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The French Want to Refight World War I

Excerpt from How Hitler Could Have Won World War II, by Bevin Alexander, page 15

While the Germans were placing their faith in a new type of warfare based on fast-moving tanks supported by dive bombers, the French (and to a large degree the British) were aiming to fight World War I all over again.

The French army was by far the strongest challenge to the Germans, but its doctrine required a continuous front, strongly manned by infantry and backed up by artillery. The French expected the enemy to attack this front fruitlessly and wear down his strength. Only when the enemy was weakened and finally stopped did French doctrine permit their army to go over to the offensive. French attacks were always to be a bataille conduite, literally “battle by guidance” but translated as “methodical battle” by the British. This battle system had been refined in the late stages of World War I, and cogitated about ever since. It was slow in the extreme. French doctrine prohibited action until the commander had perfect information about his and the enemy's forces, a process requiring extensive, time-consuming reconnoitering.

When the infantry attack started it had to come behind a massive artillery barrage. The foot soldiers could advance only 1,500 meters before stopping to allow the artillery to shift its fires. After several such bounds, they had to stop until the guns could be moved forward.

All this required a great deal of time. An exercise in 1938, for example, took eight days of preparation for a two-day attack.

Guderian, who was fully aware of the enemy's battle system, was confident that the speed of the panzer advance would preclude the French ever having time to mount a counterattack. The situation would change by the hour, and the French would never catch up. This meant to Guderian that the panzers did not have to worry about their flanks. They would reach the English Channel and victory before the French could even begin to react.

The German high commanders, who thought more like their French opposite numbers than they did Guderian, were not so sure. Out of these conceptual differences a lot of conflict was to emerge.

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