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In Britain the story (and the audio) of the events of 3rd September 1939 are so well known and Neville Chamberlain's moving broadcast so cherished that the it's strange that the French declaration of war some hours later is so often relegated to a footnote.

The schoolboy histories that I grew up with typically manage to imply that the timing of the French declaration speaks both of their junior role in the Anglo-French alliance and their reluctance to prosecute the war (of a piece with their collapse less than a year later).

It seems unlikely those British histories are doing much more than point scoring with the benefit of hindsight so what is the true story behind the French delay? Was there a technical reason? Was France really the junior partner, unable to move first? Why didn't the two allies ensure their declarations of war were timed together?

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2 Answers

The timing difference merely reflected the previous difference in deadline presented to Germany for withdrawal from Poland: 11:00 am the deadline presented by Great Britain, and 5:00pm that presented by France. Both countries promptly declared war as the respective deadlines passed without any withdrawal by Germany from Poland.

The deadlines themselves had to be approved by the legislatures of both countries, and the timing differences may simply reflect the different lengths of time allowed for debate. A minimum time, probably 24 or 48 hours, would have to have been allowed after the presentation of the deadline to Germany, in case it actually wished to comply with the presented deadlines.

Update:
In The Gathering Storm on page 407, Churchill states

I learned later that a British ultimatum had been given to Germany at 9:30 P.M. on September 1, and that this had been followed by a second and final ultimatum at 9 A.M. on September 3.

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The time allowed was in fact only a few hours: news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/september/3/… France presented their ultimatum at 12:30, 1h15m after UK had declared war. –  Lennart Regebro Aug 5 '13 at 9:35
    
Great answer. Note that Churchill only "learned later" because he wasn't yet PM, and the British system doesn't really require any kind of a representative vote on war declarations. See my answer for a little more detail. –  T.E.D. Aug 6 '13 at 13:24
    
could France have "gone first" then, if their debate timings had allowed it? or was there an element of caution, of following the British lead? –  Tea Drinker Aug 6 '13 at 13:37
    
Actually, my supposition may have been incorrect; Churchill makes no reference to a debate in the Commons, which he would certainly have been interested in, until after Chamberlain's 11:1 A.M. announcement. –  Pieter Geerkens Aug 6 '13 at 21:22
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Note that (according to Churchill anyway) Britain also declared war on Japan several hours before the USA did. You'll have trouble finding anyone arguing that this showed that the USA was a "junior partner".

Churchill put it down to the difference in the two governments. In the USA, a formal declaration of war requires an act of Congress. Both houses didn't get around to this until 1PM on Dec 8 (a veritable speed record for them, really). The President didn't sign the declaration until 5PM (although many argue this isn't required on a declaration of war).

Under the British system, it is entirely up to "the Government", which means the leadership of the majority party. In the Japanese case, the decision was simply made by Churchill's war cabinet, and Churchill's only formality was informing the King and his ambassadors of the decision.

Like the USA, the Third French Republic did not give its government the same lattitude to declare war that the British enjoy. Under their constitution of the time, the President of France had to declare a war, but both houses of its parliment had to approve of it. Even in an emergency, all these extra approvals take time.

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