In the late 1920s the shrinking French field army still maintained an offensive role. At the beginning of the 1930s, the French Army continued to shrink, recruitment fell and funding declined due to the depression, though work continued on the Maginot Line.
No significant new developments took place in tactics. Most of the higher ranking officers and decision making staff were World War I veterans who seemed ready to refight the last war rather than change with the times. Nonetheless, within military circles there were dynamic thinkers who were leading the way toward modern mechanized warfare. Unfortunately, a great deal of indecision and consternation prevailing among those in power held back doctrinal development. As one government after another fell, the ever changing war ministers hindered the development of an effective military doctrine. The Superior War Council, which included France’s highest ranking officers and the minister of war, and was responsible for most of the major decisions concerning military matters, was more stable though lacking inspiring leadership.
Although many critics of the period claim that the French High Command was stagnating and indecisive between the wars, this was not the case. For instance, the ideas of General Jean Estienne concerning the development of tanks, which held no favor in the early 1920s, gained popularity by the 1930s. General Maxime Weygand, the army chief of staff in the early 1930s, followed up on Colonel Joseph Doumenc’s ideas from the 1920s for the formation of armored divisions. In 1930 he ordered the creation of the world’s first armored division, the division légere mécanique (DLM or light mechanized division) which was ready by 1933. Weygand expected these new formations to replace the cavalry.
The first DLM was a balanced combined-arms force, and both General Weygand and General Gamelin, his deputy and future replacement, approved the conversion of cavalry divisions into DLMs. However, these new units remained subordinate to the infantry, and little changed even when the doctrine for large combat units of 1921 was revised in 1936. The French armored division could field only half the vehicles of its enemy counterpart, the German panzer division. When the war began, the French had more tanks, but fewer armored divisions than their opponent because they allotted many armored vehicles to independent tank battalions (infantry support units) rather than armored divisions. Most French vehicles in these units were equal to, or better than, the German ones, especially the B-1’s and SOMUAs.
By 1935, military threats to France were becoming increasingly serious. The Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 had led the League of Nations to take ineffective actions against the aggressive state, although it was enough to irritate the Duce. As a result, a diplomatic realignment of Italy took place in 1936 creating another problem for the French. Mussolini’s expansionist policies in the Mediterranean in the 1920s had triggered the construction of fortifications in the Alpine sectors facing Italy. When Mussolini stopped Hitler’s takeover of Austria in 1934, it had seemed that Italy might act as a bulwark against Nazi aggression. However, this turned out to be a short-lived hope as Mussolini created the Axis Pact after the West condemned his aggression in Abyssinia in 193536. As a result, the French planners felt compelled to divert more funds to the protection of their frontier with Italy.
On 7 March 1936, Hitler took advantage of the unstable political situation in France, fostered by up-coming elections, to occupy the Rhineland. German troops advanced into the Rhineland with orders to withdraw if the French approached. The French Army was unable to respond. The DLM moved to the frontier and other units occupied the Maginot Line, but the government ordered no offensive into the Rhineland. Hitler’s bluff worked; the Germans tricked French intelligence into believing that their small occupation force was actually an army. French military intelligence continued to grossly overestimate the enemy until 1940, and the results proved disastrous.
In 1936, as war loomed, time was running out for the French. They increased the size of their army, extended the length of service and ordered new weapons. Unfortunately, French industry could not keep up with the demand, and the issue of tactics was still unresolved. Colonel Charles de Gaulle, supported by the politician Paul Reynaud, called for an independent mechanized striking force. Unfortunately, as in the case of Estienne, much earlier, the government and military rejected his proposals. Not before the spring of 1940 were three heavy armored divisions, divisions cuirassée de réserve, (DCRs or heavy armored divisions of the reserve) ready, with three DLMs. The role of these units turned out to be not so much offensive as defensive, which diminished their real value.
The tactical role worked out for French armored divisions by 1939 was slightly ambiguous. The overall plan for the French Army was predicated upon defense, even during an advance, and upon waiting for the enemy to attack. French doctrine called for defense in depth, and the new mechanized units offered a great deal of flexibility for this mission. The tank units were to help break up an enemy assault and, when the time was right and the troops had gained experience, take the offensive. The armored divisions on the attack would act as a breakthrough force, then adopt a mission of exploitation. The military planners did not design the new DCRs to operate alone, but in conjunction with DLMs which had reconnaissance units and other forces to provide support.
Although the output of French industry was low, and new equipment was delivered to the military very slowly, the French Army was not totally devoid of materiel in 1939. Their artillery, a large amount dating from World War I, outnumbered that of the Germans when the war began, ranging in size from large caliber railway guns to 37mm anti-tank guns and machineguns. In the 1930s the French Army ordered new 105mm guns, as well as new 47mm anti-tank guns. In the Maginot fortifications, the army engineers redesigned those blocks which were still incomplete to accept the new anti-tank gun. New machineguns began to appear, especially the very reliable automatic rifle FM 1924/29, and the military attempted to create more effective anti-aircraft weapons, one of which was the 90mm gun, an equal to the German ”88.”
While many of the new French tanks such as the SOMUA and Char B proved superior to the German, some had drawbacks. Larger French tanks had one-man turrets that impaired their effectiveness, since the tank commander was his own gunner and loader, unlike his German counterpart. There was also a large number of inferior light tanks which remained in use. Such weapons were no less adequate than those of the Germans, which were also employed in large numbers. Although there wasn’t enough time for the military to fully modernize and obtain the updated weapons by 1939, much of the French equipment proved to be equal and even superior to the Germans, but French tactical doctrine proved to be inadequate for the new type of warfare. French tactical ideas on defense in depth, the use of armored and air units to achieve breakthroughs and mobile units for exploitation were moving along the same lines as those of the Germans. Nevertheless, French theory concerning all combat arms lagged behind the Germans; many field units remained inadequately structured and the French High Command was unwilling to remove the infantry from its dominance.
On the other hand, in the late 1930s reforms resulted in improved morale and efficiency among the troops in the active army. The government increased the number of colonial troops in 1938 to build up the army. Some of the active units serving in the Maginot Line rotated into field units of reservists to raise their morale during the winter of 1939. Reservists exhibited average skills and performance in most cases. There were two types of reserve divisions: Categories A and B. The latter contained older reservists who had only served one year of active duty and very few Regular officers, which drastically reduced their effectiveness. Unfortunately, some of the B divisions were assigned to an area opposite the Belgian Ardennes, which turned out to be the critical sector of the campaign.