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France's Maginot Line Was Not as Big a Failure as History Makes It out to Be

Like a disjointed, moss-covered, concrete serpent, the Maginot Line snakes some 800 miles, from the Mediterranean border with Italy northward, until it disappears near the North Sea. The serpent’s blank, unseeing eyes—from which the barrels of cannon and machine guns once unblinkingly stared toward France’s traditional enemy—today gaze across a bucolic landscape that gives little hint of the historic events that transpired along its length over six decades ago. The serpent, constructed over a period of 11 years at a cost of some seven billion prewar francs, was France’s last, best hope to avert another German invasion, another devastating war. The serpent is the largest remaining artifact from World War II. It is the Maginot Line.Considered by many to be an expensive failure, a symbol of French passivity and retrenchment, of her “bunker mentality” and unwillingness to boldly face the growing Nazi menace in the 1930s, the Maginot Line was an incredibly costly and highly controversial project. In one sense, however, it did exactly what it was designed to do: It forced the enemy to invade France at a different place.

30 Prior German Invasions Into France

La Ligne Maginot was born out of France’s deep-seated fear of another invasion by her neighbor and longtime foe, Germany. Except for a few rivers and the gentle mountains of the Vosges, there are few natural barriers to invasion. Thirty times over the centuries, Teutonic warriors marched virtually unimpeded into France and, five times during the 19th century alone, German guns imperiled Paris. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which was still bitterly recalled by the French generals and political leaders in 1914, brought home how utterly defenseless France was in the face of determined aggression.

To prepare for the future, the French looked to the past. Stoutly constructed, fixed fortifications have existed since ancient times, reaching their pre-Maginot apogee during the reign of King Louis XIV in the late 17th century, when the brilliant army officer and engineer Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban designed and oversaw the construction of a series of fortresses that admirably defended French interests. Vauban’s ingenious creations protected some one hundred towns, villages, and other places of importance, including Tournai (Belgium), Briançon, Ypres, and Strasbourg, to name but a few. Despite their enormous cost and susceptibility to conquest, fixed fortifications remained for centuries the best defense against an attacking force, and the French were among the masters at building this type of fortification.

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Such continued to be the case even as late as the Great War of 1914-1918, where the thick concrete walls and deeply buried fortifications of Verdun proved to be very hard nuts for the Kaiser’s forces to crack. One of the huge Verdun forts, Douaumont, was pounded by thousands of shells, up to 420mm in caliber, yet only five of its 30 casemates fell to the Germans in a battle that lasted 10 months and resulted in unimaginable casualties on both sides.

Manpower Hindered by the Great War

This reality, combined with another very salient factor, led the French to believe that their future security lay in ferro-concrete. The other factor that inevitably turned France toward fixed fortifications was the tremendous slaughter of her sons during World War I; it is estimated that 1.2 million Frenchmen lost their lives during that conflict. As a result, there were 1.2 million fewer potential fathers coming home from the war, and France’s birthrate fell precipitously after the war. The declining birthrate augured a severe shortage of future soldiers to guard the nation, which meant that other means for the defense of France needed to be found.

To some experts, the Great War proved that fixed fortifications had no future. The next war, these experts contended, would be a highly mobile affair. The advent of the dirigible, airplane, and tank meant that fortifications on the ground could be easily bypassed. Fixed fortifications, the critics argued, were as obsolete and extinct as the dinosaurs. Some brought up Karl von Clausewitz’s postulation: “If you entrench yourself behind strong fortifications, you compel the enemy to seek a solution elsewhere.”

The men charged with France’s defense were not swayed. Since fielding a large standing army was impossible for at least another generation, a line of fortresses, each at least as strong as Douaumont, was seen as the primary means of keeping the invading Huns at bay.

France had another reason for embracing the idea of fixed fortifications. Following the Armistice of 1918, the Americans and British, shocked at the war’s cost and carnage, refused to guarantee that they would come to France’s aid should she ever be attacked again. Feeling betrayed by her allies, France realized she must look inward for her future survival.

The “Continuous Front”

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