After losing the Battle of France, in 1940, France concluded an "Armistice," basically a "cease fire in place," with Germany. (The borders were adjusted so the Germans were given the portion of the Atlantic coast that they had not captured, and they "retroceded" a small portion of central France to the Vichy government.) Losses were disproportionate, with the Germans losing 150,000 men, and the French suffering 2.5 times that much in physical casualties. The thing that surprised me was that France surrendered all of its men, nearly 2 million, in the Armistice, to become prisoners of war for the duration of the war.

Some alternatives follow.

  1. Following the 1918 Armistice and the Versailles Treaty, the Germans had to pay a large indemnity, hand over their battleships, and reduce their army to 100,000 men, but the remainder did NOT become prisoners of war.

  2. The Dutch "surrendered" in May, 1940, but made provisions for the parole of their soldiers in the summer and fall of that year.

  3. In the shoes of the French government, I would have disbanded the army, had the enlisted men hand in their weapons, given them their discharge papers, and maintained only an officer corps to effect the surrender. This would keep most of the two million men out of the POW camps?

  4. The French could have ordered their forces to fight until their ammunition gave out, a formula that had been established by Prussia's own Marshal Bluecher. This would have cost the Germans more casualties, and (presumably) given the Germans an incentive to negotiate.

So why did Vichy France agree to surrender its men, instead of disbanding its army, or having it paroled like the Dutch? Or was it the case that the nearly two million French were already POWs at the time of the armistice?

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    The French didn't do anything other than accepting Germany's terms. So the question should at the very least be re-phrased to "Why did Germany take all those French soldiers as PoW?"
    – DevSolar
    Oct 8, 2021 at 9:33
  • 2
    I don't think that question is "too basic". The differences of outcome with other cases are big enough to be explained. "Because they lost" (which actually would be too basic) isn't even a summary of an answer.
    – Pere
    Oct 8, 2021 at 13:41
  • I think Wikipedia articles about Petain and Weygand here and here explain this reasonably well. Oct 9, 2021 at 1:26
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    I think the important detail here is that the French POW were already prisoners of war by the time of the armistice. As far as I can tell from the allegedly obvious sources pointed in other comments, the soldiers that hadn't still surrendered by then didn't become prisoners of war.
    – Pere
    Oct 10, 2021 at 10:48
  • @Pere: I added a "second" question to cover this possibillity.
    – Tom Au
    Oct 10, 2021 at 11:17

3 Answers 3


Tens of thousands of prisoners of war were taken between the 17th and the 22nd of June.

Then Président du Conseil (Head of Government) and Chief of Armies Philippe Pétain made a huge blunder when he announced on radio the 17th of June, 1940, that France was seeking an armistice with Germany and that

The fight must be stopped.

"il faut cesser le combat"

The consequence on the moral of French troops was devastating :

La phrase "C'est le coeur serré que je vous dis aujourd'hui qu'il faut cesser le combat" sème la consternation. Interprétée comme un cessez-le-feu, de nombreuses unités déposent les armes.

The sentence: "It is with a heavy heart that I tell you today that the fighting must stop" caused consternation. Interpreted as a cease-fire, many units lay down their arms.

The blunder was quickly noticed by the minister of foreign affairs Paul Baudouin, and the printed version of Petain's speech in the evening newspaper was amended into

je vous dis aujourd'hui qu'il faut tenter de cesser le combat.

I tell you today that we must try to stop fighting.

(my emphasis on the two added words)

However this is hardly less clumsy and didn't avoid misunderstandings.

Indeed, many troops that were facing advancing german units then stopped fighting or retreating and surrendered themselves to Germans, expecting to be released quickly. That's when the majority of captures happened:

La majorité des captures ont eu lieu après l'annonce de la demande d'armistice par le maréchal Pétain. Ceux qui ont alors été faits prisonniers, qu'ils aient combattu jusqu'au bout ou qu'ils se soient livrés, avaient des raisons d'espérer être libéré rapidement, une fois l'armistice signé.

The majority of the captures took place after the announcement of the armistice request by Marshal Pétain. Those who were then taken prisoner, whether they fought to the limit or surrendered, had reason to hope to be released quickly, once the armistice was signed.

However, the armistice had still not been agreed upon and would not be until the 22nd. Until that date, the Germans had no reason to treat captured enemies as anything other than prisoners of war, who would continue to be an important bargaining chip in Hitler's hands for the next three years.

  • Maybe I got the nuance for misunderstanding 'not quite right' for qu'il faut cesser le combat ('we'), in light of his later 'il faut tenter de cesser le combat'… Perhaps you may way in more on that? Oct 15, 2021 at 11:26
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    @LаngLаngС In his radio speech, Petain said "je vous dis aujourd'hui qu'il faut cesser le combat". Afterwards his minister Baudouin told him this was very unfortunate, the version of his speech for the evening newspaper was amended into "je vous dis aujourd'hui qu'il faut tenter de cesser le combat." - which is hardly less clumsy and didn't avoid misunderstandings : troops kept surrendering because of a non existing ceasefire. (thanks for your edit, I am ashamed of my bad english) pages.livresdeguerre.net/pages/…
    – Evargalo
    Oct 15, 2021 at 13:36
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    OK, so the French leadership botched the cease fire negotiations. I figured that there was "something rotten in the state of ..." which is why I asked the question.
    – Tom Au
    Oct 24, 2021 at 23:01

There were already numerous French soldiers taken as prisonners of war when the Armistice happened.

