The French Army, 1936

Written in 1936 for the Foreign Affairs magazine by French General René Tournès , this article provides an interesting look at the French military as perceived by a senior French officer of the time. Though its focus is on Europe it provides a fascinating insight into French military thought at the time of The Abyssinian Crisis – certainly interesting reading. 

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Like all armies, the French army exists as the instrument of a definite policy. To appraise its effectiveness in the restless and uncertain Europe of today one must first establish the broad lines of French military policy. The aim of this policy is simple, even though the execution of it raises complex problems. Having recovered her lost provinces in 1918, and already possessing a sufficient colonial domain, France has no further territorial ambitions either in Europe or abroad. The French army therefore does not exist either for revenge or for conquest; it has one sole purpose, to assure the security of France and her colonies.

The task of defending the colonies is the easier of the two, despite the extent of the empire, its distance from the homeland, and the war-like character of the native inhabitants. In 1935, France had to maintain an overseas army (armée d’outre-mer) of 210,000 effectives in North Africa, Syria and the colonies; at home she had only 320,000 men under arms. Among the colonial forces, however, are 100,000 natives of North Africa organized into special regiments of infantry and cavalry (sharpshooters and spahis), who besides helping maintain order in the African territories where they are mainly stationed are ready to participate in any struggle that might develop in Europe.

The overseas army is both a liability and an asset. It would probably turn out to be a liability if France were unable to maintain the freedom of her maritime communications. In the final analysis it is on the French army in France that the burden of defending the country will fall. To determine whether this home army is capable of fulfilling its mission we must first consider what Powers are the potential aggressors against which it might have to fight.

To find the answer to this question the French commander-in-chief does not need to consult the Minister of Foreign Affairs; the man in the street can give it to him. Indeed, it is indicated by history and geography. France has nothing to fear from England, Belgium, Switzerland or Spain, with whom she for long has been on the best of terms. No serious difficulties enter into her relations with any of these four neighboring Powers. Perhaps the French commander would be a shade less certain about Italy; but in the end the eventuality of an Italian attack would seem to him improbable. In any case, the Italians would find such an enterprise terribly difficult, for they would have to hurl themselves against the Alps, a powerful natural barrier reinforced by fortifications.

As for Germany, could the French generalissimo feel differently from any and every other Frenchman? Could he forget that Germany has invaded his country twice in fifty years? Would he trust in the speeches of Herr Hitler which affirm Germany’s peaceful intentions? Would he not recall that Herr Hitler himself says elsewhere, e.g.in “Mein Kampf,” that Germany must first of all destroy France as a preliminary to imposing supremacy on Europe? Does not Germany’s tremendous rearmament confirm that this is indeed the end which he has in view? Along the 125 miles of frontier from Switzerland to Lauterbourg, our province of Alsace is separated from Germany only by the Rhine, easily crossed by a modern army. For another 125 miles, from the Rhine to the Moselle, France is in immediate contact with Germany; along this frontier there are no natural defenses. As for the rest of our frontier, Moselle to the North Sea, Germany proved in August 1914 that she could and would attack our northern regions via Belgium.

After making this survey of the European horizon a French officer would have to come to the conclusion that France is menaced by only one of her neighbors — Germany. He would also have to confess that against this single enemy France is greatly inferior if left with only her home army. She is numerically inferior, because her 41,000,000 population does not furnish as many soldiers as does the 66,000,000 population of Germany. She is inferior industrially, because it would be vain to pretend that French industry could equal the foremost industrial nation in Europe in the production of war goods. In short, a conflict which ranged France single-handed against Germany would be an unequal duel; France can conceive of a war against Germany only if she has allies at her side.

Who are these allies? First of all, England, for the decisive reason that today her frontier is the Rhine, as Mr. Baldwin has expressed it. Indeed, if the German armies reached the Channel coasts England would be in even greater danger than France. Then there is Belgium, whose military fate is indissolubly tied to that of France. In addition to these two allies, whose interests cannot be separated from ours, we may count on the coöperation of all the nations which would feel menaced by a German aggression against France. First among these it is logical to place Italy; then those adjoining Germany on the south and east, Czechoslovakia and Poland, as well as Russia. Here a variety of more or less complicated political combinations would come into play.

