Posts Tagged ‘France’

Revolutions always seem to have a “Ground Zero”.  I use that term with some caution because of the obvious connotations that it has here in the States.  But it’s true nonetheless.  The revolution of atomic power might be said to be Alamogordo, New Mexico.  The revolution of flight could be Kitty Hawk.  For delicious Crispy Meat Burritos, it’s Taco Time…ok, that’s pushing it, but you’re catching on.

Other revolutions are no exception to the rule.  The American Revolution?…possibly Lexington and Concord.  The Berlin Wall in 1989.  Tiananmen Square, also in 1989 (though with a much more sobering outcome).  All of these place-names, for many of us, bring images instantly to mind, whether it’s a strange looking heavier-than-air device lifting off the ground for a few feet or that brave young man that keeps side-stepping to keep himself in front of the tanks.

There’s the Bastille as well.  It’s not a city…well, it might be a city somewhere, but that wouldn’t be the focus of Today’s History Lesson.  The Bastille is a prison…a medieval prison.  But here I am talking in the present tense, as though it’s still standing…it’s not.  The Bastille was a medieval fortress-prison.

It was a real structure, but in 1789 it was symbolic as well.  For the citizens of Paris (and for many in the rest of France as well), the fortress had some to symbolize everything they hated about the monarchy in general, and King Louis XVI in particular.  Though it only held a handful of prisoners, it was an icon of repression, in which a single ruling class (led by a single ruler) held absolute sway over the entire populace.

As the spring of 1789 warmed to the summer, the situation continued to deteriorate.  Hard economic times and oppressive taxes were pushing the citizenry to the boiling point.  King Louis, sensing trouble, had made a few concessions, such as allowing the French legislature to rename itself the National Assembly.  He even seemed somewhat amenable to a constitutional monarchy.

But on July 11th, the same day Lafayette stood up in the Assembly and proclaimed the Declaration of Rights, the King banished Jacques Necker, his finance minister.  Not a big deal, you might say…kings did this type of thing all the time.  But Necker was a sympathizer of the reformers, and this move gave a strong indication that the King wasn’t nearly as interested in compromise as he may have let on.  It didn’t help that Louis XVI had also dispersed troops throughout the cities before firing Necker.

On July 14, 1789, the pent-up fury spilled over, and hundreds of Parisians (along with some soldiers that decided to side with the people) attacked the symbol of their hatred.  It’s known as the Storming of the Bastille, and it was more bloody for the attackers (who suffered nearly 100 killed) than it was for the defenders (who lost but a man).

But with the prospects of a bloodbath looming, the governor of the Bastille ordered a cease-fire.  Had the governor possessed foreknowledge, he may have acted differently.  First, the governor was the first casualty of the cease-fire, as the angry mob pounced on him and killed him.  And second, the bloodbath he wanted to avoid was exactly what he didn’t live to witness, as an era of terror, reprisal, and thousands of executions (including the King himself) would be the order of the day.

The French Revolution had begun.

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Over the last couple of months, we’ve spent some time discussing the Constitutional Convention.  We’ll continue to do so, but let’s jump ahead a couple of years.  The U.S. Constitution had been ratified and, one-by-one, the remaining state legislatures were voting to join the Union.  In fact, of the original 13 Colonies, only New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island remained independent of the newly-formed government.

And despite the fact that many people were greatly concerned about this new government (a representative republic was a pretty novel idea), a great many more countered that with their immense optimism.  In fact, there was hope that this concept of “rule by the people” would spread beyond the borders, to places like…France.

It kind of made sense.  Numerous French aristocrats had spent time in America in the years spanning the Revolution and had seen the push for liberty.  And let’s face it, French assistance (particularly as the navy was concerned) had been critical, probably indispensable, to the American cause.  Furthermore, French financial aid had allowed America (which really had no money to speak of) to continue in a war it couldn’t afford.

So it stood to reason (at least to many prominent Americans) that love of freedom would begin to affect change in a country where the monarchy had, for so long, ruled the day.  Late in 1788, Thomas Jefferson, a great lover of France, believed it strongly, and told all his colleagues so.  To George Washington he wrote “The nation has been awakened by our revolution, they feel their strength, they are enlightened, their lights are spreading, and they will not retrograde.”  He wrote to James Monroe that, within a couple of years, France would have a tolerably free constitution and have shed no blood to attain it.  To James Madison he would write (in March of 1789), “France will be quiet this year, because this year at least is necessary for settling her future constitution.”

