France entered WW2 on 3rd September 1939, following the combined ultimatum (with Britain) for Germany to withdraw from Poland. Germany did not withdraw, and so Europe was plunged into war. France began the war with trepidation; the memories of the destruction and slaughter during WW1 were still very raw in the French national consciousness. However, the victory in the previous war and the large size of its military forces gave it cause for optimism in the coming war.
Following the German invasion of France (May-June 1940), the French forces were overwhelmed and the French government sued for peace. Under German occupation, Metropolitan France (and those overseas territories not re-captured by Allied forces early in the war) were divided into occupied and unoccupied zones, and endured the humiliation and pain of Nazi occupation until the Allied Liberation in 1944. In 1940, the French forces fought with reckless courage in localised battles; however, the sufferings of the previous war had eroded the country’s wiliness to wage war – its political parties were polarised, its military leadership were lacked the offensive spirit of their forebears, and the rank and file soldiers were fearful of a repetition of the appalling casualties of WW1.
Between 1940 and 1944, French forces abroad (the ‘Free French) and at home (the French ‘Resistance’) continued the struggle. The growth and success of the Free French was initially hampered by the weariness of the French people and the general belief within the French army that the new government of Marshall Andre Petain (a hero of WW1) was the legitimate government – and to serve in the Free French forces was an act of treason. However, the grinding down of the French people at home under the combined forces of a puppet government and a ruthless foreign oppressor gradually gave momentum to the Free French cause. Abroad, Allied forces re-captured French territories in North Africa and the Middle East (whose French Colonial military garrisons became the basis of the expanded French Forces); at home, the Resistance movement was supplied and encouraged by the Allies. With the eventual liberation of France, the French military once again became a significant part of the Allied cause.
The following documents are listed with the intention of providing insight into the French experience of WW2.
|Charles de Gaulle||Type||Speech (radio broadcast)|
|Date||18 June 1940|
|WW2 Context||With France fallen, Charles de Gaulle gave this radio broadcast from London to rally the French people for the on-going struggle. De Gaulle, a French general and member of the French government of Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, had refused to accept the resignation of Reynaud and the appointment of the new government of Marshall Petain – Petain signed the armistice with Germany, but De Gaulle refused to accept it.However, this particular broadcast was heard by few French people – and few French civilians or servicemen initially acknowledged his call the join what became the ‘Free French’. Most of the 100,00 odd French soldiers in Britain at this time opted for repatriation to France.De Gaulle’s speech of 18 June was followed by similar speeches on 19 and 22 June.’It is true, we were, we are, overwhelmed by the mechanical, ground and air forces of the enemy…[however] This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country. This war is not over as a result of the Battle of France…Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished’.|
 In the 1914-1918 war, the French military leadership had the opposite ethos – the near obsession with frontal infantry attacks contributed to the appalling losses experienced by the French army in that war.