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Franco-British Relations and the Question of Conscription in Britain, 1938–1939

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 November 2008

Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University, Penglais, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, SY23 3FE;


This article examines the interaction between the French campaign for the introduction of British conscription during 1938–9 and the ebbs and flows of British public opinion on the same issue. In particular, it will demonstrate how French pressure for conscription varied in intensity depending on French perceptions of British opinion on the subject. It was this interaction between diplomatic and domestic pressures that ultimately compelled the British government to introduce conscription in April 1939. Furthermore, the issue of conscription also sheds light on the wider issue of Franco-British relations, revealing how French foreign policy was neither dictated by an ‘English governess’ nor pursued independently of Great Britain.

Les relations franco-britanniques et la question de la conscription en grande-bretagne, 1938–1939

Cet article analyse les interactions entre la campagne française pour l'introduction de la conscription en Grande-Bretagne en 1938–39 et les hauts et les bas de l'opinion publique britannique par rapport à la même question. Il en résulte que la pression exercée par les Français pour la conscription variait en intensité selon leurs perceptions de l'opinion britannique sur ce sujet. Au final ce sont les interactions entre les pressions diplomatiques et domestiques qui ont finalement poussé le gouvernement britannique à introduire la conscription en avril 1939. En outre, la question de la conscription éclaire également plus largement les relations franco-britanniques. Elle révèle que la politique étrangère française n'était ni dominée par les Britanniques, ni indépendante de la Grande-Bretagne.

Die französisch-britischen beziehungen und die frage der einführung der wehrpflicht in großbritannien, 1938–1939

Dieser Artikel untersucht die Wechselwirkung zwischen der französischen Kampagne für die Einführung der Wehrpflicht in Großbritannien und die Fluktuation der britischen Öffentlichkeit zu dieser Frage. Im besonderen zeigt der Artikel, wie der französische Druck für die Einführung der Wehrpflicht von französichen Wahrnehmungen der britischen öffentlichen Meinung abhing. Es war diese Wechselwirkung zwischen diplomatischem und innenpolitischem Druck, die letztlich die britische Regierung zur Einführung der Wehrpflicht im April 1939 brachte. Die Frage der Einführung der Wehrpflicht in Großbritannien wirft damit neues Licht auf den weiteren Kontext der französisch-britischen Beziehungen. Es zeigt sich, dass die französische Außenpolitik weder von Großbritannien diktiert wurde, noch völlig von der britischen Außenpolitik unabhängig war.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2008

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1 346 H. C. Deb, 5s., col. 1152.

2 The form of conscription introduced applied only to men aged twenty and twenty-one.

3 This use of a ‘core sample’ borrows from Neilson, Keith, who uses Anglo-Soviet relations as a ‘core sample’ for analysing the wider issue of British strategic foreign policy in the inter-war years: Britain, Soviet Russia and the Collapse of the Versailles Order, 1919–1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).Google Scholar

4 For more on the notion of an ‘English governess’ controlling the direction of French foreign policy see Bédarida, François, ‘La “gouvernante anglaise”’, in Rémond, René and Bourdin, Janine, eds., Édouard Daladier, chef de gouvernement: avril 1938–septembre 1939 (Paris: Presses de la FNSP, 1977), 228–40Google Scholar, and Herman, John, The Paris Embassy of Sir Eric Phipps: Anglo-French Relations and the Foreign Office, 1937–1939 (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 1998), 90–3.Google Scholar

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10 Halifax to Phipps, 1 Nov. 1938, The National Archives (TNA), FO 800/311.

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17 Cited in Bond, British Military Policy, 209.

18 Harris, ‘British General Staff’.

19 Howard, Continental Commitment, 96–120; Bond, British Military Policy, 209–29.

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24 Cabinet paper by Hore-Belisha, ‘The Organisation of the Army for its rôle in war’, TNA, WO 33/1502, 10 Feb. 1938.

25 Howard, Continental Commitment, 117.

26 Gamelin to Daladier, ‘Les données actuelles du problème militaire française’, 11 Feb. 1938, Archives Nationales (AN), Fonds Daladier, 496 AP/30, 4 DA 3 dr. 1 sdra. All translations of quotations from untranslated sources are by the author.

27 Note sur la collaboration militaire franco-britannique, 24 April 1938, AN, Fonds Daladier, 496 AP/35, 4 DA 8 Dr. 3 sdrb.

28 Cooper, Duff, The Duff Cooper Diaries, 1915–1951, ed. Norwich, John Julius (London: Phoenix, 2006), 246Google Scholar, diary entry for 22 April 1938.

29 Documents on British Foreign Policy (DBFP), 3rd ser., I, no. 164.

30 Corbin to Bonnet, 5 Jun. 1938, Ministère des Affaires Étrangères (MAE), Série Z, Grande-Bretagne, no. 237.

31 Editorial, Daily Mail, 3 Oct. 1938.

32 339 H. C. Deb. 5s, col. 308.

33 Editorial, Daily Express, 7 Oct. 1938; Duff Cooper, Evening Standard, 19 Oct. 1938.

34 Beaverbrook to James Agate, 5 Oct. 1938, Beaverbrook Papers, House of Lords Record Office, BBK/B/292.

35 The Daily Mail launched the ballot on 12 October 1938, and published the results on 28 October 1938. The Daily Mail avoided stating an editorial preference, merely seeking to ‘gain those opinions [of their readers], and present the weight of them to the authorities’ (12 Oct. 1938).

36 Corbin to Bonnet, 13 Oct. and 24 Oct. 1938, MAE, Série Z, Grande-Bretagne, no. 280.

37 Phipps to Halifax, 3 Oct. 1938, TNA, FO 371/21767/C11502/4770/18.

38 Bonnet's speech to the Radical Party Congress, 29 Oct. 1938, cited in Le Temps, 30 Oct. 1938.

39 CSDN, ‘Note sur la situation actuelle’, 12 Oct. 1938, Service Historique de l'Armée de Terre (SHAT), 5N 579, dossier 1. I am grateful to Lora Gibson of the University of Aberystwyth for the reference to this document.

40 Phipps to Halifax, 10 Nov. 1938, TNA, FO 371/21603/C13846/101/17.

41 Memorandum by Colonel Fraser, 12 Oct. 1938; Orme-Sargent minute, 21 Oct. 1938; Halifax minute, 23 Oct. 1938, TNA, FO 371/21785/C12144/11169/18. See also Herman, Paris Embassy, 133–4.

42 Phipps to Halifax, 12 Oct. 1938, DBFP, 3rd ser., I, no. 187; Report from the British Consul in Bordeaux, 13 Oct. 1938, TNA, FO 371/21613/C12852/1050/17.

43 3oème Bureau: Note concernant les demandes à présenter au Gouvernement britannique à l'action militaire terrestre, 23 Nov. 1938; Note, Section de Défense nationale, 22 Nov. 1938, AN, Fonds Daladier 496 AP/11, 2 DA 4 Dr. 2, sdra.

44 Corbin to Bonnet, 8 Nov. 1938, AN, Fonds Daladier, 496 AP/10, 2 DA 4 Dr. 3, sdra; Lelong: ‘Étude sur la participation de l'Angleterre dans l'éventualité d'une action commune franco-britannique en cas de guerre’, 8 Nov. 1938, AN, Fonds Daladier, 496 AP/35, 4 DA 8 Dr. 3 sdrb.

45 Imlay, ‘Making of the Anglo-French Alliance’, 110.

46 Record of Anglo-French Conversations, 24 Nov. 1938, DBFP, 3rd ser., III, no. 325.

47 Pownall, Chief of Staff, 170–1, diary entries for 14 and 28 Nov. 1938.

48 Editorial, Daily Express, 26 Nov. 1938; editorial, Daily Mirror, 26 Nov. 1938; editorial, Daily Worker, 28 Oct. 1938.

49 Corbin to Bonnet, 26 Nov. 1938, MAE, Série Z, Grande-Bretagne, no. 291.

50 Hitler was alleged to have claimed, ‘If the English have not got universal conscription by the spring of 1939 they may consider their world empire as lost’. Cabinet Committee on Foreign Policy, 14 Nov. 1938, TNA, CAB 27/624.

51 Phipps report on the present situation in France (prior to the visit to Paris of Chamberlain and Halifax), 16 Nov. 1938, TNA, FO 371/21600/C14025/55/17.

52 Duroselle, Jean-Baptiste, La décadence (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1979), 391Google Scholar. Phipps reported how ‘I have never known French public opinion so unanimous as it is against Italy’, Phipps to Halifax, 21 Dec. 1938, TNA, FO 371/23791/R55/7/22.

53 Le Temps (4 Dec. 1938) claimed that the British press ‘unanimously approves’ the attitude assumed by the French government in the light of the Italian demands. Corbin described the tone of the British press as one that ‘we can consider as very satisfactory’, Corbin to Bonnet, 3 Dec. 1938, MAE, Série Z, Italie, no. 309.

54 For example, Pertinax (André Géraud), writing in the Journal des débats, politiques et littéraires, 17 Dec. 1938.

55 Editorial, Daily Herald, 17 Dec. 1938.

56 Duff Cooper, Evening Standard, 6 Dec. 1938; Vansittart minute (for Halifax), 19 Dec. 1938, TNA, FO 371/22922/C358/281/17.

57 Fraser to Phipps, 22 & 23 Dec. 1938, TNA, CAB 21/555.

58 Bonnet, to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the French Chamber of Deputies, 14 Dec. 1938, cited in Adamthwaite, France and the Coming of the Second World War, 251.

59 Cabinet Committee on Foreign Policy, 19 Jan. 1939: ‘Possible German Intentions’, TNA, FO 371/22961/C939/15/18.

60 Stone, Glyn, ‘From Entente to Alliance: Anglo-French relations, 1935–1939’, in Sharp, Alan and Stone, Glyn, eds., Anglo-French Relations in the Twentieth Century: Rivalry and Cooperation (London: Routledge, 2000), 195Google Scholar. For more on the ‘war scares’ see Alexander, Martin S., ‘Les réactions à la menace stratégique allemande en Europe occidentale: La Grande-Bretagne, la Belgique et le “cas Hollande”, décembre 1938–février 1939’, Cahiers d'Histoire de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, 7 (1982), 538.Google Scholar

61 Strang to Phipps, 28 Jan. 1939, TNA, WO 208/2037A; Cabinet Committee on Foreign Policy, 23 Jan. 1939, TNA, CAB 27/264.

62 Vansittart minute (for Halifax), 24 Jan. 1939, TNA, FO 371/22922/C940/28/17.

63 Dockrill, British Establishment Perspectives on France, 124.

64 Notes for Cadogan on the visit of Pilcher and de Courcy to Paris, 27 Jan. 1939, TNA, FO 371/22922/C1983/281/17. Léger expressed similar opinions to Earl de la Warr: ‘Note for the Secretary of State’, 5 Feb. 1939, Churchill Archives Centre (CAC), Cambridge, Phipps Papers, PHPP I 5/7.

65 Dockrill, British Establishment Perspectives on France, 125.

66 A general staff paper of 7 Jan. 1939, cited in Imlay, ‘The Making of the Anglo-French Alliance’, 110.

67 Note, Directeur politique, 29 Jan. 1939, MAE, Papiers 1940: Cabinet Georges Bonnet, no. 2.

68 Note – conscription en Angleterre (le sous-directeur d'Europe), 30 Jan. 1939, MAE, Papiers 1940: Papiers Rochat, no. 18.

69 French aide-mémoire for the British government, 1 Feb. 1939, TNA, FO 371/22963/C1318/15/18, and minutes by Strang and Cadogan, both 4 Feb. 1939.

70 343 H. C. Deb. 5s, col. 623.

71 For example, Pierre Brossolette in Le Populaire, 7 Feb. 1939, Gabriel Péri in Humanité, 7 Feb. 1939, Pierre Bernus in the Journal des débats, politiques et littéraires, 8 Feb. 1939, and Le Temps, ‘La solidarité de la France et de l'Angleterre’, 7 Feb. 1939.

72 Bonnet to Corbin, 5 Feb. 1939, Documents Diplomatiques Français (DDF), 2nd ser., XIV, no. 40.

73 Corbin to Bonnet, 7 Feb. 1939, DDF, 2nd ser., XIV, no. 65.

74 The Daily Express (20 Feb. 1939) stated that the country ‘is utterly opposed’ to the idea of sending an army to the continent.

75 Belisha, Leslie Hore, The Private Papers of Hore-Belisha, ed. Minney, R. J. (Aldershot: Gregg Revivals, 1991), 187Google Scholar, diary entry for 28 Mar. 1939.

76 SirCadogan, Alexander, The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan, 1938–45, ed. Dilks, David (London: Cassell, 1971), 164Google Scholar, diary entry for 28 March 1939 (emphasis in original).

77 Halifax, ‘Strategic Position of France in Relation to the Rôle of the British Army in War’, 17 Feb. 1939, TNA, FO 371/22922/C2192/281/17.

78 Phipps to Halifax, 16 Mar. 1939, TNA, FO 371/22993/C3227/19/18.

79 For example, La République, 21 Mar. 1939; Intransigeant, 24 and 29 Mar. 1939.

80 François-Poncet to Bonnet, 29 Mar. 1939, MAE, Série Z, Allemagne, no. 724; Perth to Halifax, 31 Mar. 1939, TNA, FO 371/23076/C4593/3778/18.

81 Minutes by Roberts and Kirkpatrick, both 4 April 1939, TNA, FO 371/23076/C4593/3778/18.

82 Corbin to Bonnet, 29 Mar. 1939, DDF, 2nd ser., XV, no. 195.

83 Phipps to Halifax, 4 April 1939, TNA, FO 371/22909/C5010/25/17.

84 Crowson, Facing Fascism, 164–5; Dennis, Decision by Default, 198.

85 Corbin to Bonnet, 22 Mar. 1939, MAE, Série Z, Allemagne, no. 724.

86 Despatch to the chargé d'affaires in Paris, regarding conversation between Halifax and Bonnet, 23 Mar. 1939, TNA, FO 800/311.

87 Editorial, Daily Worker, 29 Mar. 1939.

88 Dalton, Hugh, The Fateful Years: Memoirs, 1931–1945 (London: Frederick Muller, 1957), 254.Google Scholar

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91 Duff Cooper, Evening Standard, 28 Mar. 1939; editorial, Daily Mail, 18 Mar. 1939.

92 Lelong to Daladier, 24 Mar. 1939, DDF, 2nd ser., XV, no. 152; Corbin to Bonnet, 29 Mar. 1939, DDF, 2nd ser., XV, no. 195.

93 Paris-Midi, 14 April 1939; Le Temps, 24 April 1939.

94 Pertinax, Ordre, 24 April 1939.

95 Paul Nizan, Ce Soir, 14 April 1939.

96 Editorial, Daily Mail, 21 April 1939; Paris correspondent, Observer, 23 April 1939; Paris correspondent, Sunday Times, 9 April 1939; editorial, Daily Express, 30 Mar. 1939.

97 Howard, Continental Commitment, 129.

98 Phipps to Halifax, 12 April and 14 April 1939, TNA, FO 371/23077/C5132/3778/18; Report from the British Consulate at Strasbourg, 26 April 1939, TNA, FO 371/22909/C6506/25/17.

99 Neville to Hilda Chamberlain, 2 April 1939, Chamberlain Papers, University of Birmingham, Special Collections Department, NC 18/1/1092.

100 Hore-Belisha, Private Papers, 196.

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105 Neville to Hilda Chamberlain, 29 April 1939, Chamberlain Papers, NC 18/1/1096.

106 Broad, Conscription in Britain, 1939–1964, 93.

107 Scott, Conscription, 2. For more on the fear of air attack see Uri Bialer, The Shadow of the Bomber: The Fear of Air Attack and British Politics, 1932–1939 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1980).

108 Cadogan, Diaries, 176 (emphasis in original).

109 Notes for TUC, 24 April 1939, TNA, CAB 21/1264.

110 Editorial, Daily Worker, 26 April 1939; editorial, Daily Herald, 27 April 1939.

111 346 H. C. Deb. 5s, cols. 1152, 1353 and 1365, all from the debate of 26 April 1939. Chamberlain was citing an article by Gabriel Péri in Humanité.

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114 ‘The Bill’, Manchester Guardian, 3 May 1939.

115 346 H. C. Deb. 5s, col. 2124, from the debate of 4 May 1939.

116 The resolution was defeated by 1,670,000 to 286,000 votes. Figures taken from Pimlott, Ben, Labour and the Left in the 1930s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 183CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Although the impact of block voting does not allow one to deduce the opinions of the rank and file vis-à-vis conscription, a contemporary observer, Crossman, R. H. S., suggested that Labour's opposition found little support amongst the masses. ‘Labour and Compulsory Military Service’, Political Quarterly, 10, 3 (1939), 309–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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119 Imlay, Facing the Second World War, 334.

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121 Le Matin, 27 April 1939; Wladimir d'Ormesson, Le Figaro, 27 April 1939.

122 Phipps to Halifax, 27 April 1939, TNA, FO 371/23077/C6053/3778/18.

123 Corbin to Bonnet, 26 April 1939, DDF, 2nd ser. vol. XV, no. 497; Sous-directeur d'Europe, 27 April 1939 – untitled document, detailing Franco-British relations, MAE, Papiers 1940, Papiers Rochat, no. 18.

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126 Daily Express, Evening Standard, and the Daily Mail, all from 27 Aug. 1939.

127 Broad, Conscription in Britain, 93.

128 Paris-Soir, 26 April 1939 (cited in the News Chronicle, 27 April 1939).

129 346 H. C. Deb. 5s, col. 1347.