be loaded, a tedious task especially if your loader should die. 3. The gun proved temperamental to the high power munitions used by the rifles and would wear out or jam, a low pressure round was developed, this complicated supply and made sharing ammo less common and more for emergencies.
The Type 11 was first produced in 1922 it served at the squad level with 1 per and was the first Japanese gun to do so in real numbers. Most of them would serve in Chinese Theater though their appearance in the Pacific was not unheard of and the ones in the US right now are usually captured examples. The Type 11 was replaced as the main Light Machine Gun by the Type 96/99 Light Machine Gun which arrived in 1936. The 96 featured a more conventional top mounted 30rd magazine like the Bren and a quick change barrel, it used the same low pressure rounds. The Type 11 served as the main squad gun for 14 years, it would be produced for 19 before every factory switched over.
Some quick facts:
- Approximately 30000 were made in total.
- The gun fired a relatively slow 400rpm or about 61/2 rounds per sec.
- It weighed about 25 pounds loaded.
- Fired 6.5x50mm rounds.
- It was bipod mounted and had a combination pistol grip and stock.
- The barrel had cooling fins to absorb heat.
- The hopper had a built in oilier to lubricate rounds.
- There was an anti aircraft variant the Type 81
- The Type 11 had a seldom used tripod designed for it, few pictures exist but here is one.
Bonus Fact: The Type 96 had an ammo counter on the magazine, an advantage made possible by being a top loader.
These reminders are important for future generations (like us) to not take peace for granted, and to remember that it’s easy to clamor for war if it’s someone else’s house and nation that’s about to get bombed, but when the tables are turned and the bomb whizz over your head, this mechanized mass murder, or whatever watered down PC name war-hungry politicians may give it, is a whole ‘nother beast.
*The trenches varied from country to country, and during an attack, a trench could devolve into a scant 18″ deep in places, due to artillery tearing them up, and the soldiers having no extra time to repair them. A fully dug trench could be 5 to 8 feet deep, and generally wide enough that at least three men could walk abreast. A soldiers life in the trench was constant work, as officers kept the men at task, in order to keep them occupied. Concerning dugouts, they varied depending on the country digging them, the soldiers digging them, how far back from the line they were, and so on. As the war progressed, dugouts became less and less protected. Germany’s dugouts were considered better because Germany dug them deeper and the men felt better protected from shelling. Britain’s dugouts were more shallow because the British thought that if their holes were too deep the soldiers would not want to come back again. Concerning trench layout, “the front” wasn’t a single trench with artillery behind it, but rather a complex maze of trenches, reserve trenches, and perpendicular trenches meant to aid the flow of traffic back and forth. (Though this seldom was as efficient as possible, with people trying to go both ways.)
The French planned to meet and fight the Germans in Belgium, defeat them there and then continue into Germany once the best and brightest of the German army had been ground down.
The French based their plan on their experiences in WWI. In that war, not only had the Germans occupied large swaths of northern France and the coal and iron mines and related metal industry (vital to the war effort), the defensive had proven much stronger than the offensive due to the ease of moving reinforcements by rail to any threatened part of the front, while the attacked had to move by foot and horse through the former front line to exploit a breakthrough.
The German had built the Siegfried line along the border, a decent set of fortifications and defensive structures, which the French, with experience from WWI, thought too expensive to try to force their way through.
The French plan 1939 was as follows:
- The Poles are to resist as long as possible. If they are successful, the French army will launch an offensive against the Germans 14 days after the declaration of war. If not, the Poles are to retreat to the southeastern part of the country and will be supplied by the French through Romania, which was friendly towards both countries. Like the Serbian army and the Salonika bridgehead in WWI, the Polish army will keep being a threat to the Germans, and will be ready to break out once the main German force has been destroyed.
- France and Britain was negotiating with the Soviets right up to the start of the war for an alliance. Stalin strung them along and kept demanding their support for demands on Poland and Romania, which the allies did not want to grant. In reality, they had already signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with its secret protocols. The Poles were in the process of retreating what was left of their army to the Romanian bridgehead when the Soviets declared war and invaded on the 17th of September 1939. This cut the Poles off from the intended bridgehead. Combined with the devastating defeat of the Bzura counterattack and the destruction in that battle of the Poznan and Pomorze armies, the Poles were pretty much done. The French then cancelled their probing attack into the Saar region and their intended offensive, as it would do them no good. They then revised their plan.
