To Lose a Battle: France 1940 by Alistair Horne (1969)

General Altmayer, who seemed tired out and thoroughly disheartened, wept silently on his bed. (p.575) [A typical example of the behaviour of senior French militaryfigures during the Battle of France.]

This is the third of Sir Alistair Horne’s trilogy about the three great wars fought between Germany and France, the others being The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-1 and The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. (I have also recently read his classic account of the Algerian War of Independence, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962.)

To Lose A Battle is about the German invasion of France in May 1940, the most perfect example of the Wehrmacht’s new Blitzkrieg strategy that it ever carried out.

It is a long book (680 pages) because Horne starts by giving a several hundred page-long detailed account of the historical, cultural, political and military background leading up to the debacle. Once this is done, part two begins, no fewer than 400 pages devoted to an incredibly detailed account of the Battle of France itself.

(I particularly wanted to read this book for the social background chapters, to provide context for the trilogy of Jean-Paul Sartre novels which I’ve just read and which are set initially in 1938 and then during the self-same Battle of France. Indeed Sartre and his partner Simone de Beauvoir are quoted several times as epitomising the defeatist spirit of pre-war France – which is certainly how The Roads To Freedom read to me.)

Background

French army Most European nations considered the French Army which emerged from the Great War to be the best in Europe. Horne goes to some length to describe and explain the widespread feeling of:

that ineradicable, mystical self-assurance of the invincibility, in extremis, of the French Army. (p.246)

With typical chauvinism the French preferred to downplay the role played by her allies, Britain and, latterly, America, in the Great War and to insist she was the victorious power. Psychologically, this has much truth since France lost more men dead in the war than any other nation (1,315,000, 27% of all French men aged between 18 and 27 were killed), a fact which deeply scarred its psyche, and affected its economy, for a generation.

But this pride/arrogance/over-confidence in France’s armed forces lingered on into the 1930s, well after it had been made redundant by Hitler spending a fortune creating the super-efficient new German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. (Horne describes very thoroughly the military, strategic, financial, technological and all-round ‘revolutionary dynamism of the Wehrmacht’, p.514.)

French politics and society were deeply riven by conflicts: the creation, with encouragement from Lenin’s Comintern, of the French Communist Party in 1920, crystallised the revolutionary forces of the Left. The PCF not only entered into a permanent dispute with the French Socialist party and other less revolutionary left-wing groups, splitting the left into endless squabbling – but also prompted the rise of far-right political parties such as Action Francaise and Croix-de-Feu which helped to splinter political parties of the Right. The extreme position of these parties, along with France’s persistent economic crises, bedevilled French politics for the whole inter-war period.

It was also an era which saw an astonishing turnover of governments, many lasting only a few months, some only days. Between mid-1932 and the outbreak of war in 1939 France had 19 different government with 11 different premiers. Symbolically, on the day Hitler came to power in 1933, France had no government. Seven years later, on the very day Germany invaded, the premier had just resigned and had to be persuaded to return to office to run France.

In this culture of political chaos nothing could be decided. No consistent line was taken in any area, finance, diplomacy or defence. Although the Treaty of Versailles gave France enormous power over German territory as well as a whole new empire in the Middle East, she never had the continuous administrations or strong leaders to set a consistent policy and to use her power effectively. Instead, political France became a nest of vipers, of extreme political factions who hated each other more than their external enemies. By the middle of the 1930s it had become an established saying on the Right that ‘Better Hitler than the Reds’. They really meant this and many people at the highest levels were, in effect, traitors.

The Great War In political terms, all this was obviously due to the legacy of the cataclysmic Great War: the Great War causes Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which causes the creation of violently revolutionary communist parties across Europe, which causes the creation of counter-revolutionary, proto-fascist parties across Europe – and the advent of both these extremes causes new levels of rhetorical, and real, violence against opponents. The process is described in harrowing detail in Robert Gerwarth’s recent book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 (2016).

A generation exterminated But Horne makes a simpler, bleaker point which is that a lot of the educated officer classes who might have provided bourgeois, old-fashioned, consensual and parliament-based political leadership, had been wiped out  in the trenches. Polite parliamentary politics didn’t go out of style; it was killed off. The new generation of leaders were unashamedly proletarian: Mussolini’s father was a blacksmith, Hitler’s father was a customs official, Stalin’s father was a cobbler. Daladier, the French Premier who sold out the Czechs, was the son of a baker; Reynaud, the man who replaced him, was the son of farmers.

Corruption Probably unrelated was the fact that a series of scandals enveloped many senior figures in France’s political elite in the run-up to the war, each case of embezzlement, jobs for the boys, swindles and cynical abuse of power further alienating the population at large. Why fight to help a pack of crooks keep their snouts in the trough?

Losing the war

As to why France lost the war, and so quickly, there is no shortage of reasons.

