Why Napoleon Lost the “Napoleonic Wars”

Napoleon Bonaparte was a military genius and the best general of his time. During the “French Revolutionary Wars” and “Napoleonic Wars” he turned France from a reeling state under siege into an empire which practically dominated Europe. Napoleon fought 60 battles (winning perhaps all but 7), defeated a succession of armies, countries, and coalitions, and rightly belongs among the great military captains of history. However, in the end he lost everything, France was defeated, and he spent the rest of his life bitter and disillusioned in exile. For despite his unequaled military skill, Napoleon made a few fatal strategic mistakes, underestimated his enemies, and became too ambitious. Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, his invasion of Russia, British naval power and money, and the “German Campaign of 1813” led to his downfall.

Napoleon’s main strength was as a military commander in conventional land warfare. From his two Italian campaigns, to his triumph at Austerlitz and later successes against Prussia, Russia and Austria in Central and Eastern Europe, he excelled at quick wars of movement and decision where he used speed, surprise, and maneuver to overwhelm his enemies. This worked partly due to the generally superior training, motivation, and leadership of the French armies and because his enemies were often cautious, poorly led, or militarily backwards. Either way, Napoleon used his Grand Armee’s superior capabilities to defeat enemies who often outnumbered and outgunned him, much like Hannibal Barca and Erwin Rommel did against similar opponents.

However, there were additional factors at play. To accomplish such feats, Napoleon had to push his army more ruthlessly than his enemies pushed theirs and take considerable risks the latter were often unwilling to do. To accomplish his bold maneuvers, Napoleon had to execute long forced marches if he wanted to surprise his enemies, which sometimes exhausted his troops. Additionally, to accomplish such marches, Napoleon’s forces had to be light and nimble, and thus he took considerable liberties with logistics. Instead of maintaining large baggage trains and reliable lines of communication, he often instructed his forces to live off the land and pillage whatever food or resources they needed. Meanwhile his risky maneuvers such as using the strategy of the central position, massing against the enemy’s lines of communication, or getting in between an enemy army and its capital or allied army, which could have been defeated by competent foes versed in modern warfare, succeeded against older and conservative generals used to an age of warfare that focused on sieges, maneuvering for position, and few pitched battles.

With his superior army, and using these methods and stratagems, Napoleon was able to win decisive battles and defeat nations in Italy and Central Europe. In smaller countries with denser populations and readily available resources in a small area, Napoleon’s forces could win quick battles against armies that were concentrated and could not retreat very far. Unfortunately for him, these favourable conditions did not exist in Spain and Russia, or against Britain which was protected by the Royal Navy and the English Channel.

France’s intervention in Spain was motivated by a desire to occupy Portugal because it defied Napoleon’s embargo against Britain (a similar reason would lead to the invasion of Russia). Moving French troops through Spain also gave Napoleon the opportunity to effect a regime change in Spain as he was unsatisfied, and less than trusting, regarding the conservative monarchy and government there that not only did not reflect the ideals of the “French Revolution” but had been tempted to join the coalition against France in 1806. Thus he replaced it with a government more to his liking with his brother in charge. Used to winning, imposing his will, and dealing with little resistance, Napoleon assumed the Spanish would acquiesce in all of this. Unfortunately, his brother and revolutionary government did not mesh well with the predominantly Catholic and conservative Spanish society, and so rebellion against French rule soon engulfed the country with terrible results. With French defeats such as at Bailen, and Britain deploying forces to the Iberian peninsula, Napoleon was faced with a major crisis.

Napoleon characteristically met the challenge with speed and overwhelming force, and managed to salvage some of his Spanish venture by securing much of Spain and kicking the British army (only temporarily as it turned out) out of Spain, but did not accomplish a decisive coup before having to turn his attention back to Austria which in 1809 challenged France once again. Leaving control of affairs in the hands of local French commanders, he assumed the conflict in Spain would be over soon. This would prove to be exceedingly optimistic.

French efforts in Spain would be frustrated, and the “Peninsular War” as it became known would prove to be one of Napoleon’s gravest mistakes. Unlike Central Europe and Northern Italy, Spain did not enjoy the logistical and topographical advantages which allowed French forces to win easily. The population was less densely populated, communications in Spain were not as advanced, and food stocks and resources were spread out more. Then there was the fact that the Spanish army and rebels, after being defeated in open battle, wisely adopted guerrilla warfare (in fact the term “guerrilla warfare” grew out of the insurrection in Spain). This compounded the weak French position in Spain as the French had to fight an elusive enemy which enjoyed the traditional insurgent advantages of local sympathy, knowledge of terrain, and mobility. To make things worse, the British secured Portugal from French rule, and Wellington and his army would prove to be unbeatable. As such the French faced in Spain perhaps the worst circumstances any counter-insurgents could: A hostile population which rebelled against France and Revolutionary ideals, a battlefield with plenty of terrain which favoured the insurgent and was hard to live on or resupply from the homeland, and the opposition of a strong foreign power which not only supplied and supported the insurgents but deployed an army of its own.

Spain became the bloody ulcer of Napoleon’s empire, the equivalent of South Africa for Britain, Vietnam for America, and Afghanistan for Russia. Despite massing as many as 300,000 French troops in Spain, the French were neither able to subvert the Spanish rebels or destroy Wellington’s army. These forces could have been better employed elsewhere, such as in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, the “German Campaign of 1813” or frankly anywhere rather than for a war that was not necessary. An especially damning statistic is that the French Army suffered more casualties in Spain than Russia in Russia later on.

To win in Spain, the French had to eliminate Britain from the war, or failing that, kick her out of Portugal (indefinitely) to end her support of the Spanish rebels, or enact an effective counter-insurgency campaign to neutralize the Spanish insurgents. None of this happened, nor was it likely. To beat Britain, Napoleon needed to neutralize the Royal Navy and invade Britain, or starve the island or interdict her trade enough to make her submit -Napoleon, even if he had understood naval warfare, simply did not have the means to do so. Meanwhile French attempts against the British forces in Portugal were doomed, considering the poor land based communications of the Iberian peninsula versus the excellent seaborne communications dominated by the British, as well as the British defensive lines of Torres Vedras which the French could not breach. Finally, the French were too inflexible and aggressive to compromise the ideals of the French Revolution enough to win over adequate popular support in a predominantly Catholic and conservative Spain in order to neutralize the insurgent base there.

The next main factor in Napoleon’s downfall was his invasion of Russia. Frustrated by his lack of success in Spain, still fighting Britain, and wanting to end Russia’s circumvention of France’s continental blockade against England (which Russia was supposed to honour via treaty), Napoleon amassed an unprecedented army of over 600,000 soldiers to coerce Russia into falling back in line. Napoleon’s objective was not to conquer Russia (his resources obviously could not allow that) but to cross the border, meet the Russian army, rout or destroy it, and convince Russia to acquiesce to French policy in Europe. With hindsight it is easy to see how foolish and disastrous this invasion was, but it should be remembered that at the time Napoleon’s army all but dominated Europe, that with the exception of the Egyptian venture he had won all of his previously led campaigns, and that his force, initially at least, dwarfed the Russian army. Perhaps Napoleon was arrogant, underestimated the Russian army, and was complacent regarding logistics and the idea perhaps the Russians would do something else besides stand and fight against poor odds, but after such a winning streak is it a surprise Napoleon acted boldly and gambled again when it had always given him success before?

The subsequent story is well known and easily told. Napoleon’s massive army advanced but slowly eroded itself due to several considerations. Napoleon’s previous policy of sustaining his army by pillaging the countryside failed due to the vast distances, poor infrastructure, scarcity or resources, and the fact the Russians enacted a harsh form of scorched earth to deny any food and resources to the enemy, while his own efforts to keep his army supplied by bringing in its own supplies failed. Meanwhile disease, desertions, and combat further thinned his numbers, while the Russians had the advantage of falling back on their lines of communications and could thus amass more soldiers and material as their enemy weakened.

However, the story is not that simple. The Russians probably did not enact, with what proved to be brilliant in hindsight, the strategy of falling back and letting the French erode themselves, purposely. They usually wanted to stand and fight closer to the French armies near the border than is realized but ended up retreating due to a menagerie of reasons. Certainly the pressures of public opinion, as well as considerable outrage from Russian soldiers and generals, forced the Russian commander Kutuzov to fight the French at Borodino despite the fact they were still no match for French forces. In the event, the French won the battle but it proved to be a Pyrrhic victory, not least because Napoleon did not commit his elite Imperial Guard which probably would have routed the Russian army.

Yet realistically what would have been the best case scenario for the French? What if the Russian army had fought the overwhelmingly superior French and allied forces close to the Russian border? Surely a French victory would have occurred, but what if the Russians had decided not to admit defeat, as they did not after Eylau in 1807 or the countless battles against the Germans in both World Wars? Russia would not have been prostate and defeated because her capital would be intact, her population and territory barely scratched, and her capacity to wage war hardly dented. However, according to the rules of Napoleonic warfare, perhaps such a comprehensive battlefield victory would have motived Russia to submit to Napoleon’s limited demand to honour the continental system and rejoin his blockade against Britain. But, this did not happen, and was perhaps unlikely to happen, given Russian capabilities and the fact that perhaps the Russians had more at stake in this war than France’s economic policies against Britain. Perhaps Napoleon was ironically fighting a limited war, despite amassing 600,000 soldiers, whereas the Russians saw it as a struggle to the death.

Either way, the story is again well known and easily told. Napoleon beat, but did not destroy, the Russian army at Borodino, took Moscow and waited for the Tzar and Russian leadership to admit defeat and fall in line with French policy. However, Moscow was burned terribly in a subsequent fire, the Tzar refused to negotiate, and Napoleon’s army had to retreat back to friendly territory during winter. The terrible winter conditions and diseases like typhus reaching epidemic proportions, finalized the destruction of the Grand Armee which miraculously managed to save a sad force of perhaps 20-30,000 soldiers at the end of the campaign. Thus, Napoleon’s usual formula of surprise, maneuver and speed to overwhelm an enemy in a relatively short amount of time to impose a favourable peace had, as in Spain, failed. The French disaster in Russia would influence the “German Campaign of 1813.”

Before that, we should consider Britain’s influence in these conflicts. Even though it was the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian armies that brought down the Grande Armee (Waterloo’s influence being historically overrated), Britain arguably played the main role in defeating Napoleon. Britain was the only country Napoleon never defeated or brought to terms, financed most of the coalitions’ war efforts, and blockaded France and her allies to such a detrimental effect that it convinced Napoleon to intervene in Spain and Russia which eventually doomed the French war effort. Without Britain it is hard to see how Napoleon would not have dominated the continent in the long run.

Napoleon’s victories against enemy coalitions may have gained his empire territory and influence, and sometimes made Prussia, Austria, and Russia reluctant allies of France, but as long as England maintained her economic and industrial advantage, and opposed French power in Europe, she could influence the contest. Given that there were 7 successive coalitions raised, mostly with British financing, to fight France, there is little doubt that Britain was the most dangerous and dedicated enemy of Napoleon.

While France won victory after victory on the continent, Britain often found ways to limit or reverse such successes via several means. These included Britain’s exercise of naval power, her economic and industrial superiority via France, and British military interventions in Europe.

Of course, British naval superiority was the lynchpin which guaranteed all of this. Without superior naval power, Britain could not have secured her economic and industrial advantages which she accrued via controlling maritime trade and controlling far flung colonies, let alone launch naval efforts against France and her allies, or intervene on the continent. Britain maintained her naval superiority via significant investments in resources and training for the Royal Navy, fighting and beating French and allied fleets, and even ruthless actions against neutrals. Actions such as the “Battle of the Nile” and “Trafalgar” wore down the French navy, but Britain was also audacious enough to attack the Danish twice (including bombarding Copenhagen) and threaten Lisbon to make sure the Danish and Portuguese fleets did not join Napoleon. A similar instance happened in 1940 when the British attacked the French (who had been their recent ally) at Mers-el-Kebir because Churchill feared the Germans wanted to control the French navy.

However, these were simply means to effect the ends for British naval power. British naval dominance allowed her to supply and finance her allies’ war efforts against Napoleon. While one could point out that Napoleon defeated most of his enemies’ coalitions, the fact remains that unless Britain was forced to make peace she could keep financing Napoleon’s enemies at will. Therefore the “Napoleonic Wars” became a game of “whack a mole” where Napoleon would defeat one enemy or alliance only to see another rise up (supported by England) afterwards. Thus Napoleon’s victory against Austria at Marengo effectively beat the “Second Coalition,” but British support raised the “Third Coalition” which Napoleon quashed at Austerlitz. Thereupon another British supported coalition ended with Russia’s defeat in 1807, but was followed by British intervention in Spain from 1808-14 and her support of Austria in 1809. The Spanish venture obviously continued, but Austria lost in 1809. In the end, the last British-supported coalitions in 1813-14 and 1815 finally beat Napoleon.

British naval power also eroded France’s economy, as well as the economies of countries like Russia and Portugal, due to the British blockade, and this led indirectly to the “Peninsular War” in Spain and Portugal and the invasion of Russia in 1812. In the former, British support of Spanish irregulars slowly bled the French Empire for years, while the latter effectively devastated the Grande Armee and was arguably the Stalingrad for Napoleon.

Meanwhile, British interventions on the continent were not without effect. While it could be argued that the British campaign in Holland in 1799, her intervention in Southern Italy in 1806, and the “Walcheren Campaign” of 1809 ended in failure, British intervention against French forces in Egypt and Spain were decisive. In the former it doomed the admittedly foolhardy French campaign in Egypt, and in the latter it prevented the French from crushing the Spanish rebels and tied down significant French troops that could have been decisive elsewhere. Eventually Wellington’s army, initially based in Portugal, helped liberated Spain and even invaded Southern France.

Then there is the “German Campaign of 1813” which was arguably the decisive campaign of the “Napoleonic Wars.” The “Peninsular War” in Spain may have severely eroded the French army, and the invasion of Russia gutted the Grande Armee, but remarkably enough Napoleon managed to recruit and amass a major force of soldiers from his empire and allies which still had more population and resources than Prussia and Russia, who were arguably just as weakened at this point as the French and their allies. It is likely that without the intervention of Austria, as well as later defection among France’s German allies, that Napoleon could easily have stalemated the Prussians and Russians or conceivably even won the campaign. Certainly Napoleon had no real chance of winning in 1814 when he was vastly outnumbered and fighting on French soil against several armies in the north while Wellington’s army advanced into Southern France. It is even more absurd that the “Waterloo Campaign” was the decisive campaign as the odds were even worse than in 1814, and had he managed to beat the British and Prussia armies (both close to the size of his army) he would have had to defeat even bigger Russian and Austrian armies that were advancing against him.

In March 1813 the French abandoned Berlin, and with the arrival of the Russian army soon after, Prussia declared war on France and allied with Russia. However, the French began to recover, as Napoleon raised 200,000 soldiers which gave him a decent superiority of numbers over the Prussian and Russian forces. On one hand, Napoleon may have had an advantage here, as even if his soldiers were not of the same quality as previous ones they still had his superior leadership as well as the doctrine, tactics, and mid-level leadership which allowed them to beat allied armies that were deficient in many of these respects. On the other, the Prussians and Russians had learned a lot and would not be pushovers as before. Perhaps worse for Napoleon was that Austria was tempted to enter the war and her entry could decisively tilt the numerical balance against him. Thus Napoleon had to either reoccupy Prussia and beat the Russians back, or hurt them enough to gain a satisfactory peace, but certainly he had to prevent Austria from joining the coalition.

Napoleon did well at first, beating outnumbered Prussian and Russian forces at Lutzen (May 2) and Bautzen (May 20-21), yet unfortunately could not exploit these victories due to lack of cavalry and mistakes by his Marshals. Instead, the allies retreated intact and largely in order. This led to a temporary truce of six weeks between both sides, as Napoleon was worried about his lengthening lines of communications, and the Austrians, and wanted to rebuild his forces (especially calvary). The Prussians and Russians gladly accepted, assuming time was on their side to bring allies into the war and build up their own forces. It is generally accepted that the truce favoured the latter, especially given the final results of the campaign.

Perhaps the campaign turned against Napoleon in August when Austria declared war against him and joined the coalition, adding a substantial amount of force of approximately 300,000 (by far the largest contingent for the coalition) which shifted the numerical and strategic balance in favour of the coalition. However, even after this, Napoleon still managed to gain another tactical victory at Dresden (August 27), despite being nearly outnumbered 2-1. However, this would be his last victory of the campaign, as the coalition’s newfound numerical superiority, and improved strategy, would win it. Their strategy essentially involved the coalition armies avoiding Napoleon’s own army (at least in a piecemeal fashion which would have led to their being defeated in detail) while focusing on other French and allied armies that were not as well led. The idea was to wear down French and allied forces overall until the coalition was confident and capable of massing its overwhelming forces against Napoleon’s own force. The British used the same strategy in Egypt during the summer in 1942 as their commander, Auchinleck, concentrated on attacking Rommel’s weaker Italian allies so that the German forces would be forced to come to their comrades’ aid instead of being able to concentrate on attacking the British. Montgomery would benefit from Auchinleck’s success as the former’s delaying battles allowed the British to build up enough superiority in manpower and material to decisively beat Rommel later in the autumn.

Thus, Napoleon’s victory at Dresden was balanced by the defeat of French forces under other Generals at Grossbeeren (August 23), Katzbach (August 26) Kulm (August 29), and Dennewitz (September 6). More than a month of maneuver followed and finally the coalition brought to bear its significant superiority at Leipzig (16-19 October). This would be the biggest battle of the “Napoleonic Wars” and arguably the defeat which sealed Napoleon’s fate. Napoleon had no real chance of winning, let alone effecting a stalemate after Leipzig. Here the coalition outnumbered him nearly 2-1 and after a few days inflicted a decisive defeat on the Emperor despite suffering more casualties. Thereupon Napoleon was forced to retreat, his German allies abandoned him, he had to retire to France, and a vengeful Europe pursued him there. While Napoleon inflicted a remarkable series of limited reverses on the coalition in France in 1814, the latter’s numbers told, and once Paris was taken Napoleon was forced to abdicate and go into exile at Elba island and while he did briefly return to France in 1815 to lead the “Waterloo Campaign”, he was leading a lost cause.

Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, his disastrous invasion of Russia, British naval power and financing, and the result of the “German Campaign of 1813”, were the key factors which led to the defeat of Napoleon. Napoleon’s occupation of Spain was his first major mistake, and led to a conflict between the French army versus Spanish irregulars and Wellington’s army, that proved impossible to defeat and slowly wore down French manpower. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia resulted in the destruction of the majority of the Grande Armee and weakened the French empire enough for countries like Russia, Prussia, Austria and even Sweden to finally combine to confront it. British sea power safeguarded England’s survival and supported British operations in Spain and elsewhere, while British money and industry financed most of the coalitions that fought against Napoleon. The “German Campaign of 1813” turned against Napoleon when Austria entered the war, and the significant numerical advantage of coalition forces, and their correct strategy, led to Napoleon’s decisive defeat at Leipzig which effectively decided the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon may have won all but a few of his 60 battles but it only took a few strategic mistakes, poor assumptions, and British resilience to guarantee his ultimate defeat.

Bibliography

Barnett, Correlli. Bonaparte. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1997.

Gates, David. The Napoleonic Wars 1803-1815. London: Pimlico, 2003.
Fremont-Barnes, Gregory and Todd Fisher. The Napoleon Wars: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. New York: Osprey Publishing, 2004.

Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. Napoleon Bonaparte. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010.

Paret, Peter. Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Roberts, Andrew. Great Commanders of the Early Modern World 1583-1865. London: Quercus, 2011.

Rothenberg, Gunther. The Napoleon Wars. London: Cassell, 1999.

Stoker, Donald. Clausewitz: His Life and Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Wikipedia article on the “German Campaign of 1813”: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Campaign_of_1813#/search [April, 2017]

Wikipedia article on the “Napoleonic Wars”: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napoleonic_Wars [April, 2017]

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.