The Maginot Line: France's Defensive Failure

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Wilde, Robert. "The Maginot Line: France's Defensive Failure." ThoughtCo, Jul. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-maginot-line-3861426. Wilde, Robert. (2017, July 7). The Maginot Line: France's Defensive Failure. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-maginot-line-3861426 Wilde, Robert. "The Maginot Line: France's Defensive Failure." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-maginot-line-3861426 (accessed September 21, 2017).
Maginot Line
Map of the Maginot Line. (Goran tek-en/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Built between 1930 and 1940, France's Maginot Line was a massive system of defenses that became famous for failing to stop a German invasion. While an understanding of the Line's creation is vital to any study of World War I, World War II, and the period in between, this knowledge is also helpful when interpreting a number of modern references.

The Aftermath of World War I

The First World War ended on the 11th of November 1918, concluding a four-year period in which Eastern France had been almost continuously occupied by enemy forces.

The conflict had killed over one million French citizens, while a further 4–5 million had been wounded; great scars ran across both the landscape and the European psyche. In the aftermath of this war , France began to ask a vital question: how should it now defend itself?

This dilemma grew in importance after the Treaty of Versailles, the famous document of 1919 that was supposed to prevent further conflict by crippling and punishing the defeated countries, but whose nature and severity is now recognized as having partly caused the Second World War. Many French politicians and generals were unhappy with the terms of the treaty, believing that Germany had escaped too lightly. Some individuals, such as Field Marshall Foch, argued that Versailles was simply another armistice and that war would ultimately resume.

The Question of National Defense

Accordingly, the question of defense became an official matter in 1919, when the French Prime Minister  Clemenceau, discussed it with Marshal Pétain, the head of the armed forces.

Various studies and commissions explored many options, and three main schools of thought emerged. Two of these based their arguments on evidence gathered from the First World War, advocating a line of fortifications along France's eastern border. A third looked toward the future. This final group, who included a certain Charles de Gaulle, believed that war would become fast and mobile, organized around tanks and other vehicles with air support.

These ideas were frowned upon within France, where the consensus of opinion regarded them as being inherently aggressive and requiring outright attacks: the two defensive schools were preferred.

The 'Lesson' of Verdun

The great fortifications at Verdun were judged to have been the most successful in the Great War, surviving artillery fire and suffering little internal damage. The fact that Verdun's largest fortress, Douaumont, had fallen easily to a German attack in 1916 only broadened the argument: the fort had been built for a garrison of 500 troops, but the Germans found it manned by less than a fifth of that number. Large, well-built and—as attested to by Douaumont—well-maintained defenses would work. Indeed, the First World War had been a conflict of attrition in which many hundreds of miles of trenches, mainly dug from mud, reinforced by wood, and surrounded by barbed wire, had held each army at bay for several years. It was simple logic to take these ramshackle earthworks, mentally replace them with massive Douaumont-esque forts, and conclude that a planned defensive line would be wholly effective.

The Two Schools of Defense

The first school, whose main exponent was Marshall Joffre, wanted large quantities of troops based in a line of small, heavily defended areas from which counter attacks could be launched against anyone advancing through the gaps.

The second school, led by Pétain, advocated a long, deep, and constant network of fortifications which would militarize a large area of the eastern border and hark back to the Hindenburg line. Unlike most high-ranking commanders in the Great War, Pétain was considered as both a success and a hero; he was also synonymous with defensive tactics, lending great weight to the arguments for a fortified line. In 1922, the recently promoted Minister for War began to develop a compromise, based largely on the Pétain model; this new voice was André Maginot.

André Maginot Takes the Lead

Fortification was a matter of grave urgency for a man called André Maginot: he believed the French government to be weak, and the 'safety' provided by the Treaty of Versailles to be a delusion. Although Paul Painlevé replaced him at the Ministry for War in 1924, Maginot was never completely separated from the project, often working with the new minister.

Progress was made in 1926, when Maginot and Painlevé obtained government funding for a new body, the Committee of Frontier Defense (Commission de Défense des Frontieres or CDF), to build three small experimental sections of a new defense plan, based largely on the Pétain espoused Line model.

After returning to the war ministry in 1929, Maginot built upon the CDF's success, securing government funding for a full-scale defensive line. There was plenty of opposition, including the Socialist and Communist parties, but Maginot worked hard to convince them all. Although he may not have visited every government ministry and office in person—as the legend states—he certainly used some compelling arguments. He cited the falling numbers of French manpower, which would reach a low-point in the 1930s, and the need to avoid any other mass bloodshed, which might delay—or even stop—the population recovery. Equally, while the Treaty of Versailles had allowed French troops to occupy the German Rhineland, they were obliged to leave by 1930; this buffer zone would need some sort of replacement. He countered the pacifists by defining the fortifications as a non-aggressive method of defense (as opposed to fast tanks or counter attacks) and pushed the classic political justifications of creating jobs and stimulating industry.

