Saturday, 2 January 2016

Strange Defeat - Marc Bloch

Title: Strange Defeat
Author: Marc Bloch
ISBN: 978-8-087-83083-3
Publisher: Important Books
Year: 2013
Pages: 133
Photographs/maps: 0

Between July and August 1940, Captain Marc Bloch, a fuel services officer in the French Army, drafted his testament of the cause of the French defeat at the hands of the German Wehrmacht. Bloch had seen active service in the trenches during the First World War and was a historian/professor during the interwar years. His service in the Second World War was undertaken at both operational and Army level HQ's where he was privy to the workings of the highest level of French Army command. With ample military experience and the eye of a professional historian, he was able to to discern much in the confusion that he witnessed around him.

His book is a poignant and insightful analysis of why the French Army and, by extension, the French Government and people were so thoroughly and soundly beaten when all of the potential existed for French victory. He addresses multiple aspects of the French armed forces and French society for, as he points out, there was no one issue but a combination thereof, that brought the house of cards down. He readily acknowledges that he did not have ready access to the 'behind the scenes' machinations of decision making but he did have a keen eye and a myriad of experience that gives his analysis validity and credibility.

He is both relentless and balanced in his exposure of the flaws that plagued the French leadership and HQ; he spares no level of command, but it is evident that his purpose is not to discredit on a personal level but to reveal on a professional level. His observations cross the spectrum of what today would be called the 'J-Staff'; some of his more telling observations follow:

1. Communication: A lack of common operating picture within the HQ's and a failure to pass information to the levels where it was needed in a timely manner. Also a tendency to hoard information;
2. Administration vs Operations: Administration trumped operational decision making. An emphasis on process as opposed to results. 
3. Hubris: An assumption of superiority and a failure to emphasize continuous learning. A failure to appreciate the changes that technology had brought to the battlefield and a reliance upon the "way it has always been done'.
4. Education: A failure to adapt and to take advantage of the opportunities to adjust and develop doctrine before the conflict started (the Germans used blitzkrieg techniques in Poland but the French ignored the lessons to be learned despite an 8 month gap between Poland and France).
5. Command: An inability of the commanders to adjust to the dynamic environment of modern operations as a result of experience, training and paradigm shortfalls. Bloch quotes a corps commander to Gen Blanchard (commander of the 1st Army): "Do what you want Mon General but do something!"; stated in Bloch's presence.
6. National Expectations/institutions: A rise amongst the population of a level of expectation for self (as opposed to national) service exacerbated by both government and media playing off political and economic fault lines resulting in stagnation and a psychological 'softening' of the population. A diminishment of critical thinking within scientific and centres of higher education.

These represent a few of the myriad of observations raised by Bloch. Unlike historians writing on the collapse of France in the past tense, Bloch's work is based on experience and having lived the drama. His comments are based upon his personal experiences and views. Bloch's work is a challenge to France to take a hard, unvarnished look at its performance in the war. Unfortunately, many of his views are prevalent in the military's and societies of today including a tendency to emphasize a success without recognizing where significant weaknesses existed. His narrative lacks perhaps some of the 'finishing' of a modern author's work but his points are clear and devastating; our modern institutions and commands ignore his lessons at their peril.

No comments:

Post a Comment