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Post Did the Soviets "Clear" Minefields with Waves of Troops?
Created by John Eipper on 06/21/19 3:47 AM

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Did the Soviets "Clear" Minefields with Waves of Troops? (Cameron Sawyer, Russia, 06/21/19 3:47 am)

John E asked this question, about Soviet tactics and minefields:

"How true are the Western reports that the Soviet army crossed German minefields [in WWII] the quick way--by advancing waves of troops to ‘explode them out'?"

This idea is either semi- or entirely mythical, and it is based on a famous conversation Eisenhower had with Zhukov. As Eisenhower recounted the conversation, Zhukov said:

"There are two kinds of mines; one is the personnel mine and the other is the vehicular mine. When we come to a minefield, our infantry attacks exactly as if it were not there. The losses we get from personnel mines we consider only equal to those we would have gotten from machine guns and artillery if the Germans had chosen to defend that particular area with strong bodies of troops instead of with minefields. The attacking infantry does not set off the vehicular mines, so after they have penetrated to the far side of the field they form a bridgehead, after which the engineers come up and dig out channels through which our vehicles can go."

From Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe.

Note that the idea which Zhukov is expressing is not that you just thoughtlessly expend lives of your own soldiers because they don't mean anything, but that the casualties are not greater than in other kinds of attacks and so you don't let yourself lose the initiative in attack just because there's a minefield in the way.

However, in any case, there is no historical evidence that I've seen or heard of that this tactic was used on a regular basis with regular Soviet troops, and it is likely that Zhukov was just trying to impress Eisenhower. There is historical evidence that German POWs and Soviet penal battalions ("shtrafbats") were used by the Soviets in this way (and that the Germans used Soviet POWs to clear minefields). Both sides in this extremely brutal conflict abused, starved to death, worked to death, and murdered each other's POWs, not to mention civilians in occupied territories. There are recorded cases of Germans driving Russian civilians through minefields to clear them.

Eisenhower's quote of Zhukov has been used by Soviet dissidents to illustrate the brutality of the Soviet regime, for example:


The idea being that Soviet soldiers were not regarded as human beings, but merely as material, but that was true of Soviet society altogether. There is some truth to this, of course--the ideology of radical collectivism does not place any particular value on the individual, and there is brutality inherent in that, something rightly repulsive to more freedom-loving people like us. But I think that in this case the remarks are taken out of context; Zhukov did not indeed talk about just thoughtlessly wasting human lives, but rather using them to achieve a particular goal, and not disproportionately to the expenditure of human lives in other aspects of war. I don't think that's a good example of the Soviet system not regarding Soviet soldiers as being people.

But the other aspect of Zhukov's quote is the Soviet military fetish for keeping the initiative in battle and avoiding static situations at all costs. Soviet soldiers were probably not used to clear minefields, at least not on any scale, but one can well imagine a Soviet commander expending some lives like that in order to break through or avoid getting stuck in a static situation. One can imagine a German commander doing the same thing, for that matter.

There are good discussions in some of the military forums on this question. My favorite military forum is feldgrau.com, which has a lot of really superb experts among the members. But there are a number of other good ones. Here is one discussion with particularly good remarks:


"There's a great deal of inaccuracy regarding Soviet tactics, especially with regards wasting men. Towards the end of the war especially, the German:Soviet kill ratio is actually close to what one would expect for two equally skilled armies.

"The Soviets used mine rollers and artillery barrages, with the shell fuses on super-quick for surface bursts, to clear minefields, but I am given to understand that on occasion they did simply storm across minefields. This effect of this was that they got forces across an area that the Germans didn't expect, allowing them to outflank and reduce a position without a frontal assault. The reasoning was something like it was either go through the mines or attack a position. The casualties would have been the same either way, and going through the minefield was probably faster, which is a huge bonus for Soviet operational art, AIUI."


"'Have been seen' is a little vague. I doubt the General was at the front. There are other stories about unarmed soldiers assaulting-grabbing rifles from comrades once those fall. But this are probably just a few incidents. What is true is that massive waves of infantry usually followed tank breakthrus and overrun weakened positions.