How the Maginot Line Was Supposed to Work

The planned line had two purposes. It would halt an invasion long enough for the French to fully mobilize their own army, and then act as a solid base from which to repel the attack. Any battles would thus occur on the fringes of French territory, preventing internal damage and occupation. The Line would run along both the Franco-German and Franco-Italian borders, as both countries were considered a threat; however, the fortifications would cease at the Ardennes Forest and not continue any further north. There was one key reason for this: when the Line was being planned in the late twenties, France and Belgium were allies, and it was inconceivable that either one should build such a massive system on their shared boundary.

This did not mean that the area was to go undefended, for the French developed a military plan based around the Line. With large-scale fortifications defending the southeastern border, the bulk of the French army could gather at the northeastern end, ready to enter—and fight in—Belgium. The joint was the Ardennes Forest, a hilly and wooded area which was considered impenetrable.

Funding and Organization

In the early days of 1930, the French Government granted nearly 3 billion francs to the project, a decision which was ratified by 274 votes to 26; work on the Line began immediately. Several bodies were involved in the project: locations and functions were determined by CORF, the Committee for the Organization of the Fortified Regions (Commission d'Organization des Régions Fortifées, CORF), while the actual building was handled by the STG, or Technical Engineering Section (Section Technique du Génie). Development continued in three distinct phases until 1940, but Maginot did not live to see it. He died on January 7th, 1932; the project would later adopt his name.

Problems During Construction

The main period of construction took place between 1930–36, implementing much of the original plan. There were problems, as a sharp economic downturn required a switch from private builders to government led initiatives, and some elements of the ambitious design had to be delayed. Conversely, Germany's remilitarization of the Rhineland provided a further, and largely threatening, stimulus.
In 1936, Belgium declared itself a neutral country alongside Luxembourg and the Netherlands, effectively severing its previous allegiance with France. In theory, the Maginot Line should have been extended to cover this new border, but in practice, only a few basic defenses were added. Commentators have attacked this decision, but the original French plan—which involved fighting in Belgium—remained unaffected; of course, that plan is subject to an equal amount of criticism.

The Fortress Troops

With the physical infrastructure established by 1936, the main task of the next three years was to train soldiers and engineers to operate the fortifications. These 'Fortress Troops' were not simply existing military units assigned to guard duty, rather, they were an almost unparalleled mixture of skills which included engineers and technicians alongside ground troops and artillerymen. Finally, the French declaration of war in 1939 triggered a third phase, one of refinement and reinforcement.

Debate Over Costs

One element of the Maginot Line that has always divided historians is the cost. Some argue that the original design was too large, or that the construction used too much money, causing the project to be downsized. They often cite the dearth of fortifications along the Belgian border as a sign that the funding had run out. Others claim that the construction actually used less money than was allotted and that the few billion francs were far less, perhaps even 90% less, than the cost of De Gaulle's mechanized force. In 1934, Pétain obtained another billion francs to help the project, an act which is often interpreted as an outward sign of overspending. However, this could also be interpreted as a desire to improve and extend the Line. Only a detailed study of government records and accounts can solve this debate.

Significance of the Line

Narratives on the Maginot Line often, and quite rightly, point out that it could easily have been called the Pétain or Painlevé Line. The former provided the initial impetus—and his reputation gave it a necessary weight—while the latter contributed a great deal to the planning and design. But it was André Maginot who provided the necessary political drive, pushing the plan through a reluctant parliament: a formidable task in any era. However, the significance and cause of the Maginot Line go beyond individuals, for it was a physical manifestation of French fears. The aftermath of World War I had left France desperate to guarantee the safety of its borders from a strongly perceived German threat, while at the same time avoiding, perhaps even ignoring, the possibility of another conflict. Fortifications allowed fewer men to hold larger areas for longer, with a lower loss of life, and the French people jumped at the chance.

The Maginot Line Forts

The Maginot Line was not a single continuous structure like the Great Wall of China or Hadrian's Wall. Instead, it was composed of over five hundred separate buildings, each arranged according to a detailed but inconsistent plan. The key units were the large forts or 'ouvrages' which were located within 9 miles of each other; these vast bases held over 1000 troops and housed artillery. Other smaller forms of ouvrage were positioned between their larger brethren, holding either 500 or 200 men, with a proportional drop in firepower.

