Previous page Page 15 of 18 Next page
List of subjects |  Sources |  Feedback 
HISTORY OF FRANCE
 
 


Share |




Discover in a free
daily email today's famous
history and birthdays

Enjoy the Famous Daily



War in the west: 1914

At first the thrust of the German armies through Belgium and south into France seems to fulfil the Schlieffen Plan. 'Victory by Christmas' does indeed seem possible (though the German high command is not alone in making this promise to its citizens - all the other combatants are professing equal optimism).

The Belgian army puts up a heroic resistance but is unable to prevent the Germans from taking Liège on August 16, Brusssels on the 20th and Namur on the 23rd. Meanwhile a small British Expeditionary Force, rushed across the Channel in mid-August to Boulogne, reaches Mons.
 









Confronted at Mons on August 23 by a much larger German army, the British Expeditionary Force fights a successful rearguard action and retreats south again to escape encirclement.

Meanwhile the initial French effort has been wasted in a drive east through Lorraine. By August 22 this is halted by the Germans, bringing France massive numbers of dead and wounded (in the region of 300,000, a foretaste of the ghastly statistics which will characterize this war). After this disaster the French redirect their efforts northwards to counter the threat from Belgium.
 







The German intention has been to sweep to the west of Paris and thus encircle the city. Opposition in Belgium and northern France has been sufficient to confine the German thrust to the east of the capital. Nevertheless by September 3, a month after their invasion and well within their schedule, German armies cross the river Marne. To safeguard against the likely fall of Paris, the French government moves south to Bordeaux.

The Germans are within 30 miles of the capital when a mainly French force finally halts and then rolls back their relentless advance. During four days of fighting (Sept. 5-8, the battle of the Marne) the German army is pushed north of the river.
 







This reversal means the collapse of the Schlieffen Plan in the west, depending as it did on a rapid conquest of France. Meanwhile it has proved equally defective in the east, where the Russians make early advances.

These advances prompt the German high command, in late August, to transfer four divisions from Belgium to the eastern front. So the army which is forced back over the Marne is smaller than intended. It is also much more vulnerable than it should be. The German supply lines have not been able to keep up with the army's rapid move south.
 







With the tide turning, the German forces hurry back to the river Aisne to regroup. They then move west in a second attempt to outflank the Allied armies. (By this time Britain, France and Russia are known as the Allied Powers, after signing a treaty in London on September 5 in which each guarantees not to make a separate peace treaty with the Central Powers.)

The Allies also move west, to frustrate the German flanking movement. Thus begins the competitive advance which becomes known as the 'race to the sea', during which the most hard-fought encounters are in October and November around Ypres. The point at which the two armies reach the sea becomes the northwest end of a 400-mile line of demarcation.
 







By November 1914 the line is fixed. It runs roughly along the French and Belgian border and then down the French and German border to Switzerland. The only part of this terrain which is flat and therefore hard to defend is in the northwest, among the fields of Flanders.

Here, in the winter of 1914, each side begins feverishly building trenches. These become permanent defensive structures, more like cramped underground barracks than mere shelters from bullets and shells. They will be home to hundreds of thousands of Europe's young men for more than three years. The fanciful notion of 'victory by Christmas' is transformed into protracted and nightmarish warfare of a kind previously unknown in history.
 







Sections are as yet missing at this point.
 






Sections Missing

Sections are as yet missing at this point
 








Expansion and appeasement: 1935-1939

The policy which becomes known as appeasement (the belief that compromise with Europe's fascist dictators will provide the best chance for peace) is associated particularly with the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain. But it already characterizes the foreign policy up to 1937 of his predecessor, Stanley Baldwin. And it is, to a lesser extent, the policy also of the government in France.

As the two major European powers in the League of Nations, Britain and France inevitably have to play the leading role in trying to keep Hitler and Mussolini in check.
 









A conciliatory attitude, partly made necessary by the lack of readiness in each nation for another war, is evident as early as 1935. In this year Samuel Hoare and Pierre Laval, foreign ministers of the two countries, concoct a peace plan which would allow Italy to annexe large slices of Ethiopia (an independent state, recently invaded by Italian armies).

The plan is rejected, but its very existence encourages Mussolini to complete his conquest of Ethiopia. And this de facto state of affairs is soon accepted by an increasingly enfeebled League of Nations.
 







Earlier in the same year there has been another affront to the League's authority. In March 1935 Hitler informs Britain and France that he is creating an air force, is launching a major programme of military and naval rearmament, and is introducing conscription.

These plans directly contravene the terms of the treaty of Versailles. But in June, to the outrage this time of France, Hoare establishes an Anglo-German Naval Agreement, tacitly accepting the naval aspect of Hitler's plans in return for a pact that German strength at sea will not exceed 35% of the combined fleets of Britain and the Commonwealth.
 







In March 1936 Hitler makes his first military move in defiance of existing treaties. He marches his troops into the Rhineland, a region permanently demilitarized under the terms agreed at Versailles. At the same time he declares (in what is to become a recurring pattern) that this is his last territorial claim.

The Spanish Civil War, beginning in July 1936, absorbs much of Europe's attention over the next two years (and provides Hitler's new forces with their first unofficial outing). But from 1938 the German dictator's provocative moves come at an ever increasing pace, each of them taking to the brink the good faith of the appeasers.
 







On March 12 he marches into Austria to reunite the ancient German Reich, an event known as the Anschluss (literally 'joining on'). On the previous day he assures the world that he has no designs on Czechoslovakia.

