Maginot Line

Maginot Line

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This French line of defense was constructed along the country’s border with Germany during the 1930s and named after Minister of War André Maginot. It primarily extended from La Ferté to the Rhine River, though sections also stretched along the Rhine and the Italian frontier. The main fortifications on the northeast frontier included 22 large underground fortresses and 36 smaller fortresses, as well as blockhouses, bunkers and rail lines. Despite its strength and elaborate design, the line was unable to prevent an invasion by German troops who entered France via Belgium in May 1940.

The Maginot line was named after Andre Maginot (1877-1932), a politician who served in World War I until wounded in November 1914. He used crutches and walking sticks for the remainder of his life. While serving after World War I as France’s minister of war and then as president of the Chamber of Deputies’ Army Commission, he helped complete plans for the defensive line along the northeastern frontier and obtain funds to build it.

The main fortifications of the Maginot line extended from La Ferte (thirty kilometers east of Sedan) to the Rhine River, but fortifications also stretched along the Rhine and along the Italian frontier. The fortifications on the northeast frontier included twenty-two huge underground fortresses and thirty-six smaller fortresses, as well as many blockhouses and bunkers. The French placed most of their largest fortresses in the northeast because of their desire to protect the large population, key industries, and abundant natural resources located near the Moselle valley.

The first attack by the Germans against the Maginot line itself occurred on May 16, 1940, and was directed against the isolated fortifications at La Ferte on the extreme western tip of the line. The Germans managed to capture the casemates only after four days of hard fighting, and with the support of large amounts of heavy artillery and high-velocity 88-mm fire. Despite the use of massive force, the Germans failed to capture a single major fortress before the armistice on June 25. Though designed to withstand attacks from Germany, the Maginot line fortresses could be defended against attacks from the rear; consequently, the Americans had no easy task fighting their way through the line in 1944-1945.

The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

The Maginot Line

After the trauma of World War I, which was supposed to be the ‘’Der des Der’’, the French government decided that in case of a German attack, a defensive strategy would be more successful. Hence, it was decided to build an impregnable defense system, the Maginot Line. This enormous dispositive would be able in principle to stop the German advance and give time for France to mobilize. Yet, in May 1940 the Wehrmacht imitates its parents of 1914 and invades Belgium, bypassing the Maginot Line. More specifically, they advance through the Ardennes with armored vehicles, something deemed impossible by the French general staff. One month later, France, thought to possess the best army in the world, signs the armistice. The final page of a History of France that was bordering on legend.

French prisoners during the Battle of France, 1940

When we look at the facts today, one cannot but help asking why France had not expected a German attack through Belgium. Why did France not extend the Maginot Line to the Channel? Those two questions overwhelm the current of thoughts because, regardless of what we know in retrospect, it is obvious that the French government failed in its duty. The aim of this article is to brush the main aspects of the mentality behind the construction of the Maginot Line and the strategy surrounding it.
To understand the Maginot Line and the French mentality of the time, one must understand the impact of the First World War on French society. We never repeat it enough even though we agree that this impact does not excuse everything. At the end of the First World War, France has lost about 1,400,000 men for a population of 40 million. The British have lost 900,000 men for a population of 45 million and Germany has lost about 2,000,000 men for a population of 65 million. France is the country with the smallest population out the three and with the highest amount of casualties. Furthermore, most of the fighting on the Western front occurred in France. French schools have emphasized over the years about the concept of Total War where all the population at every social level was involved in the war effort. Today, is there not a war memorial in nearly all villages and communes of metropolitan France? We will never understand how much the war was traumatizing. This is why the French government, knowing what was happening in Germany, decided to focus on a defensive strategy that aimed to prevent fighting on French territory and to save French lives: no more offensive with overwhelming numbers being cut down by machine guns, shrapnel, and artillery fire just to earn a few meters. This type of warfare still amazes today. Not only would this strategy stop the Germans at the border while minimizing French losses but it would also allow France to mobilize its army, to protect its industrial zones, and the Maginot Line would be used as a basis for a counter-attack.