  • France’s Great War experience for four long bitter years had been entirely of the static defence of trenches. The centrepiece of their war had been the defence of the fortified complex at Verdun. They had no experience of the fluid, fast-moving war which took place in the East where the Germans fought the Russians and ranged over huge areas, or in the Middle East where the British fought the Turks. Building on the idea of static defence, the French High Command became mesmerised by the idea of creating a network of Verdun-like fortifications, buried deep underground with only impervious guns set in concealed hillsides to indicate their presence. This was commissioned in 1930 by a Defence Minister named Maginot and so became known as the Maginot Line.
  • But – as every schoolboy used to know – this line stopped short at the border with Belgium for a number of reasons: no one could decide whether to build it along Belgium’s border with the beastly Hun (thus defending the Belgians) or along the French-Belgium border (thus excluding the Belgians). Ans building just the 87 miles of sophisticated subterranean defences from Switzerland to the Belgian border had cost a fortune and continued to cost a fortune to maintain. So there was incompleteness, uncertainty and delay.
  • Tanks In the Great War the French used their primitive tanks spread thinly across a wide front, where they tended to make short-lived breakthroughs but then run out of petrol and so allow the enemy to regroup before the infantry could catch up. Thus French military thinking rejected the tank in favour of static defences in depth – the Maginot Line – linked by static landlines, phone lines – themselves vulnerable to being damaged.
  • Planes While the Germans built up their Luftwaffe under the ebullient Marshall Goering and with the aid of Germany’s best designers and technicians, the French sank half their military budget into the quite literal black hole of the Maginot Line buried forts.
  • All this contrasted with the Germans who
    • remembered the experience of fast-moving attacks in the East, and learned from it
    • designed superior tanks
    • built more planes, lots more planes
    • developed a theory of air and land attacks co-ordinated by new and better radio communications i.e. not vulnerable to lines being broken.
  • Blitzkrieg Taken together these were the bases of the Blitzkrieg theory, as outlined by Panzer commander and military theorist Heinz Guderian in his revolutionary pamphlet Achtung – Panzer! This was published in 1937 but never translated into French or English and – like Hitler’s Mein Kampf – went unread by the Allies.
  • Camaraderie In a fascinating section Horne brings out another really important element which was the tremendous esprit de corps and camaraderie in the German military. He describes the upbringing of men in Nazi Germany, passing through the Hitler Youth into the army, these boys becoming men had undergone punishing physical fitness regimes followed by demanding training designed to instil obedience and confidence.
    • The result was a generation of superb physical specimens, indeed there is a slightly homoerotic tinge to some of Horne’s descriptions of young German engineers stripped to the waist building pontoon bridges across the River Meuse and on other occasions.
    • The Germans believed in their leaders, in fact they had a fanatical devotion to the Führer and the Fatherland rarely seen in history. They really wanted to fight.
    • And Horne explains how the German army cultivated closeness between officers and men. They shared the same food, sleeping quarters etc, so the men knew and liked and respected their commanders, based on their ability. This contrasted with the French army which kept in place old-fashioned class ideas, officers never socialised with the men and often had bought commissions or had them on the basis of aristocratic family tradition.

French demoralisation

Horne’s book lists a long catalogue of errors and follies on the French side which start at the very top.

Politicians held in contempt Premiers of France came and went through a fast-moving revolving door. These senior politicians jostling for power all hated each other and did whatever was best for their careers. All their civil servants and soldiers followed suit. The population despised them.

Timidity bordering on cowardice Half the French cabinet were ‘doves’, hoping against hope that no war would come, and frightened of doing anything aggressive in case they incurred Hitler’s wrath. Thus although France declared war on Germany in September 1939 ostensibly in order to help Poland which Germany had just invaded, the French army only advanced a few miles into the German Saar land and then stopped. Plenty of foreign observers came to see the French soldiers peacefully camped out on hillsides watching German soldiers bathing in the river. ‘Why don’t you shoot at them?’ asked the American or British journalists. ‘Well, then they’d shoot back,’ replied the puzzled French officers. Commentators were amazed at the lack of French spirit. Meanwhile, Poland was cut in two between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, its people subjected to six years of barbarity.

Old timid leaders The High Command was led by General Gamelin, aged 68. The new French premier, Paul Reynaud,  wanted to sack him for his lack of aggression, but Reynaud needed to keep the former premier, Daladier and his faction in the cabinet to support his new government and Daladier stood by Gamelin and so… Reynaud’s attempts to get rid of Gamelin were blocked.

In fact, on the eve of the war, Horne shows that there was a massive cabinet fight over Gamelin and, discovering that he couldn’t sack him, Reynaud instead resigned. Once again France had no government. That was on 9 May. Germany attacked in the early hours of the next day, whereupon Reynaud was reluctantly persuaded to withdraw his resignation, and reluctantly forced to work with Gamelin – who now knew that his political boss didn’t trust him. What a mess.

No wonder the country at large referred to the national Assembly as ‘the swamp’ and all its politicians as corrupt crooks.

Out of touch Gamelin was not old-fashioned in his approach but criminally out of touch with his forces. He and his staff never visited any of the troops during the long, long period of the Phoney War, between September 1939 when France declared war on Germany and May 1940 when Germany attacked. We now know that Hitler had kept very few forces on his western flank when he invaded Poland in September 1939. If France had attacked in overwhelming force in September 1939 she would have swept aside Germany’s token defences and in all probability pushed on to Berlin and ended the war before it had properly begun. But she didn’t. She didn’t want to risk it, or risk anything.

Timid Gamelin and the rest of the general staff preferred to hunker down behind their impenetrable defence of the Maginot Line and wait for the enemy to come to him. Horne’s book reveals that Hitler actually wanted to attack France as soon as Poland was pacified, in November 1939, but was put off by his generals who were convinced they didn’t have the manpower or tanks – and then by the intervention of winter weather. And then in the spring of 1940 there was the side show of Norway, which Britain tried to help and Germany decisively invaded and occupied.