The primary mission of the French army being to defend French territory against a possible German aggression, let us first examine the extent and nature of Hitler’s military preparations. This is the more necessary since the present French military preparations are the result of Germany’s rearmament program.

From 1919 to 1933 the German army was limited by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles to 96,000 professional soldiers, enlisted for twelve-year terms, and 4,000 officers. The armament of this force was strictly defined, offensive weapons being specifically forbidden. Fortifications could not be constructed nor garrisons maintained in a demilitarized zone along Germany’s western frontier. Thus restricted, the German army was not a menace to its neighbors.

The situation changed when Hitler attained power in January 1933. The country was rapidly transformed into a drill ground, and the manufacture of every kind of instrument of war was pushed forward at full speed. In 1935 Germany threw off the mask completely. By the law of March 16 she reëstablished obligatory military training of one year, to be preceded by a year in the “Labor Service.” By the law of May 21 she practically put all the citizens of the Reich, even in time of peace, at the disposition of the Minister of War. As a result, by the end of 1935 the German General Staff had created ten army corps, consisting of twenty-four infantry divisions, three mechanized divisions, two divisions of cavalry, a total of around 480,000 men.

To these must be added other regular forces (Landespolizei, Schutzstaffeln) with a strength of around 550,000, plus the 200,000 men in the “Labor Service.” By the end of 1936 the complete reorganization of the German army as outlined by Hitler will probably be completed. It will then contain twelve army corps, composed of thirty-six divisions of infantry and reënforced by a now unknown number of mechanized and cavalry divisions. Germany will then have a peacetime army (not including the “Labor Service”) of 700,000 men, of whom 260,000 will be professional soldiers. The German air fleet of at least 1,500 machines is superior both in number and in newness to the British or the French.

For three years Germany’s factories have been working intensively to turn out the most modern types of weapons: airplanes, tanks, heavy artillery, and the other implements and munitions needed by an army on a war footing. The size of this wartime army will be tremendous. Germany’s performance in the World War gives us an idea of what she is capable of doing: in August 1914 she put 107 divisions into the field, and in May 1918, the moment of her maximum effort, 250 divisions. At that time Germany had seven million men under arms.

From these bare figures one can measure France’s peril. Actually in process of organization on her north-east frontier is a peacetime German army of 700,000 men, equipped with the latest engines of destruction. Furthermore, as Germany has had her industrial machine mobilized for war purposes ever since 1933, she is in a position on the outbreak of a war to exert her maximum effort at once. France is thus exposed to a surprise invasion, to a lightning stroke. She feels her position the more dangerous in that during the period between the end of the war and 1933 she allowed her military establishment to deteriorate rather more than was justifiable.

It is true that France had good excuses to relax her military preparations. When Germany had ceased in 1918 to be a mortal and ever-present danger, France hastened to lighten the burden of military service which had borne so heavily on her citizens. She immediately lowered the period of compulsory army service to a year and a half; and later, in 1928, she cut it to one year. This policy was advisable, moreover, in order to liberate as much man power as possible to repair the damage done by the invading armies in four years of war. During this period the French army did not renew its armament; it continued to live on the accumulation left from the war. From 1924 to 1928 France passed through a severe monetary crisis, resulting finally in the destruction of four-fifths of the value of the franc. During these years of distress no military expenditures except those strictly necessary for upkeep were included in the budget.

By 1928 France had begun to come out from under the financial clouds, only to be confronted with negotiations which made it plain that the inter-Allied occupation of the Rhineland would soon terminate. The French High Command believed that before long Germany would resume her freedom to arm. They therefore obtained as large an increase in the military budget as was compatible with the financial situation in order to construct a solid fortified barrier along the whole north-east frontier. The plans for this had long been prepared.

This defensive system consists of two types. In Alsace, where an invading army from southern Germany would first have to cross the Rhine and would then encounter the Vosges mountains, the French High Command has been satisfied to multiply emplacements for machine guns and artillery commanding the river and the points on the French side where an enemy might be able to gain a foothold. On the other hand, along the 125 miles of open frontier between the Rhine and the Moselle there has been created an extremely powerful line of fortifications.

Reinforced concrete and armored forts have been constructed at the principal strategic points, and smaller forts and machine gun nests in the intervals between the main forts. The environs of the large fortifications have been made inaccessible to tanks and infantry by various devices, notably by systems of upright steel beams imbedded in reënforced concrete. All of these works have the most modern appointments: they are impervious to gas, they are supplied with electric appliances, and they are connected with the outside and frequently with each other by underground communications.