The Maginot Line in Northen France
The Maginot Line takes its name from André Maginot, Minister of War, and a World War I veteran who was gravely wounded in 1914. He also was one of the most prominent supporters of this defense dispositive which would cost about 5 billion francs. Construction started in 1928 in the South, facing Italy because Italian fascism was perceived as more dangerous at the time. In 1933, most of the work was done and then new projects were initiated near Belgium. With the rise of Hitler in Germany and the demands of Mussolini, additional credits were obtained in order to cover the entire border with Germany and in 1936, the Maginot Line seemed to be completed. Thus, it covered the border with Germany, Luxemburg, and part of the border with Italy. This brings us to our two questions: why was the Maginot Line not extended to the Channel and had the French general staff expected a German attack like the one in 1914? Contrary to popular belief, the Maginot Line had been built as a component of a military cooperation with Belgium. The idea was that the Maginot Line would dissuade the Germans from attacking the French directly and invade France through Belgium. This would give the French army enough time to move on Belgium to meet the Wehrmacht and force Great-Britain, which guaranteed Belgium’s security, to send troops to fight the Germans. Furthermore, there were fortifications that extended along the Belgian border. However, they were nowhere as developed as the ones along the German border. Regardless, the German attack on Belgium was not only expected, but it was also desired. This is why the Maginot Line was not extended there. The French general staff thought that the German army could be stopped with the French army and the British contingent. However, they neglected to consider the efficacy of the German tactic, the Blitzkrieg, relying on the massive use of armored vehicles. This tactic had performed miracles in Poland in 1939. Despite that, the French general staff thought they would meet the German army head-on. Alas, they had not planned that Hitler would make his troops advance through the Ardennes, a forested and mountainous region, deemed impracticable by armored vehicles. As a result, the Germans were able to envelop the French and British forces from the South while cutting them off the Maginot Line. The allied were pushed back to Dunkirk where they had to be evacuated. And that is how the French army, reputed to be the best in the world, fell into pieces within a few weeks time, followed closely by the government. To present-day people, it seems obvious that the Maginot Line should have been extended. However, it is always too easy to judge history from the comfort of one’s sofa years later. Furthermore, there were additional factors to take into account. Extending the defenses might not have been completed in time, or the quality of the work might not have been guaranteed everywhere. Also, the French army, arrogant of its victory of World War I and with its reputation of best army in the world had every reason to believe it would defeat the Germans. It also could not imagine that the Germans would invade through the Ardennes. In short, everything that seems obvious today was not necessarily so at the time. Therefore, we will simply conclude by saying that during the Battle of France from May to June 1940, the French soldier did not lack courage. It is the general staff that was simply outmatched. A war of positions, symbolized by the Maginot Line, was not the right tactic to use when armored vehicles allowed for quick and deep thrust in the enemy line. Yet, it was hard to imagine a different way of fighting after the traumatism of World War I. Germany and France took different lessons from the war. Germany concluded that a war of positions was too costly and victory had to be achieved quickly. The last time it let itself get caught in that kind of war, it lasted 4 years and resulted in a major defeat. France fared better the last time it fought a war of positions. It held its ground. It did not wish to pursue bloody offensives. The French general staff thought that it was better to let the Germans come to them. In a war of movements, giving the initiative to one’s opponent is dangerous. France learned the lesson the hard way.

“This territory must be defended against invasion by the enemy. We know the heavy casualties that can be inflicted, for which even a military victory cannot compensate. The defense system we seek to establish along the border has but one goal: keeping out potential invaders. A security fence is better and less costly than a wall of bare chests.”

The Maginot Line Mostly Worked the Way it was Expected to & Great Footage in Here Too

The moment the Germans entered Belgium, the plan was for the French (and hopefully British) to move in and fight them there and the Maginot Line did that.

The Maginot Line was a series of fortifications built by France between 1929-34 and subsequently enhanced until 1939. Named after André Maginot, the French Minister of War, it ran along the eastern border with Germany and Luxemburg and stretched across 450km (

The fortifications were built as a result of experiences from the exceptionally bloody war in 1914-18. At around 3 billion French Francs, the cost of the Maginot Line was enormous. However, the intention was to save lives and what price can a government put on that?

Troops of 51st Highland Division march over a drawbridge into Fort de Sainghain on the Maginot Line, 3 November 1939

The French remembered when the Germans invaded their country in World War I, and were anxious that the same thing should not happen again. The idea behind the creation of the Maginot Line was not only to avoid trench warfare inside France but also to stop or at least delay any potential offensive from the east which would give troops time to prepare a counter-attack.

French military minds thought the Maginot Line was insurmountable. It could defend against most forms of attack, including tanks and air bombings. It had underground railways that could carry troops and equipment from fort to fort. Over 600 main combat objects were supported by 6,000 kinds of various fortifications and obstacles.

A soldier from the Cameron Highlanders looks through a periscope in the Fort de Sainghain on the Maginot Line, 3 November 1939.

The Germans were aware of the pros and cons of the French fortifications. They even built an equivalent which they called the Siegfried Line so that they could obtain first-hand insights into its structure and defenses.

In comparison to French war doctrines, Germans preferred an offensive fight. As such, plans based on the shocking Blitzkrieg method were created.

In September 1939, the Third Reich proved how effective a swift and sudden attack could be, but French still believed in the might of the Maginot Line. However, the enemy did not plan to attack from the east.

German officers entering the ammunition entry at Ouvrage Hackenberg. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 121-0363 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

There was no fortification across the Belgium border because the French planned to use the lowlands for a possible counter-offensive and there was simply no reason to fortify a border with a neutral country. Unfortunately, the Germans recognized and exploited that weakness. They had no problem with violating the neutrality of several countries rather than attacking France head-on.

The Maginot Line itself had some weak points, one of which was at the Ardennes Forest. The French thought the area nearby was difficult enough to cross, even without a heavy defensive system. However, the Nazis proved them wrong and managed to encircle the Allied troops. Many mistakes were repeated from the previous war.

French soldiers on Maginot Line

The German war machine attacked on 10 May 1940. Five days later, the Germans were well into France and continued to advance until 24 May, when they stopped near Dunkirk. In six weeks, France had been conquered. Nevertheless, the Maginot Line itself still stood, intact and ready to fight back. The Germans were unable to capture any of the forts within this complex.

Despite being surrounded, many commanders were prepared to hold out at any cost. However, after the capitulation of France, there was nothing left to defend. The entire garrison of the Maginot Line was captured and sent to POW camps.

American soldiers examine the Maginot Line in 1944

It wasn’t the end of the war for the Maginot Line though. In 1944, this time in hands of the Germans, the line got in the way of advancing U.S. troops. The fortifications were largely bypassed, but not without a few exceptions near Metz and Alsace.

Despite their impressive structure, fixed fortifications on such a vast scale like the Maginot Line and the Siegfried Line were now simply outdated and obsolete. The Maginot Line still exists, but it is not maintained and not used for military purposes anymore.

More photos

Map of the Maginot Line

Soldiers of the 51st Highland Division wearing gas masks while on duty in a fort on the Maginot Line in France, November 3, 1939

The British Expeditionary Force in France 1939-1940. HM King George VI visits the BEF, December 1939.

Destroyed turret on the Maginot Line, 1940. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-382-0204-22A / Greiner / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Destroyed bunker, Maginot Line, 1940. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-383-0348-30A / Greiner / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Bunker at the Maginot Line, 1940. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 121-0486 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Maginot Line now

Michelsberg entrance block. Photo: Benrichard3rd / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Main gallery, showing the 60cm internal rail line. Photo: DrAlzheimer / CC-BY-SA 4.0

The power plant at Michelsberg. Photo: DrAlzheimer / CC-BY-SA 4.0

Kitchen in Michelsberg. Photo: DrAlzheimer / CC-BY-SA 4.0

Tunnels under Michelsberg. Photo: Deep Darkness / CC-BY-SA 2.0

Fort de Fermont. Photo: Guido Radig / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The ammunition bunker entrance to Ouvrage Schoenenbour, Maginot Line in Alsace.

View of the entrance and the barbed wire network, Immerhof (Maginot line), Moselle, France. Photo: Lvcvlvs / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Bunker C 23 in Ravin de Crusnes (Maginot Line), Crusnes, Meurthe-et-Moselle, France. Photo: Lvcvlvs / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The view from a battery at Ouvrage Schoenenbourg in Alsace. Notice the retractable turret in the left foreground. Photo: John C. Watkins V.

Entrance at l’ouvrage du Kobenbusch.

Railway tunnel in l’ouvrage du Four-à-Chaux. Photo: Sylvainlouis / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Entrance at l’ouvrage du Col-de-la-Moutière.

GFM cloche, one of the most common defensive armaments on the Maginot Line. Bunker in de la Ferté.

Destroyed GFM Cloche in l’ouvrage du Kerfent. Photo: Kefrent / CC-BY-SA 3.0

View at the heavy shelled bunker, l’ouvrage du Bambesch. Photo: Lvcvlvs / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Bunker no 8 at l’ouvrage du Hackenberg, damaged by US troops in late 1944. Photo: Nicolas Bouillon / CC-BY-SA 3.0

What Your History Teacher Told You About the Maginot Line Is Wrong

The Maginot Line arose neither from French cowardice nor stupidity. It was conceived because of babies—or rather, a lack of babies. France in 1939 had a population of about forty million. Germany had a population of about seventy million. As the Germans themselves learned at the hands of the Soviets, fighting a numerically superior enemy is dangerous.

Or was Paris simply doomed?

“Fixed fortifications are monuments to man’s stupidity,” George Patton said. “If mountain ranges and oceans can be overcome, anything made by man can be overcome.”

No doubt Patton was thinking of the Maginot Line, which has gone down as a salutary lesson in why expensive fortifications are a bad idea.

But with all due respect to Ol’ Blood and Guts (“our blood and his guts,” as Patton’s men used to complain), that’s misreading history.

The Maginot Line arose neither from French cowardice nor stupidity. It was conceived because of babies—or rather, a lack of babies. France in 1939 had a population of about forty million. Germany had a population of about seventy million. As the Germans themselves learned at the hands of the Soviets, fighting a numerically superior enemy is dangerous.

France’s birth rate had actually been declining since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But World War I worsened the problem. France lost about 1.4 million dead and 4.2 million wounded, while Germany lost two million dead and also 4.2 million wounded. But with almost twice the population, Germany was left with a larger manpower base. As the euphoria of victory in 1918 began to fade, French planners grimly contemplated population graphs predicting the pool of draft-age young men would hit a nadir in the 1930s.

What to do? One solution was to form alliances with the new eastern European states, and even the Soviet Union, to threaten Germany’s eastern border. Another was to count on Britain fighting alongside France to stop a German invasion, as in 1914. Neither would save France in 1940.

That left the traditional solution for a weaker power: the shovel and the concrete mixer. Fortifications are a force multiplier that allow a weaker army to defend against a stronger attacker, or defend part of its territory with minimum forces while concentrating the bulk of its troops for an attack somewhere else.

Viewed in this light, the Maginot Line was a sensible idea. It was a line of almost six thousand forts, blockhouses, dragon’s-teeth antitank barriers and other fortifications along the Franco-German border, starting in the south near Switzerland and extending north to the France-Luxembourg border. It was an impressive engineering achievement of retractable cannon-armed turrets that could rise up and down out of the ground, fortified machine-gun nests, and underground quarters complete with cinemas and subterranean trolleys. By all accounts, these were cold, damp places to garrison, yet they would have been quite formidable had the Germans attacked them.

The Maginot Line allowed France to defend its border with Germany with second-rate fortress troops. This let the French concentrate their best armies and their mechanized troops in the open terrain of north of France, where they would advance through Belgium to stop a German attack advancing along the same invasion route taken by the kaiser’s armies in 1914.

This plan might have worked, had the Germans done what they were supposed to. But instead of butting their turrets against the Maginot Line in the south, or the cream of the French army in the north, Hitler’s panzers went up the middle. On May 10, 1940, they struck through Luxembourg and southern Belgium, through narrow country roads traversing forested hills that could have been easily defended by small forces—but weren’t. Six weeks later, France capitulated.

The French campaign of 1940 groans under the weight of what-ifs. What if the Maginot Line had been extended to cover the Belgian border (which would have been an expensive proposition)? What if the narrow roads through Luxembourg had been better defended? What if the French high command had been less lethargic, and moved quickly to seal off the breakthrough? What if French troops had displayed greater initiative and higher morale?

Yet none of these have anything to do with the actual Maginot Line. In hindsight, France could have chosen not to build fortifications, and spent the money on raising more infantry divisions, or buying more tanks and aircraft. But that wouldn’t have solved France’s manpower gap, especially since more troops would have been needed to replace the fortifications along the German border. And there is no reason to believe more money would have resulted in more competent French generals, or that French tanks would have been used more adroitly.

It is a harsh lesson of history that an idea can be brilliant in itself, yet fail for all sorts of reasons. Especially in military history, which is a vast graveyard of plans and technology that didn’t work as advertised. If a jet fighter offers disappointing performance, we consider it a flawed design, and not that jet fighters are a bad concept.

Fortifications are not invulnerable. As Patton observed, any obstacles devised by humans can be penetrated by humans (or by ants, as any home dweller can attest). But used properly, and supported by a field army able and willing to fight, they can be most formidable.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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.

SWJ Book Review: "The Maginot Line: History and Guide"

Like the phrase “high-caliber,” the Maginot Line is a physical item for military use that, now, is most commonly used in metaphor. For example, earlier this month, Max Boot, to bolster his claim that Russia Has Invented Social Media Blitzkrieg wrote:

The 2016 U.S. presidential election was as shocking, in its own way, as the fall of France in May 1940. The complacent French thought they were secure behind the Maginot Line until the German panzers penetrated the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest. Likewise the complacent Hillary Clinton campaign thought it was secure because of its hordes of cash, its extensive on-the-ground operation, and the sheer awfulness of its opponent. Surprise! The Russians stole Democratic Party emails and, acting through cutouts like WikiLeaks, leaked the most damaging tidbits. Then social media did the rest. And lo and behold on Nov. 8, 2016, the unthinkable occurred: Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

Since the Maginot Line’s primary use today is to serve as a metaphor for a “defensive structure that inspired irrational confidence,” (note how Boot chose to describe the French as “complacent”) it would be helpful to understand what the Maginot Line actually was. Fortunately, The Maginot Line: History and Guide by J.E. Kaufmann, H.W. Kaufmann, A. Jankovič-Potočnik, and P. Lang usefully explains the inception and construction of the Maginot Line, the Maginot Line during the Second World War, and the Maginot Line after 1945. The Kaufmanns and their co-authors created a book that is effective as both a history book and a guidebook.

The book’s first section is the glossary, which is helpful because the authors are writing about a French line of fortifications and provide the technical terms in French at the start. This is a fair compromise for less technical readers, who would be lost in the ouvrages and cloches otherwise. The historical chapters have helpful pictures and maps, many of which were taken or drawn by the authors.

The history section begins before the construction of the Maginot Line, pointing to how the question of arranging defenses “was practically settled in the early 1920s with the decision to form an almost continuous line” (13). André Maginot, the French Minister of War beginning in 1929, was the primary supporter of the line and used his “influence to win approval from the French parliament. Many reporters, believing that France was erecting its own version of the Great Wall of China, named the project the ‘Maginot Line’ after its staunchest supporter” (47).

The authors consistently show that this line was only “continuous” in French propaganda. While “the actual ends of the line had to be modified owing to financial restrictions” (46), “the Maginot Line was a huge drain on resources and created only an illusion of security” (46-47) as “propaganda reassured the public with images of an impressive line of battleship-like forts guarding the frontier” (47). However, German intelligence maps were more accurate than the French propaganda maps (121). The authors show that the Great Depression-induced financial constraints led to, by the author’s conservative estimate, actual cost being double the amount authorized. Consistent with the unanticipated cost increase, there was less work completed than planned (51). Moreover, the French “were loath to build massive fortifications along the Franco-Belgian border, even if such works were practical, for fear of offending their ally” (53). The most important undefended area was the Ardennes Forest, where the French did not want to offend the Belgians, the Belgians did not want to invest in their Walloon population, and both parties believed that the Ardennes was effectively impassible (53, 88).

Beyond the Germans ability to drive through the Ardennes, two other factors limited the effectiveness of the Maginot Line against the Germans. First, the fortifications had no heavy artillery or anti-aircraft guns (83). Second, throughout the 1930’s, the French collaborated with the Czechs on fortification design. This meant that, after Czech territory was ceded to the Germans at Munich, the Germans were able study the Czech forts, including performing weapons tests that helped the Germans prepare to attack the Maginot Line (93).

Beyond the gap in planning and the chasm between propaganda and reality, the French had a shortfall in bureaucratic effectiveness. The French had more tanks, with at least equivalent capability, than the Germans, but “unlike the [German] officers, the French were not encouraged to use their judgment and act independently. Instead, the French army was more involved in generating paperwork” (99). This commentary on bureaucracy is another example of how the authors effectively use context to explain why the Maginot Line was ineffective.

Most people aware of the Maginot Line are familiar with its unanticipated irrelevance during World War II. German officers, using their autonomy and knowledge of the fortifications gained from experiments on Czech forts, had no interest in assaulting the fortifications (116). Beyond going through the “impassible” Ardennes, the Germans deployed bombers and paratroopers, which “spread terror like wildfire among the French troops” (120). In many cases, French soldiers were stuck on the Maginot Line has the Germans advanced far beyond to line to Paris and Dunkirk.

The authors show that individual engagements of the Maginot Line for “most of the Maginot fortress troops became a matter of honor” (138). For example, Germans fired 3,000 rounds, all over 100mm, at one outpost, named Schoenenbourg, which refused to surrender during the bombardment (149). Outpost Schoenenbourg, by the time of its surrender, was irrelevant to the larger campaign, but it illustrates the occasional acts of individual bravery of the much-maligned French army. On the Southern part of the Maginot Line, the French, fighting from their fortresses, successfully held off an Italian invasion (163). The Maginot Line, where engaged directly, served its purpose by holding territory effectively.

After World War II, the French again faced other financial obligations that diverted funds from the Maginot Line, especially due to the Algerian War (180). Despite the advent of nuclear weapons, the French maintained several outposts along the Maginot Line until the French finally abandoned all fortifications at the end of the Cold War. The key figure from this time, Philippe Truttman, was “to the preservation of the Maginot Line as Maginot himself was to the creation of the fortifications” (182).

This book is fascinating as a history of a key string of fortresses. Additionally, its final section is a practical guidebook for visiting the sites today. Beyond explaining what can currently be seen, this section features both plans and perspectives for these sites. This is tremendously helpful in understanding what can be seen, how the different parts of given forts interact, and how the forts mesh with the surrounding landscapes.

This book shows that the Maginot Line is more than a metaphor for poor planning. It remains a physical series of structures that can still be visited. More importantly, it shows how economic and political pressure, combined with belief in one’s own propaganda, can be more damaging to national defense that enemy mortar shells.

The views expressed in this review are those of the reviewer and do not reflect the view of the World Bank Group, its Board of Directors, or the governments they represent.

The Maginot Line

The term “Maginot Line” is often associated with both cutting-edge military technology and one of the most serious misplanning incidents in the history of war. The French built a defense system consisting of a line of bunkers along the French border with Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and Italy that was built between 1930 and 1940.

The system is named after French Defense Minister André Maginot. The main purpose of the defense system was to deter German invasion.

The individual bunkers of the Maginot Line were more than ordinary military bases. Most of these bases had their own hospital, recreation center, kitchens, living areas, ammunition bunkers, and their own diesel engines for power.

Large parts of the bases were additionally equipped with air filtration systems against gas attacks. At the time, the budget for construction was far overdrawn at three billion francs, which accounted for many unfinished bases. Most of the architecture was built primarily on the basis of experience in the First World War.

In order to preserve Belgium’s neutrality, the border with Belgium was only very thinly defended by the Maginot Line.

As an alternative, French and British generals devised a counterattack plan in the event of a German attack through neutral Belgium: While numerous elite troops would defend the Line, several French armies and the British Expeditionary Corps would march into Belgium in the event of war and, together with Belgian troops, repel the Wehrmacht at the Deyle River.

As a result, they moved most of their best formations into Belgium, which made it possible for the Germans to penetrate through the weakly occupied Ardennes and bypass the Maginot Line completely.

The French were forced to surrender and faced a massive defeat.

The Maginot Line, which put a massive economic burden on France and failed to prevent the German attack, turns out to be one of the biggest misplanning as well as a waste of money and troops in the history of war, over $3 billion French Francs were spent on construction.

The Maginot Line

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.

The Siegfried and Maginot Lines: similarities and differences

Both these resounding names refer to a national defence system. They are, respectively, German and French. The principal difference between the two is that the former was erected in France by the Germans in World War I the latter by the French between 1929 and 1934 on their own eastern frontier.

The Siegfried Line was a fortified defensive barrier erected in France from Lens to Rheims. The German army built these defences after they had failed to take Verdun, presumably for reasons of logic, logistics and an apprehensive study of the future. One should not omit to note that the Germans also called it ‘The Hindenburg Line’, after the former Field Marshal, later President of the German Republic Paul von Hindenburg (1847 – 1934).

The defences proved useful for the first time in 1917, making it possible to maintain a front with depleted forces. In 1940 Adolf Hitler applied the term ‘Siegfried Line’ to both old and new fortifications built along Germany’s western frontier. Comedians in London sang a jingoistic song in the music halls called ‘We’re going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line!’

The Maginot takes its name from French Minister for War André Maginot (1877 – 1932). It was built between Longwy near Luxemburg to Switzerland and it was instantly proclaimed impregnable (by the French). But the defences had a fatal flaw, caused by politics: they were not continued along the Franco-Belgian frontier because of Belgian objections also, a powerful group of French strategists was certain that the Germans could not penetrate the Ardennes. Hitler’s generals simply avoided the Maginot in their blitzkrieg invasion west, by investing Belgium and the Sedan instead. Thus they entered France unopposed.

Would-be historians studying for their examinations should take careful note of the fact that when France gave in and signed her armistice with Germany – symbolically in the same railway carriage in which the 1918 armistice was signed that declared Germany defeated – all the Maginot Line fortresses were untouched, except for a scattering of fortifications near Saarbrücken.

Without being unnecessarily cynical, it is generally accepted that the Maginot Line can be taken as a symbol of the mentality of the French High Command in the 21-year period between the wars. The French simply refused to heed the British prediction that Germany would penetrate or merely go round the fortresses bristling with what turned out to be useless armaments and huge garrisons.

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The Abandoned Bunkers and Fortresses of the Maginot Line

The Maginot Line was a series of fortifications built by the French Government in the 1930s. It ran along the border with Germany and was named after André Maginot, the French Minister of War.

France built it to hold back a possible German invasion. The idea behind it was to hold back enemy forces while the French mobilized their own armies. The French remembered when the Germans invaded their country in World War I, and so were anxious that the same thing should not happen again.

French military experts thought the Maginot Line was wonderful. It could turn back most forms of attack, including tanks and bombing from the air. It had underground railways to carry troops and equipment from fort to fort.

The living quarters for the soldiers were comfortable, and they even had air – conditioning. The French generals were certain it would stop any attacks from the east.

Maginot line – By Made by Niels Bosboom CC BY-SA 3.0

But the enemy did not attack from the east. The Maginot Line did not extend across the northern border with Belgium. This was because Belgium was a neutral country and France did not want to offend the Belgians.

So in 1941 the Germans violated the neutrality of Belgium and invaded France through that country, just as they had in World War I. They went right around the Maginot, and for all its might it was effectively useless. The German Army captured Paris and conquered France in six weeks.

