24 MAY 1940, Page 7



TI HOUGH much is obscure, we have now to face the fact that the military situation is grave. The enemy, putting into operation, apparently, the later Schlieffen plan, secured a strategic surprise by striking through the Ardennes between Namur and Sedan, and a tactical surprise by the use of unex- pectedly heavy tanks—tanks of " rupture," as they are called. His strategical surprise brought it about that the line on this sector was lightly held by weak troops and, presumably also, that it was found impossible to destroy the Meuse bridges in time. The heavy tanks did the rest ; and at once a breach of some 37 miles appeared in the line. This blunt statement is no more incredible than the fact. The part of the line through which the Germans poured into France, though not the Maginot line, was its continuation. It was strongly fortified ; and we must look beneath the surface for the cause of its immediate rupture.

On the face of it, there is no explanation. Why were the bridges left undestroyed? Bridges have played a fatal part in this war. In Poland General Hoth's armoured divisions pushed through between two German armies and passed Radom, so that, when the Poles fell back, the Vistula bridges were already in enemy hands. The undestroyed bridge over the Albert Canal opened a way to the rear of the Belgian defensive system ; and here, again, we encounter the same phenomenon on the Meuse. M. Reynaud says the lapse on this occasion was due to " in- credible mistakes " ; and that is precisely how it appears. The heavy tanks should not have caused undue dismay. It is dis- turbing to read that it required the " brilliance " of some French officers to recognise that the famous 75 will actually fire point blank ; as if it were a breach of decorum that no slide rule, book of logarithms and table of trigonometrical ratios were required. M. Reynaud, indeed, says wisely that the " classical conception of the conduct of war has come up against a new conception " ; but is it precisely new? The tactics employed between Namur and Sedan—the massed attack by tanks in close co-operation with low-flying aeroplanes—were used to break the resistance of Poland ; so that we have had nine months to think about the new conception and its implications. Indeed, it is true to say that the one really grave feature in the situation is the apparent failure to discover any effective reply to the German tactics.

It is, of course, tempting to attribute the setback to the German numerical and mechanical superiority. It is amazing how, by a strange paradox, the intellectual almost invariably finds his scapegoat for defeat in some mechanical factor. The Germans have, of course, a great superiority in men, tanks and aeroplanes. But what has happened in France is more reason- ably to be attributed to the fatal preoccupation with the defen- sive. All obsessions arc bad; but if the obsession with the offensive is dangerous, obsession with the defensive is disastrous. It tends to foster the illusion that defences are effective per se; and once that idea takes root a formidable train of incon- veniences follows—carelessness about ordinary precautions (like bridge-destruction), unwillingness to think of alternatives and, worst of all, failure to think out the real place of the offen- sive in all warfare. Mr. Churchill put this matter very forcibly in his speech on Sunday night: "The armies must cast away the idea of resisting attack behind concrete lines or natural obstacles and must realise that mastery can only be regained by furious, unrelenting assault."

How often during the last few days have we been compelled to read that the allied armies in Belgium have fallen back " in conformity " with the German advance in France ; and how much one has wished for a sound dose of non-conformity. The Germans have gained possession of Amiens and Arras. We do not know how long they will remain there, or whether they are to be allowed to stay there. We know very little about the " front," if front it may be called. But we do know that the spearhead of the thrust cannot be very strong. We know that the Germans' attack has been pressed forward at such a pace that the difficulties of their communications must be greater than any threat to ours. They have followed the sound copy-boot: rule that when one has marched forward into risks, the one safety is to continue to advance. But there can be little doubt that the seeds of a sound counter-attack have been sown with a lavish hand. It is, of course, true that General Weygand has only been in control since Monday ; and well might he repeat Foch's words on assuming direction of the Allied forces in March, 1918, " You are offering me a lost battle." But it is equally true that, by all precedent, the British Army should now be cut off from its main base and restricted to the use of the Channel ports which are the enemy's objective.

The British Army has been trained for the offensive. The tank, as we should no longer need to say, is an offensive weapon. The Army can play its part effectively only when it is used offensively, and not when it is used only for light rearguard operations or in retreat. The Air Force has fought magni- ficently and has been worth many times its numerical strength. But the Germans have now been allowed to get very near to their objective without the delivery of that blow which might have salvaged the position. The danger is that we may yet not have encountered the whole of the German plan. Though there are various signs of improvisation in it, there are certain main lines of inspiration. In a book mentioned some time ago in one of these articles, Achtung Panzer, it was stated that the Germans would attempt a double envelopment, and combine the blow at the northern flank with an attack through Switzer- land. If that should happen before a successful counter-attack has been delivered, the situation would be perilous indeed.

As M. Reynaud has said, " incredible mistakes " have been made, and it is not encouraging to hear the admission, though it was courageous to make it. It may be said that Britain is ready to suffer on its own soil if necessary; but that is scarcely the point. The most favourable battlefield is France, where the Allies stand together, though their position is threatened with disruption. It is impossible to think that such impressive armies can be put out of action in so short a time, and, as it were, by logic and not by any real defeat in the field. It is impossible to think that the Allies cannot devise some effective answer to the tank and aeroplane attack. The tank was in- vented in this country. The first use of tanks in co-operation with aeroplanes was made by our armies. The Germans, as usual, have merely raised to the nth power a tactical method devised and operated by us. The tactics of infiltration came from a French junior officer.

We have all the real seeds of power and success in our hands. What now remains to be done is to use them. The position looks all the graver because so much of it is vague, and where it is clear we tend to judge it by familiar standards. If all the Germans claim is true we are, at this moment, not only cut off from our main base, but also part of a great army that has been cut into two pieces. This is, of course, not wholly true. It is certain that the Germans are only in light force round Arras and Amiens ; but every hour they are becoming stronger. The time of their weakness is passing and the time of ours is approaching. If they threaten our communications, they have been offering theirs to our attack for days. Up to the present their position has been more façade than force ; but they are obviously strengthening their left flank for the advance up the French coast to cut us off. Only a slight inspection, however, is required to suggest places where counter-attack could be delivered, if it is done at once.

If the public is to be asked to face disturbing reports with its imperturbable courage, in the faith that they are subject to quite other interpretations than would have been natural in former wars, we can but hope that those who direct the armies will also remember that the German success does not mean all it seems, that it bears in its very essence the embracing of dangerous risks. In one of Kipling's books there is a statement that has remained in my mind: " When you find a variation from the normal, always meet it in an abnormal way." There could be no more apposite advice at this moment. We can depend upon our own courage ; and few would wish to escape the sufferings that are involved in putting an end to the German peril. But we must expect our courage and that of our men to be used to defeat the enemy and not merely to suffer his blows. Postscript.—The recapture of Arras, since this article m..s written, is a timely proof that not only is the German fol ,e engaged on the circumference of the Western thrust slight, Lt also that we do not mean to allow ourselves to be complete y governed by the enemy movements. But if it is no more thin that it is a gesture that may have little effect. As the fi,,t suggestion of a flank counter-attack it has quite another and we must hope that that is its real meaning. We have realise that unless we fight now we shall fight later only under infinitely worse conditions. There can be no choice betweLa the two alternatives.