Sign up ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

True or false?

This is claimed by Andrew Roberts in The Storm of War. Quote:

As more Frenchmen bore arms for the Axis than for the Allies during the Second World War, it is unsurprising that there is still no official French history of the period.

Who in turn cites Max Hastings, Sunday Telegraph, 2/2/2003, p. 14, available here. Quote:

After reading this narrative, and recalling the brutal statistic that more Frenchmen bore arms for the Axis than for the Allies during the Second World War, it seems unsurprising that France still has no plans for an official history of 1939-45.

Hastings however gives no reference for this claim.

share|improve this question
I've never read that author. One of his other books apparently got panned by The Economist as "a giant political pamphlet larded with its author's prejudices". However, the same publication apparently rather liked the book in question. – T.E.D. Jan 14 '14 at 13:37
The statistic might or might not be true but the whole sentence sounds like run-of-the-mill French-bashing and does not make much sense. What would an “official history” be? Also, if anything, the French role in the holocaust is a lot more painful than strictly military aspects like who fought for whom. – Relaxed Mar 7 '14 at 7:52
It's a subjective question because it is hard to define who "bore" arms. However, Roberts' main point, that the French were either neutral or closer to the Germans than to the English/Americans during the war period and afterwards, is true to a degree. The "history" taught to American and British children about France in WW2 would be unrecognizable to a Frenchman. – Tyler Durden Jul 10 '14 at 12:20

3 Answers 3

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Many French may have borne arms for the Axis, but it was very soft support; not many of them ever fired a shot in anger for the Axis. Even in October/November 1942 with the Axis at flood tide, Vichy North Africa rapidly switched allegiance after the Torch Landings at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers, despite some initial confused opposition.

Following the liberation of Paris in August 1944, Charles de Gaulle very effectively began mobilizing a French Army that number well over 1,000,000 men in the field by the following spring.


From Wikipedia for Operation Torch following the invasion on November 8, 1942
(and consistent with descriptions both by Churchill and Manchester & Reid):

Political Results
It quickly became clear that Giraud lacked the authority to take command of the French forces. He preferred to wait in Gibraltar for the results of the landing. However, Darlan in Algiers had such authority. Eisenhower, with the support of Roosevelt and Churchill, made an agreement with Darlan, recognizing him as French "High Commissioner" in North Africa. In return, Darlan ordered all French forces in North Africa to cease resistance to the Allies and cooperate instead. The deal was made on 10 November, and French resistance ceased almost at once.

Vichy Terms:

Under terms of the surrender, the Vichy government was only allowed to maintain an internal army of 95,000 (all ranks) plus a gendarmerie of 60,000 and an anti-aircraft force of 10,000. There were an additional 145,000 or so Vichy forces in Algeria, Morocco and the Levant, making a total force under arms of barely 300,000.

Since some 2,000,000 soldiers had been captured by the Germans in the spring 1940 campaign and retained under the treaty terms as forced labour, it is difficult to see how the Vichy forces were ever even comparable to the forces fielded by France in 1940.

share|improve this answer
This is not true. The Vichy French fought the allies in Syria and during the early stages of Torch. – Oldcat Jan 14 '14 at 1:29
@Oldcat: The Vichy in North-West Africa fought on Day 1; talked on Day 2,; and switched sides on day 3. That qualifies as "rapidly switched sides" in my book. See update above. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 14 '14 at 3:33
@OldCat as well as in Syria the British and Vichy French fought for several months in Madagascar and there were several other raggedy encounters in other regions. Not large forces though. The book England’s Last War Against France: Fighting Vichy is helpful. – Tea Drinker Jan 14 '14 at 15:52
There was also Dakar which was an emphatic victory for Vichy France fighting hard against the Allies. Admittedly it was also badly botched by Free French/British. – Tea Drinker Jan 14 '14 at 15:57
My comment was aimed mostly at the first few sentences that seemed to trivialize Vichy fighting the Allies. That said, I view the original assertion that most of the French fought for the Axis as nonsense. – Oldcat Jan 14 '14 at 21:39

Pieter Geerkens answer is excellent and should be selected, but I want to add a few well-known facts which show that the "brutal statistic" is actually wrong by an order of magnitude.

Western Front 1940 More than 2,200,000 French soldiers fought on the Western Front in 1940. This alone dwarfs the total number of any kind of military personnel under Vichy-France, of which only a fraction fought for the Axis.

French Free Forces before Operation Torch It is not so easy to determine the relative size of the Forces Françaises Libres compared to Vichy-France in the Levant and Madagascar campaigns. About 100,000 troops from Vichy-France seem to have fought these campaigns. In late 1942, there were 60,000 Forces Françaises Libres.

French Liberation Army In 1943, after their fusion with the African Armies, the FFL became the French Liberation Army. 72,000 men fought in Tunisia, 100,000 in Italy and 267,000 in the liberation of France (mostly in Operation Dragoon). Again, these forces alone seem to outnumber the total number of military personnel of Vichy-France.

