France Fights On! (for now)
It’s not a stretch to say that the 1940 campaign is what got me interested in military history – I think possibly the first history book I read was a Dutch translation of “Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years” by Jack Le Vien and John Lord – an utterly forgettable work of historiography, but it did its work as a gateway drug.
At first, I was mostly interested in the short Dutch contribution to events, but there’s only so much you can study in a five-day campaign, and gradually I switched focus to the fight in France. I’ve read quite a bit of what has been written on the campaign in French (though, maybe understandably, French historians prefer to concentrate on the more glorious topics of the Free French and/or the Resistance, there is a fair amount of work done on the 1940 campaign as well – the best book I’ve come across so far, however, is written by a German: Karlheinz Frieser’s Blizkrieg-Legende).
The years between, say, 1936 and 1940 are rich in what-if moments. What if the French take a more active role in the Spanish Civil War? What if they decide to fight over Czechoslovakia? What if they pursue their Saar Offensive more forcefully while the German Army is occupied in Poland? What if they don’t go for the Dyle Offensive, so that Giraud’s Seventh Army is available to try and stop the Sickle Cut?
The argument that the French Army in 1940 was much better than the historical outcome suggests is now reasonably widely known, but what is perhaps less well known is that the chances of the French continuing the war after the debâcle were not at all negligible.
More than half of the French government supported this idea: certainly the Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, but also other political heavyweights like Georges Mandel, Louis Marin, Éduard Herriot and Jules Jeanneney. The opposition was led by the hero of Verdun, Pétain, and people like Jean Ybarnégaray and Yves Bouthillier (not to mention eventual leaders of Vichy – Laval and Flandin, for example).
At a tempestuous meeting of the Council of Ministers in Bordeaux on June 16, 1940, matters came to a head, and Reynaud resigned the same evening, opening the way for Pétain to become Prime Minister and seek an armistice with Germany.
This is the event I wanted to re-create with a committee game; I felt that there is plenty of room for the Council to come to another decision; Reynaud’s mistake was that he tried to associate the decision to continue the war with the (frankly madcap) plan to create a Franco-British Union. I don’t think even the British took this idea seriously, even though they presented it, but they recognised that they had to something spectacular to keep the French on board. Reynaud tried to pass both measures, and as a result, they were both defeated. He then resigned in the expectation that Germany’s terms of surrender would be too harsh for Pétain to accept, after which everyone could agree to continuing the war – and we all know how well that worked out.
In the game, it pretty much became clear that there was not a lot of support for the Franco-British Union, and Reynaud (Andrew H) wisely decided to drop the idea almost immediately, and concentrate on getting support for continuing the war – opposition to this idea coming from Pétain (Terry M) and Chautemps (Daniel S) who, in case of the former, didn’t trust the British any further than he could throw them, or, in case of the latter just wanted to get the economy working again, no matter what.
After a stimulating round of negotiations (with the bellicose side of the cabinet represented by Mandel (Jon C) and Rollin (Bernie G)), the final compromise proposal was to start backdoor channel negotiations with the Germans to figure out what their terms would be (probably something akin to the historical armistice: France keeps its colonies, part of the country remains unoccupied, the fleet remains in French hands) but to also start withdrawing troops so as to keep a toehold in Brittany and continue the fight from North Africa. I think this could very well have been accepted by the historical cabinet, where there almost certainly was a majority in favour of continuing the fight.
Anyway, an enjoyable game, thanks to all involved. Next step: actually run a game to plan and execute the Grand Départ. It’ll be interesting to see how that one goes…