Webmatters Title
Webmatters : The Battle for France May/June 1940

May 1940

Introduction

Whilst this site is primarily concerned with the Great War of 1914-1918 there are a number of locations and military cemeteries which were also touched by the 2nd World War.

In particular the northern towns and villages of France seem to have suffered a number of massacres and summary executions at the hands of the German invaders. This helps explain the proliferation of Rue de Martyres or Place de fusill├ęs etc.

The 8th May is commemorated in France as a much more important event than in the UK (Commonwealth ?) where we tend to remember all of our fallen on the 11th November and Remembrance Sunday.

These few pages will offer a very rough outline to the fall of France during those momentous six weeks when much of the British Expeditionary Force found itself fighting in places it had left only a generation beforehand.

 

The General Political Situation

In 1939 France had one ally — the United Kingdom. However, London felt that France wanted to dominate the Continent and as a wave of pacifism spread across the UK the British Government failed to support France when she occupied the Rhineland in 1923-1925.

The 3rd Reich was financially impoverished and only advancing in its military build up by great sacrifices amongst the people and the lack of will by her old opponents to confront Hitler’s defiance of the Treaty of Versailles.

Hitler was more than prepared to engage in armed conflict but he was astute enough to realise that he was running risks. Germany, he realised could no more win a war on two fronts than it could have done 1918.

The old Allies though, were not nearly as certain in their defiance of Hitler as they had been of the Kaiser.

For its part, Italy had signed an alliance with Nazi Germany in 1936. Not only would the French no longer have a neutral southern neighbour to deal with as had been the case in 1914, but some Italians dreamt of retaking Corsica, Savoy and Nice.

Corsica had been virtually independent from Genoa when the French invaded in 1768, the Genoese therefore didn’t think they were giving much away at the Treaty of Versailles that year. It took the French another year to subdue the Corsicans (Some would say they never have).

The treaty of Turin which annexed Nice and Savoy to France was signed on 24th March 1860. Italy was still in the throws of unification and the offer of the territory was to gain Napoleon III’s aid against the Austrians. The French no-longer call it an annexation but a rattachement (as though the two counties had always been French).

More importantly, France was terrified of the political ideology of communism and had failed to look to Stalin and the Soviet Union for a concrete military alliance.

The map of Europe had changed radically from 1914 when Tsarist Russia had reacted with surprising speed in order to come to the aid of its French ally. At the turn of the century Poland hadn’t existed; now, as events seemed to move ineluctably towards armed conflict, any movement by the USSR against Germany would require Soviet troops to advance through Poland.

As the French and British dithered, Stalin took the matter in hand and did a deal with Hitler. On the 23rd August 1939, Germany and the USSR signed a non-aggression pact.

Between the two men it would be difficult to say with certainty which of them had sold his soul to the devil.