And there were signs of change.  The French legislature was renamed the National Assembly on July 9th, providing evidence of a potential shift of some power to the people.  Louis XVI seemed to (grudgingly) accept the idea of a constitutional monarchy which, while still not a republic like the U.S., was a step.

But underneath it all, there were far more sobering rumblings.  The French, unlike their American counterparts in the 1760’s and 1770’s, were not trying to throw off the shackles of a foreign government control.  They were beginning to revolt against the control of their own government…against hundreds of years of monarchy.  The animosity…no, that’s too soft a word,  “years of pent-up rage” is likely more accurate – was reaching the boiling point.  The problem here was victory didn’t involved expelling a foreign power back to its homeland.  Those currently in power were part of France and, much like American Tories and Loyalists who sided with the British in the Revolution, would face recrimination should they lose.  And (as we know from the historical record) it would be bloody.

I’m certainly no expert, but this might be an undercurrent that Jefferson, in his hope for France, overlooked.  And on July 11, 1789, the future U.S. President might have been thinking of other things anyways.  It was on this day that Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, famous in America and Revolutionary history as the Marquis de Lafayette, got up and presented to the recently-renamed National Assembly the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”  It was a great moment for Lafayette, who vowed with other members of the assembly to remain together until a Constitution was formed.  It was a great moment for Jefferson as well, who had reviewed the document for the Marquis.

But events later in the day and in subsequent days would conspire to shatter any prospects for a peaceful French Revolution.  The streets throughout France, and particularly those in Paris, would run red with French blood.

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Intelligence, whether or not you’re Martha Stewart, is a good thing.  It’s always helpful to know stuff.  I know that here in America, we drive on the right side of the road.  And since I’m old enough to drive, that turns out to be a pretty useful fact that I can put into action every day.  And gravity.  Years ago when I visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the whole gravity thing was a nice little chestnut to have locked away in my brain.  Without that knowledge, three more steps north would have left the bus 165 pounds lighter on the return trip.

But some things I know are pretty much worthless.  Take the speed of light in a vacuum as an example.  Without even looking it up, I know it’s 186,282.397 miles per second…and I’ve known that since junior high.  But big whoop!!  What possible good does that do me?  It’s never helped me in a job interview.  I don’t think it’s ever been an answer on Jeopardy.  It’s not even a good conversation starter at parties.

However, let’s say we were the Allied High Command in 1944…June of 1944.  And on the 6th of that month, we had launched a massive invasion of Western Europe called, I don’t know, Operation Overlord or something.  And then four days later, ULTRA (the name we gave our codebreaking methods) revealed the location of the headquarters of Panzer Gruppe West, the primary reinforcements to be used by Germany to attack the men we were sending ashore at Normandy.

That knowledge might prove to be most useful.

And it was.  General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg (commander of Panzer Gruppe West) had set up his headquarters in the Chateau at La Caine (about 20 miles south of the Normandy coast).  Allied intelligence got wind of it and passed the information on to the commanders.  And they, knowing the importance of Schweppenburg’s forces, wasted no time in dealing with it.

Immediately (which in this case meant June 10, 1944), air assets were dispatched.  Forty Hawker Typhoons and sixty-one B-25 Mitchells attacked the chateau, wounding von Schweppenburg and killing 17 of his staff.  Panzer Gruppe West HQ was out of commission.  But, more importantly, communications between the HQ and the actual fighting men (and tanks) had been lost.  And as Allied tank forces were beginning their inital breakouts from Normandy on that very day, it offered them some additional freedom of movement.

Recommended Reading:  Overlord:  D-Day and the Battle for Normandy

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The invasion of France in 1944 has, for more than 60 years, lived in relative obscurity when compared to the invasion of France in 1944.


Don’t be…there were two.

The first invasion you already know about.  It’s the famous operation, code-named Sledgehammer during the planning stages, that became Overlord and was launched on June 6thThis invasion of France is extremely well-known.

The second invasion began on August 15, 1944.  Like Overlord, it carried two different names in its lifetime.  During the planning phase, it was called Operation Anvil (get it?…Sledgehammer and Anvil?).  But when it was launched, Anvil became Dragoon.  Three U.S. Divisions and a French Division took part in the initial landings, located between Cannes and Toulon in Southern France.