"In desperate moments soldiers might resort to these actions--after all there were even Kamikaze pilots. Penal battalions might act this way. A commander under intense pressure from his commissar might act this way.

"There is also a quote about something like this: ‘It takes 1200 Soviets to overrun a position, 200 of them mountain troops. 1000 fall, and then the 200 mountain troops climb across the hills of those fallen.' Stories tend to exaggerate real actions. It is human behaviour to flesh out some stories.

"So I am gonna tell you a different story.

"It starts with ‘they ran densely packed thru our minefields completely ignoring the mines and thus effectively removing all mines in their path'. If you run towards a MG, it doesn't matter if there are mines, too--once you wait, the MG will get you... or the commissar in the rear. Your chances are best when you run. So this is still a somewhat reasonable story.

"Now add some propaganda (e.g. stupid ‘Untermenschen', evil enemy government not caring for their own people etc.) or the need to emphasize the risks and problems of the front line troops. Do this 2 or 3 times, once each time the report goes one echelon up. ‘Dense' gets ‘side by side'. As you can't run side by side it must be marching instead of running. And you have a story that has a small core of truth, sounds plausible (as everyone knows that the Soviets had human waves) but is widely exaggerated.

"As the true core happened often, the story sounds very plausible and upon hearing it many German soldiers might have said ‘Yes, something similar happened to us, too'. Thus you get many sources confirming it... until everybody believes it.





Lastly, there is a whole book on the subject of the attitude towards human life in Soviet military doctrine:

The Value of Life in Soviet Warfare, by the Israeli military historian Amnon Sella, see: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Value-Human-Life-Soviet-Warfare/dp/1138874302/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?keywords=The+Value+of+Human+Life+in+Soviet+Warfare+ByAmnon+Sella&qid=1561038041&s=gateway&sr=8-1-fkmr0

(The text can be read online in Questia by anyone with a subscription; that's how I got it. The conclusion was that in the context of the overall brutality and bloodiness of the conflict, there was no unusual profligacy in the expenditure of human life by the Soviets.)

JE comments:  One of the forum comments above states that the Soviets were aghast that the Americans would sacrifice skilled engineers to clear minefields.  There's a harsh logic to this.

Either say, a Russian-size spasibo to Cameron Sawyer.  As a final question on this topic, can we talk more about morale?  The French clearly couldn't muster it in 1939-'40, and the Soviets had precious little in '41.  Italian morale collapsed early in the war, although Eugenio Battaglia will probably correct me here.

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  • Another WWII Myth: Poles Attacking Tanks with Cavalry (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 06/22/19 4:15 AM)
    While we're talking about mythological beliefs about how the various armies fought in WWII, let's talk about the old canard concerning the Polish forces supposedly attacking German tanks on horseback with sabres.

    Many people who don't know much about the war, like to find ways to interpret the events to conform with broad national prejudices, like that the Soviets didn't have anything but huge brute masses of people, and that the Poles were backwards and stupid enough to use horses against tanks.

    All this is totally false. It takes a lot of twisting to imagine how the Soviets could have actually beaten the Germans, if all they had was brute masses of people and nothing else (maybe Lend Lease), but it's easy to dismiss the war effort of the poor Poles, who could not beat the invading German forces.

    But the horses against tanks myth is total nonsense. No one in this part of the world would ever dismiss the Polish military as backwards and stupid.  The Poles are a great and ferocious military nation, the only people besides the Mongols to conquer Moscow--something neither Napoleon nor Hitler nor the Swedes were ever able to do. The Poles defeated the Russians again in 1920 when the new Soviet Union tried--with encouragement of the UK and France, and military assistance of Lithuania--to reconquer Poland (immortalized in the stories of Isaac Babel).

    The Poles' fierce resistance to the invading Nazi forces in 1939 is a totally different story from the invasion of France the following year. They inflicted severe casualties on the Germans, including the destruction of nearly a thousand German tanks and a large part of the German air force before being finally overwhelmed by the huge disparity in forces (more than 75% of the entire German military was involved).

    The Poles did not use horse cavalry in the campaign to any greater extent than did the Germans or the Soviets, and far from being outmoded, horse cavalry was highly effective and highly valued by all the combatants on the Eastern Front. Contrary to our prejudices, the Germans were the most dependent of any of the combatants of WWII on horses, and the Germans increased their use of horse cavalry during the course of the war, see: http://www.worldwar2facts.org/the-overlooked-german-cavalry-in-ww2.html .

    The Soviets also used horse cavalry to great effect in the war, many of the units formed of Cossacks (many Cossacks fought for the Germans, too).

    JE comments:  The Poles' tenacious fighting against the Germans in 1939 (and later) is no news in this house, but I'm curious about 1920:  how did the British and French encourage the Soviets?

    Cameron, you hint above at another common WWII belief:  France's cowardice.  Remember the old joke:  "For sale, French army rifle.  Never fired; dropped once."  Does this one warrant debunking, too?

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    • Italy's Home Front Morale, WWII (Roy Domenico, USA 06/23/19 4:25 AM)

      Regarding morale during World War II, I deal with some of this for my current project on the Italian home front. As a dictatorship, Fascist Italy faced some problems.  The Regime simply had to know what the people were thinking--but how?

      I'm finding that some of the best indicators of public opinion were the Catholic press that still functioned across the country but especially the two "flagships"--Osservatore Romano and the Civiltà Cattolica; foreign reports, such as from the US embassy and--later--the Allied Commission; postwar memoirs; police reports; and even newspapers that operated under the Fascists, like Milan's Corriere della sera, Bologna's Resto del carlino, and Rome's Il Messaggero. These last because they can indicate the government's worries.

      I've noticed, for example, the prominent place for stories about severe punishments for black marketers. There are also frequent articles about compliance with air raid procedures. Why? Because the people were clearly ignoring them--something borne out in other studies. This work is for a series from Fordham University Press on "Home Fronts" in World War Two. Finally, if I may blow my own horn.  I recently got some good news--that Catholic University of America Press will publish my manuscript--"The Devil and the Dolce Vita" about the Catholics and their battles over secularism/secularization from 1948 (the great Christian Democratic electoral victory) and 1974 (the catastrophic divorce referendum).

      JE comments:  Congratulations, Roy!  Just yesterday (thrift shop) I bought a bookcase to add to the WAIS library.  Always need more shelf space.  Keep us updated on when The Devil and the Dolce Vita becomes available; now I have a spot for it--after reading, of course!

      In the meantime, can you send us a paragraph or two on Italy's WWII black markets?  Perhaps we could expand this discussion to all of Europe?  It's a fascinating topic that we've never addressed on WAIS.

      Next up on Italy's home front morale:  Eugenio Battaglia, who was there.

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    • Italy's WWII Morale (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 06/23/19 5:13 AM)
      Commenting on the excellent (as usual) post of Cameron Sawyer, our esteemed moderator asked about the morale of various nations at war. In another recent post, Cameron discussed the fake tale of the brave Polish Cavalry against German tanks.

      Cavalry was indeed used in the East in WWII. The Italian Savoy Cavalry (700 men) on 24 August 1942 charged at Isbuscenskij and broke through their encirclement by Soviet forces (2500 men), inflicting heavy casualties. The Italians had 32 losses while the Russians lost 150 men and 600 prisoners.

      But if the Poles did not foolishly face German tanks on horseback, they were not wise in another area. They were deluded to think they would reach Berlin in a fortnight because, confident in the Gamelin military accord, they did not expect to be betrayed by their Western allies.

      Tor Guimaraes made some good points about morale.  Let's look at the Italian example.

      The main reasons for the fall of morale were the lousy monarchist and/or Masonic generals and admirals.  (Please note that there is an abyss between American and Italian Masons.) These officers should have been put in front of a firing squad for treason, cowardice or lousy actions. Among these I would include the vainglorious and greedy General Badoglio for his poor management of the Army. Just read the records of Mussolini's meeting with the generals and Ciano, when they convinced him to go to war against Greece. For sure they deserved to be shot at least for their stupidity in time of war.

      Another cause was the king, who according the "best" Savoy traditions, after liking the idea of going to war alongside Germany, which seemed to be winning, decided to go over to the side of the former enemy which seemed to be the new winner.

      Unfortunately, Mussolini respected the high brass and the chief of the State. He was a great statist, a great social reformer and builder, according to Churchill the greatest living legislator, but as Uncle Joe Stalin is reported to have said, "the main fault of Mussolini was not to put his enemies in front of a firing squad." According to some historians many were not enemies of Mussolini but of the new efficient Italy.

      Anyway the 180,000 combatants who did not try to go home but remained in the line of fire, together with the 800,000 who joined the armies of the RSI, prove that morale was not so bad after all. Do not forget the civilians that rebuilt a state and made it functioning with finances in order until the end, despite the overwhelming negative odds.

      Personally as a kid I remember the many cases of people who wanted peace but with victory or at least with honor. In the first days of the enemy occupation, I continued my little war, refusing a chocolate that was offered me. But the average American was nice.

      A friend of mine joined the RSI when 16.  When his unit finally surrendered he managed to escape southward, where the Republican soldiers were not shot on sight by the Red partisans. He also managed to join a ferry to cross the river Arno (all the bridges were destroyed). The boat was full of American soldiers and the officer in charge looked at him and asked if he was a fascist. The poor fool proudly said yes and the officer immediately turned to grab something. My friend was convinced that the officer was going to shoot him. But the officer really wanted to take shots at him but with a camera. Yes, the Americans wanted some photos and were friendly with the defeated former enemy. Glory to them!

      JE comments: Nothing defeats morale like (military) defeat.  Historians often use the word "demoralized" to describe a routed army.  I suspect it's when they don't know what else to say.

      Eugenio, all nations used conscription in WWII.  Are there statistics on how many of the nearly 1 million RSI combatants went voluntarily?

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      • RSI Combatants: Volunteers and Conscripts (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 06/24/19 2:29 PM)
        A very good question from our moderator: "Are there statistics on how many of the nearly 1 million RSI combatants went voluntarily?"  (See my post of June 23rd.)

        Before trying to answer, I applaud the project of our friend Roy Domenico (also 23 June).  May I suggest that he pay attention to the articles of Carlo Silvestri in Il Corriere? An interesting fellow; in 1924 Silvestri was the main accuser of Mussolini for the murder of of Matteotti, then he became convinced of Mussolini's innocence, became a friend and also his main defender after the war. By the way, the Matteotti family was also convinced of Mussolini's innocence. Roy should also consult the newspaper L'Italia del Popolo of the Partito Repubblicano Socialista Italiano, appreciated by Mussolini but opposed by the Nazis and extremist Fascists.

        Back to the volunteers. The first armed forces to fight for the RSI were volunteers only. The RSI had the greatest ever number of volunteers in all history of Italy.

        For a few months there was a fierce debate inside the government about the necessity of a conscript army (this was the view of General Graziani, Minister of War) or not (the preference of the die-hard fascists). In the end Graziani won and on 18 April 1944 the classes of 1922, 1923, and 1924 were called to arms. Graziani was legally correct but wrong for the time being, as these were not the conditions for a large army. There were not enough supplies, as well as distrust from the Third Reich. These adverse conditions caused a certain number of deserters and many of them ended up with the partisans. On 25 April and 28 October 1944 amnesties were made for the draft dodgers and many returned.

        The conscripts largely went to the great divisions San Marco, Monterosa, Littorio, Italia, plus to the Navy and Air Force, but the base was formed of volunteers. The volunteers were in X Mas of Borghese, Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana, the largest (145,000 men), followed by the Brigate Nere (110,000), the various regiments of Bersaglieri who covered themselves of glory fighting in Istria, Ausiliarie, Legione Autonoma Muti, Cacciatori degli Appennini, Fiamme Bianche (teens of 15-17 years old; they were attacked by partizans and easily defeated them), battalions of Italians from abroad, etc.

        The first volunteers were arranged by the Germans within the Wermacht and the Waffen SS (see the 29 Waffen Grenadier Division de SS Italienish n° 1), and it was very difficult to have them returned to the army of the RSI. Following an accord between Mussolini and Hitler in the spring of 1944, about 100,000 Italian POWs in Germany volunteered, while others became free workers in agriculture and industry. Only the monarchists (see the author Guareschi of Don Camillo) and a strongly antifascist minority remained in the POW camps. The new Italian republic--lay, democratic and antifascist--does not want to acknowledge such facts and speaks only of Italian prisoners in Germany as member of the resistance (sic).

        Here is something absolutely not known about D-Day. On the small island of Cezembre in front of Saint-Malo there was an Italian San Marco battalion with the Germans. Only 69 survivors, most of whom were wounded, surrendered on 2 September 1944 when ammunition, food and water ran out. The Italians in Bordeaux surrendered only in early May. Cezembre was the most bombed place in the world.

        Immediately after the war survivors from the volunteers of the RSI and their relatives joined the Anti-Bolshevik International Front ("Stay Behind") sponsored by the US:

        About morale and willingness to fight:  Maybe in the USSR morale improved following Stalin's order n° 270 of 10 August 1941: "if some Red Army men prefer to surrender they shall be destroyed by all possible means, whereas their families shall be deprived of the state allowance and relief and are liable to be arrested."

        Such order was followed by a prohibition to the International Red Cross to care for the Soviet POWs in Germany.

        JE comments:  Perhaps we've found another WWII shibboleth for dissection:  did Stalin really put most returning Soviet POWs in Gulags--or execute them?  And did the Soviets likewise go after the prisoners' families?

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        • Stalin and Returning Soviet POWs (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 06/29/19 4:56 AM)
          JE posed this question: "Did Stalin really put most returning Soviet POWs in Gulags--or execute them? And did the Soviets likewise go after the prisoners' families?"

          I would be most interest to hear what Boris Volodarsky has to say about this.

          I have known, and have loved, the ptitomtsev--the descendants, I don't actually know the English word for this, of the families who were destroyed by this policy. Yes, Stalin murdered POWs returned from Germany, and in mass quantities, and arrested and exiled family members. The idea was that if a Soviet soldier surrendered rather than dying for the cause, then prima facie, he was a traitor, and he was treated as such. The monstrosity of this is unspeakable.

          JE comments:  Some shibboleths, like some stereotypes, exist for a reason: because they're true.  Warfare reveals two types of attitudes towards POWs:  those that treat them as traitors (Japan, USSR in WWII), and those who make them heroes (think of John McCain and yellow ribbons in general).  I prefer to think of the "our" group as more civilized, but there's a tactical logic behind the former view.  You fight harder.  Remember the Spartans:  "come back with your shield, or on it."  (Full disclosure:  Cameron Sawyer and I are Michigan Wolverines, not Michigan State Spartans.)

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    • Another WWII Shibboleth: French Cowardice (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 06/27/19 3:28 AM)
      I don't know why even quite keen minds are attracted to these cartoon versions of WWII history, with borderline racist explanations for the actions of the different players--French and Italian cowards, Polish stupidity and primitiveness, Russian hordes, etc. Absolutely none of this has anything to do with reality. French soldiers were every bit as brave as German ones.

      The French were certainly not cowards. They fought ferociously at the beginning of the campaign against the Germans. Unlike the Russians, however, they had not modernized their tactics, and they were still obsessed with static defense (the Maginot Line, as the very emblem of this thinking). This was the whole problem. The French had invested vast amounts of money into building up their armed forces, and had a larger and better equipped army and air force than the Germans at the beginning of the war. French doctrine believed that the next war with the Germans would be another long war of attrition, and that economic and production ability would decide the conflict. Unfortunately they did not get the memo about the radical change of military doctrine cooked up by the Germans (Guderian et al.) and the Soviets (Tukachevsky et al.) and so they made the fatal error of pouring a large part of that wealth and effort into vast static defenses which turned out to be practically useless in the new type of warfare. So in the event, the German doctrine of deep penetration and disruption of the enemy's rear was devastatingly effective and the French were defeated before their superior industrial capacity could be brought to bear.

      Could the French have continued fighting? It's a good question which is still debated by historians, and I can't answer it. Possibly if the French had been as fanatically tenacious as the Russians were the next year, they could have managed to hold on and regroup, but if you study this campaign you will see how desperate the situation was for the French, and it's pretty hard to blame them for giving up.