That takes us through to April, then into May 1940 as the Germans prepared their plan to invade France. This was initially named the Manstein Plan, or to give it its full title – Aufmarschanweisung N°4, Fall Gelb. Horne gives a fascinating account of how the plan went through a large number of iterations as a result of discussions, and arguments among the German General Staff – moving from an initial aim to thrust through Belgium as in the First World War, then the slow growth of a different strategy – an armed thrust through the supposedly ‘impenetrable’ Forest of the Ardennes, south of the Belgian border. This turned out to be a lucky decision as the French had posted their weakest units there, sending the stronger ones north to Belgium where they thought the attack would come. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of France’s best soldiers seeing little or no action until they were cut off and surrounded.

Among all its other virtues To Lose A War is a riveting insight into how a modern army strategy is developed and managed.

No communication Meanwhile, Gamelin’s headquarters in a chateau at Vincennes had no radio communication with his troops. Every day at a set hour despatch riders rode off with the orders of the day to a nearby radio station. Obviously this proved completely useless once the battle started. Quickly the joke went around that Gamelin’s HQ was like ‘a submarine without a periscope’ (p.440).

Terrible French morale There are scores of eye-witness accounts of the surly, unco-operative, insubordinate attitude of the French troops. The widespread strikes of the 1930s, the ubiquity of bolshy socialism and the arrogant aloofness of their officers had created a terrible attitude among the bulk of the French army. Sartre’s novels are ostensibly a fictional embodiment of his existentialist philosophy, but – having just read them – what comes over most powerfully is a portrait of an entire society paralysed by indecision and futility, by lack of focus or direction, by a shabby unhappiness.

And an army reflects its society. The picture of the common soldier given by Horne – working from countless eye-witness accounts of the time – is of men who refuse to salute officers, reluctant to obey orders, keen only to take leave where they could get blind drunk (special sobering-up rooms had to be created in train stations behind the Maginot Line to cope with the epidemic of drunk soldiers returning from leave).

Within days of the German attack (on 10 May 1940), French troops began surrendering in their thousands, laying down their arms and trudging wherever they were told, policed by a only handful of German soldiers. Or gave way to blind panic, inflamed by rumours that they were surrounded – ‘The Panzers are here!’ – and the almost universal cry that they were ‘betrayed’, had been sold out by traitors, by fifth columnists, blaming everyone – except themselves. They just wanted it all to be over. They just wanted to go home.

It is these defeated sheep who are portrayed in Sartre’s novel Iron In The Soul, a novel written from experience as Sartre himself served in a second-line battalion which surrendered and was imprisoned without a fight.

Subjectively, from the inside of his characters, Sartre depicts the defeat as an inexplicable catastrophe in which each man is thrown back on his own resources and must make an existential choice about how to live, about how to act, about who he wants to become.

But from the outside, to us looking at French society and this debacle 70 years later, the novel reads like a complete collapse of national will, a lapse into comfortable nihilism, the utter failure of an entire society.

And in other ways Sartre was very representative of his generation which blamed the British for not fighting harder, blamed the Americans for not coming to their aid, blamed the Soviet Union for signing the Nazi-Soviet pact with Hitler – in fact, the French blamed everyone except themselves. Even when they had been liberated by the British and Americans four years later, they carried on hating us. They couldn’t forgive the British for liberating them. But they reserved their main hatred for the Americans, the key force in their liberation from Nazi rule.

It’s hard to come away from this book without really despising the French.

Quotes which convey the French attitude

For sheer arrogant folly, the Barthou declaration of 17 April 1934 [‘France will henceforth guarantee her security by her own means’] is hard to beat; A.J.P. Taylor remarks: ‘The French had fired the starting pistol for the arms race. Characteristically, they then failed to run it.’ Yet it has its parallel in more recent times, when in 1966 de Gaulle informed the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance that henceforth he felt strong enough to dispense with its benefits. There are moments when one feels that – like the Bourbons, only worse – France has learned nothing and forgotten everything. (p.83)

The British Air Force representatives were driven mad by the reluctance of the French Air Force to take to the air and attack the invading Germans.

By the end of the 10th [May] Air Marshall Barratt’s temper was barely under control, his view of his apparently torpid ally all but unprintable. (p.278)

Counter-attacks on 13 May were repeatedly postponed or cancelled because the Corps or Division in question said it couldn’t make the starting point in time or couldn’t be ready amid a welter of hopeless excuses.

The sluggishness and lack of punch with which these first ripostes were executed characterised almost all the French counter-attacks subsequently carried out at various levels. (p.331)

The battle at Sedan on 14 May was over so quickly there are hardly any records of it.

On the French side , there would be but little time to enter up the regimental diaries; whole pages of the story that day have disappeared forever with the participants. Others are, alas, so shaming to French amour propre that, like the details of the mutinies of 1917, they will probably lie forever hidden from sight in the archives contained in the gloomy dungeons at Vincennes. (p.345)

In attempting to isolate the reasons for the breaking of the Sedan gunners, one comes face to face again with the twenty-four corrosive years separating the poilus of Verdun from the men of Sedan; here is the terrible harvest of those years of mutual mistrust, disunity, despair at the losses of 1914-18, je-m’en-foutisme and defeatism in France. (p.361)

There’s a typical vignette about the 47mm anti-tank gun sent up to Monthermé to face the advancing Panzer tanks, and which was discovered by them, abandoned by its French crew without having fired a single shot. (p.381)

A few days later, as the Panzers break out into northern France, Karl von Stackelberg, travelling with the 6th Panzer Division, is astonished to meet French troops marching towards the Germans in perfect order, having thrown away all their weapons, and politely asking who to surrender to. Eventually this amounted to 20,000 French troops – French soldiers who just gave up without a fight and handed themselves over to the enemy.