By 1933 the process of giving France an effectively fortified north-east frontier was well under way, but it was far from complete due to financial considerations which necessitated spreading the work over a number of years. The accession of Hitler showed France that her military preparations would have to be redoubled. In fact, it became necessary to reorganize the whole French army.

The question of effectives immediately became acute. Faced with the fact that by 1936 the German army would be 700,000 strong, could France continue to maintain military service at only one year? Arithmetic supplies the answer.

Up to 1935 France annually called up about 240,000 young men to perform their year of military service. However, from this figure must be subtracted the 25,000 men who are not fitted to take their places in the ranks and who are placed in the “auxiliary service.” The home army thus contained only 215,000 young men called to the colors. If we add the 58,000 professional soldiers (non-commissioned officers and specialists) and the 45,000 North African natives garrisoned in France, we find that in 1935 the French army could not have consisted of more than 318,000 men. This is a maximum figure, for the 45,000 native troops constitute the so-called “expeditionary force;” they must be ready to go to a colony on short notice and consequently might not be in France at the moment of a German attack. Furthermore, the French birth-rate fell sharply during the five years of war. In consequence, contingents formed of the men born between 1914 and 1919 will vary from a maximum of 159,000 men in 1936 to a minimum of 121,000 in 1937 and 1938.

If France had continued to maintain her military term at one year, the strength of the home army would have dropped to 242,000 men in 1936, to 203,000 in 1937 and 1938, rising to 233,000 only in 1940. During this same period Germany will be able without difficulty to maintain a peacetime army of 700,000 men. Her annual classes never fall below 400,000. Even if all the members of a class are not called up, the German taste for military service will certain lead to the enlistment of enough professional soldiers to supply the deficiency. In view of this great disproportion in number of effectives, could France regard her north-east frontier as secure?

The existence of so powerful a German army in time of peace raises for France another problem in the matter of effectives which is no less urgent and difficult. Before 1933 it was safe to assume that the German Reichswehr of 100,000 men was incapable of executing a surprise attack on France. The French army therefore was not organized to parry such a blow, to act, that is, as a “cover.” The High Command did not consider it necessary to occupy the fortifications along the north-east frontier permanently. It believed that it would have sufficient time for calling up the reserves, concentrating them on the frontier, and even giving them the necessary cohesion by several weeks of drilling before the German blow could be struck. The French army had thus become a mere cadre for the instruction of young recruits and of the reservists who were occasionally called up for brief periods of training. For convenience in mobilizing its effectives it did not take the trouble to concentrate them along the northeast frontier but dispersed them over the whole country.

But such vagaries were no longer permissible when the German peacetime army contained two and a half times as many men as the French home army; when the German forces had at their disposal extremely powerful road and railway transportation; when they had strength in tanks and airplanes permitting them to make a sudden attack; and when the German military tacticians were openly advocating precisely that manner of beginning operations. Under these conditions Parliament in the spring of 1935 authorized the French Government to take the requisite steps to remedy the disquieting situation in regard to the army’s effectives. The first step was to increase the term of service to two years during the period of low man-power from 1936 to 1940. This will be carried out so as to have continually in training in France proper two classes of 110,000 young men each. Concurrently the age of the recruits will in each of the next five years be lowered two months, thus increasing the annual contingent during the lean years by about 20,000 men. In this way the home army will be assured a total of 240,000 recruits under arms. If the present strength of the professional and North African troops is maintained, the French army will have a peacetime footing of around 340,000 men.

Its function is also being transformed. While continuing to instruct young recruits and the reserves, it now in addition serves as a covering army (armée de couverture). It therefore accentuates its concentration towards the north-east frontier. Special bodies called “fortress troops” have been organized to occupy permanently the line of fortifications on this frontier. At the end of 1935 these numbered 1,250 officers and 36,000 men. In case of a German invasion they could be reinforced within a few hours by the reservists living in the vicinity.

Obviously the army of 340,000 men under arms in France is greatly inferior to the German army of 700,000. It has only twenty divisions of infantry, four of cavalry, one mechanized division, and eventually the five divisions making up the “expeditionary force,” with which to oppose thirty-six divisions of German infantry supported by perhaps a dozen mechanized or cavalry divisions. Nevertheless, the French army feels confident that, strengthened by its modern armaments and the system of fortifications along the north-east frontier, it can protect the country until the national reserves, the North African troops, and the armies of its allies can reach the front.