And while military and political leadership were pretty much unanimous in executing Overlord, the same could not be said of Dragoon.  Winston Churchill had been growing increasingly suspicious of the intentions of Joseph Stalin, and Soviet advances in the East over the last 18 months had made those concerns acute.

And rather than “wasting” resources in Southern France, Churchill much preferred that they be used to free areas in the Balkans and Eastern Europe…before the Russians, and the Communism that the British Prime Minister loathed, arrived as liberators.

But he was outnumbered.  Overlord and the following breakout had caused the Germans to pull troops from the south to reinforce the north, and the fall of Rome meant the Allied troops hitting the beaches would face less resistance.  So despite British concerns, nearly 100,000 Allied troops landed that first day.

The Germans, trapped “between hammer and anvil”, could do little but retreat.

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It had been a disaster from the first shot.  “Complete debacle” was probably a better term.  From the moment the German vanguard passed through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest in May of 1940, the collapse had begun.  The Netherlands were the first to surrender, buried under the weight and power of German bombs.

The Belgians were the next.  The loss of their massive fort at Eben Emael (which we will discuss next May) was a huge blow to the collective confidence of the military and the populace, though they would hold out until the end of the month.

The British were next to feel the pain.  Their evacuation at Dunkirk, though a miracle of logistics and survival for the troops, was accompanied by a devastating loss in equipment, fuel, and pride.

And then focus was turned to the French, who fared no better.  Poorly trained to fight Germany’s style of war and poorly supported by a nation with no real desire to sacrifice another generation to the bullets of an enemy, their fall was just as inevitable as those who had fallen before.  After Dunkirk, the German forces turned south and a little west and rolled toward Paris, which they captured without a shot.

And then came the final humiliation on June 22, 1940.  The signing of the Armistice…and Adolf Hitler had spared no detail in his attempt to recreate the armistice that Germany had been forced to sign (by the French) when World War I ended.  The disgrace had to be complete.  So Hitler chose the Compiègne Forest as his location, where the Armistice had been signed in 1918.  He chose the very same railroad carriage and, in fact, sat in the exact same chair that Ferdinand Foch had used.  And Hitler didn’t even remain for the signing.  In a diplomatic “slap in the face”, he walked out of the railcar and left the final signing to General Keitel.

And then the site of these two signings was obliterated.  All traces were removed (except Ferdinand Foch’s statue, which Hitler wanted that left in place to disgrace Foch).  The railcar was taken to Berlin and, shortly before the war ended, it was destroyed and its remains buried.

Recommended Reading: Lightning War

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A couple of days ago, we discovered that, early on in the Second World War, the British had been able to decipher some of Germany’s coded message traffic.  A couple of days ago, we also learned that the British Expeditionary Force (or “BEF”) was about to be trapped in the northwest corner of France.  Combined with the French forces still fighting, the Germans were looking at a prize package worth nearly 400,000…men.

It’s impossible to know for sure, because history provides crystal-clear hindsight, but the capture or destruction of these men would have made it very difficult for Britain to continue in the war.  Maybe they would have fought on, but again, we’ll never know.  We do know that Operation Dynamo, the attempt to rescue those trapped men, was put into action with “hope for the best”, while British leadership prepared for a complete military disaster.

On the other side, the German armor which had proven so devastating in the last 3 weeks, had halted beginning on the 24th of May to consolidate their lines and conserve their forces for other operations.  So destruction of the BEF had been initally given to the Luftwaffe and the infantry, which was less effective.  On the 25th, the BEF’s commander, General Gort, knew his forces were doomed, and the decision was made to try and evacuate.  He retreated to Dunkirk and waited while, back in England, ships set sail.

May 27, 1940 was a day of movement for each side.  For the Germans, the decision was made to start up the armored Panzer Divisions again.  But their progress was hampered by less favorable terrain and solid defenses that had been given three days to dig in.  On the British side, the first of what would become a flood of boats and ships arrived, returning to the home island with more than 7,500 troops.

But that was barely a start.  With hundreds of thousands of troops trapped and even more enemy forces pounding away and closing in, the situation was still bleak for those trying to escape to England.

Recommended Reading: The Second World War – Keegan is, without question, one of the very best.

