The Maginot Line dominated French military thinking in the inter-war years. The Maginot Line was a vast fortification that spread along the French/German border but became a military liability when the Germans attacked France in the spring of 1940 using blitzkrieg – a tactic that completely emasculated the Maginot Line’s purpose.
France had suffered appalling damage to both men and buildings in World War One. After Versailles in 1919, there was a clear intention on the part of the French that France should never have to suffer such a catastrophe again. After 1920, those men in both political positions and the military favoured adopting a military strategy that would simply stop any form of German invasion again.
Senior figures in the French military, such as Marshall Foch, believed that the German anger over Versailles all but guaranteed that Germany would seek revenge. The main thrust of French military policy, as a result, was to embrace the power of the defence.
As head of the armed forces, Marshall Petain commissioned a number of teams to come up with a solution to the French dilemma. Three schools of thought developed:
- 1) That France should adopt a policy of offence as opposed to defence. One of the main supporters of this was Charles de Gaulle. He wanted France to develop an army based on speed, mobility and mechanised vehicles. There were few who supported his ideas as many in the military saw them as aggressive and likely to provoke a response as opposed to guard against a German one.
- 2) France should base its military in a line of small heavily defended areas from which a counter-attack could be launched if required. Marshall Joffre favoured this idea.
- 3) France should build a long line of fortifications along the whole French/German border which would be both long and deep into France. Marshall Petain favoured this idea.
Petain had come out of World War One with a degree of credit and with his backing the idea of a long and deep defensive barrier gained political support. In this, Petain was supported by Andre Maginot, the Minister of War.
Maginot was Minister of War between 1922 and 1924. However, even after 1924, Maginot was involved in the project. In 1926, Maginot and his successor, Paul Painleve, got the funding for a body that was known as the Committee of Frontier Defence (CFD). The CFD was given the funding to build three sections of an experimental defence line – based on what Petain had recommended – which was to develop into the Maginot Line.
In 1929, Maginot returned to government office. He gained more money from the government to build a full-scale defence barrier along the German border. He overcame any opposition to his plan very simply – the fortification, he argued, would end any chance there was that France would suffer the terrible bloodshed of 1914 -1918 should there ever be another war. Also, in 1930, French troops that had occupied the Rhineland as part of the Versailles Treaty, had to leave the area that bordered onto France – this at a time when the Nazi Party and Hitler were making real headway in Germany.
Maginot had a number of sound military arguments on his side:
- The Line would hinder any German attack for so long that the bulk of the large French army would be fully mobilised to counter the attack.
- The troops stationed in the Line would also be used to fight against the invading Germans should they get through any one part of the Line and attack them from the rear.
- All the fighting would take place near to the French/German border so that there would be minimal damage to property.
- The Ardennes in the north would act as a natural continuation of the man-made Line as it was considered impenetrable, so the Line need not go all the way to the Channel.
Work on the Maginot Line proper started in 1930 when the French government gave a grant of 3 billion francs for its building. The work continued until 1940. Maginot himself died in 1932, and the line was named after him in his honour.
What exactly was the Maginot Line?
It was not a continuous line of forts as some believe. In parts, especially in the south from Basle to Haguenau, it was nothing more than a series of outposts as the steep geography of the region and the River Rhine provided its own defence between France and Germany. The Line comprised of over 500 separate buildings but was dominated by large forts (known as ‘ouvrages’) which were built about nine miles from each other. Each ouvrage housed 1000 soldiers with artillery. Between each ouvrage were smaller forts which housed between 200 to 500 men depending on their size.
There were 50 ouvrages in total along the German border. Each one had the necessary fire power to cover the two nearest ouvrages to the north and south. They were protected by reinforced steel that was inches deep and capable of taking a direct hit from most known artillery fire.
The smaller forts were obviously not as well armed or protected as the ouvrages but they were still well built. They were further protected by minefields and anti-tank ditches. Forward defence lines were designed to give the defenders a good warning of an impending attack. In theory, the Maginot Line was capable of creating a massive continuous line of fire that should have devastated any attack.
The Maginot Line was such an impressive piece of construction that dignitaries from around the world visited it.
However, the Maginot Line had two major failings – it was obviously not mobile and it assumed that the Ardennes was impenetrable. Any attack that could get around it would leave it floundering like a beached whale. Blitzkrieg was the means by which Germany simply went around the whole Line. By doing this, the Maginot Line was isolated and the plan that soldiers in the Line could assist the mobilised French troops was a non-starter. The speed with which Germany attacked France and Belgium in May 1940, completely isolated all the forts. The German attack was code-named “cut-of-the-sickle” (Sichlschnitt) – an appropriate name for the attack.
German Army Group B attacked through the Ardennes – such an attack was believed to be impossible by the French. One million men and 1,500 tanks crossed the seemingly impenetrable forests in the Ardennes. The Germans wanted to drive the Allies to the sea. Once the Maginot Line had been isolated it had little military importance and the Germans only turned their attention to it in early June 1940. Many of the ouvrages surrendered after the government signed its surrender with Germany – few had to be captured in battle, though some forts did fight the Germans. One in seven French divisions was a fortress division – so the Maginot Line took out 15% of the French Army. Though not a huge figure, these men may have had an impact on the advance of the Germans – or at least got evacuated at Dunkirk to fight another time.
After the war, parts of the Maginot Line were repaired and modernised to provide post-war France with more defence. Some of the forts were supposedly made nuclear war proof. However, many parts of the Maginot Line fell into disrepair and remain so.
The Maginot Line had its critics and supporters. The critics had a vast amount of evidence to support their views. However, an argument was put forward that the Maginot Line was a success and that its failure was a failure of planning in that the Line ended at the Belgium border. If the Maginot Line had been built all along the French/Belgium border, the outcome in the spring of 1940 may have been very different as the Germans would have had to go through a major fortification as opposed to going round it. It all senses, this is a superfluous argument as the Maginot Line did not go round Belgium’s border whereas the German military did go through the Ardennes therefore neutralising the Maginot Line.