The feverish German rearmament obliged France to transform her own armaments without delay. As has already been pointed out, from 1919 to 1933 a lack of funds prevented the General Staff from acquiring any new armaments, in particular those that are extremely costly such as artillery, tanks, and the equipment of mechanized units. In these categories the models remained those of 1918. As for aviation matériel, the Staff had to be content with only such slight changes as would not require expensive alterations in plant.

Thanks to credits voted by Parliament when the Hitler menace became apparent, the process of renovation has been proceeding at full speed. The infantry has already been taken care of. It was already provided with excellent automatic rifles and machine guns; it has now been supplied with howitzers, anti-tank guns, and very low, small trucks to be used in hauling ammunition up to the line of fire. Naturally the artillery and tank units will take longer to modernize. In compensation for that fact, French military aviation by the summer of 1936 will no longer be inferior to that of Germany. It will have both bombing and pursuit planes technically equipped so that it can maintain a close guard over French territory as well as carry out rigorous reprisals for enemy bombardments.

The French command has also undertaken to extend the permanent fortified barrier north of the Moselle so as to parry a thrust across Belgium and Luxembourg. The impovement of existing fortifications in the plain of Alsace and from the Rhine to the Moselle is also being rushed; the depth of the defensive system is being increased and many accessory works are being added.

This rearmament effort is far from being completed; on the other hand, Germany has not yet achieved her full remilitarization either. To provide the proper matériel is not, properly speaking, a war minister’s most delicate task. The problem is today being studied and solved in about the same manner in all modern armies. The solution requires merely technicians and money. In these regards France does not consider her potentialities inferior to Germany’s.

Now that it is assured of being able to provide its troops with an armament equal in quality to that of the Germans, the French High Command is centering its attention mainly on deciding the most rational utilization of the new matériel and the best apportionment of it among the armies. These problems are highly complex and delicate. For instance, how are tanks to be allotted? Shall they be distributed among the units or is it preferable to keep them among the general reserves of the armies or groups of armies?

At present the two great technical problems occupying the special attention of the French High Command are those concerning the “mechanization” and the “motorization” of divisions. A division is said to be “motorized” when it can be completely transported by automotive vehicles. It has permanently at its disposal the necessary trucks for its artillery, ammunition, and supplies; all that remains in the moment of need is to provide trucks for the men on foot (infantry, engineers, etc.) and horses and mules for the officers and machine guns. A motorized division is ready to go almost instantly into action with its full force; it will not have to wait, as in 1918, for its artillery, ammunition, food, etc. Of the twenty-five French infantry divisions, seven have already been motorized. Ought the number to be increased? The question is being argued and studied. It involves important tactical factors as well as consideration of the effects on our national economy, such as the raising of horses, the accumulation of oil supplies in time of peace, and the possibility of their replenishment in time of war.

Except for its superior mobility the motorized division is not very different from the ordinary division. A “mechanized” division, on the other hand, is a combat organ of quite a different character. Such a division has at its disposal at all times all the automotive means necessary for its transportation. Its weapons are all automotive: tanks, motorized cannon, and machine guns mounted on trucks. Its personnel, though they may fight on foot, are transported, until the moment for action arrives, in vehicles called tous-terrains that can travel over every sort of ground.

The problems raised by the development of mechanized divisions have not been solved any more than those raised by motorized divisions — indeed they are even more experimental and controversial. In consequence, the French High Command has so far created only one experimental unit in place of a cavalry division. Should the four remaining cavalry divisions be likewise transformed into mechanized divisions? Indeed, it is a question whether, as certain officers suggest, there ought not to be created seven extremely powerful mechanized divisions, each composed of three brigades: the first to contain two regiments of heavy and medium tanks; the second, two regiments of infantry mounted in trucks of the tous-terrains type; and the third, two regiments of artillery, one of them armed with heavy pieces.