The forts were solid buildings capable of withstanding heavy fire. The surface areas were protected by steel reinforced concrete, which was up to 3.5 meters thick, a depth capable of withstanding multiple direct hits. The steel cupolas, elevating domes through which gunners could fire, were 30–35 centimeters deep. In total, the ouvrages numbered 58 on the eastern section and 50 on the Italian one, with most able to fire upon the two nearest positions of equal size, and everything in between.

Smaller Structures

The network of forts formed a backbone for many more defenses. There were hundreds of casements: small, multi-story blocks located less than a mile apart, each providing a secure base. From these, a handful of troops could attack invading forces and protect their neighboring casements. Ditches, anti-tank works, and minefields screened every position, while observation posts and forward defenses allowed the main line an early warning.

Variation

There was variation: some areas had far heavier concentrations of troops and buildings, while others were without fortresses and artillery. The strongest regions were those around Metz, Lauter , and Alsace, while the Rhine was one of the weakest. The Alpine Line, that part which guarded the French-Italian border, was also slightly different, as it incorporated a large number of existing forts and defenses. These were concentrated around mountain passes and other potential weak points, enhancing the Alps own ancient, and natural, defensive line. In short, the Maginot line was a dense, multi-layered system, providing what has often been described as a 'continuous line of fire' along a long front; however, the quantity of this firepower, and the size of the defenses, varied.

Use of Technology

Crucially, the Line was more than simple geography and concrete: it had been designed with the latest in technological and engineering know-how. The larger forts were over six stories deep, vast underground complexes that included hospitals, trains, and long air-conditioned galleries. Soldiers could live and sleep underground, while internal machine gun posts and traps repelled any intruders. The Maginot Line was certainly an advanced defensive position—it is believed that some areas could withstand an atomic bomb—and the forts became a marvel of their age, as kings, presidents, and other dignitaries visited these futuristic subterranean dwellings.

Historical Inspiration

The Line was not without precedent. In the aftermath of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, in which the French had been beaten, a system of forts was constructed around Verdun. The largest was Douaumont, "a sunken fortress showing hardly more than its concrete roof and its gun turrets above ground. Below lies a labyrinth of corridors, barrack rooms, munitions stores and latrines: a dripping echoing tomb..."(Ousby, Occupation: The Ordeal of France, Pimlico, 1997, p. 2). Aside from the last clause, this could be a description of the Maginot ouvrages; indeed, Douaumont was France's largest and best-designed fort of the period. Equally, the Belgian engineer Henri Brialmont created several large fortified networks before the Great War, most of which involved a system of forts located set distances apart; he also used elevating steel cupolas.

The Maginot plan used the best of these ideas, rejecting the weak points. Brailmont had intended to aid communication and defense by connecting some of his forts with trenches, but their eventual absence allowed German troops to simply advance past the fortifications; the Maginot line used reinforced underground tunnels and interlocking fields of fire. Equally, and most importantly for the veterans of Verdun, the Line would be fully and constantly staffed, so there could be no repeat of the undermanned Douaumont's swift loss.

Other Nations Also Built Defenses

France was not alone in its post-war (or, as it would later be considered, inter-war) building. Italy, Finland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Belgium, and the USSR all built or improved defensive lines, although these varied hugely in their nature and design. When placed in the context of Western Europe's defensive development, the Maginot Line was a logical continuation, a planned distillation of everything people believed they had learned so far. Maginot, Pétain, and others thought they were learning from the recent past, and using state of the art engineering to create an ideal shield from attack. It is, therefore, perhaps unfortunate that warfare developed in a different direction.

1940: Germany Invades France

There are many small debates, partly among military enthusiasts and wargamers, as to how an attacking force should go about conquering the Maginot Line: how would it stand up to various types of assault? Historians usually avoid this question—perhaps just making an oblique comment about the Line never being fully realized—because of events in 1940, when Hitler subjected France to a swift and humiliating conquest.

World War II had begun with a German invasion of Poland. The Nazi plan to invade France, the Sichelschnitt (cut of the sickle), involved three armies, one facing Belgium, one facing the Maginot Line, and another part-way between the two, opposite the Ardennes. Army Group C, under the command of General von Leeb, appeared to have the unenviable task of advancing through the Line, but they were simply a diversion, whose mere presence would tie down French troops and prevent their use as reinforcements. On May 10th 1940 , the German's northern army, Group A, attacked the Netherlands, moving through and into Belgium. Parts of the French and British Army moved up and across to meet them; at this point, the war resembled many French military plans, in which troops used the Maginot Line as a hinge to advance and resist the attack in Belgium.