As opposed to the common misconception, the French did not rely on the Maginot line, nor did it cost them that much. The basic idea of the Maginot line was to dissuade the Germans from attacking Alsace-Lorraine and instead funneling them through Belgium – a job it did quite well. The intention was also to save manpower, as France had only about half the population of Germany – far fewer men was needed to man the fortifications than would be needed to man the border as regular infantry units. The whole line cost about 5 billion francs 1930-1939 – about 2% of the French military budget at that time.
As Poland fell, the French revised their plans. Now, they wanted to fight in Belgium. There’s several reasons for them waiting. Attacking the Siegfried line on their own (the British BEF was nowhere near ready in Autumn 1939) without the Germans distracted by the Poles or the Soviets seemed folly. Belgium had withdrawn from the allies in 1934 to declare itself neutral, and the French wanted to have the Belgian 650 000 man on its side rather than the opposite – it meant waiting on the Germans to attack Belgium. Also, by Summer 1940, the British would have their BEF fully ready, including an armored division.
So the French dug in, preparing for a long war where resources and industry would count. They ramped up tank production, ensured their supply lines to their colonies and set their society up for war production.
The new plan was:
- Wait until the British have their army in order before doing anything offensive. The Royal Navy will strangle the Germans out of vital supplies, such as food, tungsten (needed for metalworking), chrome (needed for armor), copper and oil. Trying to get Sweden to stop exporting iron ore and Finland to stop exporting nickel was also on the table. The whole affair in Norway and the threats of an expeditionary force to help Finland was more about strangling those exports to Germany than any other issue. The Germans simply got to Norway first. The Germans had been re-arming at neck breaking speed (and were close to bankruptcy several times, only bailed out by seizing the Austrian and Czechoslovak gold reserves and foreign assets) and the French were only beginning to catch up when the war started.
- If the Germans attack, it will be through Belgium. The best of the French army will then rush north together with the BEF and link up with the Belgian army. Together they will grind down the German offensive on Belgian soil, either through vicious attrition or a decisive battle. This keeps northern France, with a lot of population and industry, not even mentioning coal and iron mines, safe and free from occupation. Once the best parts of the German army have been destroyed in Belgium, the French will lead the offensive from Belgium that will flank the Siegfried line and punch into Germany’s vital Ruhr industrial and coal producing area. After defeating the German army there, France would have crippled the German ability to conduct war and thus won, with minimal casualties and devastation to France itself.
The French were reinforced in their belief that their plans were correct in the Mechelen incident in which a German liaison plane carrying the full plan for the invasion of France crashed in Belgium on the 10th of January 1940. The event caused the Germans to scrap their plan and go with von Manstein’s daring attack through the Ardennes instead.
The French considered the Ardennes impassable for large mechanized forces – their cavalry was screening the forest (5 divisions and 3 colonial cavalry brigades, however, most of their attention was to the north, towards the Belgian part of the forest) with a force of infantry behind them at Sedan (2 infantry divisions). The Germans managed, despite massive traffic jams, to get a force of 3 Panzer divisions with 771 tanks through. They brushed the cavalry aside and crashed through the French infantry. The rest is history.
The French prepared for a long war – they were right in that, it is just that it turned out to not be very long for them. For example, the French limited their air force to 1-2 combat missions per day, intending to keep them fresh and ready for continued combat for a long time, while the Germans managed to get 4-6 combat missions per plane and day, resulting in much more effective combat usage, but crews exhausted and prone to mistakes and accidents reducing their strength. By June, the Luftwaffe was almost completely worn out and needed more than a month of rest and refit before they could launch the Battle of Britain. The French also retreated parts of their air force out of range of German fighters in order to protect them from attacks on their airfields, to allow them to rest and repair planes in peace – which meant that a large part of the French air force was in the process of moving bases and unavailable at the decisive moment.
The French knew that the Germans would come through Belgium and rushed their best forces north to link up with the Belgians once they did – however, the Germans punched a large armored force through the Ardennes forest, between the Maginot line and the Franco-Belgian positions in Belgium.
The Belgians had build fortifications in eastern Belgium, but they were not coordinated with the Maginot line, and since Belgium had withdrawn from its alliance with France 1934 to become neutral, the French could not cooperate with the Belgians on defense and fortified lines.
The Belgian fortified line pretty much fell apart when one of the key elements of it, Fort Eben-Emael was seized by a handful of German paratroopers in a daring operation.
See this map: