Military History French Military, 1919–1940
Jeffery A. Gunsburg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0113


The subject of this bibliography is the development of the French army (and its subsidiary air forces, which eventually became the French air force) from 1919 to 1940, not to include the French navy; information on the relations between the French army and the French state appear as background to this subject. The French army found itself after 1871 facing the threat of the newly unified German state, more populous and more heavily industrialized than France. In response, the French army adopted the concept of the “nation in arms”: the conscription of all qualified young men into military service followed by their release into civilian life and then mobilization of these “citizen-soldiers” when war came. In addition, France raised native soldiers from its great overseas colonial empire; from early in World War I throughout the period of this article they played an important role in counterbalancing German numerical superiority. In compensation, the French army had to invest in overseas colonial operations of “pacification” at the expense of its principal focus on Germany. A second major element in the response of the French army to the German challenge was the development of military technology: modern machine weapons; electrical/electronic means of communication; and the internal combustion engine, which ultimately greatly increased mobility on the battlefield with the use of tracked, armored fighting vehicles and made possible the extension of armed conflict to the third dimension—the air. By the end of World War I modern warfare had become dependent on heavy machine weapons with their massive requirements for munitions and on air forces to fight for and exploit command of the air both to assist their comrades on the ground and to threaten the enemy’s military and industrial bases. The French army played a leading part in the invention and application of these implements of industrial total war from 1914 to 1918; during that war, the French “nation in arms” suffered the highest losses of all the Great Powers in proportion to its population. From 1919 the French army demobilized, but as the German threat reappeared the French army invested in fortifications (the Maginot Line) and from the early 1930s developed substantial motorized and mechanized forces to spearhead the mobilized “nation in arms” while splitting off its air forces to form an independent air force more oriented toward strategic air war in 1933. The French “nation in arms” mobilized against Nazi Germany in September 1939 but, supported only by a partially prepared and improvised coalition, was catastrophically defeated in May–June 1940.

General Overviews

Two older general works, which however have not lost their value and are relatively accessible, provide an overview of the French army within the political context of the French Third Republic: Challener 1955 and Young 1978. Tournoux 1960 offers a synthesis of developments in the strategy of the French army and state for coping with Germany; along the way the author usefully summarizes the evolving mobilization plans of the army. The French army’s historical service published a set of four volumes on the army from 1919 to 1939: the first three in Paoli 1969–, the fourth Dutailly 1980. Unfortunately these volumes, besides being in French, are difficult to obtain (particularly those of Paoli) and take for granted a great deal of prior knowledge on the part of the reader; however, they are rich in original source material. Gunsburg 1979 provides a very concise description of the evolution of the French army and its means of action as background to what happened in 1940; the work is relatively easy to obtain, but its bibliography is not up to date. In contrast to Gunsburg 1979, Doughty 1988 insists that the French army arrived at the “wrong formula” (p. 66) for modern warfare by 1940, but in a single chapter of a readily obtainable work draws a clear portrait of an army systematically and carefully preparing itself for a rematch of World War I. The last general overview dates from twenty years ago—Dutailly 1992—and consists of four substantial chapters of a multivolume global history of the French military: the work offers a solidly researched description of the French military in both its strong and weak points and concludes with an analysis of the collapse of 1940, which places much of the blame on the French military leadership between the wars. The work is easily obtainable and well illustrated but offers no documentation beyond a short bibliography. Further general overview material, some of it much more recent, appears under the main heading Leadership.

  • Challener, Richard D. The French Theory of the Nation in Arms: 1866–1939. New York: Columbia Press, 1955.

    An old but classic work, readily found in academic libraries; solidly documented with a substantial bibliography of which the primary sources are still relevant.

  • Doughty, Robert A. “The French Armed Forces, 1918–40.” In Military Effectiveness. Vol. 2, The Interwar Period. Edited by Allan R. Millett and Williamson Murray, 39–69. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1988.

    Substantial, interesting essay on the French army only, drawn from published and unpublished materials. Easily obtained; good source for the beginning researcher (but most of its sources are inaccessible to the beginner); offers interesting contrast with Gunsburg 1979.

  • Dutailly, Henry. Les problèmes de l’Armée de terre française: 1935–1939. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1980.

    Required source for the serious researcher: heavily documented and offers access to copious amounts of archival material; focuses heavily on the technical development of the army. This will be a challenging read for neophyte researchers.

  • Dutailly, Henry. “Les Illusions de la victoire, 1918–1930.” In Histoire militaire de la France. Vol. 3, De 1871 à 1940. Edited by Guy Pedroncini, 327–404. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1992.

    Written for a general readership with good illustrations and maps but no documentation other than a short bibliography. Chapter 12, cited here along with chapters 13 to 15—“Une puissance militaire illusoire (1930–1939),” “L’Architecture militaire,” and “L’Effondrement”—are required reading for the researcher who knows French.

  • Gunsburg, Jeffery A. Divided and Conquered: The French High Command and the Defeat of the West, 1940. Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood, 1979.

    Obtainable in academic libraries; written for the nonspecialist and based on published and archival sources; offers a very concise review of the French army from 1919 to 1940, although the bibliography is now dated. A good place to start research.

  • Paoli, Col. François-André. L’Armée française de 1919 à 1939. 4 vols. n.p.: Service Historique de l’Armée de Terre, 1969–.

    Difficult to obtain; requires extensive foreknowledge on the part of the reader; Volume 1 in particular is little more than a catalogue of archival holdings. Nonetheless a gold mine of otherwise unpublished primary material that the serious researcher will not forego. Volume 1, La reconversion (11 novembre 1918:janvier 1920); Volume 2, La phase de fermeté (janvier 1920:juin 1924); Volume 3, Le temps des compromis (juin 1924:juin 1930); Volume 4, La fin des illusions (juillet 1930:juin 1935).

  • Tournoux, Paul-Émile. Haut commandement gouvernment et défense des frontières du nord et de l’est 1919–1939. Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Latines, 1960.

    A substantial documented analysis drawn almost entirely from archival and published primary sources and therefore still relevant. Very good maps, clear exposition; does not demand extensive foreknowledge on the part of the reader: a good place to start serious research.

  • Young, Robert J. In Command of France: French Foreign Policy and Military Planning, 1933–1940. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1978.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674434912

    Documented scholarly work drawn in large part on archival sources; therefore still of value despite its date. Analyzes French foreign policy response to the growing German challenge with due regard to the strengths and weaknesses of the French army and air forces/air force. In English and to be found in academic libraries.

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