“The Maginot Line has come to symbolize everything wrong with the Allied strategy in the years leading up to the Second World War… But was it really the disaster many have suggested?”
WORLD WAR ONE shattered France.
German troops invaded the country within weeks of the opening of hostilities in 1914. For the next four years, the enemy occupied roughly 8,000 square miles of French territory — an area roughly the size of Massachusetts and one that contained a quarter of the country’s steel manufacturing capacity, 40 per cent of its coal reserves and a whopping 64 per cent of pig iron production.
Eight million citizens were mobilized to drive the Germans from France; roughly 52 percent of them became casualties. In fact, five percent of the country’s total population perished in the war. Many of the conflicts’s deadliest battles, like the Somme, Verdun and Germany’s 1918 Spring Offensive were fought on French soil.
Following the Armistice, France was determined to be ready for future wars. As the Weimar Republic began to rearm the Fatherland in the late 1920s — a policy that later only accelerated under the Nazis — the French government set to work constructing an enormous defensive barrier along its eastern border with Germany to deter invasion. It was to be called the Maginot Line.
Named for André Maginot, the French war minister who during the 1920s pressed the government to allocate money to border defences, this 280-mile long network of concrete bunkers, pill boxes and underground casemates certainly appeared formidable upon its completion. But it would turn out that France’s fixed defences, menacing as they were, would be famously outflanked by Germany’s Panzer divisions in 1940, who attacked France by way of neutral Belgium.
Since then, the Maginot Line has come to symbolize everything wrong with the Allied strategy in the years leading up to the Second World War. But were France’s defences really the disaster many have suggested? Here are 10 facts about one of military history’s most impressive yet regrettable engineering feats.
It was one of the most formidable military projects in history
France’s Commission d’Organisation des Régions Fortifiées (CORF) spent 10 years designing laying down, improving and extending the border fortifications that would eventually become known as the Maginot Line. Work on it began modestly in 1929 with a series of simple concrete gun emplacements along France’s frontier with the demilitarized Rhineland. Improvements and expansions would continue into the 1930s. Although the ultimate goal was to have the defences one day stretch the full distance of the border from the Swiss Alps to the English Channel, the most densely fortified section of the line sat on France’s nearly 300-mile long frontier with Germany. The national government spent an estimated 3.3 billion Francs on the project. Its 142 bunkers, 352 casemates and 5,000 blockhouses were built using 1.5 million cubic meters of concrete and 150,000 tons of steel – enough to build 5,300 Char B1 tanks or five Richelieu-class battleships.
The defences were many miles thick
At its broadest, the Maginot Line was more than 16 miles deep and was made up of a series of separate defensive layers. These included camouflaged observation points positioned right along the German border. To the rear were anti-tank, mortar and machine gun emplacements; underground infantry bunkers or casemates. Father to back was a patchwork of small and large ouvrages featuring retractable 75- to 135-mm gun steel domed cloches or bell turrets. In all, there were 142 artillery forts, 352 casemates and 5,000 smaller fortifications, many of which were laid out across the landscape to create interlocking fields of fire. Installations were also linked by a labyrinth of tunnels allowing personnel to move from position to position. Supporting the line was a network of mobile rail guns that could bring extra fire to bear where needed. Overseeing the entire chain was a string of 78 of hilltop fire control decks that enabled observers to direct artillery fire onto enemy troop and vehicle concentrations. The whole system was linked by its own self-contained telephone and wireless communications infrastructure.
It had a series of hidden surprises
If the Maginot Line’s guns, mortars and machine gun nests weren’t enough to break up an attack, engineers added a host of additional obstacles to stop the enemy outright or detour them into pre-sighted killing zones. Minefields dotted the approaches to the various strongholds, while fields of iron girders protruding vertically from the ground created wide impassable barriers for tanks. Elsewhere, dams and levees were built that could be opened in an emergency to flood large swaths of the countryside. Engineers designed the bunkers with forward facing 12-foot thick concrete walls, but relatively thin defences in the rear, so that any positions captured in frontal assaults could be easily retaken by French counterattack.
Accommodations seemed lavish
Living conditions appeared quite comfortable for the half-million infantry, artillerymen and engineers who permanently manned the Maginot Line. The sprawling underground casemates were home to barracks, mess halls, hospitals and even recreation areas. Each ouvrage had its own power generator, hot and cold running water and was stocked with enough food and supplies to withstand a lengthy siege. Soldiers could even commute to and from their forward positions by way of a self-contained, narrow-gauge subway. The ventilation system kept the air in the in the passageways filtered and even pressurized to protect the soldiers within from gas attacks. Yet despite all the amenities, life underground was not always pleasant for the soldiers. The passageways were notoriously damp and cold and the sewage system was prone to backups.
The Maginot Line masked a somewhat underhanded strategy
On the surface, the Maginot Line was engineered to blunt a direct German attack into France, while safeguarding vital industries situated in the contested Alsace and Lorraine regions. But the Maginot strategy also concealed a Machiavellian streak. Defence planners imagined that the menacing barrier might compel Germany to avoid a frontal assault and instead attack by way of Belgium. Such a move would no doubt draw other European powers, namely Great Britain, into a conflict and arouse world opinion against Berlin. It was hoped that in such a scenario, the invaders would be defeated by an Allied army in Belgium.
Maginot Mania gripped France
The Maginot Line quickly became the pride of the French people. Newsreel footage of its impregnable bunkers and powerful guns contributed to feelings of national invincibility. Tragically, the defences so impressed voters, many resisted the idea of strengthening the country’s field army to match Germany’s modern mechanized war machine.
Many nations followed the France’s lead
Maginot Line propaganda made an impression on more than just the people of France – other world powers took note as well and were soon investing in their own copycat fortifications. Beginning in 1936, Greece began work on a 100-mile long Maginot knock-off along its frontier with long-time foe Bulgaria. It was dubbed the Metaxas Line after the country’ prime minister. Similarly, Czechoslovakia assembled its own network of bunkers, pillboxes and artillery forts on its border with Nazi Germany as early as 1935. Even the Third Reich constructed fortifications opposite the Maginot Line in the two years leading up to the outbreak of the war. Dubbed the “Siegfried Line” by the Allies, Hitler’s “Westwall” as it was officially known was far less ambitious than its French counterpart, consisting mainly of fortified gun emplacements and tank obstacles including, ditches, concrete dragon’s teeth and steel hedgehogs.
Not everyone was impressed with the Maginot Line
Despite the stock France placed in fortifications, the entire concept was not without its critics. The hawkish and thoroughly anti-Nazi politician Paul Reynaud lobbied his party to abandon the works and invest instead (like Germany) in a strong air force and tanks. It was an opinion shared by a young up-and-coming French officer by the name of Charles de Gaulle. The First World War veteran and author of the 1934 book Vers l’Armée de Métier or “Toward a Professional Army” proposed France depart from strategies of defence and build its army around the principles of mobile warfare and the decisive use of tanks. Few in France paid much attention to de Gaulle, but his book was ominously successful in Germany.
The Maginot Line was easily outflanked
Despite the time, effort and money that went into the Maginot Line, it saw relatively little action during the war. Hitler’s army bypassed it entirely in May of 1940 and (as predicted) invaded France by way of Belgium. By June, Nazi panzers had swept south from the Ardennes, outmaneuvered the French army and its British allies and cut off the Maginot Line from the rear. Early in the invasion, Wehrmacht guns bombarded one of the isolated Maginot fortifications along the Belgian border known le petit ouvrage La Ferté for four days. By the time it was overrun, the entire garrison of 107 were killed in the attack. Most suffocated when fire tore through the interior of the casemate. Its damaged turrets remain a national monument to this day. Further south, German units attempted to storm various points along the line in a series of frontal assaults throughout June of 1940. In most cases, the troops inside the Maginot Line held out and only emerged after France surrendered.
It continued to be manned after World War Two
Blitzkrieg didn’t spell the end for the Maginot Line. French troops reoccupied it after VE Day and many of the fortifications were repaired and even upgraded. In the years following 1945, a number of the largest and deepest bunkers became NATO command centres. By the time France withdrew from the alliance in the late 1960s, most of the facilities had been closed, abandoned and auctioned off to wine makers, farmers and housing developers. A number of installations remain as historical landmarks and tourist attractions.
Historians have reconsidered the Maginot Line
Some argue that despite being outflanked by the German army, the Maginot Line did actually fulfil its mission. It kept the German army from invading directly and safeguarded the coveted Alsace–Lorraine territories. Defenders of the fortifications point out that it was France’s field army that failed to stem the Nazi onslaught through the Ardennes. It’s this fiasco that ultimately led to the fall of France.