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Today marks the anniversary of Operation Jubilee, the Allied raid against Dieppe, France.  The operation was designed not as an occupation of territory, but as a “blast and dash” where troops would assault the German forces in a surprise attack, complete some key objectives and depart…all in the space of a few hours.

So in the early morning hours of August 19, 1942, six thousand Canadian and British forces (with some U.S. Rangers sprinkled in) entered their landing craft and embarked on what would be one of the most botched operations in all of World War II.  First off, the element of surprise was completely lost when armed German trawlers in the area opened fire on the landing craft, alerting German forces to the Allied approach.

Next, landing craft got mixed up and headed for the wrong beaches, which meant the soldiers faced an almost impossible mission of untangling themselves and relocating their objectives.  Gunfire from the Allied ships and aircraft wasn’t adequate to knock out the enemy artillery positions, which proceeded to decimate the troops as they landed.  Also, poor ship-to-shore communications meant that the commanders didn’t have a good picture of what was happening on the beaches.  As a result, the reserve forces were committed to the action and, again, ripped up before the extent of the situation could be learned.

At 9:40am, the decision to withdraw was given and the few troops that actually made it inland had to retrace their steps through brutal German gunfire to reach the extraction points.  All in all, it was a terrible day for the Allies.  Overall losses were limited only by the fact that just 6,000 men took part.  But casualties among those few were staggering, as nearly 4,000 men were killed, wounded, or captured.  Even worse was the knowledge that German opposition, while strong in the air, amounted to only about 1,500 soldiers on the ground.

If there was good news from the debacle, it’s that the Allied commanders studied the Dieppe Raid intensely, and learned much about better intelligence, better communications, and improved “softening up” procedures.  These lessons would be used to good result in the upcoming landings in North Africa and, later on, just down the coast at Normandy.

Recommended Reading:  Dieppe 1942: A Prelude to D-Day

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On June 24, 1940, France signed an Armistice which signified the end of the fighting.  But it wasn’t with Germany as you might have expected.  That deed was done back on June 22nd, and Adolf Hitler had gone to great lengths to make the ceremony as “meaningful” as possible.  He chose the Compiègne Forest because it was where the Armistice ending World War I (which had begun Germany’s humiliation) had been signed.  He chose the very same railroad carriage and, in fact, Der Fuhrer sat in the exact same chair where the defeated Ferdinand Foch had been seated less than 22 years earlier.  This time, of course, the outcome had been very different.

With these signings, Hitler (and all of Germany) believed they had finally thrown off the last vestiges of their First World War defeat and the subsequent Versailles Treaty.  What’s more, reciprocity with France had now been achieved.

But again, that was the 22nd.  The Armistice signed on this day was with Italy and, to some degree, it was even more embarrassing.  Italy’s participation in the war with France had been absolutely minimal, because it hadn’t declared war on France until June 10th, by which time the German army had squashed all major French resistance, had sent the British scrambling back to England, and was basically riding down the roads towards Paris.  Italy sent 30+ divisions into southern France as their “show of force”, but most of them were poorly trained and even more poorly equipped, to the point where there weren’t enough utensils to feed the troops.  Even worse, the Italian Army progressed all of about 5 miles into France…5 miles.

Italy’s entrance into the War wasn’t all that dissimiliar to the time you got beat up in high school by the campus bully and, while you were lying there bleeding, some geek with a pocket protector and a grudge against you for getting him kicked out of A/V class walked up and took your wallet.

So the French delegation ventured to Rome and, suffering humiliations galore, signed an Armistice with Italy.

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Philippe Pétain may have been 84 years old and no spring chicken when it came to warfare, but he was a complete novice where German-style Blitzkrieg was concerned.  The “Savior of Verdun” was called out of retirement (well, pseudo-retirement…he was the ambassador to Spain) on May 17th (just a week after the German invasion of France began) by French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud.  Reynaud’s hope was that the the aging hero could, once again, create a miracle out of the developing disaster.

 Unfortunately, the situation was not one from which miracles would come.  In fact, as Pétain was leaving Madrid on the 17th of May, he commented to Francisco Franco that the war, in all probability, was already lost.  And as he sat in the meetings and listened to the generals, his fears were very much confirmed.  Not only was the French army out-gunned on the ground and out-planed in the air, they were being soundly beaten from on a more basic level.

