Maurice Gamelin is not a name familiar to many outside of France. A war hero and a staunch Republican, he was a general in the French army and the leader of Frances armed forces at the start of WWII, considered by many to be the largest and best army in the world at the time.
He was known as a man of significant intellectual ability. People respected him for his subtle mind and intelligence. Even though many of the German generals considered him to be predictable and stiff, many others in Germany respected him.
But, of course, what happened in the opening months of WWII is known to everyone. The German army, adopting an unorthodox and rapid approach through the Ardennes, a region considered too broken and forested to allow tanks to pass, rounded the flank of the French defenses and Paris was lost in under a year.
Who was this man, who so disastrously misread the situation? And how did he lose his country to the Nazis so totally, and so quickly?
Maurice Gamelin was born on the 20th of September, 1872, in Paris. His father Zephyrin was a soldier who fought under Napoleon III in the Battle of Solferino in the year 1859. Right from a very young age, Gamelin showed his fitness to also become a soldier.
On the 19th of October 1891, the 19 year old Maurice Gamelin volunteered for service, joining the military academy at Saint-Cyr on the 31st of October. He was consistently at the top of his class and graduated in the year 1893.
His first post was with the French tirailleurs, light infantry skirmishers. Later, he joined the topographic brigade. After returning to Paris in 1897, he entered the École Supérieure de Guerre and completed it, graduating second in his class. He now possessed both military experience and officer training.
In the year 1906, Gamelin published Philosophical Study on the Art of War. It received a lot of praise from the critics, and some predicted that Maurice Gamlin would become a significant military thinker in the future.
Then he became an attaché to General Joseph Joffre. He obtained the position with the assistance of Ferdinand Foch, who would go on to become a French hero of the Second World War. All these positions strengthened the knowledge of Gamelin relating to tactical and strategic warfare.
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In March 1914, Gamelin joined Joffre’s general staff, just in time for the First World War. Gamelin played an important role in creating the outline of the plans that resulted in the early Allied victory at the Battle of the Marne.
He was promoted and obtained the position of lieutenant colonel. In April 1916, he was again promoted, becoming a full colonel. War favors effective leaders and he would go on to be promoted again to the rank of brigadier general.
Starting from April 1917, he was responsible for commanding the French 11th Infantry Division until the end of the war 18 months later. Posted to the Noyon region, his tactical skill on the battlefield was noted at the highest level.
After the war, this tactical acumen and understanding of modern warfare also came in useful. From 1919 to 1924, Maurice Gamelin headed the French military mission in Brazil. From the year 1919 to 1931, Gamelin served as the commander of the 30th Military Region in Nancy. He was also responsible for preparing the military of France against the bellicose threat of their German neighbors, which became acute with the appointment of Hitler as German Chancellor in 1933.
World War II
When war was declared in 1939, Maurice Gamelin was the commander in chief of France and his preparations did not seem to be wanting. According to one of the German staff officers, General Siegfried Westphal, if France had launched an attack on German in September 1939, there was no chance that the German force would have held out for more than a couple of weeks.
However, Gamlin had made a fatal mistake. Seeking to defend France rather than lance the boil of the Nazis, he ordered his troops to maintain positions behind the Maginot Line, a defensive line of fortifications in eastern France which he saw as an impenetrable wall against Germany.
Before the war, Gamelin had anticipated that the Polish army would hold out for about six months against Germany. The long-term strategy of Gamelin was to completely wait until France was fully rearmed and at combat readiness.
He also wanted to wait for the British armies to start building up their forces. In all this plan called for the French to delay any aggression moves until 1941. He also prohibited any kind of bombing on the German industrial areas of the Ruhr, presumably to limit damage to these areas and eventually increase the value to France when he captured them intact.
The vision of Maurice Gamelin for the defense of France was completely dependent on the static Maginot positions around the Franco-German border. The personal views of Gamelin had changed completely from an active defense to a fatal overdependence on the Maginot Line.
The French strategists had already questioned whether this was a sound tactic, predicting a German drive across northern Belgium which would bypass the Maginot Line and flank the entire French army. Despite a number of reports relating to the buildup of the German forces in the area, Gamelin did nothing.
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Even when he was told about the date of the planned attack that was to be made by Germany, he did nothing. Until May 1940, he chose instead to await events, but there was some evidence that his thinking was changing.
When the Germans finally attacked, Gamelin gave orders to move 40 of his best divisions to intercept them. This strategy, named the “Dyle Plan” was designed to meet the Germans in force in Belgium, and co-ordinate with the Belgium and British in a defense against the Nazis before they ever reached French soil.
This meant that his forces, who had been bedding into defensive positions for over a year, now abandoned these and marched towards the German advance. In choosing a static defense and then changing his mind, he left his forces unprepared for the Germans who advanced quickly towards them.
With German air superiority and mobility on the ground the French were flanked and thrown into disorder, unable to meet the Germans and unable to retreat in time. French tanks, ordered to move this way and that, started to break down. Gamelin then further misread the situation in ordering troops back to defend Paris, leaving the German forces able to reach the coast and resupply.
Finally, his forces wasted by his indecisiveness and with only a fraction of the French army remaining, Gamelin was removed from command on the 18th of May 1940. He had thrown away the largest army and the strongest defensive positions in Europe and achieved nothing. By this point it was too late to save Paris, and the reputation of the French armed forces has never fully recovered.
The main mistake that Maurice Gamelin committed was failing to respond to the aggression of Germany. In his preparation he relied too much on the Maginot Line and was taken completely by surprise when the German invaders were able to bypass the line and launch an attack through the Ardennes forest.
It is possible that Gamelin, an expert in WWI tactics, had failed to recognize the changes to modern warfare and the fact that this time things would be very different. His mindset had not developed and his belief in static defenses was exposed as hopelessly out of date.
Maurice Gamelin was succeeded by Maxime Weygand, the man he had replaced and who was barely better. In any case by this point it was all but too late to halt the Nazi advance. During the German occupation of France, Maurice Gamelin was arrested along with a number of other military and political figures.
However, during the trial, Gamelin refused to answer any of the charges that were made against him. He maintained silence, and eventually, the proceeding collapsed. He was later freed, and survived the war. In April 1958, Maurice Gamelin died at the age of 85 in Paris, the city which had survived in spite of him, rather than because of him.
Top Image: Maurice Gamelin in 1936. Source: Agence de presse Meurisse / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri