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Broad and Broadly Accurate The Sources of Military Doctrine, France, Britain, and Germany Between the World Wars Review

Updated on March 25, 2020

Not all books are page-turners. What exactly do you write to give an impassioned and exciting title to a book whose first several chapters are dull theorizing about international relations theories? But some books don't have to be exciting: they serve a purpose instead. The Sources of Military Doctrine; France Britain and Germany Between the World Wars is a useful look into why the trio of Western European great powers adopted the military doctrines that they did, and what they were. This book will never be a best-seller and its load of political science jargon at the beginning means that much of it will be skipped over, but its primary content is sound.


The first few chapters of Posen's book are ones which frankly, are best avoided by all but political scientists and international relations experts - and even then I think that most of them might find it something of a slog. They are devoted to explaining distinctions between defensive and offensive military doctrines and some reasons for their adoption, deterrent doctrines, some elements of why military doctrines change, innovate, or fail to match national needs, and theories about distribution of power in military doctrine and in nations, principles such as uncertainty and uncertainty reduction, the relationship of militaries to politicians and broader national strategy, and diplomacy and the principles behind coalition war - particularly some of its negative impacts, such as the tendency to shift the burden of war to others and the slow nature of decision making. Most of this tends to be too abstract or of little use to the reader in my opinion, although there are occasional facts and statistics tables which are interesting.

The Battle of France, a great defeat for the Allied armies and the greatest triumph of Germany during the war.
The Battle of France, a great defeat for the Allied armies and the greatest triumph of Germany during the war.
Although not as great of a triumph as the German win, the Battle of Britain enabled the British to survive and continue the war against the Germans.
Although not as great of a triumph as the German win, the Battle of Britain enabled the British to survive and continue the war against the Germans.

Thankfully, the book picks up on a much better note with Chapter 3, on the 1940 battles.This lays out the respective forces involved and the plans of the Allies and the Germans in the Battle of France, seeking to explain particularly why the French chose not just to rush forward into Belgium, but to send their crucial reserves forward to the Netherlands, inviting meeting battles of maneuver which the French explicitly sought to avoid. Predictably, the French lost with their weak center punctured by German troops, their forces trapped, and with no powerful reserves to counter-attack.By contrast during the Battle of Britain the British defensive and attrition warfare based fighter command, expanded at the behest of politicians, proved more capable of winning the strategic battle than the Luftwaffe, focused on tactical army support and quick campaigns. British success meant that their strategy of passing war costs to other nations, finding allies, and long-term war based on blockade, ultimately succeeded.

After this point it goes to each of the countries involved, starting with France and explaining why the French had such a defensive doctrine and how it fitted poorly to French grand strategy which sought a broader European network of allies. Crucially, the French believed they needed allies, particularly Britain, to confront Germany, and tried to shift the burden of a conflict onto them by fortifying their border with Germany but leaving Belgium uncovered, to encourage an invasion through Belgium, drawing Belgium into the conflict and making British intervention likely. This strategy was reinforced and confirmed by a belief in the superiority of the defense, meaning that the French would be best served by a broadly defensive strategy which also would bring them allies - but which prevented them from aiding their Eastern European allies.Balance of power concerns are thus the principal reasons for French strategy in the 1930s, and when these started to change and the French thought that they had achieved their war aims of bringing the British onto their side, they were willing to be more aggressive - such as with the Breda variant of the Dyle-Breda plan.

The British navy in 1940, an excellent case in how the British were divided to many theaters and unable to concentrate forces, and that their military branches were divided and poorly coordinated.
The British navy in 1940, an excellent case in how the British were divided to many theaters and unable to concentrate forces, and that their military branches were divided and poorly coordinated.

The chapter on Britain stresses the deterrent nature of British planning, noting that the British were aware of the insufficiency of their resources, but believed that they might be able to dissuade Japan, Italy, and Germany from attacking them through various strategies, and gain allies who would be able to pay much of the cost in blood and treasure of war. Like in France the British military was out of step with supporting the state in its strategic goals, such as the air force's focus on a knock-out blow which ran directly counter to British planning for a long, attrition war with allied support, or the effort to appease potential enemies strengthening them and making them capable of circumventing British blockade. Conversely, the relative paucity of threats during the 1920s enabled British forces to derive their doctrines and plans without any thought to broader strategies, often erroneously such as the RAF and its perception of the effectiveness of strategic bombing, or to harm to British strategic options, even if it did match politician desires - as when the British army gave up its expeditionary force for France. Air force focus on strategic bombing in particular fit their objective of gaining additional funding and influence, even if their actual capability to carry out a knock-out campaign of strategic bomibg was extremely limited. It would be politicians who would restructure the air force to a defensive stance which would enable the British to survive 1940, and who increased the British army's size and gave it a continental European role. The British could do so on the belief that in any event they would have allies, particularly the French, since they had much greater bargaining power as the French were much more desperate - thus enabling them to pass much of their defensive burden to the French.

