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British and French accountability

LAURENCE REES: And to what extent was this victory in the spring of 1940 only possible becauset the French and British were simply unprepared for this kind of warfare?

GEOFFREY WAWRO: They were absolutely unprepared. I mean the irony is that Colonel JFC Fuller and Liddell Hart and other Brits during the inter-war period have been talking about tanks and armoured warfare and the need to administer a shot to the brain instead of getting into these attritional slugging matches from trench lines in the sort of French style methodical battle. They’d been talking about using armoured spearheads to administer a shot to the brain, which is exactly what the Germans did when they broke through in Sedan and cut behind the French and the British; they paralysed and demoralised them. They didn’t destroy the fighting effectiveness of those units, they just completely discombobulated them and rendered them absolutely unable to resist, because their rear communications were cut off and their communications with all the supporting units were cut off; they still had weapons and they still had ammunition, but they were completely unable to fight because of the shot to the brain that was submitted.

Well, that was a British idea that was also taken up by Charles De Gaulle, arguing for the Armee de Metier. But the bureaucratic inertia in traditions in the British Army, with the regimental system, and in the French Army, which was run by an older generation of Generals who saw that World War One had crowned this methodical battle with success, resisted all of these innovations. It was left to the Germans whose army had been broken down to a hundred thousand men by the Treaty of Versailles to try to leverage that small number with new concepts like the whole idea of the Panzer Division and armoured spearheads, Bewegenskrieg, as a way to compensate for relatively small numbers.

So in a way the French and the British were victims of their own success. They were able to maintain these large establishments and bring them into the Second World War with just slightly upgraded tactics over the ones used in the First World War, whereas the Germans had to rethink the question from its most fundamental level.