Skip to main content

"The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939" Book Review

Ryan loves learning about lesser-known aspects of history by reading and reviewing the literary works of historians.

"The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939"

"The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939"

A Disaster Decades in the Making

In 1940 the French army folded in a crushing military defeat at the hands of the German military, one that took a bare six weeks and which resulted in the occupation of France. As much as it may in hindsight seem quite inevitable, at the time this was presented as shocking. The seeds for such a disaster had been laid over the previous decades, however, as the French army had adopted, quite logically and scientifically, but ultimately disastrously, a doctrine of methodical battle focused on complex, centralized, firepower-intensive, operations, which had played into the hands of an aggressive, mobility-centric German military which crushed the French forces. This is a topic that is well-explained in Robert A. Doughty's book The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939.

Book Summary

"The Framework of French Army Doctrine" constitutes the initial chapter and lays out some of the basic elements of the French army doctrine (that of a heavily firepower-centric, methodical, set-piece battle), and the reasons why it was so important in constituting an army. It also talks about just how intensely the doctrine was actually followed and how it was elaborated.

Chapter 2, "Army of Reservists", looks at the basic structure of the French army, that of its constitution as an army of short-term conscripts supposed to be massively mobilized in wartime as a large reservist army. This system meant that the French army was incapable of providing a flexible response to situations but instead was based entirely on the massive mobilization of an army for a long-term conflict. Furthermore, this poorly trained army was naturally conducive to the French idea of methodical battle doctrine, further reinforcing it.

Chapter 3, "The Defense of the Frontiers" looks at the construction, intent, reasoning, and effect of the French Maginot Line and other fortifications against Germany, which the author portrays as part of a reasonable French strategy to defend crucial forward resources vulnerable to a rapid assault from Germany, and provide a defense for the French army to mobilize. It served its objective rather well in 1940 by defending the French border with Germany and its troops fought effectively, and instead of heaping critique on it, we should instead look at the hasty French rush into Belgium to doom.

One element that could have enjoyed additional focus here is that the book talks at length about the consideration in French planning to build the Maginot line as a way to facilitate offensive action, but never really why.

The French were fixated upon their experience in WW1, which prevented them from effectively responding to changing times.

The French were fixated upon their experience in WW1, which prevented them from effectively responding to changing times.

Poor Organization and Communication

Chapter 4—"Legacy of the Past"—discusses the influence of the Great War on French post-war doctrine, noting the preponderant role that it exercised. The French critiqued their WW1 doctrinal thinkers for over-using historical study to result in an excessively offensive doctrine but then proceeded to do the same thing with the First World War, focusing most of their examples and drawing most of their experience from it, and failing to examine other conflicts and even alternate facets of the war on different fronts. The result was so as to reinforce the French doctrine of methodical battle and to entrench the idea of defensive war and carefully controlled, overwhelming offensives.

"Firepower and the Methodical Battle", chapter 5, is tasked with the most important part of the French conception of war: the belief in the overwhelming superiority of firepower. This was supposed to be rigidly controlled and organized (in contrast to German decentralization and improvisation) on the idea of massive application of fire, and the French perceived this as the framework for the movement of their troops (as all other troops had to be tied to the artillery, this severely constrained their operations) and operations on the battlefield, focusing through them on the destruction of the enemy. It broadly mimicked WW1 doctrine, with minimal changes in employment and equipment.

The organization of any military and its administration is also a vital task, which is covered in "Institution and Doctrine", talking about the upper-level coordination of the French military. Here, confusion reigned without an ability to direct the various branches, there was no centralized authority, and various departments and bureaus did whatever they wished without interest for the common good. A diffusion of effort prevented decisively responding to problems and issues and from coming up with genuinely innovative and risky ideas. Even in 1940, the French army's command was poorly set up and not conducive to responding to fast-moving events.

The French were convinced of the overwhelming preeminence of artillery in modern war, as can be illustrated by guns such as their excellent Canon de 155mm gpf.

The French were convinced of the overwhelming preeminence of artillery in modern war, as can be illustrated by guns such as their excellent Canon de 155mm gpf.

Artillery, Tanks and Infantry

Moving to one of the missed opportunities of the French, effective usage of tanks, Chapter 7, "The Development of the Tank", explores how the French were heavily preconditioned by their usage of the tank in WW1 and their experience continued to be based upon this. Multiple different arms pursued their own tanks, and the French did much to experiment with them, and all believed that they would be useful in the next war—but largely they assumed in the context of infantry support, and continuing to be tied to the artillery. This meant that the French were not able to get full use out of their tank arm.

Continuing on with this interest in tanks, Chapter 8, "The Development of Large Armored Units", discusses the formation of the infantry's tank divisions with DCRs, and the Cavalry's own tank divisions, the DLMs. Here, the cavalry's different objectives and institutions, as well as better design choices and organization, resulted in far superior armored divisions which were capable of standing up to their German counterparts in 1940, while the infantry's focus on perfect vehicles and lack of urgency in forming their armored divisions led to units which shattered in the fighting in 1940.

In the final chapter, it is noted that the leaders of the army privately admitted that their doctrine had failed. Chapter 9 also discusses some of the weaknesses, errors, and problems which led to the French catastrophe in 1940.

French tanks from WW2

French tanks from WW2

An Indispensable Volume

There are many books about the French military's failure in 1940, but I think that there are few which manage to do such a good job of examining this episode's antecedents in such a brief, simple, readable, and yet detailed and well-constructed volume. Doughty's book places the doctrine of the French army at the center of its problems and cogently explains why that was so and what was important about it, explaining not merely what went wrong and what was French doctrine but also what caused it to go awry. It makes note that artillery was the framework of the French army and dictated the rest of its operations: one might consider the book being the same as any other volume which is devoted to studying the issue of the 1940 French army's operations, helping to provide for a broader understanding of its issues, its operations, and its logic through its incisive descriptions.

The specialization of the book upon the subject of the artillery and to some extent armored forces with a small cavalry component can, however, serve it less well.

A specialized focus does have the advantage in that it enables the book to focus clearly on what is the most important thing, the reasons for why the doctrine of methodical battle developed, and how it stifled the development of doctrine more akin to the ultimately much more successful German one. It makes for a work which is concise, clear, and presents an effective image of where things went wrong in the French army. To understand the French Army in 1940 and how it developed throughout the Interwar period in doctrinal and intellectual terms, there is without a doubt no greater book than this one to do so. It makes for an irreplaceable book about the French military in this period.

© 2019 Ryan C Thomas


Larry Slawson from North Carolina on July 01, 2019:

Looks interesting. May have to give this a read.