Why the “Battle of France” was Arguably the Most Influential Battle of the 20th Century

Today the fall of France in 1940 is usually seen as an inevitability. However, at the time it was shocking to most people and none more so for the French and Germans themselves. Most experts of the day believed the French Army was the best in Europe, Churchill, Stalin and other leaders had confidence in it and even many of Hitler’s top generals thought invading France would be disastrous. At the time Britain and France were the foremost countries in the world; having the largest empires, most resources, and primary influence in world affairs. The “Battle of France” destroyed this geopolitical reality and set into motion many events that revolutionized world affairs.

The outcome of the “Battle of France” is what ultimately turned a localized war between Britain and France versus Germany into a global struggle which sucked in every major power and most countries of the world. Consider what happened after France fell in 1940. The era of relatively French and British domination of global affairs quickly collapsed as some major powers took advantage of the former two nations’ decline while the remaining ones became entangled in the subsequent struggles which followed France’s collapse.

Germany went from being a relatively constricted, and resource starved, nation into the most powerful country in Europe and a near super power within a few years. In fact after the 1941 Russian campaign Germany had more industry, population, and in general resources, than both Russia and Britain. Only American industrial might and the combined bomber offensive allowed the allies to outproduce and overwhelm the German war machine.

With France out of the way and Britain reduced to a mere nuisance Germany turned on the Soviet Union a year later and nearly destroyed it. However, the Soviet Union survived due to its tenacity, allied lend lease, and some luck, and by the end of the war she had gone from a pariah nation to one of the world’s two superpowers. Before the war the Soviet Union had little influence beyond her borders, after it she would compete for global influence against America in the “Cold War.”

Italy took advantage of France’s fall to enter the war and hoped to become the dominant power in the Mediterranean. Certainly the Italian armed forces generally did not make a good account of themselves but opening new fronts in the Mediterranean stretched British resources thin and the British themselves suffered many defeats when the Germans intervened to help their Italian allies. It also severely limited what forces the British could deploy to their colonies in the Far East. Ultimately though it would led to Italy’s defeat, Mussolini’s death, and the fall of Italian Fascism.

Japan also took advantage of the collapse of France to expand in Asia and the Pacific. With French power prostrate, Britain too busy fighting for its life in Europe and the Mediterranean, and America still clinging to neutrality, the Japanese at first stationed forces in French Indochina and later annexed it outright. Such Japanese actions, as well as its excessively brutal war in China, finally made America confront the Japanese by placing an oil embargo on Japan which effectively pushed the two to war. Initially Japan made major gains and conquests and thoroughly humiliated the European empires which helped lead to their downfalls after the war. In the end American industrial might, naval and air power and finally nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki reduced Japan’s Imperial dreams to ash and rubble.

The “Battle of France” inevitably influenced America as well. Despite wanting to stay neutral America found herself more and more involved keeping Britain afloat with lend lease and aid and this increased tensions between her and Germany. Meanwhile the case regarding the Japanese occupation of French Indochina and the path to Pearl Harbor has already been stated. After Pearl Harbor Hitler took advantage of the Japanese attack by declaring war on the United States, hoping that his U-Boats would be able to decisively sever Britain’s maritime communications across the Atlantic. However, America’s intervention in the war would prove decisive in giving the allies the indisputable advantage. In a matter of 3 years America would not only become the foremost military power in the world (having the largest airforce and navy, as well as nuclear weapons) but also replace Britain and France as the most influential force in global affairs. She was also the strongest financial and industrial power having produced an astonishing 50% of all weapons during war, including 66% of all allied arms.

Due to France’s collapse, as well as the affects it subsequently had on these major powers and the world, there were also major shifts in the war’s aftermath. Certainly de-colonization and the spread of communism was accelerated thanks to the fall of France, the decline of British and French power, and the power vacuums that were left across the world after “World War 2.” It is hard to see the French and British Empires, as well as Belgium and Hollands’, falling so quickly in the subsequent decades had France beat Germany in 1940. As it was her collapse and the ensuing debilitating war left the European empires bankrupt, weak and her populaces generally reluctant to shed blood to maintain their overseas territories.

As for the spread of communism France’s fall meant that Germany was free to attack the Soviet Union. While the Soviet Union lost countless people dead and suffered terribly it still emerged as one of the two superpowers after the war in place of Britain and France. Before the war she had been a pariah and her influence remained mostly within her borders. However, her victory over Nazi Germany, as well as her late intervention against Japan in the summer of 1945, gave her considerable influence and expanded communist influence across the world. The Soviet advance into Eastern Europe resulted in the establishment of communist states there. Other advances into Manchuria and Northern Korea helped Mao win the Chinese Civil War in the first case and established a communist regime in North Korea in the second. The communist victory in China also allowed Mao to send significant help to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and this allowed him to beat the French at Dien Bien Phu and this eventually escalated into the “Vietnam War.” Communist insurgencies also sprung up in former colonial possessions or countries like Malaya, the Philippines, Cuba, Angola, Greece, Laos, Cambodia, Bolivia, etc. Even notable powers like France and Italy nearly succumbed to communist subjugation.