The French military simply had no answer for the German tactics being arrayed against them.  The slow, plodding, trench-type war expected by the French was not what the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe were bringing to bear.  What’s more, the French citizenry simply had no stomach for the war.  So France’s military was fighting a tactically inferior battle against a vastly superior foe with pretty much zero backing on the homefront.

Victory was impossible.  On June 14, the German army entered the open city of Paris and took up residence.  Two days later, on June 16, 1940, Prime Minister Reynaud resigned his post, as he promised he would rather than make peace with Germany, and Pétain was named his successor.  Germany kept two-thirds of the French territory, while Pétain’s government, centered in the city of Vichy, held the rest.  But it really was just a puppet government, and Adolf Hitler and his ministers pulled all the strings.

The Savior of Verdun would become a disgrace, imprisoned after the war for condemning French citizens to Nazi slave labor.  His exploits in The Great War would save him from execution for treason, but he still faced a life term, and died in prison.  The “Hero of Verdun” had become the “Zero of Vichy“.

Recommended Reading: Lightning War – Blitzkrieg in the West, 1940

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The invasion of France and the Low Countries by Germany quickly turned into a stunning rout.  Begun on May 10, 1940, the German army had traversed the “impenetrable” Ardennes Forest and reached the Meuse River in just two days.  And elsewhere along the massive front, the invading forces had encountered poorly-prepared troops in too small numbers with old-fashioned leadership trying to fight a World War I-style war against an emeny that didn’t fight like that anymore.

The French and Belgian troops were simply overwhelmed by the Blitzkrieg tactics the Germans used.  Previously, tanks and artillery had been used as infantry support.  But that was no longer the case.  Tanks were now being used as fast-moving mobile spearheads, planes (particularly Stuka dive-bombers) were being used as pinpoint artillery pieces, and troops were now massed in mobile brigades, sweeping past their bewildered and shattered Allied foes.

There had been bright spots for the Allied troops.  Indivdiuals and smaller units had fought with tenacity, and some British counterattacks had achieved modest success.  The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk (less than four weeks after the hostilities began) had been a marvel of improvisation and organization.  But when the biggest highlight was how the British exited the French field of play, it’s easy to see that this was Germany’s hour…in total.

With Dunkirk out of the picture after June 4th, the German army turned back to the south and headed for Paris.  With the French army in shambles (more than 2 million men were now prisoners) and unable to offer anything but the weakest defense, the sweep to the capital was accomplished in relatively short order.

The French government, realizing the end was at hand, and wishing to avoid the destruction of Paris, declared it an open city.  And on June 14, 1940, the German army entered the capital and took control of France and the rest of Western Europe.  And then there was one…Great Britain.

Recommended Reading: Lightning War – Blitzkrieg in the West, 1940 – I’m nearly finished with this book, and Powaski has done a great job with it.

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…and some trust in horses.  But the writer of that statement continued on, suggesting there were much more reliable things on which one could depend.  It’s safe to say that we often misplace our trust and end up disappointed.  The French did so in the 1930’s and, on this day in 1940, experienced a disastrous result.

In 1930, France began building a line of fortifications along their border with Germany.  Called the Maginot Line (named for Defense Minister Andre Maginot), it was a layered complex of pillboxes, ammunition caches, rail lines, artillery pieces and mortars, and even living quarters.  Designed as a “force multiplier”, its goal was to allow a relatively small number of French troops to thwart a direct German attack from a vastly larger enemy.

The French invested billions of francs and more than six years of hard labor into the Maginot Line.  And in the end, they created a barrier that the Germans would not attack…but instead would simply drive around and trap from the rear.

The Germans placed an army (Army Group C) near the French/German border that tied down a bunch of French forces at the Maginot Line.  And early in the morning of May 10, 1940, the Germans attacked…into Holland with Army Group A.  Army Group B headed into Belgium and Luxembourg toward the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest.  The massive German machine, measuring over 130 divisions in total, swept into the Low Countries, overwhelming the opposing military forces.

The Maginot Line was technically successful in its goal (it did prevent a direct German attack).  But the German tactic of bypassing it and surrounding it, coupled with the rapid fall of France, turned the huge investment into little more than an example of how badly one could be let down.

Recommended Reading: The Times Atlas of the Second World War – The giant book has it all.  So many times great books lack good maps.  This is the “force multiplier” for reading.  If you spend any time with World War II, this book is essential…and now kind of hard to find.

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