Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Arming Against Hitler - Eugenia C. Kiesling

Don't pretend you didn't know this was coming. I warned you on Thanksgiving I was reading this.

Kiesling's looking at how France's approach to preparations leading up to World War 2 is often presented as wrong, and they should have recognized the things the Germans wound up doing, and doing those things instead. Her point is that the French Army was operating within certain constraints, and so they built the best doctrine they could under those circumstances.

Some of those constraints are imposed by the government, the difficulties of achieving any sort of consensus in a country where there was a new Prime Minister every 6 months on average. It's hard to initiate any long-term programs for training or building up tank units if you get a one-year budget each year. And the Army was not always receptive to suggestions by the government on how to do things. The Army was built on having a small active army and a large reserve, but there were difficulties in getting the reserves trained sufficiently, especially their officers. Plans to group people together regionally during their active service, so they would still be together in their reserve units, fell apart in the face of the fact that certain regions didn't have enough men to fill their units, or because there were literacy or technical know-how requirements for certain elements, and they had to pull qualified people from wherever they could find them.

There are a lot of details here, such as the problems with the reserve units, or the conflicts between the tanks the Army wants, and the ones the tank designers want to build them, I hadn't read about before. But in the broad strokes, I feel like I've read this before. That there was a certain inevitability to the direction the French Army left, they were trapped on a narrow path with no chances to diverge. But Kiesling alludes to this awareness among high command that they aren't as ready as they need to be, but that rather than actually do anything about it, they choose to hope for the most favorable outcome, where they might be OK. Because their whole doctrine is built on the idea that they are ready, and if they even voice the suspicion they aren't, it'll collapse. So when one of the officers runs a simulation on how quickly the Germans could move a large force through the Ardennes, compared to how quickly the French could reinforce their forces there, the Army insists he's overestimating the Germans, and that it would take at least one more day even beyond their more conservative projections, because it just so happens that one more day would be enough for them to get reinforcements there. That's the best they can do, is insist reality will meet their hopes.

Kiesling is fairly persuasive, but while reading it, I couldn't help thinking that in all these moments where the High Command seems aware of their deficiencies there had to be something they could be doing to improve their chances. I'm not sure what - at a certain point, it's just too late to putting anything in gear that's going to to produce results in time to matter - but the way Gamelin and the others are presented as being in the grip of a sort torpor makes it hard for me to believe they really did all the could within the limits they found themselves. It's especially odd they were placing so much in amorphous concepts as hope, considering Kiesling observes they know the danger of relying on similar concepts like "fighting spirit" after seeing its limits in World War I.

'If French doctrine was not what Smith would have chosen for the United States or Guderian for the Wehrmacht, it suited the Third Republic. It was not a doctrine created for an ideal army but the army France had. That army was composed of overworked professionals, short-service conscripts, and badly prepared reservists. Unstable personnel assignments and the practice of training the reservists who provided most of the army's leadership in combat would be asked to make up in courage what they lacked in military skills.'

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