Despite a seeming wealth of colonial units both overseas and in France itself, the Abyssinian Crisis caught France unbalanced and unable to make a serious response to Italian posturing. France’s main concern was a resurgent Germany, whose military was apparently expanding at a faster rate than the French were neither able to match or afford. In the Levant Sunni Moslems were constantly waiting for a sign of French weakness to exploit and of course the vastness of Morocco and Algeria tied down large numbers of troops too.
France’s initial reaction to the crisis was to avoid committing to support British endeavours to bring an end to it, other than sanctions. French Somaliland was however a strategic target, as the sole railway line in Abyssinia had its rail head at the port of Djibouti. French Somaliland relied on the British for food and other goods to maintain the city itself, which was pretty much as far as the French had penetrated the colony, other than to mount punitive expeditions against recalcitrant tribal chieftains.
The threat of potential Italian attack to seize the port and the rail line, did however prompt the French to reinforce the garrison as much as it was able to. By October 1935, the single company and ancillary units devoted to the colony had grown to consist of 6500 Senegalese and Malagasy tirailleurs and 2500 Somalis. These were formed into seven infantry battalions of the newly formed Régiment de Tirailleurs Sénégalais de la Côte Française des Somalis. There were also two platoons of camel-mounted Méharistes and two companies of tribal militia. These units were officered by Europeans, with a sprinkling of senior non-commissioned officers in key roles. A field battery of 75mm guns, a battery of 75mm mountain guns, a coastal and anti-aircraft group, a company of Renault FT tanks and a motorised group of six White-Laffly armoured cars, all manned by Europeans, which brought the total of European troops to 1500.
While it was not capable of defending the city against a concerted Italian offensive, it was certainly more than the British had to defend its much larger neighbouring colony and probably sufficient to hold out until additional forces could be despatched from other areas to support them; presuming that it was not ordered that the colony be abandoned altogether for the immediate future. A squadron of twelve Potez 25 fighter bombers was also established to bolster the forces in Djibouti before the end of the year.
The victory of Stanley Baldwin’s National Party in November 1935 caused cracks in Britain and France’s alliance to widen. Having won the support of the electorate for collective security and a strong response to Italian aggression in Somalia, Baldwin was pushing for stronger sanctions against Italy. Britain’s enthusiasm for collective security in Europe was lukewarm at best however and frustratingly France could not persuade Baldwin that Germany was the true threat to peace. For the French the loss of Abyssinia to Italy was a small price to pay for maintaining the Stresa Front.
As the British line hardened and the prospect of oil sanctions and even British intervention increased, France increasingly faced the prospect of either having Britain or Italy as an ally in Europe, but not both. France’s initial preference had been for Britain, whose economic and industrial power would be of paramount importance in the ‘long war’, the form they saw a future conflict taking. However Britain appeared to be growing ever closer to the Germans. Previous trade agreements, their opposition to French initiatives to maintain war reparations and the naval agreement earlier in the year, all pointed to a future breaking of the Anglo-French alliance.
Italy on the other hand had a strong leader, who was vehemently opposed to German expansion and had shown his willingness to stand up to Hitler, even to the point of deploying troops to the Austrian Border at the very hint of annexation by Germany. While France and Italy did have some territorial disputes and other differences, both were of a single mind as regarded the threat posed by Germany. Perhaps Franco-Italian unity might actually be able to deter Hitler from war altogether. Without a doubt Mussolini’s ‘eight million bayonets’ were certainly more of a deterrent, as opposed to Britain’s meagre forces.
To cement the creation of a Paris-Rome Axis however, Mussolini was pressing for a French commitment to not only support Italy’s case with regards to Abyssinia, but to actually contribute to military operations should Britain use force to settle the issue. Certainly such a stance would alienate the League of Nations as a whole from France just as it had with Italy, but France’s ‘Little Entente’ allies, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Romania, along with Poland and even the Soviets, still needed them on-side. In all France stood to lose little but goodwill should it throw in its lot with Mussolini. Even the U.S.A.’s refusal to sell arms and aircraft to France, itself an issue caused by British backing of German interests with regard to their reparations, was faltering.
A series of publicised border incidents with Abyssinia in recent years and the threat to French interests in regard to the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway would certainly be sufficient to justify French involvement; wars had indeed been fought over less. The line itself could transport supplies for both France and its Italian allies and actual French commitment barring the security of the line itself would be negligible. Britain’s response to such a manoeuvre did need to be factored in however. Certainly a blockade of Djibouti would occur, if not actually the closure of the Suez Canal to French shipping; itself a breach of international treaty. Djibouti was fed by the British effectively however, which could create problems.