      Comparing this to the Soviet effort--certainly, the Soviets were incredibly tenacious, taking huge casualties and virtual destruction of the main part of the Soviet Army in the first two months of the war, without giving up, but the Soviets had huge advantages besides tenacity--first of all, and crucially, in that Soviet military doctrine was equal to the task of dealing with the German onslaught. So unlike the French, the Soviets were not surprised by the German so-called "Blitzkrieg" (never called that by the Germans). "Blitzkrieg" was quite like the Soviets' own military doctrine, and the Soviet approach to defense was to parry these thrusts, to move and attack, and keep moving and keep attacking and attacking, not to dig in behind fixed defenses. By December, 1941, this doctrine started to work, and the Germans started to get a taste of their own medicine. Second, the Soviets had more geographic space to absorb the German "Blitzkrieg," more space to move around in and to capitalize on superior Soviet mobility and logistics. Without either of these factors, Operation Barbarossa might have succeeded. Certainly, Hitler counted on beating the Soviets like he beat the numerically superior French, but he underestimated Soviet military doctrine first of all, then Soviet industrial capacity. He did not indeed underestimate the challenges of geography--Hitler was famously obsessed with the Russian defeat of Napoleon. He nevertheless failed to overcome it.

      JE comments:  Cameron, do you also accept the oft-repeated point of historians, that the French people simply had no stomach for war after the slaughter of the previous one?  The Germans suffered equally on the Western Front, but at least they had revenge as a motivation (as the French did in 1914).  Ultimately, the French decided with Pétain that it was preferable to try their luck under the German boot than to continue the bloodletting.

      The image says it all...I think...

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      • France's Military Prowess; Anniversary of Versailles Treaty (Timothy Brown, USA 06/28/19 3:46 AM)
        As an Honorary Member of the 3rd French Foreign Legion, former Acting Director of the State Dept. US-NATO Affairs in Washington DC and, later, Consul General in Martinique to the FWIs (French West Indies), I worked closely, often daily, with France's civilian and military authorities for more than five years.

        Basing my years of hands-on personal experience with the French, I second Cameron Sawyer (June 27th) and add the following. Had it not been for France's support of the American revolutionary efforts that were decisive during the Revolutionary War and more recently France's actions during WWI, WWII and the Cold War, their outcomes might have been very different.

        JE comments:  Today marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Versailles Treaty (June 28th, 1919), probably the most important event to happen in France in the 20th century.  (My thanks to Eugenio Battaglia for reminding me of today's significance.)  In retrospect, Versailles achieved but one thing:  it guaranteed that the Great War would have a rematch (the "Peace to end all Peace").  I hope we'll discuss the treaty further, but here's a surprising question:  Did Versailles get anything...right?  Perhaps nothing more than restoring Polish independence, as well as creating the new states of Central Europe.

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      • "No Stomach for War": France 1939-'40 (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 06/28/19 4:25 AM)
        John E asked, "Cameron, do you also accept the oft-repeated point of historians, that the French people simply had no stomach for [WWII] after the slaughter of the previous one? The Germans suffered equally in the Great War, but at least they had revenge as a motivation (as the French did in 1914). Ultimately, the French decided with Pétain that it was preferable to try their luck under the German boot than to continue the bloodletting."

        Who knows? There is probably a grain of truth to it, but I think at best this is an oversimplification. The French were beaten at the time they gave up--should they have kept fighting after they were beaten? I probably wouldn't have. Arguably the Russians were also beaten by August, 1941, and they did keep fighting what for a time looked like a completely hopeless fight, taking horrendous casualties.

        But the difference is that unlike the French, the Russians did have what it took to come back and win. Did they know that? Did the French really know for sure they didn't? Who knows! But don't rely on oversimplified explanations. The French were not cowards--for sure. They may have been tired of fighting, but that was not the only reason they gave up.

        JE comments:  We raised this question earlier, but perhaps there's more to be said:  was there any plausible way France could have kept fighting?  It's not a nation that lends itself well to guerrilla warfare.  You need rough terrain and vast wilderness for that.

        On a tangentially related note, today's big World Cup match is a showdown between the US and host country France.  Given his rocky relationship with our team, I expect Trump to cheer for France.

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