It is difficult to see these events and trends occurring, or at least as quickly as they did, had France not fell in 1940. Britain and France would have remained the world’s foremost powers for the time being. Germany would never have overran most of Europe and would probably have lost a war of attrition against France and Britain. The Soviet Union would still have remained a pariah state for some time and have little influence beyond her borders. Italy would not have dared to attack Britain and France if the latter had beaten or contained Germany and Mussolini’s laughable regime would have lasted arguably as long as Franco’s Fascist regime did in Spain. Japan would not have attacked a still strong Britain, France and other western empires in Asia and would have instead remained concentrated on the costly and protracted war in China. With Germany contained or beaten, and Japan unwilling to move against the western powers, America would not have been dragged into the war and would probably have continued her policy of isolationism. Decolonization would have been delayed, or in some areas stopped, and the spread of communism would have been limited.

The “Battle of France” was the catalyst that led to all of this. There are few battles in history that have produced such revolutionary and global changes in a relatively small amount of time, especially if we consider the blood-soaked 20th Century.

Of course it would be unfair to suggest the “Battle of France” was the most influential battle of the century if others were not considered. However, it is hard to find another battle that re-wrote the global balance of power so quickly, and decisively, and allowed other major powers to change the world so throughly within a matter of years. Certainly there were important battles in major conflicts like “World War 1,” “World War 2,” “The Arab Israeli Wars,” Vietnam, and Korea, etc, that arguably won or lost these conflicts and had significant impact on the world.

The “First Battle of the Marne,” “The Hundred Days Offensive,” and the “First Battle of the Atlantic” all have potential to be considered as the most decisive battle of “World War 1.” The “Battle of Britain,” “Moscow,” Stalingrad,” “Kursk,” “Midway” and the “Battle of the Atlantic” also contend for such a place in “World War 2.” There are too many battles to consider regarding the Arab-Israeli wars yet Israel’s fights against Egypt and Syria arguably shaped the Middle East from the 1940s to the 1980s. However, even if any of these could be identified unequivocally as the most important battle of their respective wars none of them surely upset world geopolitics as much as the “Battle of France.”

Then there is the point whether or not France was doomed to fall because if this was the case then all of the above events and trends would seem inevitable. On one hand it is easy to contrast the skill, efficiency and boldness of the Germans during the “Battle of France” versus the ineptitude, lethargy and indecision of the allies. Certainly the Germans had advantages in communications, coordination, doctrine, and leadership. However, according to a balance sheet the allies had most of the strategic and material advantages. Regarding manpower, economics, resources, industry, geography, artillery, tanks, and sea power Britain and France were stronger. Only with air power did the Germans have a clear advantage but this arguably could have been bridged had the British sent more planes to France or the French committed more of their own from North Africa and Southern France. In every computer simulation of the battle the allies win.

If the French had made a few different deployments, had the Germans stuck to their original invasion plan, and with a bit better luck the French arguably could have won, or at least held out significantly longer. If the French had held back a strong armour reserve it could have cut off, or potentially stopped, the German armoured thrust to the English Channel. This armoured thrust was vulnerable to such a counterattack and it worried the German high command constantly throughout the first part of the battle. The French could have also covered the Ardennes sector with stronger forces and potentially delayed the German armour forces advancing through the area long enough for the French to move enough reinforcements to prevent a breakthrough. Meanwhile if the Germans had used their original plan to invade France they would have ran up against the strongest allied forces advancing into central Belgium instead of catching them at their weakest point opposite the Ardennes. In fact German forces that met the allied forces in central Belgium often took heavy casualties, especially in tank battles with the stronger French armoured forces. Had the Germans adopted their earlier plan they would have played to the allies strengths and gotten worn down in a battle of attrition against a numerically superior enemy. There was also the accidental death of General Billotte which came at a moment where the battle was in the balance, German bluffs during the Meuse crossings, and an unlucky moment when Rommel’s tanks caught many French tanks refuelling.

None of this is to suggest that the Germans were not favoured to win the battle, but it does suggest that the French were not doomed to lose it. Yet had the French won the “Battle of France,” or at least survived it, there is little doubt the world would look drastically different than it does today. No other battle influenced the 20th Century as much as it did.

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