‘It was inexplicable. How was it possible, that after this first major battle on French territory, after this victory on the Meuse, this gigantic consequence should follow? How was it possible, these French soldiers with their officers, so completely downcast, so completely demoralised, would allow themselves to go more or less voluntarily into imprisonment?’ (quoted on p.416)

And the French Air Force?

Typical of the feebleness of the French air effort on the 15th [May] was the nocturnal bombing of one Heinkel base by a solitary French aircraft, which dumped its missiles in woods more than a quarter of a mile from the barracks and then headed home. (p.432)

On 16 May Churchill flew to Paris to meet the French leaders and try to put some backbone into them. Horne’s depiction of the scene is hilarious. For all his manifold failings Churchill comes across as the only man in the room, as the various French leaders, civilian and military, flop in their chairs and burst into tears.

Turning back to Gamelin, Churchill asked point-blank: ‘When and where are you going to counter-attack the flanks of the Bulge? From the north or from the south?’ Gamelin’s reply was: “Inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of method” – and then a hopeless shrug of the shoulders.’ There was no argument. Here was the admission of the bankruptcy of a whole generation of French military thought and preparations. (p.459)

Rommel’s lightning attack through North France on 16 May, continuing all through the night, took the French completely by surprise.

One of Rommel’s Panzer commanders recalled simply shouting, loudly and impudently, at the French troop columns to throw away their weapons: ‘Many willingly follow this command, others are surprised, but nowhere is there any sign of resistance.’ (p.478)

Surrendering just by being shouted at! By May 19 the Ninth Army had ceased to exist. As one of Gamelin’s liaison officers recorded;

‘Complete disintegration. Out of 70,000 men and numerous officers, no single unit is commanded, however small… at most 10 per cent of the men have kept their rifles… However… there were no wounded among the thousands of fugitives…’ [No wounded because none of them fought] (quoted on p.518)

A complete shambles. A shameful humiliation. I’ve noted the rage of Britain’s Air chief Barratt at French inability to organise air raids on the long vulnerable Panzer columns. In the final stages of the battle Horne turns his attention to the growing frustration of the British Army’s two leaders, General Edmund Ironside, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and General Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force. When Ironside visits General Billotte, the commander of the French 1st Army Group, he has to literally shake him to rouse him from his defeatist stupor. Later, Ironside wrote in his diary:

‘I begin to despair of the French fighting at all. The great army defeated by a few tanks!…. God help the B.E.F… brought to this state by the French Command.’ (quoted p.573)

It was only on 19 May, as the German Panzers approached the Atlantic coast, that they first encountered British troops for the first time, and found them a different quality from the defeatist French.

At 1300 [on 20 May] they [General Reinhardt’s Panzer Corps] ran into their first British at Mondicourt, who – in the words of the 6th Panzer War Diary – ‘in contrast to the French, cause surprise by their tough way of fighting and are only overcome by a one-hour battle.’ (p.561)

After the Germans had reached the Atlantic coast, cutting off key divisions of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force into a shrinking pocket of territory along the north coast of France, the French placed their hopes on some kind of counter-attack to cut through the ‘Panzer Corridor’.

This ‘counter-attack’ was associated with the new Army Chief Weygand, who by now – in mid-battle – had replaced the discredited Gamelin – but three days were lost in indecisiveness as Weygand insisted on  flying into the ‘pocket’ to get first-hand knowledge of the situation. During these crucial few days the head of the B.E.F., Gort, received no information or instructions whatsoever from the French and, driven to ‘despair’ by French inaction, and in the absence of any other orders, finally realised that he would have to evacuate the B.E.F. (and as many Frenchmen as he could) back to Britain.

This is the background to the famous episode of Dunkirk (Horne doesn’t go into ‘the nine-day epic of Dunkirk’, as he calls it (p.631), being outside the scope of his book). As Churchill, progressively more disillusioned by French defeatism and incapacity, put it:

The whole success of the Weygand plan was dependent on the French taking the initiative, which they showed no signs of doing. (p.604)

So it didn’t happen, and we withdrew as many men and planes as we could from France, in order to defend our island.

French despair

The tendency of the entire French military leadership to shrug their shoulders, collapse onto chairs and burst into tears, their tendency to give way to fathomless despair at almost any setback, sheds really profound light on the hold the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre had over an entire generation of French intellectuals.

‘Boo hoo’ might well sum up the attitude of both French military and cultural leaders.