Obviously, seven mechanized divisions which had prepared in peacetime could render most valuable service in the first days of mobilization. They could go to the aid of the Belgian army, well entrenched on the fortified plateau of Herve east of Liège but exposed on its southern flank in the Ardennes. They could also be utilized in the event of a German violation of Swiss neutrality. Thirdly, they would constitute a very mobile and very solid reserve for the French troops covering the 450 miles of frontier from the Swiss border to the English Channel. On the other hand, mechanized divisions have their drawbacks. For instance, they absorb a large proportion of the tanks, so that the number available is too much reduced. Furthermore, they require a large number of professional soldiers and specialists to service them, since costly and delicate machinery cannot be entrusted to new recruits and reservists. As a result the ordinary units are deprived of these trained men. The pros and cons of mechanized divisions obviously require careful examination and experimentation before the right decision can be reached.

In addition to these technical problems, the French military leaders must study the questions involved in organizing the national high command and an international high command. The experience of the World War showed the importance of these problems.

The French assume that a German aggression against them will inevitably cause the other nations which feel equally menaced by that aggression to enter the fight on their side. Undoubtedly the Belgian army will be attacked simultaneously with the French; the British army will then have to come to the aid of the French and Belgians as quickly as possible. These three armies will immediately engage the German armies on a well-defined front — the Belgian and French frontiers between Holland and Switzerland. In view of this it seems indispensable that before the outbreak of war the three armies should establish the basis for intimate coöperation. Political and personal reasons naturally make it difficult to designate in advance the generalissimo who would have supreme command of the three allied armies, following the formula adopted in March 1918 in the face of the imminent danger then prevailing.

But at least it should be possible, and it is essential, to regulate by precise conventions the composition, transportation, and concentration of the forces to be mobilized by each of the three partners. It is still more essential to set up in time of peace an inter-allied general staff which if war comes will serve the common commander-in-chief of the three armies. Admittedly the organization of an inter-allied command raises ticklish problems. We saw between 1914 and 1918 how it collides with national susceptibilities. For reasons of modesty, none of the countries seems willing to study the problem. But it exists nevertheless. And unless it is solved, do not the three armies risk losing the first big battle of the war, and without a Joffre can they count on another Marne? . . .

The coördination of the military effort of the British, Belgians and French may be the first condition of successful resistance to German aggression. But understandings with other allies such as Italy and Czechoslovakia are no less necessary. These arrangements will be easier to effect in that the armies of these powers will not be operating in the same theatre of war as the western powers and hence coördination will not have to be so intimate.

In the matter of organizing its own high command the French people face important problems. They have in time of peace three ministries responsible for preparing for war: navy, war and air. This anomaly, the legacy of a long past, is today universally condemned. French military opinion quite rightly demands the institution of a Ministry of National Defence on the German model, uniting under one unified authority all the French forces of land, air and sea.

The creation of a Ministry of National Defence will immediately have one advantage: it will show the necessity for giving the general in charge of the armies on the north-east frontier command over air as well as land forces. If it is possible to conceive of the French navy receiving its orders from the supreme war organ set up by the government, it is illogical to suppose that the pursuit and bombing squadrons can continue, as at present arranged, to be under the orders of some other than the commander of the armies at the front. Duality of command in time of war has never produced anything except the most tragic results.
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Finally, France has been obliged by the prodigious rearmament of Germany to ask of her people to make serious sacrifices in the moral as well as the material field. She has demanded that her young men accept an additional year of military service in order to assure the army its indispensable number of effectives. She has undertaken the formidable expenditures necessary for building up an armament on a par with that being created across the Rhine. But these material sacrifices would be vain if they were not accompanied by a spiritual resurgence. Since 1918 the French people have been led to believe that the period of wars was ended, that the League of Nations could prevent all conflicts by making even the most powerful and determined aggressor recoil before the coalition of nations which would spring to the assistance of the victim. Pursuaded by leaders like Briand, the man in the street imagined that because he was satisfied and pacific his neighbors were also.
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Lulled into a false sense of security, Frenchmen no longer directed their energies first and foremost toward mounting guard on the Rhine, that line where for two thousand years they have had to exercise perpetual vigilance. Their discovery that Germany was being transformed into an immense barracks, into a gigantic munitions factory, was abrupt, and the necessary change in attitude was not accomplished without complaints and murmuring. But today it is well under way. Led by officers schooled in the World War and composed of men capable of any self-sacrifice when they understand that their fatherland is in danger, the French army of 1936 can be regarded as entirely competent, under the conditions here outlined, to defend the country from attack.
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