Review of ‘The Riom Trial’
By Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre Tissier
Maître des Requêtes au Conseil d’Etat
Author of “The Government of Vichy”
George Harrap and Co. London 1942.
In February 1942 Vichy gave the world a strange spectacle, that of a country discussing in public the reasons for its occupation by a foreign power. And the world listened, over a hundred and fifty journalists attended, including from the United States and Chile. Two years later the same regime was execrated as a regime of terror conducted by traitors who must be eliminated.
In 1940 the scale and speed of the military defeat left the country in shock. Petain decided to give the population an explanation by putting on trial those responsible.
The personnel of the several governments of the years leading up to the war were put on trial, accused of the defeat. Pétain announced the trial as soon as July 1940. It would take place in the little town of Riom which had a large court room, and the trial became known as the Riom trial. At the time it was followed by the world’s press, and the British Labour Party published the transcript of the speeches of Léon Blum, one of the accused. The trial took two years to prepare, since the judges were investigative judges and accumulated masses of documents before the trial could start. 100 0000 pages of documents were gathered. The accused also prepared, with the help of teams of lawyers.
In 1945 Petain was put on trial with hardly any preparation and made responsible for the defeat of France; he was guilty of ‘intelligence with the enemy’, the implication being that he had handed over the country to Germany voluntarily. There was no discussion of the military disaster which had led to the armistice. In terms of fairness and respect for the truth, the Riom trial was vastly superior.
The Vichy government judges did not find it a simple matter getting to the bottom of why France was beaten. France had actually started the war with Britain. So the first question to answer was: why did France declare war?
England declared war on Germany on the 3rd September 1939 in the morning. France followed a few hours later.
They declared war because they had promised Poland that they would come to her assistance if she was attacked. Hitler attacked Poland on 1st September. The reason for the attack was the Polish refusal to accept the reunification of the German city of Dantzig to adjoining East Prussia, and the construction of rail and road communications between West and East Prussia, through the Polish corridor.
These facts could not be gone into publicly, since Britain and France had declared war on Germany on 3rd September, but had done nothing to help Poland militarily. Poland was crushed.
France could not admit that it was responsible for starting the war. Admitting war guilt would put France in a weak position if there was a peace settlement, and Germany might take Alsace-Lorraine.
Besides, Britain was still in the war. Britain was still theoretically an ally; at least Vichy France was not at war with it, it had only committed itself, at the Armistice, not to give military assistance to the enemies of Germany. If France admitted war guilt, it would implicate Britain, who had declared war at the same time. These topics were a source of embarrassment. More generally opinions towards war with Germany were divided.
Before 1939, politicians were calling for war with Germany, and were opposed by others who did not want war. The Vichy government was composed of elements on both sides of the argument, for and against declaring war.
Then there was the attitude to adopt towards England after the armistice. Some in Vichy accused Britain of dragging France into war and then abandoning her in her defeat. When Britain destroyed the French fleet anchored at Mers-el-Kebir in North Africa, anti-British feeling was reinforced.
The United States, ally of France, and ally to Britain, were present at Vichy in the shape of their ambassador Admiral Leahy.
Finally, Nazi Germany was watching the trial with even more interest than the rest of the world. Recognition by France that she and Britain had started the war would have been welcome. Some in Vichy wanted to give Germany that satisfaction, but most did not.
Those who wanted to avoid the question of the declaration of war won the day, and it was decided not to make the question of the declaration of war part of the trial. A secret session of the trial discussed the high level government/army meeting of 26 August 1939 which had debated whether France was ready militarily to go to war over Poland, but that was all.
The decision to exclude the declaration of war from the trial influenced the choice of who to prosecute. Georges Mandel had been minister for the Colonies (1938-39) and had been an advocate for war with Nazi Germany. He was arrested by Vichy but not put on trial with the other politicians, because he was seen as a representative of the ‘warmongers’ and war mongering was not to be mentioned. Daladier, who had signed the Munich Agreement, was chosen instead as a culprit.
There was henceforth no public mention of the declaration of war.
Pierre Tissier, who had been a higher civil servant in the Conseil d’Etat and was in 1942 a collaborator of De Gaulle in London as Comptroller of the Free French, wrote a contemporary account of the trial. He obviously had connexions with people in Riom, since he had in his possession the full short hand verbatim transcript of the trial, including that of the secret session mentioned above. None of that was supposed to be available to anyone outside the court and the Vichy government. This seems to show that there were direct links between people in Vichy and people in London.
He noted the exclusion ‘from the proceedings of the men who had exercised a decisive influence on the position of the French Government in August 1939, Paul Reynaud and Georges Mandel.’ He noted also that the indictment omitted ‘everything relating to the outbreak of the war’ and stressed that the court would only investigate the defeat and the men responsible for it, and not the question of declaring war. In his first speech to the tribunal Leon Blum congratulated the judges in their patriotism in not discussing the declaration of war.
Tissier noted the secret session discussing the 26 August 1939 meeting where the minister for foreign Affairs, and the Ministers of National Defence and the principal military chiefs met to determine ‘whether France ought to fulfil her pledges to Poland and was in a position to do so.’
Vichy did not want to put the army in an uncomfortable position by saying the Army was responsible for the defeat, and the only military man on trial, general Gamelin, helpfully refused to answer any question or speak at all. That left, as an indictment, inadequate preparation for war since 1936 by ministers, in particular by Léon Blum, Prime Minister in the 1936-37 Popular Front, and Edouard Daladier. The Popular Front reduced the amount of time worked by factory workers (40 hour weeks, 2 weeks paid holidays), allowed strikes and factory occupations, nationalised war manufactures and thus caused France to be unprepared. That was the scenario envisaged for the trial.
In the court room Blum and Daladier were allowed to make four-hour speeches, which were admired for their eloquence. They made short work of the witnesses. They were able to show that they had ordered more war materials, and had made military service longer than ministers before 1936, including Marshal Pétain, minister for war in 1934, who presided over cuts in the military budget and shortening of military service. The trial made Pétain and Vichy look ridiculous, and it was ‘suspended pending a complement of information’. It had lasted from February to April 1942.
The defeat of France
Since he was in London supporting de Gaulle, Tissier used his reporting of the Trial to give his own explanation for the defeat. For him the cause of the defeat was the refusal of High Command to adopt the methods recommended by General De Gaulle, the name never mentioned at Riom, who as Colonel De Gaulle had put forward the war doctrine that would have saved France.
The General Command, responsible for ordering war materials, ordered the wrong sort of war materials because of their out-dated notions of war. Tissier said:
‘The Command only cared to see the German Army in the image of what it had made of the French Army. It had never believed in dive-bombers, in large formations of tanks plunging forward alone and independently, in the close co-ordination of the action of planes and that of armoured machines. It had only one dogma—fortifications; only one doctrine—the defensive.’
So they didn’t order the right material. Also they weren’t informed about how the German Army was armed.
And the existing material was not used properly, it was left in depots, scattered instead of concentrated. Etc.
Tissier explained why new ideas were not considered: natural mental laziness prevents ‘9 men out of 10’ to consider problems ‘otherwise than according to a certain routine.’
Also it is easier to get funding for tried and trusted machines, rather than new-fangled ones.
All members of the War Council had been officers in 14-18. With age they had ceased to be soldiers and become intellectually slothful bureaucrats.
Tanks and planes according to Tissier never became fully part of the French army. Crews of tanks and planes in 14-18 ‘had been to a great extent drawn from all the dare-devil elements in the French nation, the common folk being in the tanks and the aristocracy in the planes.’
After the war, tank officers were considered as mechanics ‘with whom one didn’t mix.’ Aviation remained ‘the sphere of individual sporting exploits’.
The great unmentioned name throughout the trial was that of De Gaulle, who had recommended the use of tanks and planes in the way that they turned out to be used by the Germans.
Tissier summarised the main points of De Gaulle’s 1934 book: Vers une armée de métier [‘Towards a professional army’, published in English as ‘The Army of the Future’ Hutchinson & Company London (1941)] as follows:
The arguments of De Gaulle for a professional army were several. What was needed was no longer cannon fodder. Technical advances required specialist training by specialists. The land army must become a real profession, like the Navy and the Air Force.
There were political reasons also. France would in future need to make war when the population did not feel that its survival is at stake:
‘The interconnexion between all world problems, again, makes it possible for France to become involved in a war in which the people will not feel that its own existence is directly threatened. Thus it will not have the high faith that inspired the soldiers of the Revolution, or those of 1914.’ (Tissier summarising De Gaulle.)
Besides, France has a smaller population and smaller industrial resources than Germany, and therefore must have ‘an army of quality adapted to present-day mechanisation.’
Tissier then quoted De Gaulle’s memorandum of 26 January 1940. After four months of the French and German armies ‘buried in their respective fortified lines’ De Gaulle sent a report to the President of the Council and to the Commander-in-Chief regarding the morale of the army. It was certainly worsening with inaction, but would also necessarily be inadequate in a modern war:
‘The maintaining of almost the whole active population of the country under arms may be accepted by the citizens when they fully realize the necessity for it …. But in the present war, no proof of this sort—and for good reason—is being given them…In its very essence and principle, the mass levy corresponds to great shocks, to imminent menace, to dire necessity.’
This passage is repeated later in the book, with some words added:
‘Maintaining almost the whole active population of the country under arms may be accepted by the citizens when they realize the necessity for it. It was so under the Revolution, against which Europe was in coalition, or during the last war when the Germans were at Noyon. The masses knew that they were indispensable for their country’s preservation, a fact of which the operations gave them constant and bloody proof. But in the present war no such proof—and for good reasons—is being given them…’
‘The French Army was crushed by the superiority of the German armaments, particularly in aircraft and tanks: the German Panzer divisions, working in close collaboration with the Stukas, met with no serious resistance, as the French army had neither tanks, nor aeroplanes, nor anti-tank weapons, nor anti-aircraft guns.’