The German Army Skirts the Maginot Line

The key difference was Army Group B, which advanced across Luxembourg, Belgium, and then straight through the Ardennes. Well over a million German troops and 1,500 tanks crossed the supposedly impenetrable forest with ease, using roads and tracks. They met little opposition, for the French units in this area had almost no air-support and few ways of stopping the German bombers. By May 15th, Group B was clear of all defenses, and the French army began to wilt. The advance of Groups A and B continued unabated until May 24th, when they halted just outside Dunkirk. By June 9th, German forces had swung down behind the Maginot Line, cutting it off from the rest of France. Many of the fortress troops surrendered after the armistice, but others held on; they had little success and were captured.

Limited Action

The Line did take part in some battles, as there were various minor German attacks from the front and the rear. Equally, the Alpine section proved wholly successful, halting the belated Italian invasion until the armistice. Conversely, the allies themselves had to cross the defenses in late 1944, as German troops used the Maginot fortifications as focal points for resistance and counter attack. This resulted in heavy fighting around Metz and, at the very end of the year, Alsace.

The Line After 1945

The defenses did not simply disappear after the Second World War; indeed the Line was returned to active service. Some forts were modernized, while others were adapted to resist nuclear attack. However, the Line had fallen out of favor by 1969, and the next decade saw many ouvrages and casements sold to private buyers. The rest fell into decay. Modern uses are many and varied, apparently including mushroom farms and discos, as well as many excellent museums. There is also a thriving community of explorers, people who like to visit these mammoth decaying structures with just their handheld lights and a sense of adventure (as well as a good deal of risk).

Post War Blame: Was the Maginot Line at Fault?

When France looked for explanations in the aftermath of World War II, the Maginot Line must have seemed an obvious target: its sole purpose had been to stop another invasion. Unsurprisingly, the Line received severe criticism, ultimately becoming an object of international derision. There had been vocal opposition before the war—including that of De Gaulle, who stressed that the French would be able to do nothing but hide behind their forts and watch Europe tear itself apart—but this was scant compared to the condemnation that followed. Modern commentators tend to focus on the question of failure, and although opinions vary enormously, the conclusions are generally negative. Ian Ousby sums up one extreme perfectly:

"Time treats few things more cruelly than the futuristic fantasies of past generations, particularly when they are actually realised in concrete and steel. Hindsight makes it abundantly clear that the Maginot Line was a foolish misdirection of energy when it was conceived, a dangerous distraction of time and money when it was built, and a pitiful irrelevance when the German invasion did come in 1940. Most glaringly, it concentrated on the Rhineland and left France's 400-kilometer border with Belgium unfortified." (Ousby, Occupation: The Ordeal of France, Pimlico, 1997, p. 14)

Debate Still Exists Over Blame

Opposing arguments usually reinterpret this last point, claiming that the Line itself was wholly successful: it was either another part of the plan (for instance, fighting in Belgium), or its execution that failed. For many, this is too fine a distinction and a tacit omission that the real fortifications differed too much from the original ideals, making them a failure in practice. Indeed, the Maginot Line was and continues to be portrayed in many different ways. Was it intended to be an utterly impenetrable barrier, or did people just begin to think that? Was the Line's purpose to direct an attacking army around through Belgium, or was the length just a terrible mistake? And if it was meant to guide an army, did somebody forget? Equally, was the security of the Line itself flawed and never fully completed? There is little chance of any agreement, but what is certain is that the Line never faced a direct attack, and it was too short to be anything other than a diversion.

Conclusion

Discussions of the Maginot Line have to cover more than just the defenses because the project had other ramifications. It was costly and time-consuming, requiring billions of francs and a mass of raw materials; however, this expenditure was reinvested into the French economy, perhaps contributing as much as it removed. Equally, military spending and planning were focused around the Line, encouraging a defensive attitude that slowed the development of new weapons and tactics. Had the rest of Europe followed suit, the Maginot Line may have been vindicated, but countries like Germany followed very different paths, investing in tanks and planes. Commentators claim that this 'Maginot mentality' spread across the French nation as a whole, encouraging defensive, non-progressive thinking in government and elsewhere. Diplomacy also suffered—how can you ally with other nations if all you are planning to do is resist your own invasion? Ultimately, the Maginot Line probably did more to harm France than it ever did to aid it.

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Wilde, Robert. "The Maginot Line: France's Defensive Failure." ThoughtCo, Jul. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-maginot-line-3861426. Wilde, Robert. (2017, July 7). The Maginot Line: France's Defensive Failure. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-maginot-line-3861426 Wilde, Robert. "The Maginot Line: France's Defensive Failure." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-maginot-line-3861426 (accessed September 21, 2017).