2/ Those prisonners of war could have been paroled, but the Germans did not trust France. OP mentionned Dutch army as an example to follow, however while Dutch army was small and easily beaten, France was an other matter. The Germans, in 1940, could not take the risk.

Later on, the Germans, with more confidence in themselves and in neutrality in war and internal collaboration of Vichy France, established the "STO" (mandatory work service): they litterally "trade" prisoners of war in exchange of workers in german industries. Note that this was not always a good trade since sabotage of the production happened, example given Herman Buchner's Focke Wulf 190 in 1943.

1/ For the 1918 example: the difference is that war ended everywhere in 1918, which was not the case in 1940. So we fall back into the 2/ case of the Germans wanted a "security" with those prisoners of war. Again, note that French prisoners of war were used as workers, especially as farmers because German campaigns had lost their men to the army. So those prisoners of war had value.

3/ This could be a possibility, but again already numerous soldiers had been taken as prisoners of war. Note that remaining units, as in the Alpes mountains, that were not defeated by the Germans in 1940 stayed "free" as units of French Vichy's army. So does for colonial units. I think the solution of disbanding soldiers to avoid capture was used, but I can't find back sources so it might be a mistake from my memory.

4/ Nobody in the French government by that time had the willingness to fight to the last man. But some French units, like former mentionned in Alpes mountains, did.

  • 2
    Not sure why people here are so keen on downvoting everything - the facts in your answer are certainly relevant.
    – Roger V.
    Oct 10, 2021 at 13:47
  • Part of the reason why Dutch POWs were released was that they were instantly pulled into the Arbeitseinsatz. My grandfather was one of them, went from a POW camp to a slave labour camp near a German factory in 1941 where he stayed until released back to the Netherlands in 1944 where he went underground to avoid being picked up again for another period in a camp. He rejoined the Dutch army after the war and stayed in the service into the mid-late 1950s when he reached retirement age.
    – jwenting
    Oct 12, 2021 at 10:15
  • @jwenting Yes some French soldiers were put as well at workin farms, but I don't have the numbers Oct 21, 2021 at 19:05

As noted in the OP, armstice means a ceasefire - not a peace agreement. Formally Vichy France and Germany remained in the state of war till the end of their existence.

The situation was militarily lost in June 1940, to the extent that the French had no means to prevent German army from overrunning the metropolitan France. Thetefore, the last days of the Raynaud's government (before Pétain became the prime minister) were centered on the choice between seeking peace with Germans and the capitulation.

Capitulation meant acknowledging military defeat: the army would surrender, but the state of war would still exist, and the government could continue the war from the French colonies.

Peace agreement meant placing the responsibility for war on the politicians, and essentially acknowledging that the German cause was just.

Unsurprisingly, the generals opposed the capitulation, i.e., accepting the blame for the defeat. And Hitler had good reasons to let them have a small part of the French mainland in exchange for their collaboration. The French prisoners of war played a part of hostages - Pétain has actively sought their release (via making a peace agreement), using this as one of justifications for closer collaboration with Germans, whereas Hitler did not trust that France would remain pro-German, once it had its soldiers back. It is also necessary to note that, despite the collaboration, Vichy France never formally joined the war on the German side.

  • 1
    " It is also necessary to note that, despite the collaboration, Vichy France never joined the war on the German side" This could be disputed as Vichy's colonial territories fought the Allies and Free France when the latter asked the territories to rally and then attacked them. But yes Vichy France did not enter the war by itself alongside the Axis Oct 10, 2021 at 8:22
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    @totalMongot not sure what can be disputed her: you essentially reiterate what I said in my answer. I inserted word "formally" - does it make it clearer?
    – Roger V.
    Oct 10, 2021 at 8:36
  • The problem is: what is the way to "formally" declare that I am fighting with you? I wanted to highlight the facts of war between Vichy France and the Allies, including german forces (in Syria) on the side of Vichy. Fact-base, this was vichy france fighting with germany. What about formally? They did not declare alliance I think, but do you need alliance to "formally" join war with someone? Oct 10, 2021 at 11:31
  • @totalMongot yes, declaration of war is a legal act, required by the international law and usually by the domestic law. E.g., in US it is voted for by Congress. More importantly, some alliances may automatically trigger a state of war, without one's actual involvement - e.g., NATO. Of course, one can have a war without actually declaring it - US hasn't declared a war since WW2.
    – Roger V.
    Oct 10, 2021 at 13:37

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