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.
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"
With political and economic turmoil wracking Germany during the late 1920s, French leaders were clearly worried about a new and even more terrible conflict. Security seemed to lie with a successful strategy from the last war: the idea of the “continuous front.” Although the “continuous front” had been severely battered at places, it had, for the most part, held; ultimately, the German invaders had been repulsed. The French political and military leadership assumed that the next war—and they firmly believed that there would be another war—would again require the establishment of a continuous front, especially given France’s projected manpower shortage. Some sort of defensive wall guarding her border with Germany—and beyond—would be necessary to halt any invasion long enough for the reserves to be called up and transported to the front.
That, at least, was the theory. The question now was, Could it be put into practice? Such a wall would need to stretch from the Mediterranean to the English Channel, and would cost billions of francs. Only the Great Wall of China, almost 4,000 miles long, covered a greater distance. Was such a thing even possible?
Beginning in 1922, the feasibility of constructing such a defensive work was studied and hotly debated by the Territory Defense Commission, led by Marshals Philippe Pétain, Ferdinand Foch, and Joseph Joffre, France’s heroes of the Great War. While Foch and Joffre advocated a more flexible, mobile approach, Pétain clearly favored a heavily fortified, static defensive line. Gradually, Pétain’s views prevailed and, in December 1925, the commission was succeeded by the Frontier Defense Commission, formed by Minister of War Paul Painlevé, to further look into the matter.
Painlevé’s board determined that three most likely invasion routes required immediate fortification. Three Régions Fortifiées, or fortified regions, were established: the Metz R.F., in the Moselle Valley between Longuyon and Teting on the Nied River, which was designed to block any incursion into the valley and protect the Briey-Thionville industrial area; the Lauter R.F., east of the Hagenau Forest between the Saar and Rhine Rivers, which would seal off the invasion route used by the Germans in 1870; and the Belfort, or Upper Alsace, R.F., which would guard the Belfort Gap in the Vosges Mountains, near where the borders of France, Germany, and Switzerland come together.
Historian and journalist William Shirer observed, “The trouble with the Maginot Line was that it was in the wrong place. The classical invasion route to France which the Germans had taken for nearly two millennia, since the earliest tribal days, lay through Belgium. This was the shortest way and the easiest, for it lay through level land with few rivers of any consequence to cross.”
The planners countered their critics by saying that defenses in the Alsace-Lorraine region would force the Germans into disastrous frontal attacks against the strongpoint. If the Germans chose to outflank the defenses, the thinking went, they would have to violate the neutrality of either Belgium or Switzerland, and the French assumed the Germans would not risk worldwide condemnation by violating neutral territory again. But, most of all, it was hoped that just the sheer presence of such a massive defensive line would dissuade the Germans from even considering invasion.
In September 1927, the Organizing Committee for the Fortified Regions (CORF) was established, and the following February construction began on two small-scale experimental facilities that would allow engineers to work out the practical details.
In early 1930, with the world in the grip of an economic depression, initial appropriations for the massive project—some three billion francs—were closely scrutinized by France’s Chamber of Deputies; Painlevé was out of office, and there was no assurance that the necessary funds would be allocated. Painlevé’s successor as Minister of War was a literal giant of a man (he stood six feet, six inches tall), André Maginot, a former member of the Chamber of Deputies and a disabled veteran of the Great War.
"One Imperious Necessity"
Maginot had also served, in 1913-1914, as Under-Secretary of State for War. When World War I broke out, he had a choice of serving either in Parliament or the army; he chose the latter, eschewing a commission to serve as a common soldier. Recipient of France’s highest award for valor, Sergeant Maginot was gravely wounded while on a patrol on the night of November 9, 1914. His kneecap was shattered, but his leg was saved; he would walk with a fused knee for the rest of his life. Once he became Minister of War, the 53-year-old Maginot threw himself and his department whole-heartedly into turning the idea of Painlevé’s defensive line into reality.