Review of “To Lose a Battle: France 1940,” by Alistair Horne

To Lose a Battle, by Alistair Horne (the author of A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962) is (1) a logistics-heavy description of the Battle of France, (2) a description of the general incompetence in both the France and German High Commands, (3) a tale of France, a country that was not then and never became a western democracy, and (4) a history of the end of France and Germany as distinct states.

1. The Logistics of War

“It was time that was the vital element which — more than weapons, even perhaps more than morale — France most lacked in 1940.”

Horne’s focus on logistics, timing, supplies, and materiel is refreshing, especially given so much strategy-focused writing by John Boyd and William Lind. I am not in a position to evaluate the completeness of Horne’s account, but his manner of writing certainly has fans:

Some two years later, I encountered at a London publishing party Israel’s leading military analyst and former Chief of Intelligence, Chaim Herzog (He was later to become Israel’s President.) We had met some years previously in Israel, and he had now just published his own account of the 1973 campaign, The War of Atonement. (Weidenfeld, 1975). When I commented on the similarities to the Manstein Plan of 1940, he smiled knowingly and said something to the effect that, only recently, General Sharon had referred to it, acknowledging a certain indebtedness to To Lose a Battle. Herzog kindly signed a copy of his book for me, adding the laconic but meaningful inscription, “In appreciation.”

I’ve never read a clearer account of battle that focused on the vital appointment of having the right materiel at the right location at the right time. Horne deserves major props for this part of the book, as he does for flowing between the political and military dimensions of struggle in his last book.

2. The Incompetence of the High Commands

Poor decisions went up to the part. “During the course of the Second World War,” Horne writes, “Hitler committed half a dozen key blunders that were to lose Germany the war.” Though in fairness, Hitler’s consistent habit was to bluff as much as he can while being prepared to rapidly ceed ground at the first resistance. Even as late as 1939 Horne believes that a French attack on Germany (during the Nazi invasion of Poland) would have reached the Rhine within two weeks.

The French and German general staffs, however, were fixated on the strategy of an orderly defense, and as such both were hesitant to move rapidly or seize the initiative. These “wrong lessons learned” for World War I, however, reach comic levels with the French, who even move troops away from Paris and towards the Maginot Line near the end of the fight.

3. France, an Unstable Democracy

The best insight I have from reading To Lose a Battle and A Savage War of Peace is that France was never a stable western democracy. Attempts to view its behavior as analogous to what the United States or Britain would do in a similar situation are unfounded, because France had a unique set of interests. Specific elements of French political life that made normal politics impossible were

  • A lack of separation between the political and the military
  • A militant left-wing (which was purposefully crippled by Stalin)
  • A revolutionary right-wing (which was sympathetic to military coups against elected governments)

The pattern of both To Lose a Battle and A Savage War of Peace is the old general, brought in from retirement, who oversees the death of the old Republic and faces resistance from an idealistic general

Philippe Petain v. the Third Republic and Charles DeGaulle
but then… DeGaulle v. the Fourth Republic and Roaul Salan

After reading both books, the solution is obvious: France is not a stable democracy.

Reading To Lose a Battle and A Savage War of Peace at first is strange, because the country appears to be a nightmarish version of the United States, but the U.S. is a democracy that has not had a new constitution since the the 18th century. France, by contrast, was never stable. Thus Petain, and DeGaulle, operated out the same frame: no stable government existed absent a strong leader, so a constitutional dictatorship was (for the time being) the only natural form of government for France.

The difference between Petain and DeGaulle was not between traitor and patriot (by our standards, they were surely both). Indeed, both recognized the unstable nature of French democracy, and sought to meld the French polity into Germany. Likewise, both (like Mao Zedong, Chiang Kaishek, and Wang Jingwei) differentiated between ‘diseases of the limbs’ and ‘diseases of the hearts’ — during their heights…

DeGaulle, unlike Petain, was an optimist as DeGaulle, unlike Petain, did not live with the guilt of overseeing a massacre. While other French commanders fled he attacked the Germans, achieving some pointless victories that did nothing to stop the German war machine. Thus, DeGaulle was willing to wait for a better time to commit his ethnic cleansing campaign and tie his country’s fate to Germany. Petain simply wanted to end the destruction of his country.

4. The End of France and Germany

The hosts of heaven allowed the sons of man to form two nations, France and Germany, in June 840. The mandate was revoked in June, 1940.

Before France and Germany western Europe was controlled by a transnational aristocracy. After June, 1940, such a world returned.

The end of the book has a “where are they now” section. There seemed to be no correlation between the side of a leader and how his future career unfolded. Both German and French generals suffered under Hitler. Both German and French generals were executed post-war. Both German and French generals would enjoy a sunny career in NATO. June 1940 appeared to be the last month where the fates of Germany and France were, truly, antagonistic.

For centuries it was impossible imagine a world without these two countries. Now, it is impossible to imagine one with them. Considering the inability of either France or Germany to establish stable national democracies, the accomplishments of the European Union are astounding.

To Lose a Battle is a brilliant history of one of the first fights of the Second World War. Highly recommended!