As the German army, having liquidated the last pockets of resistance in the north, approached Paris, on 11 June Churchill made his fourth and final trip to France, to see the French government which had now fled to the provinces. Weygand was now ‘all defeatism’, claiming he didn’t have enough troops, he didn’t have enough resources etc. He blamed the entire idea of fighting a 1940 war with 1918 forces and equipment, he blamed the Belgians for capitulating, he blamed the British for evacuating at Dunkirk. He blamed everyone else. Churchill’s emissary, General Spears recalls:

The Frenchmen [the French government and senior military] sat with white faces, their eyes on the table. They looked for all the world like prisoners hauled up from some deep dungeon to hear an inevitable verdict. (p.650)

Reading this enormous book, soaking yourself in the political chaos, military mismanagement, je-m’en-foutisme and universal defeatism of the French character, makes you wonder whether, when Sartre describes the futility of human existence, the ‘anguish’ caused by realisation of our complete freedom, the paralysing sense of ‘abandonment’ in a world without God, and the agonising need to make decisions which you find so difficult to take – he is not describing the wretched ineffectiveness of ‘the human condition’ at all. He is solely describing the wretched, spineless French character of his day.

After the meeting [with Churchill], Reynaud was violently reproached for raising the peace issue, by Mandel and the president of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, Jeanneney and Herriot; the latter was in tears. (p.657)

What a shameful disgrace. I never appreciated what a debacle it was until I read this stunning book.


P.S. Don’t believe newspapers

At the start of each of the 12 or so chapters which deal with the actual battle Horne quotes a clutch of newspaper reports from the relevant day, from papers like the New York Herald Tribune, the Sunday Chronicle, the New York Journal, The Times, Le Temps, L’Époque, Havas, the Manchester Guardian and so on.

These reports were generally based on French government accounts, a government which initially was itself hopelessly out of touch with events on the ground, and then put a deliberately optimistic gloss on the situation.

The newspaper reports are, in other words, hopelessly wrong and misleading. As such they become an increasingly ironic chorus to the main action – as the Allied papers give increasingly glowing accounts of the battle, assuring their readers that the German advance has faltered, or the French counter-attack has succeeded or that Allied air forces dominate the skies – while in fact the Germans were breaking through, breaking out and taking territory at record speeds.

As the book progresses, the newspaper reports veer more and more wildly out of kilter with the reality on the ground, and this modest narrative device reminds you for the umpteenth time that you really shouldn’t trust anything you read in the newspapers – particularly in times of crisis or conflict.


Related links

Related reviews

The Korean War by Max Hastings (1987)

This book

This account of the Korean War (1950-53) is thirty years old this year, and so dates from before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, although there are several shorter accounts on the market, this seems to be the only lengthy, in-depth, narrative history of the Korean War in print – an indication of the general lack of interest in the war, both at the time and since (compare and contrast the number of books which come out every year about WW2 or Vietnam).

Why the neglect? The Korean War lacked the scale of the Second World War, so only a relatively small number of soldiers’ families were involved. Around 100,000 British troops were posted to Korea in total, but the British population was more concerned with its own problems – ongoing food rationing, a general election – or the Soviet threat on the continent of Europe. Who cared whether Korea was partitioned along this line or that line?

a) The war was on the other side of the world and
b) After the dramatic reverses of the first year of the conflict, the latter two years dwindled down to a grinding stalemate, demoralising and inglorious. In the end there was no Allied victory (as in WW2), merely a ceasefire which created a border not very much different from the pre-war line. So it turned out to have been a boring, faraway war which achieved nothing.

Background to the partition of Korea

A newcomer to the subject might ask, Why was Korea partitioned between north and south at the 38th parallel in the first place?

To go back a bit, Japan had interfered in Korea’s affairs since the late 19th century. In 1905 Japan made Korea a protectorate; in 1907 the Japanese took control of Korean domestic affairs and disbanded their army; and in 1910 Japan formally annexed Korea.

In the following decades Japan forced some 100,000 Koreans to join the Imperial Japanese Army, and up to 200,000 Korean women were forced into sexual slavery to service Japanese soldiers in Korea and Japanese-occupied China.

Then in 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, the huge block of territory between northern China and Russia, and in 1937 attacked the rest of the coastal regions of China (as well as into Indochina, Malaya, Burma and so on). Korea was the earliest conquest of Japan’s Far Eastern empire.

Korea became an armed camp, in which mass executions  and wholesale imprisonment were commonplace, and all dissent forbidden. (p.16)

When the Second World War broke out in Europe, Stalin was careful to remain at peace with Japan. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Japanese did not declare war on Russia or attack in Siberia, which they could easily have done from their base in Manchuria. Stalin, for his part, maintained Russian neutrality even after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941 thus provoking war with America, and Japan and Russia remained at peace right up to the closing days of the war.

In February 1945, at the Yalta conference, Stalin promised Roosevelt and Churchill that he would enter the war against Japan but he delayed till the last minute. (This, among other things, meant that the Japanese government held out the vain hope right into August 1945 that ‘neutral’ Russia would somehow stand up for them and negotiate good surrender terms with the Allies – a delusion.) So Stalin’s Soviet Union only abandoned its policy of neutrality and declared war on Japan on 9 August 1945. A huge Soviet army crossed the border from Siberia into Japanese-occupied Manchuria and swept south.

A glance at the map shows that the southern border of Manchuria is mostly sea, the Sea of Japan to the east and the Yellow Sea to the west of the Korean peninsula, which dangles down from the Chinese mainland like an Asian Scandinavia. So, with the goal of attacking the Japanese wherever they found them, it was natural that the invading Soviet army crossed the Chinese-Korea border (formed by the Yalu river) and headed south into the peninsula, defeating Japanese forces as they went.

