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Maurice Gamelin
General Maurice Gamelin (1936)
Born (1872-09-20)20 September 1872
Died 18 April 1958(1958-04-18) (aged 86)
Place of birth Paris, France[1]
Place of death Paris, France
Allegiance Flag of France.svg France
Service/branch French Army
Years of service 1893–1940
Rank Général d'armée

Maurice Gustave Gamelin (20 September 1872 – 18 April 1958) was a French general. Gamelin is remembered for his unsuccessful command of the French military in 1940 during the Battle of France and his steadfast defense of republican values.

The Commander-in-chief of the French armed forces in World War II, Gamelin was viewed as a man with significant intellectual ability. He was respected, even in Germany, for his intelligence and "subtle mind", though he was viewed by some German generals as stiff and predictable. Despite this, and his competent service in World War I, his command of the French armies during the critical days of May 1940 proved to be disastrous. Historian and journalist William L. Shirer presented the view that Gamelin used World War I methods to fight World War II, but with less vigor and slower response.[2]

Gamelin served with distinction under Joseph Joffre in World War I. He is often credited with being responsible for devising the outline of the French counter-attack in 1914 which led to victory during the First Battle of the Marne. In 1933 Gamelin rose to command the French Army and oversaw a modernization and mechanization program, including the completion of the Maginot Line defenses. Édouard Daladier supported Gamelin throughout his career due to his refusal to allow politics to play a part in military planning and promotion, and his commitment to the republican model of government—not a trivial concern at a time when Communists on the left and Royalists and Fascists on the right were openly advocating regime change in France.

Early years

Gamelin's father, Zéphyrin, fought in the Battle of Solferino in 1859. From an early age Gamelin showed potential as a soldier, growing up in a generation seeking revenge on Germany for their annexation of Alsace Lorraine at the end of the Franco-Prussian War.

Military career

Gamelin entered the military academy at Saint-Cyr on 31 October 1891 and started officer training.[3] In 1893, he graduated first of his promotion at Saint-Cyr.

He began in the French tirailleurs with the 3rd Regiment based in Tunisia. He then joined the topographic brigade. When Gamelin came back to Paris in 1897, he entered the prestigious Ecole Superieure de Guerre and finished second of his class of about eighty of the best future officers in the French Army. Charles Lanrezac, then the commander-in-second of the Ecole Supérieure de Guerre, and later general in the early days of the Great War, noted Gamelin as an intelligent, cultivated and industrious young officer, bound to earn higher functions in the future. Gamelin joined the staff of the 15th Army Corps before commanding a company at the 15th battalion of the Chasseurs Alpins in 1904. He received the applause of his superiors for his diligence at maneouver. He published Philosophical Study on the Art of War in 1906 which his critics praised as they anticipated him becoming one of the military thinkers in the near future and then became an attache to the French general Joseph Joffre (a future Marshal of France) as he led the French forces during World War I. This position had been obtained with the help of Ferdinand Foch (also a future Marshal of France, as he led the Allied Forces to victory on the Western Front in 1918). These networks provided Gamelin with a solid knowledge in strategic and tactical warfare. In 1911, Gamelin was given command of the 11th battalion of the Chasseurs Alpins in Annecy. However, in March 1914 he joined Joffre's general staff. At the start of the war, Gamelin helped draft the plans that led to the victory at the Battle of the Marne. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and fought in Alsace on the Linge and later on the Somme. He became colonel in April 1916 and with good results on the battlefield was further promoted within eight months to the rank of brigadier general. He commanded the French 11th Infantry Division from April 1917 until the end of the war. In the region of Noyon, he manifested sophisticated tactical skills yet again by gaining ground without surrendering lives needlessly.

From 1919 to 1924, Gamelin was the head of the military mission in Brazil. He then commanded the French Army in the Levant, now Syria and the Lebanon. He was the commander of the 30th military region in Nancy from 1919 to 1931, as he was named head of the general staff of the French Armies. He prepared France's military until the beginning of the Second World War, although challenged by drastic cuts in funding and by the political inertia regarding the rearmament of Germany and later the Third Reich, which was intensified after the end of the Allied occupation of the Rhineland and its remilitarization. At the outbreak of the War in September 1939, Gamelin was considered one of the best commanding generals in Europe, and was respected even among the Wehrmacht.

Role in World War II

When war was declared in 1939, Gamelin was France's commander in chief. France saw little action during the Phoney War, apart from a few French divisions crossing the German border in the Saar Offensive, who travelled a mere 8 km (5.0 mi). They stopped even before reaching Germany's unfinished Siegfried Line. According to General Siegfried Westphal, a German staff officer on the Western Front, if France had attacked in September 1939 German forces could not have held out for more than one or two weeks. Gamelin ordered his troops back behind the Maginot Line, but only after telling France's ally, Poland, that France had broken the Siegfried Line and that help was on its way. Gamelin's long-term strategy was to wait until France had fully rearmed and for the British and French armies to build up their forces, even though this would mean waiting until 1941. He prohibited any bombing of the industrial areas of the Ruhr, in case the Germans retaliated.

Gamelin's vision for France's defence was based upon a static defense along the Franco-German border, which was reinforced by the Maginot Line. However, the Maginot Line was only 87 mi (140 km) long and did not extend along the Belgian frontier. During the winter of 1939 to 1940, which was one of the coldest of the 20th century, work on the extension to the Maginot Line along the Belgian frontier was slow and not of the same quality as the original defences. Gamelin, along with many other members of the French High Command, saw the Ardennes as impenetrable and chose to defend it with only ten reserve divisions and few fortifications. Most of the French army was posted against the north of the Belgian frontier. According to General von Manteuffel, the German Panzer commander, France had more and better tanks than Germany, but chose to disperse them.

