It happened today - September 3, 2015
Of course their problem was largely self-inflicted; they wound up having to fight Hitler over Poland because they’d chickened out over Czechoslovakia 12 months earlier, betraying an ally to buy time for an enemy. As Churchill told Neville Chamberlain when he came back from Munich, “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.’”
Not only that, they got worse war. I’m pretty sure the Allies would have beaten Germany easily in a war in 1938; Czechoslovakia was well-armed and hard to conquer, its terrain utterly unsuited to a Blitzkrieg. Hitler’s rearmament program was considerably less advanced. And the Nazi-Soviet Pact had yet to be signed.
Indeed, I’m pretty sure that had Britain and France mobilized when Hitler sent his troops into the Rhineland in 1936, German generals would have overthrown this despised upstart Bohemian corporal and the whole mess could have been avoided. And while I understand British and especially French reluctance to face another war so soon after the horrors of World War I, which literally decimated France (one third of men between 18 and 45 in 1914 were killed, another third wounded), those who prefer dishonour to death surprisingly often get both.
Certainly France bit the dust pretty fast after going to war over Poland, and Britain came frighteningly close. Mind you, French losses from 1939-45 were far smaller than they had been between 1914 and 1918, although French generals managed to squander a surprising number of soldiers’ lives in the utterly futile effort to stop the Nazis in the spring of 1940. Yet I doubt that many in France preferred a reasonably bloodless defeat once it had happened. War is not to be undertaken lightly, but neither is appeasement, which generally just means fighting in a worse spot later. Certainly it did in this case.
The leaders of both nations must have known in 1939 that they were in a tight corner largely of their own making. But in such situations politicians generally prevaricate and procrastinate. They did neither, and whatever one thinks of their conduct to that point, and however badly the war turned out for Poland, they did find their courage and their principles in 1939 (one rarely finds the latter without the former). And for that they deserve praise.