‘Suddenly’ the Americans who, according to Hastings hadn’t really considered the strategic significance of Korea, realised they didn’t want Stalin to occupy the entire peninsula create a communist stronghold so close to soon-to-be-defeated Japan. So the Americans requested Stalin to halt his forces and informed him that American forces would invade Korea from the south.

Two American officers were put in charge of figuring out where the dividing line should be between the uneasy allies. Poring over a map, they reached the ‘hasty’ decision that the 38th parallel was a handy dividing line: it more or less divided the country in two, with the capital Seoul, the best agriculture and industry, and most of the population, to the south i.e. in the American sector.

President Roosevelt duly contacted Stalin with the request that he stop his forces at the 38th parallel and, to the Americans’ surprise, Stalin readily agreed. Stalin didn’t want to risk confrontation with the ally he was working so closely with in Europe, and was also very aware of the atom bombs the Americans had just dropped on Japan. Yeah, sure, you can keep half of Korea.

(There is a nice irony here, that the Americans from Roosevelt down were vehement opponents of the European empires, and actively tried to sabotage the return to European imperial rule of Burma, Malaya or Indochina. But quite quickly they found themselves dragged into drawing precisely the kind of arbitrary lines and borders which they had criticised the Europeans for making in Africa and the Middle East. The existence of separate states of North and South Korea and the fates, the life chances and premature deaths of tens of millions of Koreans, were determined by this hurried decision made in the last gasp of the Second World War.)

North and South Korea

So Stalin stopped his troops at the 38th parallel, when he could easily have pressed on and seized the entire peninsula. American forces landed at Incheon on September 8 and liberated southern Korea from their Japanese occupiers. In time both countries put their own regimes in place in their sector, the Soviets basing their government in the northern city of Pyongyang, the Americans in the traditional capital, Seoul, permanently crystallising the distinction between communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea.

While the Russians proceeded with their standard process of step-by-step managing the local communists into government and then picking off the opposition one by one to create a mini Stalinist state, Hastings describes the Americans as making a number of important mistakes in the South.

For a start, the Americans found the native Koreans completely unused to governing their own country. Thus, against their intentions, in the early days they ended up being forced to work closely with the now-defeated Japanese authorities, for the simple reason that the Japs had the experienced men in place to carry on carrying out the function of the state. Only slowly were these replaced by native Koreans, and then the Americans had the devil of a time selecting which of the many groups of clamouring Korean politicians to choose to run things.

As the threat from Soviet communism became more palpable into 1946, the Americans found themselves setting up a government run by the smooth-talking, right-wing émigré Syngman Rhee. Hastings recounts how left-of-centre Korean groups were too quickly marginalised because of the taint of communism and how the Americans, despite their best intentions, found themselves installing Rhee, and then coming to regret the choice of such a corrupt, brutal figure. Rhee ended up being president of South Korea from 1948 to 1960 and was an early example of the kind of brutal, repressive and corrupt right-wing regime which the Americans would find themselves supporting again and again throughout the Cold War.

This had the result of fuelling left-wing and communist agitation against his government, which led to a spiral of repression, and left many Americans feeling ambivalent and uneasy in their support for Rhee. This was epitomised by a reluctance to arm his air force, artillery and infantry with more than a token minimum of equipment, since there was good evidence that arms were mainly used against his own civilian population.

Meanwhile, throughout the late 1940s North Korea kept up a steady stream of propaganda broadcasts to the south, designed to appeal to all Korean patriots, calling for the reunification of the country, as well as predictable calls for the overthrow of Rhee and his unlikeable clique. In the spring of 1950 this rhetoric became steadily more heated and experts in the U.S. State Department warned of the growing threat of some kind of attack by the North on the South. The American government, under President Harry Truman, had its hands full coping with crises in the more obvious cockpit of the Cold War, Europe, beset by a sequence of crises including the Berlin Airlift from June 1948 to May 1949, the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and so on.

The Korean War

1. The North invades Thus it came as a complete surprise to the world when Kim Il-Sung’s North Korean army invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. The United Nations immediately voted it an illegal act and sent forces to stop the advance. These were at first mostly American, but in time came to consist of a coalition including other Western countries and eventually 20 nations from round the world. But before this could be organised, the North Koreans succeeded in storming through the south, pushing the under-equipped demoralised Republic of Korea’s army back until it and its American support were, by September 1950, pinned into a pocket in the south-east of the peninsula, the Pusan area.

2. Landing at Inchon Not only did the Americans reinforce their troops who fought bravely to hold the line at Pusan but General MacArthur, the hero of the Pacific War, who had been ruling post-war Japan as American Vice-Consul, now conceived his last great strategic coup, which was to organise a massive American amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September 1950, on the coast near Seoul, thus attacking the North Koreans in their rear, and threatening their supply lines.

The Americans broke out of the Pusan pocket and drove north, pushing back the demoralised and exhausted North Koreans, back across the 38th parallel and further north. At this point Hastings’ account dwells on the massive disagreements within the American administration on whether or not the Allies should halt at the parallel or press on to take the entire peninsula. This latter view prevailed and the American, ROK and other UN national forces (British and Commonwealth as well as a large contingent from Turkey) pressed north.