The defensive approach of the Maginot Line became out of step with Gamelin's own views. He favoured an aggressive advance northward into Belgium and the Netherlands to meet the attacking German forces—as far removed from French territory as possible. This strategy, known as the Dyle Plan, fitted with Belgian defensive plans and also with British objectives. Gamelin committed much of the motorized forces of the French Army and the entire British Expeditionary Force to this strategy. Such a strategy also meant that the most of the French Army would leave its one-year old prepared defensive positions in northern France to be committed to joining battle on an unknown Belgian defensive line.

Despite reports of the build-up of German forces, and even knowing the date of the planned German attack, Gamelin did nothing, stating that he would "await events". When the Germans attacked, Gamelin insisted on moving 40 of his best divisions, including the British Expeditionary Force, northwards to conform to the Dyle Plan. The French mobilisation had called up many essential workers, which had disrupted vital French industries in the first weeks of the campaign.

In the first few days of the campaign, much of the Allied air forces' equipment was attacked while still on the ground. The rest of the air support was concentrated on the French advance, rather than attacking the exposed 150 km (93 mi) column supplying the German advance. Quickly, the French and the British became fearful of being outflanked and they withdrew from the defensive lines drawn up across Belgium. They did not pull back fast enough to prevent them being outflanked by the German Panzer divisions.

Gamelin (in kepi) seen in Frank Capra's film Divide and Conquer

The German wing that attacked further south was able to cross the River Meuse faster than anticipated, aided by heavy Luftwaffe aerial bombardment. Although almost all the crossings over the Meuse were destroyed by the French, one weir 60 km (37 mi) north of Sedan had been left intact and was only lightly defended. It was thus quickly captured and exploited by the Germans. Meanwhile, French guns were ordered to limit their firing in case they ran out of ammunition. On this front, Colonel-General Heinz Guderian disobeyed orders and forged ahead. Gamelin withdrew forces in this area so that they could defend Paris, thinking this was the German's objective, rather than the coast.

Believing that he had been betrayed rather than blaming his own tactics, Gamelin then sacked twenty of his front line commanders.

Further north, Major-General Erwin Rommel also kept advancing quickly, against orders. He reached the sea to the west of the British Expeditionary Force, trapping the forces that had been sent into the Low Countries around Arras and Dunkirk. In moving from France to Belgium and then back to France, a substantial amount of the armour was lost due to mechanical failure. The French and British could no longer launch a counterattack spearheaded by tanks and thus break out of encirclement. The speed of this advance, German air supremacy, the inability of the British and French to successfully counter-attack, and suspicions of complicity undermined the overall Allied position to such a degree that Britain abandoned the conflict on the continent. 338,226 men (including 120,000 French soldiers) withdrew across the English Channel during the Dunkirk evacuation. A second British Expeditionary Force, due to land in Normandy in mid-June, was cancelled.

The Dutch surrendered within five days of being attacked, the Belgians in a little over two weeks, and the French were left with only a rump of their former army to defend their nation. Gamelin was removed from his post on 18 May 1940 by Paul Reynaud, who had replaced Édouard Daladier as Prime Minister in March. The 68 year-old Gamelin was replaced by the 73 year-old Maxime Weygand, who crucially delayed planned counter-attacks prior to eventually launching them.

After the fall of France

Gamelin was both preceded and succeeded as generalissimo by Maxime Weygand. During the Vichy regime, Gamelin was arrested and unsuccessfully tried for treason along with other important political and military figures of the Third Republic (Édouard Daladier, Guy La Chambre, Léon Blum, and Robert Jacomet) during the Riom Trial. At this trial, Gamelin refused to answer the charges against him, instead maintaining a dignified silence. Imprisoned by the Vichy regime in Fort du Portalet in the Pyrenees, he was later deported by Germans to the Itter Castle in North Tyrol with a few other French high officials. He was freed from the castle after the Battle for Castle Itter. After the war, he published his memoirs, titled Servir....

Gamelin died in Paris in April 1958 at the age of 86.


  1. Alexander, Martin S. (1 November 2003). The Republic in Danger: General Maurice Gamelin and the Politics of French Defence, 1933-1940. Cambridge University Press. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-521-52429-2. Retrieved 26 July 2013. 
  2. William L. Shirer The Collapse of the Third Republic 1969
  3. The Republic in Danger: General Maurice Gamelin and the Politics of French Defence 1933–1940

Further reading

  • Alexander, Martin S. (1991). "Maurice Gamelin and the defeat of France, 1939–40". In Bond, Brian. Fallen Stars. Eleven Studies of Twentieth Century Military Disaster. London: Brassey's. ISBN 0-08-040717-X. 
  •     (1992). The Republic in Danger: General Maurice Gamelin and the Politics of French Defence, 1933–1940. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-37234-8. 
  • Gamelin, Maurice (1946). Servir. Paris: Plon. 
  • Tissier, Pierre (1942). The Riom Trial. London: G. G. Harrap. 
  • L'Ouest-Eclair 1935-01-19 "Le général Gamelin succède au général Weygand comme généralissime tout en restant chef d'état-maior général". Includes a short bio.

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