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A Detailed Account of Disaster
on 6 March 2003
In "To Lose A Battle" Alastair Horne tells the story of the Fall of France in 1940 in great detail. Beginning with the political and military background which lead to French weakness, the reader is carried through to the final collapse and its aftermath.
The parts of the book which I liked the best were the beginning and the end. In the early parts we read how the tragedy of World War I set France up for failure in World War II. France had been badly divided politically for generations, a heritage which contributed to the disaster of 1940. The massive kill-off of 1914-18 followed by the low Depression-era birthrate left France with a much smaller manpower pool than had existed in 1914. The memory of World War I, along with the long-standing divisions in the French body politic prevented the French form preparing an army which could maintain the distinguished French military tradition.
During the reading of this book, I gained a deeper appreciation of the role played by the Maginot Line. I has always heard that it was the last stand of fixed fortifications. In this book we see how the costs of the Line and its personnel demands drained money and resources which would have been more productively devoted to other units. During the "Phony War" the only effective relief that France could have provided to embattled Poland would have been an invasion of Germany. The ultimate irony is that the impregnable Maginot Line formed a barrier, not only to German invasion, but also to a French advance into enemy territory.
The massive middle of the book explains the facts of the defeat of France in agonizing detail. Although the credentials, such as thus usage of this book by the Israeli Armed Forces, suggests that this book has real value for the military professional, the endless recital of names and actions makes it difficult for an amateur historian, such as myself, to maintain interest.
In concluding sections, the narrative returns to more recognizable themes, such as the breaking of the lines, the collapse of the Belgians, the evacuation of Dunkerque and the last effort to organize a final defense in France. This book introduced me to the depth of irony in the French surrender. I had known that the French were forced to surrender in the same rail car and at the same location as the Armistice signing of 1918. I was unaware that the Versailles Conference had taken place in the same hall in which Wilhelm I had been proclaimed Emperor of Germany in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War.
I did enjoy reading about the involvement of Rommel and de Gaulle, two figures who would play major roles later in the War and, in de Gaulle's case, thereafter.
Although this book focuses on French failures, it is balanced in that it does note that the British performed no better than did the French.
In the end, Horne explores the question of how the defeat of France influenced subsequent developments in Europe and the world.
This book may be a great one for pursuing expertise in the Battle of France but it is a bit detailed for recreational reading.