Why was there such a lack of that sort of armament?
‘It became apparent that if there were not more tanks, nor more aeroplanes, nor weapons to fight tanks and aeroplanes, it was because the Command, clinging to its purely defensive theory of the continuous front, had not considered it indispensable to have more of them. Similarly it had rejected the principle of dive-bombers and offensive aircraft. And similarly it had decided that anti-aircraft guns were ineffective.’
Colonel De Gaulle called from 1934 to 1940 for preparation for a war of machines.
‘For six years the French Command called his scheme madness, refused to order the necessary machines, refused to create independent armoured divisions, clung stubbornly to the view that tanks were auxiliaries to the infantry and the use of aeroplanes was to bomb rear areas, and declared its faith in the inviolability of continuous fronts. And Marshal Pétain himself made a point of publishing a refutation of the system of Colonel De Gaulle.
And at the end of these six years, the Command that had created only a defensive army destined to remain buried in concrete launched it into an offensive operation in flat open country without having provided it with the absolutely indispensable equipment it required.’
Then that army was incapable of reacting when the Panzer divisions and the Stukas ‘foreseen by General De Gaulle’ pierced the front line at a spot that Marshal Pétain had declared to be ‘impassable’ and which was defended consequently only by reserves. ‘Marshal Pétain had opposed its being fortified, and had declared, with an authority that on one would have dreamed of disputing, that the Ardennes were impassable.’
‘From 1935 to 1939 the Marshal never asked the Army council, of which he was the illustrious and most influential member, for the smallest increase in armaments.’
So there were two causes to military defeat:
Marshal Pétain’s blindness to the fundamental problems of modern warfare; ‘his refusal and the systematic refusal of the General Staff to adopt the doctrine of the young colonel of tanks who was to become General Charles de Gaulle. This refusal had its repercussions on the training of the troops and their morale, as well as on armament and on the conception of operations.’
So ‘The allied armies were crushed in May 1940 by the Panzer divisions supported by the German dive-bombers. This fact is beyond discussion.’
Tissier gave a complete account of the proceedings of the trial, which went into enormous detail about army equipment, when ordered, by whom, in what quantities, what sort etc. He entered entirely into the spirit of the trial, and the necessity to make known all these details. He explained the defeat as a failure of the High Command, and of Pétain as the most influential member of the War Council, to understand modern warfare.
In his foreword, De Gaulle had encouraging words for the people involved in the Riom trial. He said:
‘Finally, it is a remarkable and striking circumstance that not one of all the Frenchmen whose voices were heard at Riom, whether for the occasion they were defendants or witnesses or even judges, ever at any moment adopted a tone of despair. It was as though they were discussing a temporary national disaster that each one felt to be out of key with the true fighting worth of France. Now this war is not ended, and France, France too continues…’
This was the situation and the state of mind of De Gaulle and his supporters in 1942. There is no mention of betrayal and treachery.
Pétain, according to Tissier, instead of asking for an armistice, should have taken the government to the colonies of North Africa with the remaining army, air force and navy. Tissier speculates that failure to do so might be due to treachery, but hopes that that was not the case.
In 1942 Gaullists had a coherent account of the military defeat, that stuck to the facts. They saw that Vichy leaders were careful to spare Britain any embarrassment, and eager not to give Germany the satisfaction of acknowledging France and Britain had started the war. By 1945 myth had replaced fact. Pétain was on trial, accused of ‘intelligence with the enemy undertaken in order to facilitate the enemy’s objectives’, and the story was spread that the country was handed over to Nazi Germany deliberately by traitors motivated by fear of Bolshevism, with the cry ‘Rather Hitler than the Popular Front’. The question of the actual declaration of war was buried ever deeper. The reason for war, if anyone dared ask, was answered retrospectively by invoking the events that happened two years after war was declared.
The Riom trial showed that Vichy at that time was at worst ineffective, and at best patriotic, and so it was forgotten. In 2016 however a thousand page volume of the proceedings of the Riom trial was on sale in a French motorway service station. This was published in 2012 by Omnibus, and edited by Julia Bracher, journalist and historian, together with extracts from the diaries of Blum and Daladier. Tissier appears in the bibliography. She concluded her introduction by mentioning the trial of Pétain in 1945. She ended with a non-committal: “Strange mirror effect between two Frances who put each other on trial in the vain hope of healing too great a wound.”
The two trials are not mirror images of each other. One had to be abandoned because the accused ridiculed the prosecution. The safety of the accused was secured throughout the war. The truth was spoken. The other sentenced Petain to death, and turned a lie into the founding myth of post-war France.