3. China enters the war Allied forces had come within sight of the Yalu river which forms the border between Korea and China when they were horrified to learn that a vast contingent of the People’s Republic of China had crossed the border and was attacking along the line. Briefly, sheer weight of numbers overran Allied positions, creating confusion and panic, and it is chastening to read accounts of Allied troops dropping their guns and equipment and running in panic fear. The Chinese routed the Allies, pushing them relentlessly southwards back towards the 38th parallel.

Hastings excels, in this book as in his later one about the War in the Pacific, at combining at least three levels of analysis:

  • Carefully chosen eye witness accounts (from letters, diaries and reports made at the time along with highlights of the scores of interviews with veterans which he conducts for each book).
  • Detailed descriptions, with maps, of specific battles and the broader military situation.
  • But what I enjoyed most is Hasting’s ability to pull out of this narrow focus to explain in detail the strategic and geopolitical issues behind the war. Thus there is a lot of analysis throughout the book of the conflicting aims and strategies of the Allies, and particularly within the US administration and armed forces. It is riveting to read how war aims a) can be so contradictory and fiercely debated within a set of allies b) change over time according to all sorts of pressures, like domestic opposition, political attacks from opponents, looming elections, threats elsewhere.

4. Shall we bomb China? The largest issue raised by the Chinese victories and our troops’ humiliating defeats was whether to broaden the war to attack China itself i.e. why only fight the Chinese forces inside Korea, why not bomb mainland China, as we did Germany and Japan? 1. The scattered terrain of hilly Korea, lacking main roads and railways, and the methodology of the communists, moving across country, made it difficult to attack enemy formations in Korea. 2. All their supplies were coming from factories in China, and Chinese MiG jets were flying from airfields in China – why not attack those?

The highpoint of this point of view, strongly espoused by senior figures in the US army and air force, was MacArthur’s request that the Allies use the atom bomb against Chinese forces not only in Korea, but against Chinese cities. The army drew up a list of twenty possible targets. Imagine!

Within Truman’s own cabinet there were – as always – hawks and doves, with some supporting broadening the war, others strongly against. In the event, Truman took the cautious line, and posterity has to agree. If both sides, by tacit consent, limited their confrontation to within the peninsula, it was containable and manageable. In February 1950 Russia and China had signed a defensive alliance committing each to go to war if the other party was attacked, so if the UN forces had bombed Chinese cities, would Russia have been forced to come to China’s defense? Would it have triggered World War III? Was it worth taking the risk?

Hastings brings out how US hawks saw the conflict in terms of the global Cold War against communism. The gruesome way Soviet-backed regimes were established across Europe and the victory of Mao Zedong’s communists in China in 1949, gave a very real sense that communism was advancing on all fronts. The North Korean attack fitted right in with that view of the democratic West being under sustained attack, and revelations of the extent of Soviet spies inside the atom bomb programme and throughout the US establishment, go a long way to explaining the mounting hysteria epitomised by the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Unamerican Activities Committee. Truman had to stand up against a great deal of pressure, within the military establishment, from the McCarthyites, from some sections of the media and public opinion, in refusing to widen the war. 60 years later we pay him credit.

Only very slowly, did some parts of the US administration come to realise that China’s motives stemmed at least from simple nationalism as from world communist conspiracies. A captured Chinese soldier is quoted as saying, ‘How would you like your enemies armies, complete with atom bombs, parked just across your 450-mile-long border?’ If the Americans hadn’t pushed on north beyond the parallel, maybe the Chinese wouldn’t have been prompted to invade. Maybe a lot of lives could have been saved.

5. Stalemate Of course, the decision not to widen the war i.e. attack the Chinese mainland – condemned a lot of American, British Commonwealth and UN troops to ongoing slog, battle, injury and death. In December 1950 Lieutenant-General Matthew B. Ridgway took over command of the US Eighth Army and began to turn it around. Retrained, re-equipped and remotivated, his forces held the Chinese and then began to press northwards, retaking Seoul in March 1951, and pressing forward to the parallel.

Throughout this period General MacArthur, in overall command of US forces in the Far East, had given interviews and communicated to representatives of other governments his wish to expand the war, often in direct conflict to the stated aims of the US administration. Eventually, President Truman felt compelled to relieve him of his command on 10 April 1951. This caused a storm of protest within the military, in Congress and among the general public, for whom MacArthur was a great American hero. Truman’s popularity fell to the lowest ever recorded for a US President. And without it being the immediate intention, MacArthur’s sacking sent out a strong message to America’s allies, to China and Russia, that the United States did not intend to attack China, did not even intend to seize the whole Korean peninsula, but would settle for the much more limited aim of returning to the status quo ante.

As spring 1951 turned to summer, the front line advanced and receded around the parallel, slowly settling into a stalemate. A year after the initial invasion, the armies were back more or less where they had started. The North Koreans reluctantly agreed to open ceasefire talks and protracted armistice negotiations began on 10 July 1951 at Kaesong, before moving to the neighbouring village of Panmunjom. Due to the intransigence of the North and the Chinese, these talks dragged on for two long years, while on the ground there was a steady stream of offensives and counter-offensives, none of which really changed the strategic picture, but in which a lot of soldiers died pointlessly on both sides.

