Trivial incidents of wars are often more important than the unfolding chain of events. For example:
“This raid on the night of May 11 1940, although in itself trivial, was an epoch-marking event since it was the first deliberate breach of the fundamental rule of civilised warfare that hostilities must only be waged against the enemy combatant forces.”
Even the better informed of us need reminding that the first conflict between France and Germany was not the Reich invasion of May 10, 1940 but France’s invasion of Germany eight-months earlier. This occurred on September 7, 1939. On this date the French launched 40 Divisions, with 4,700 artillery pieces and 2,400 tanks at Germany’s Western borders.
September 1939: French R-35 tanks (5th BCC) in the Warndt forest, during the offensive in the Sarre.
For the French invaders the invasion should have been a walk in the park. The German defence forces could muster only 22 Divisions and a mere 100 military pieces.
One of the reasons given for the French invasion was to draw the Germans away from the on-going Polish campaign. However, the French were so hapless that the German defence found it quite unnecessary to distract their comrades in Poland who were otherwise engaged.
9th September 1939: French soldiers of the 42th infantry division in the German village of Lauterbach
This is where it really gets embarrassing: The French did penetrate German territory and sure enough French troops occupied German towns and villages. The resourceful Germans in the meantime pulled back to the Siegfried Line and left behind only unoccupied booby-trapped properties. It never occurred to the French to bring mine detectors.
Map showing the positions of the German territory hold by the French troops during the Saar Offensive
After penetrating German territories the French formations came into artillery distance of the Siegfried Line. For the French things went from bad to worse. The German defensive wall built to deter French and British aggression was impregnable. Despite their superior firepower the French guns failed to penetrate the German defences.
Maurice Gamelin, French Commander in Chief in 1939
The French 155mm shells weren’t heavy enough to penetrate the concrete bunkers. Surely things would improve when the French then trundled up their 220mm and 280mm shells. Not really for these shells lacked the essential delayed fuses. Rather than penetrating the outside casements first before detonating the shells exploded on impact.
The British arrived to offer a helping hand on September 12 but by that time it was realised that Poland was a lost cause. One week later the Soviets invaded Poland and the French invasion of the Workers Reich spluttered out in ignominious retreat.
Mike Walsh is author of Witness to History
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