French Forces after the liberation In september 1944, so after the liberation of Paris, the French Liberation Army numbered 550,000. In december 1944, 1,000,000. At the end of the war, 1,300,000.

Conclusion At the beginning and the end of WWII, French forces fighting with the Allies outnumbered the maximum number of French forces fighting with the Axis by almost an order of magnitude. Frenchmen who "bore the arms" for the Axis were at most 300,000; and among them perhaps 100,000 or 150,000 actually fought.

Why there is some truth in the assertion Depending on the context of the quote, though, I think there might be some truth in the assertion. Indeed, among the hundred of thousands who fought for the Forces Françaises Libres and the Armée de Libération, most were from France then colonial empire. So it is conceivably true that more metropolitan French bore arms for Vichy-France on the soil of metropolitan France in the late 1940/early 1944 period than metropolitan French bore arms for the Allies during the same period. And indeed, this fact is not easily discussed in the historiography of France. So with the qualifications "metropolitan French" and "from late 1940 to early 1944", the assertion might be correct. Without the qualifications, it verges on the insult to the French soldiers of 1940 and of the Armée Française de Libération.


@jwentig correctly remarks that the answer did not account for the French volunteers and conscripts who fought in the Waffen-SS and other Axis units. In fact, a number seem hard to track down (leading credence to the accusation of uneasiness in the original quote). Nevertheless, I found this book which aims at a complete listing. It arrives at a total of 40,000 French soldiers for the Axis, so maybe 2% of the numbers who fought with the Allies. Among these, 18,000 to 22,000 fought voluntarily in the Waffen-SS according to Wikipedia, which is in fact rather low (compared for instance to the 40,000 from Belgium or Hungary and the 50,000 from the Netherlands, which all had a fraction of France's population). Another point that wasn't discussed in any answers so far, I think, is the case of forced conscriptions of former French citizens in the annexed part of Alsace and Moselle. There were about 130,000 so that even including them (which would seem quite historically unfair as well as inaccurate), the total number of Frenchmen arguably bearing arms for the Axis (total Vichy-France army plus French in German units plus forced conscriptions) hardly reaches 500,000. About one sixth of those who indisputably fought with the Allies.


Any reference about WWII, starting with Wikipedia.

share|improve this answer
this does not take into account the divisions of Waffen SS troops recruited from France, French police forces during the occupation, French resistance groups turned into hunters of other resistance groups, etc. etc. – jwenting Jan 14 '14 at 14:46
@jwenting I deliberately ignored the Waffen SS divisions as these seemed to be an order of magnitude smaller than the Vichy-France forces, so two orders smaller than the French forces fighting for the Allies. Symbolically and historically, they are important. Numerically, not so much. French police force are an entirely different matter, it seems to me. They were terribly efficient in their participation to the Holocaust, but they don't seem to have fought in the usual sense of the term. – Olivier Jan 14 '14 at 20:45
@Olivier: Thanks for the plug; I will reciprocate. You have nicely extended a number of my points. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 14 '14 at 23:13
@Olivier not sure how many French people fought in German units or dedicated French units in the German armed forces. I know just the French Waffen SS were several divisions, meaning even without reinforcements several tens of thousands (and with reinforcements probably twice that). – jwenting Jan 17 '14 at 10:53
@jwenting I also don't know much about it, to tell you the truth. Wiki's page on foreign volunteers and conscripts in the Waffen SS records 18,000 to 22,000 volunteers. That number, if correct, is one order of magnitude below Vichy-France and two orders of magnitude below France libre. I agree that it seems almost suspiciously low, though, compared for instance to the 45,000 to 55,000 from the Netherlands which had then 1/4th of the population of France. Updated the answer though. – Olivier Jan 17 '14 at 14:15

It is absolutely ridiculous.

By the end of the war in 1945, the Free French army alone had almost one and half million men, making it the fourth largest Allied army in Europe.

The maximum strength of the 33rd Waffen-SS Division Charlemagne was 7000-8000 soon after it was raised from different volunteer outfits in 1944, and the grand total of French volunteers was around 20,000.

It is also not accurate to count the Vichy army (limited to less than 300,000 men by the 2nd Compiegne armistice). It did not wage war against the Allies, it just resisted armed incursions from both Allied and Axis (Japan and Thailand in French Indochina) belligerents, as is the duty of any country according to international law on armed neutrality.

Its most important military action was actually anti-Axis, the scuttling of the French navy in Toulon, preventing its fall into Axis hands.

share|improve this answer
Interesting assertions; are there citations to back them up? – Mark C. Wallace Jul 10 '14 at 12:24
Fourth largest - no doubt, though Canada had more than 1/2 million in France and Italy with a fraction of the population; but 1.5 million is likely high (on May 7, 1945) by 1/2 million. – Pieter Geerkens Mar 29 at 22:12

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.