The Rambouillet Accord
By Mike Bennighof, PhD
Under the terms of the 1921 Franco-Polish Alliance, the French had extended a credit to the Poles for arms purchases, in 14 annual installments. The expiration of that financial aid came just as the political geography of both partners radically re-aligned. In Poland, de facto dictator Marshal Józef Pilsudski died in May 1935, to be succeeded by Gen. Edward Smigly-Rydz, who now led a “dictatorship without a dictator.” Just over a year later, French Socialist leader Léon Blum was elected Prime Minister at the head of a center-left coalition known as the Popular Front.
Blum inherited a shattered economy, with unemployment standing at 14.5 percent and national debt at 200 percent of gross domestic product. German troops had marched into the demilitarized Rhineland in March 1936, humiliating the pro-appeasement Radical government. Blum stood for opposition to Hitler, an end to appeasement, support for Republican Spain, and French re-armament. That last goal would also, he hoped, provide the economic spark French industry needed. The French right violently opposed those policies, screaming “Better Hitler than Blum!”, while the Radicals demanded a return to appeasement.
The Blum government laid out a four-year plan for re-armament, an ambitious program including new tanks, aircraft and warships and costing 14 billion francs spread over four years. The program would also include an overhaul of sectors like the aircraft industry, where planes were still put together individually like pocket watches, and introduction of the most modern new weapons. Strategically important firms that proved unable or unwilling to modernize production methods would be nationalized.
In Warsaw, Gen. Charles d’Arbonneau, the French military attaché, had pressed Rydz to take advantage of the moment and renew the Franco-Polish financial arrangement soon after Pilsudski’s death. Germany had run into difficulties paying for its share of a railroad connecting East Prussia with the rest of Germany across the so-called “Polish Corridor,” and floated the idea of paying its share with modern arms rather than the hard currency she did not possess. Poland and Germany had signed a Non-Aggression Pact in 1934, and French diplomats were concerned that it contained secret articles binding Poland to the Hitler regime. D’Arbonneau feared that, should the Poles accept the offer and begin to purchase German arms, Poland would fall into Hitler’s orbit.
Pilsudski had allowed the Polish military to deteriorate despite the obvious threat of German re-armament. But Rydz was not Poland’s sole leader. President Ignacy Moscicki and Foreign Minister Józef Beck held power as well in an uneasy oligarchy, and Beck in particular did not wish to bring Poland into the French orbit. While the French accused Beck of Germanophilia, this doesn’t appear to have been exactly true: he was possessed of a Polish megalomania, seeing Poland as the natural leader of a constellation of Central and Eastern European states. Unfortunately for Beck’s dream - inherited from Pilsudski - none of those other states were interested in following Polish leadership.
With Poland in need of modern arms to resist Hitler, and France in need of strong allies to resist Hitler, the arrangement appeared simple enough. The French initially offered 2 billion francs over four years, half as an investment in Polish factories, half for war materiel produced in French factories. But Beck engaged in a series of intrigues, some of which remain unclear, that delayed final acceptance of an accord. Léon Noël, the French Ambassador to Poland, told conflicting stories afterwards, but apparently the French became exasperated with Beck and demanded his removal as a pre-condition for the financial aid package.
Beck could not stop the deal, only slow it down. After a visit to Warsaw by French General Maurice Gamelin in August 1936 (over there on the right, with Rydz) the negotiations moved forward swiftly. Rydz travelled to Paris for talk and a tour of French military installations including the Maginot Line and an agreement was signed at Rambouillet less than a month later.
The Poles did rather well, using the German declaration of conscription on 24 August to extract further concessions. The total financial package would be 2 billion francs (the same amount allotted to the two new Richelieu-class battleships). Of that, 1.2 billion would be for investments in Polish war industries, in four annual installments. The remaining 800 million, also in four annual installments, would be for purchases of French military equipment. The French team engaged in some last-minute financial sleight-of-hand, inserting language that included cancellation of old debts in the 1.2 billion investment credit. Rydz returned home to become the second Marshal of Poland (after Pilsudski), enraging the old marshal’s staunch supporters.
The Rambouillet Accord’s cash grant allowed the Poles to purchase a license from the Swedish firm Bofors and begin serial production of the state-of-the-art 40mm anti-aircraft gun and 37mm anti-tank gun. But most of it went to industrial infrastructure in the new Central Industrial Region: a steel mill, power plants and most of all railroad connections. The Poles did not follow up the Bofors license with one for new medium artillery.
No strategic agreement was appended to the Accord, beyond a vague unwritten understanding that France would invade Germany on the 14th day of mobilization and Poland would invade East Prussia at some point. The French wished to extract firm guarantees that Poland would militarily support Czechoslovakia against a German invasion, and allow Soviet troops passage across Polish territory to fight the Nazis. Neither of these made it into the final Accord, nor was the poisonous Beck fired though Rydz - never one for confrontation - made some half-hearted moves to limit his influence.
Rydz receives the bulawa as Marshal of Poland.
What the agreement also did not immediately provide was an infusion of modern French weaponry into the Polish armed forces. The French balked at immediately starting the flow and only after the Blum government fell (for the second time) in 1938 did they agree to sell war materiel under the credit. By that point the Poles had three years’ worth to spend, and they wanted the very best: high-performance fighter planes like the MS.406 and D.520, then still in development, and the Somua S.35 cavalry tank.
Those demands met immediate resistance, couched in terms of prioritizing the need of the French forces for these modern weapons. But another problem loomed: the Popular Front’s financial package had been decidedly unpopular in some quarters within the coalition (chiefly the labor unions), as most of it went to build potential competitors in Poland rather than employing jobless Frenchmen at home. The Poles had a well-earned reputation for ignoring license agreements and not only producing weapons far in excess of the agreed numbers but then selling them to foreign customers. The fear was not in selling the Poles 100 copies of the S.35, which their credits would easily cover; it was in selling them the first one which could then be reverse-engineered and produced in those brand-new factories helpfully erected with French capital. Whether the Poles could have done so with the sophisticated tank is another question.
Instead the French offered the Renault R.35, a tank no better than the Polish-made 7TP then in production at the Ursus Works in Warsaw, sweetening the offer with additional arms credits on top of the Rambouillet money. The Somua tank cost five times the Renault’s price, but was enormously more capable. Since they were spending other people’s money, the Poles reluctantly agreed to accept the Renault machines in an April 1939 agreement to buy 50 of them for 5.8 million francs, a tiny fraction of the outstanding Rambouillet credit. These machines saw no significant action in the September campaign. A second order for 50 more never arrived and was diverted to Syria.
By the time the Germans invaded in September 1939, the new factories the French helped build were not operational, and most of the credit for arms purchases remained unspent. Later historians like Robert Forczyk would accuse the French of failure to support Poland, but this is overly harsh. Blum tried - that 2.5 billion francs represented an enormous haul - but French factories could not produce enough to meet demand and the Poles could not ready their own plants in time to make a difference.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold approves of this message.