In contrast to the French and British, the German military was much more aggressive, innovative, and matched their political objectives.
In contrast to the French and British, the German military was much more aggressive, innovative, and matched their political objectives.

Germany is the third nation, and dramatically different than the French or British doctrines - which despite having significant differences, were mostly defensive, wanted to avoid war if possible, often had trouble aligning with political objectives, and focused on shifting the burden of war to allies. Germany by contrast was offensive, highly innovative, could only rely on itself, and served to fulfill its political objectives. Extensive focus on the offensive helped to enable the Germans to have a hope of defeating larger coalitions, and to provide for autonomy and tradition for their armed forces. Focus on massive military expansion under the Nazis aimed to provide the military muscle needed to win diplomatic victories by the appearance of force: the German military was a flexible tool for aggressive foreign policy triumphs. Posen claims that it was Hitler's support that tilted the balance in favor of the blitzerkrieg enthusiasts to enable the traditionalists in the German high command to be vanquished by the armored warfare supporters, demonstrating civilian involvement in doctrine formation on the German side. But furthermore it shows balance of power in action as the German doctrinal decisions were above all else driven by the needs of state foreign policy and strategic objectives.

The lengthy conclusion revisits some points to attempt to sum them up for the nations involved: innovation in the militaries, their degree of integration between branches, and the relative weight of offensive doctrine. Other factors discusses are balance of power and how it influenced the behavior of the three nations, both regarding their usage of military force and diplomatic strategies. Technology and geography, interpreted differently and possessed differently by all three sides, is the final factor: the result of these three is a list of conclusions and warnings to political and foreign policy leaders that they should take into account when planning their policy.


There aren't many people in the world would be interested in reading a book which is purely about theoretical analyzing of organizational logic and balance of power logic behind the actions of various nations. Posen's book's first few chapters are tragically, well, boring and are byzantine in their complexity and quite uninteresting to read, and in my opinion the abstractions that he resorts to are unnecessary and international relations scholars need to stop writing things that nobody will read about and which become too abstruse to be easily understood and applied.

But it must be said that after this point, the book does a good job of explaining what the doctrines were of the powers involved, why they adopted them - skillfully showing a mixture of international concerns, different internal actors, and organizational objectives. This applies for all of the powers, and is well constructed for each of their military forces and objectives.

To illustrate this, the British section well explains both British strategy in the Interwar (with a focus on deterrent and pushing the cost of wars onto allies, but also does an excellent job of illustrating the evolving nature of RAF doctrine with civilian intervention encouraging the development of a more defensive force, the RAF Fighter Command, and the problems which plagued Bomber Command with its overwhelming focus on budgetary battles. This is something which it does for all of the branches of military services that it chooses to analyze (although it doesn't go into great detail for either the French or German navies, since it perceives them as either being neglected for political reasons in the German case, or in the French case as being directed against Italy), in showing the ways they involved and the impact of both balance of power and organizational changes upon them.

The same can be said off of the purely military stage and in regards to analyzing alliance networks and the diplomacy of the nations involved, particularly the relationship between the French and British where Posen shows excellently how the French and British tried to pass the costs of ware to each other, the English succeeding somewhat more than the French since the French and their objectives dovetailed much more with what the British needed and the French were more desperate, but fundamentally to the detriment of both - after all, the defeat in the Battle of France meant that even if Britain survived and its long-term war strategy would ultimately work, it would come at the cost of a bankrupt empire, a far more expensive war in both blood and treasure than in simply fighting in France against the Germans, and a great blow to British prestige through the years of travails and hardship suffered with the panoply of military defeats along the way. This is not mentioned enough in the book, which tends to look too optimistically upon the results of British strategy, but at least in narrow terms in the 1930s it does a superlative work of explaining the logic behind British and French actions in regards to each other.

Of course there are natural limitations, in that the book is only relevant at the strategic and to some extent the operational levels of 1940 combat. There is nothing about tactical level operations and the finer details of military operations. If one was looking for the equivalent of say, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939, then The Sources of Military Doctrine is the wrong book. But it does explain the general principles and strategies that each nation laid out, and does so well: having read this book, one is free to delve deeper into the specifics of each army.

Which returns to the original point: The Sources of Military Doctrine doesn't appeal to a very broad swathe of readers, since it is a mixture of political science and military doctrine. But for those who are interested in the basic grand strategy and military impulses of the French, British, and German militaries in the 1930s, it is an important work which does a good job of integrating the three together, providing a general framework, and revealing new material which one might not have previously known. It can't be guaranteed to be right on everything - other books disagree for example, with its claim of a reactionary German high command which fought against the principles of armored offensive warfare in the form of Blitzkrieg - but broadly speaking, it is a book which is surprisingly accurate, well done, and illustrative for its scope and breadth.

3 stars for The Sources of Military Doctrine

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas


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