The very next month, in April, he develops a secret plan to annexe the western part of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland. He is considerably helped in this ambition by the principles of Versailles, for the region has a predominantly German population. Many of these Germans are already Nazi sympathisers. It is easy to argue, against Czech interests, that the principle of self-determination gives these people the right to merge with Germany. During the summer of 1938 Hitler threatens the Czech government at the diplomatic level, while massing troops on the border.
 







Chamberlain flies from London to confer with Hitler, on September 15 and 22, but by September 27 it seems certain that Hitler's forces will cross the Czech border. France has a defensive treaty with Czechoslavakia. Britain would have to support France. The result would be war.

On September 27 Chamberlain broadcasts to the British people, expressing his appalled dismay at being dragged into the affairs of such a 'Faraway country'. The next day he sends a telegram to Hitler, offering to fly again to Germany to discuss the peaceful transfer of the Sudetenland. Hitler postpones the invasion, planned for September 28, and invites Chamberlain, Daladier (the French premier since April) and Mussolini to an immediate meeting in Munich.
 






Munich and after: 1938-1939

The discussion in Munich between Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini lasts a little over twelve hours, beginning in the middle of the day on September 29 and ending with the signing of an agreed document at 1.30 a.m. on September 30. Though the dismantling of their country is under discussion, Hitler refuses to allow any Czech representative to take part. Two Czech diplomats sit in a nearby hotel, effectively waiting to be told what has been decided.

The conclusion is all that Hitler would wish. The Sudeten areas are to be ceded to Germany during the next ten days. Thereafter plebiscites, organized by the four Munich powers and Czechoslovakia, will reveal exactly where the new border should run.
 









Before boarding his plane, later on September 30, Chamberlain has another meeting with Hitler in which he asks him to sign a joint declaration. This is the document which Chamberlain waves in the air for the cameras on his return to Britain, stating that he has brought back from Germany 'peace for our time... peace with honour'.

The text above Hitler's signature, on which Chamberlain bases his optimism, declares a determination to remove possible sources of difference between countries 'and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe'. Chamberlain's hope is that the sacrifice of the Sudetenland has preserved not only peace but the rest of Czechoslovakia.
 







The occupation of Sudetenland brings some 3.5 million people within Nazi Germany, 75% of them German and 25% Czech. But in the event these Czechs are no more unfortunate than their compatriots elsewhere. Three weeks after signing Chamberlain's document, Hitler orders the German army to prepare for a move into the rest of Czechoslovakia. The invasion comes in March 1939. Hitler, in Prague, declares that Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia are now under the protection of the German Reich.

But such a brutal betrayal of the Munich agreement transforms the appeasers. When it becomes evident that Poland is the next likely victim, Britain and France are suddenly resolute.
 






Danzig and the Polish corridor: 1938-1939

It is evident from the first weeks after the Munich agreement that Hitler will make unacceptable territorial demands of Poland. The main theme of British and French foreign policy now becomes the forging of diplomatic and military alliances to prepare for any resulting conflict. The four anticipated allies, in resisting German aggression, are Britain, France, the USSR and Poland.

Hitler's demands upon Poland are two. He wants the transfer to his Reich of the free port of Danzig (admittedly an almost entirely German city, and now with a Nazi council). And he wants a German corridor through Poland to the isolated German province of East Prussia.
 









Both claims are pressed by Hitler with new vigour in October 1938, within days of his winning the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. The Polish government firmly rejects the German demands. Unlike unfortunate Czechoslovakia, this stance wins a positive response from the western powers.

In March 1939 Neville Chamberlain, speaking with the approval of both France and the USSR, gaurantees help to Poland if her independence is threatened. In April Hitler abrogates his own ten-year nonaggression treaty with Poland, signed in 1934, and secretly orders his army to prepare for a Polish invasion. In May France commits herself to military action against Germany if a conflict begins. But then, in August, Hitler produces a diplomatic bombshell.
 






Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact: 1939

In August 1939 a Franco-British military mission is in Moscow trying to persuade Stalin to commit to a treaty for the defence of Poland. Little progress is made, ostensibly because the Poles are refusing to allow Soviet troops to cross their territory to attack Germany. But there is another hidden reason which soon becomes apparent.

The Soviet Union and Communism have always been twin forces of demonic evil in Hitler's oratory, but he now proves himself happy to sup with the devil for a very real strategic advantage. It is important to his plans that he shall not be distracted by a major war on his eastern front. In August he opens negotiations with Stalin. Poland is his bait.
 









Stalin, invited by the western powers to join an alliance which will almost certainly involve him in a costly war against Germany for no very evident benefit, now finds himself offered a more attractive option - inactivity and a sizable increase in his territory.

It takes the Russian dictator little time to choose. The world is astonished on August 21 by the announcement from Berlin that Ribbentrop is flying to Moscow to sign a nonaggression pact with his opposite number, the Russian foreign minister Molotov. This sudden friendship of two implacable enemies would seem less inexplicable if people knew of the secret protocol which accompanies the pact.
 







The protocol agrees a new set of international boundaries. As modified slightly in a second visit by Ribbentrop to Moscow, in September, it acknowledges Germany's approval of the Russian annexation of the independent nations Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (should any such opportunity occur). And it establishes an agreed division of Poland between Germany and Russia.

With this much achieved, Hitler is ready to take his next step - launched, for propaganda purposes, with a grisly little charade.
 






Previous page Page 15 of 18 Next page