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(Spellmount, London, 2006)
Judging by its text, bibliography and foreword, Hitler's Gauls is essentially a shallowly researched and incomplete plundering of a handful of French books of often questionable historical detachment, set against a background reading on the Waffen-SS that could have been found in bargain bookshops over the last decade and an exchange of letters with a couple of veterans. When derivative Rupert Butler and Osprey books are cited as authorities in a short bibliography, one knows a book has shallow roots. The author offers a nod towards research in the Bundesarchiv in his acknowledgements, but there is absolutely no trace of original documentary material in the text.
Mercifully, the author has avoided the invented dialogue that undermines much French historical writing to the point where it becomes indistinguishable from “Faction”. However, the style of writing is often more reminiscent of historical fiction than sober military history.
The book starts off on the wrong foot by picking a questionable title – Hitler’s Gauls. The claims of the French to membership of the Waffen-SS were based on the Germanic identity of the Franks – the German tribe that gave France its name by over running the Romano-Gauls, who were not Germanic by SS standards. "Hitler’s Franks" would have been a more accurate title.
The author then tries to invest his subject with an aura of eliteness and military significance but, reading between the lines, a rather different picture emerges:
Despite the smokescreen put up in Hitler’s Gauls, it is apparent the record of French service in German uniform was poor. The first battalion of volunteers of the LVF had to be withdrawn from the line in December 1941 within a week of deployment despite the German front then being in crisis. It then spent the next year reduced to rear-area anti-partisan operations.
In January 1943 control of French recruitment was handed over to the Waffen-SS. By September only 1,500 suitable volunteers had come forward. The unit finally saw action in August 1944 – a laggardly year and a half after its formation began. It went into action on 9 August and had been virtually wiped out within a fortnight.
On 10 August 1944 the Charlemagne Division was ordered formed. It consisted basically of exiled Frenchmen who had compromised themselves in various ways either by directly serving the Germans or in the more ruthless security arms of the Vichy regime. Notwithstanding the title “division”, these scrapings were only ever sufficient to form a mixed brigade of at most 8,000 men. Furthermore, this brigade never managed to get more than four infantry battalions into action. In effect, there never was a Charlemagne “division”.
Charlemagne units first entered the line on 24 February 1945. Within two days “Charlemagne was now beginning to be torn apart.” (p.111). Thereafter it was basically a tale of isolated units of Frenchmen under no central divisional control and having lost or abandoned any heavy equipment, falling back within the body of German forces.
By early April, only 1,100 men could be reassembled out of the line. Of these, over a third had had enough and were transferred to a construction battalion. The remainder were only partly recommitted when the Reich was in absolute extremis. On 24 April the unit was ordered to Berlin. Only some 400 volunteers were taken. These volunteers seem mostly to have been selected by judicious use of peer group pressure. Where company commanders genuinely canvassed for volunteers, few men apparently came forward. However, when two companies were paraded by their commanders and volunteers asked to take one pace forward, the entire companies did so!
The tale of the Charlemagne and its French predecessor units in German service is essentially one of failure – of an inability to attain or maintain significant strength or retain cohesiveness in front line action. Even if one counts the service of straggling sub-units, in nearly four years of trying, the Germans only managed to get the French into the line four times, the combined total of which came to less than two months, none of which was as an effective higher formation.
Hitler’s Gauls ends with the extraordinary sub heading: “Charlemagne: recorded atrocities nil”, as if this absence of recorded (!) atrocities is somehow to the division’s credit, rather than the minimal standard to be expected! And anyway, where, one wonders, would the Charlemagne ever have had the opportunity to commit atrocities? It only ever served in defence on Reich soil, and then only briefly! And then there is the overlooked question as to whether its predecessor units such as the LVF, which spent a year on anti-partisan operations in the USSR, and the Milice, who were the Vichy regime’s severest internal enforcers, were quite so unblemished? The book ends with the quite unnecessary whiff of whitewash.
Does this obscure subject really deserve a book in English? Yes. It is a curious tale of some fascination that deserves an airing. However, this volume, with its uncritical acceptance of the French volunteers at their own estimation, has turned a historical curiosity of military insignificance into a mock-heroic warrior epic. Apparently (p.149) it was on 28 April that “the men from Charlemagne really began to establish their reputation as an elite in the defence of the city (Berlin)”. Strange, then, that this “reputation as an elite” seems to have completely escaped every major study of the battle from Cornelius Ryan, to Anthony Beevor and beyond!
The author also unquestioningly passes on some unlikely “facts” without engaging his critical faculties. For example, on p.143 he claims of one King Tiger tank in Berlin, “His tally for the day stood at over 100 tanks and twenty-six anti-tank guns destroyed, as well as a pile of soft-skinned vehicles.” Is this likely? Just to knock out the tanks alone would require it to destroy one every seven minutes during daylight in vision-obscured, smoke-ridden, rubble-strewn streets – and this is to ignore time taken out to rest, refuel, rearm and redeploy. Such an unlikely proposition – surely by far a world record - cries out for some sourcing but, as with the rest of the book, almost no factoid is traceable due to minimal footnoting.
Make no mistake, even though they spent very little time at the front and to very little effect, the few French volunteers saw some intense fighting under very unfavourable conditions and, by their own accounts, many of them fought courageously. However, this book tries to invest them with a military significance they never had.
Hitler’s Gauls is a poor book, based on limited and sometimes questionable sources that romanticizes its subject beyond the demonstrable evidence. This reviewer hopes that a more original, detached and better sourced work supersedes it quickly.
Hitler’s Gauls also threatens to be the first in a series entitled “Hitler’s Legions” – itself already an over used title. If so, one hopes that the author will sharpen his critical faculties, broaden his reading list and engage in more primary research before embarking on the next installment. Otherwise publishers might just as well translate existing foreign language books directly into English.
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About the "racial" character of the French, they were indeed considered "Gaulic" along with the Walloon Belgians (until that changed for expediency). The Heer continued recruitment of Frenchmen into 1944, but from early 1943, French who could prove some Nordic background were allowed to enlist in the Waffen-SS (some had already done so by pretending to be Flemish, or by being from French Flanders). This French Waffen-SS was small in numbers because few French could meet the criteria, and they had "Freiwilligen" status in common with Germanics and Volksdeutsche. In the autumn of 1944, the original French Waffen-SS was combined with the LVF and the Milice to form the Charlemagne Brigade. This unit was not screened as to the ancestry of its men, and so it had "Waffen" status in common with other non-German/Germanic peoples.
Anyone who wants a very detailed look, in English, at the French Waffen-SS should get Robert Forbes' book For Europe. Forbes is aware of the way many French language sources blend fact and fiction, so he very carefully sorts through the varying accounts of every event he discusses, and balances these, where possible, with material provided directly to him by surviving veterans.