Britain was not invulnerable however and while its navy might be very powerful, French and Italian vessels and airpower in the Mediterranean could make things difficult for the British. Should the Italians attempt to take Malta, as seemed likely, the Suez Canal would also be useless to the British. Britain did hold two aces in its hand, the ports of Berbera and Aden, from which ships and aircraft could effectively cover the Gulf of Aden and interdict shipping heading for Djibouti and Eritrea. Italy’s airpower could reach Aden and Port Sudan if necessary, and Italian agents were paying Yemeni tribal leaders to rise against the British. Italy’s other plans included a penetration of Egypt, so as to bring Alexandria and Cairo within the range of its bombers too. France had considerable forces in Syria and Lebanon with which to threaten Palestine, which left British Somaliland as the sole British possession unimpeded by military operations.
The French were quite aware of how thinly defended British Somaliland was. Joint war plans had actually subsumed the British forces, such as they were, to French control in the event of war. If France could wrest it from Britain, it might even be able to keep it as part of a future peace treaty and free its own colony from reliance on the British for supplies. The difficulty for France was that it had no more troops to utilise for such an endeavour as it had when the British were asking for support against the Italians when the crisis began. The operation would be a gamble and while Britain would have difficulty supporting its territory, it was almost a certainty that reinforcements would be found from somewhere, most likely India, presuming they did not just abandon Somaliland, however temporarily.
The force needed to take British Somaliland would also need to operate in small columns, so as to not exhaust local water supplies, which worked in France’s favour; this was exactly what it was used to doing. One thing the French excelled at was the creation of ad-hoc military forces formed from a variety of units to deal with sudden emergencies within its holdings. The use of bataillons de marche and régiments de marche, formed from portions of larger formations, enabled forces to be amassed without the need to totally remove whole units from vulnerable areas.
French Colonial Forces
France had maintained conscription following the end of the Great War, but reduced the numbers of men conscripted for both financial reasons and a declining birth rate; a direct result of the one million casualties it had sustained. The period of service itself was reduced from two years to eighteen months in 1923 and ultimately reduced to twelve months in 1928. Germany’s resurgence prompted France to return to a period of service of two years in March 1935 however. Declining numbers of European French conscripts had resulted in the basing of some colonial units within France itself. French law prohibited metropolitan conscripts from serving outside of France, but did not prohibit the volunteers and conscripts of colonial units from doing so.
For France’s overseas colonies and protectorates, defence was largely in the hands of a variety of units raised from the indigenous population, in much the same manner as all colonial powers had always done. France also created a number of ‘colonial formations’ manned by European volunteers and the sons of colonists; the ‘pied-noirs’ as they were termed. On top of these was the infamous Foreign Legion, a largely French-officered formation, which recruited criminals and exiles from across the globe, along with those few adventurous spirits who had been gulled by the mythos of the Legion, which had experienced an upsurge in popularity in the immediate Post-Great War period.
The Armée Coloniale
With extensive territories in North, West and Central Africa, France had a huge manpower pool to call upon, not only in terms of the indigenous populations of those areas, but also amongst the European colonists who had settled in these areas. These latter were channelled into the Régiments d’Infanterie Coloniale (RIC), the Régiments de Zouaves (RZ), the Régiments de Chasseurs d’Afrique (RCA) and the Régiments d’Artillerie Coloniale (RAC). In principal these formations were to be equipped to the same standard as metropolitan formations, up to the point that the RCA were set to become mechanised-cavalry formations and a degree of motorisation was to be introduced into the other units. In addition to the above there was of course the several regiments of the Foreign Legion.
Indigenous infantry formations consisted of the Tirailleurs Algériens (RTA), Tirailleurs Marocains (RTM) and Tirailleurs Tunisiens (RTT); collectively termed ‘Turcos’, and the Tirailleurs Senégalais, who were recruited from all across Western and Central Africa. Indigenous cavalry regiments, the Spahis, were also recruited from within Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. These formations were also equipped to the same standard of their respective metropolitan equivalents, albeit with generally older equipment and without motor transport. In the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon the French avoided the recruitment of local Sunni Moslems and instead posted units from North Africa to the region, supplementing them with numerous units of ‘special troops’ raised from minority groups, such as the Druze, Alwalis, Circassians and Kurds.