The narrative pauses at this point for a series of chapters looking at specific aspects of the war:

  • The war in the air, where the West learned for the first time the limits of air power – something which was to be repeated in Vietnam – and for the first time jet fighter fought jet fighter, Soviet MiGs against US Sabres.
  • The creation more or less from scratch of a U.S. intelligence operation, which featured a number of gung-ho operations behind the lines but precious little usable intelligence. I was tickled to read that the CIA’s Seoul station had 200 officers, but not a single speaker of Korean, an attitude of uninterest in local cultures and languages which the Americans repeated later in Vietnam and the Middle East.
  • The issue of communist prisoners of war, whose numbers had risen to some 130,000 by the end of the war and whose repatriation back to the North became one of the big stumbling blocks of the peace negotiations.

The mounting frustration at having to fight and die in bloody, futile engagements while the diplomats at Panmunjom, just a few miles away, drew the peace negotiations out with unbearable delays, is well depicted in this 1959 movie, Pork Chop Hill. It illustrates the brutality and heavy losses incurred for insignificant hilltops, the effectiveness of Chinese propaganda broadcast to Allied troops by loudspeaker across the front line, and the widespread demoralisation of the American soldiers with many, perhaps most, of them expressing intense doubt about what they were fighting for and whether it was worth it.

Hard not to see foreshadowings of the irresolution and crushing sense of futility which were to bedevil the Vietnam War.

6. Ceasefire Josef Stalin died in March 1953 and Soviet policy went into a shadowy period of uncertainty. Meanwhile, Republican President Eisenhower replaced Democrat President Truman. Part of his campaign had included the pledge to bring the war to an end. These final stages include the unnerving plans made by the new administration to: massively boost South Korean armed forces; bomb China north of the Yalu; deploy the new artillery-fired nuclear weapons the US had developed; and to transport Chinese Nationalist fighters from Formosa to the Chinese mainland to carry out guerrilla operations (p.473). These aims were communicated to the Soviets and Chinese and at last broke the logjam. In April the communist delegates at Panmunjom began to respond to suggestions.

Ironically, the final stumbling block turned out to be the obstinate dictator of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, who was refused by America’s decision to ‘abandon’ his nation and refused to agree to a ceasefire or sign the agreement. The Americans, not for the last time, found themselves struggling to contain a right-wing leader of their own creation, but by immense pressure managed to prevent Rhee actively sabotaging the negotiations. It is rather staggering to learn that they developed a plan for kidnapping Rhee and overthrowing his government if he refused to play ball (plan EVER-READY p.479).

On 27 July 1953 a ceasefire was finally declared and a demilitarised zone (DMZ) created either side of the ceasefire line. Legally, the war has never ended and this, along with the belligerent rhetoric which has continued to pour out of Pyongyang, along with the occasional terrorist atrocity and a trickle of shooting incidents across the DMZ, explains why South Koreans have lived in a state of tension and high alert for the past 64 years.

And now that Kim Il-sung’s son and successor as Great Leader, Kim Jong-il, has developed nuclear weapons and is testing long-range missiles to deliver them, who knows what further trouble this barren peninsula might cause.

Stats

  • 1,319,000 Americans served in Korea, of whom 33,629 were killed and 105,785 wounded
  • The South Korean army lost 415,000 killed and 429,000 wounded
  • The Commonwealth lost 1,263 killed and 4,817 wounded
  • The Americans estimate that 1.5 million Chinese and North Koreans died, but this is an educated guess
  • Wikipedia reports that some 2.5 million Koreans, north and south, were killed or wounded

This huge loss of civilian and military lives is captured in Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War from 2004, a phenomenally violent Korean film directed by Kang Je-gyu, and saturated with blood-spattering special effects.

The lessons of history

The Korean War is interesting for a number of reasons:

  1. as a dramatic and very hard-fought war in and of itself
  2. as the first armed confrontation between two superpowers in the Cold War
  3. as a template for the Vietnam War

It’s the latter which is, at this distance of time, maybe the most resonant. Their convincing win against Japan gave the Americans the sense that overwhelming might on land and sea and in the air guaranteed victory. Korea disabused them of this confidence. In Korea the Americans stumbled upon issues which were to plague them 15 years later in Vietnam:

  • the difficulty of supporting an unpopular native regime
  • the problems of creating a native army to support an unpopular regime, in a corrupt and inefficient society
  • the cost of underestimating an Asian army
  • the difficulty of using air power, no matter how overwhelming, against a peasant army with no identifiable infrastructure – this wasn’t like bombing German or Japanese factories
  • the difficulty of deploying a highly mechanised army in broken country against a lightly armed, highly mobile enemy (p.xvi)

This is an excellent, thorough, well-written and gratifyingly intelligent account of an important war which, paradoxically, makes it clear why it has been so often overlooked by historians in the Allied countries which fought in it, namely America and Britain. It powerfully explains why fighting a pointless war in a faraway country for an ugly regime was so unpopular at the time and has been neglected ever since.

P.S. Japan

Big strategic history like this is full of ironies. I was delighted to learn that the Korean War helped to set Japan on its feet again and kick-started its astonishing post-war economic recovery, helped along by the vast amounts of money poured into the country which served as ‘aircraft carrier, repair base, store depot, commissariat, hospital, headquarters and recreation centre’ for the UN forces in the Far East (p.444). Every cloud has a silver lining.


Credit

The Korean War by Max Hastings was published in 1987 by Michael Joseph. All quotes and references are to the 2010 Pan Macmillan paperback.

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