But the Maginot Line had problems of its own, even if the Germans had bothered to attack it. It was very costly to maintain and was not provided with the money that it needed to keep the troops and equipment necessary for war.

The Maginot Line still exists, but is not maintained and not used for military purposes anymore.

Inside the vast tunnel system that links the Maginot line Flickr / Romain DECKER

Inside the massive tunnel system Flickr / Thomas Bresson

Small bunker on the maginot line near Crusnes Flickr / Morten Jensen

Fort Fermont on the Maginot Line Flickr / Morten Jensen

Galgenberg fortress in the Maginot Line. Flickr / Morten Jensen

Galgenberg fortress in the Maginot Line. Flickr / Morten Jensen

Fortress Bois Karre on the Maginot line Flickr / Morten Jensen

Fortress Kobenbusch in the Maginot-Line Flickr / Morten Jensen

Abri Zeiterholz on the Maginot-line Flickr / Morten Jensen

Villers-Pol (Nord) Blockhaus BLK A64 for 8-12 men. Flickr / Daniel Jolivet


On 15 March 1935 the French war minister General Louis Maurin addressed the Chamber of Deputies in the following terms: "How could anyone imagine that we were still thinking in terms of offensive movements when we have spent billions building a fortified barrier? Why would we be so insane as to go beyond this barrier on who knows what adventure?" These few words summed up France's military thinking during the interwar years, and the implications were clear: though France had made a number of alliances in Europe, it would not come to the aid of its allies if the need arose because its army had no intention of emerging from behind its fortified lines.

The First World War had three phases: a war of movement based on an all-out offensive that was brought to an end by a true massacre of infantry a stalemate period of trench warfare that was also very costly in human lives and a resumption of mobile warfare in which tanks and aviation played a very large part. Good sense would have dictated the further development of these two kinds of armament, in the production of which France excelled in 1919, but psychological factors (the continuing spread of pacifism) combined with financial considerations brought any such course of action to a virtual halt. Military service was likewise reduced (to just one year in 1928). It is true that not all the politicians and military leaders—notably Marshal Ferdinand Foch—were in agreement on this issue nor, a priori, was the idea of a line of fortifications necessarily incompatible with mobile warfare, once the mobilization and concentration of troops had been effected within the defended zone. But the views of Maréchal Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) prevailed, and the military option quickly chosen was all-out defense behind this line. Feasibility studies were made from 1925 to 1929 under the direction of war minister Paul Painlevé. The law of 13 July 1927 decreed that "the protection of the integrity of the national territory" should become "the essential objective of the military organization of the country." Construction was already under way by the time parliament, on 14 January 1930, passed the law that authorized the project and appropriated 2,900 million francs to support the work over a five-year period. The minister of war by that time was André Maginot, a parliamentary deputy for Bar-le-Duc since 1910, called up as a simple soldier in 1914, seriously wounded in action and hospitalized for almost a year, and now a significant political figure of the center-right who had held several ministerial posts since 1917. In reality, however, he had very little to do with the construction of the line of fortifications to which his name became attached.

The Maginot Line was not a Great Wall of China. It comprised very heavily fortified underground installations with less heavily protected positions spaced out between them. Deemed impregnable, it received a great deal of publicity in the 1930s and was glorified in all sorts of ways. In a sense it was France's military shop-window. Unfortunately, the widely believed claim that it protected the entire frontier of northern and northeastern France turned out to be false. The Maginot Line proper was the work of a "Commission for the Organization of Fortified Regions," and in fact it consisted of only two systems of fortifications, one covering the region around Metz and the other the Franco-German frontier along the left bank of the Rhine. Along the Rhine it was felt that relatively weaker positions would suffice to make the river impossible to cross. Farther west, in the Ardennes, whose forest terrain was considered impassable by a modern army, and along the Belgian border nothing was done. To fortify the border with Belgium would have suggested that that country would be abandoned automatically in the event of war.

After Adolf Hitler came to power, when another war seemed possible, and when war indeed broke out in September 1939, it became apparent that the northern frontier needed fortifying, and a large number of structures of limited strength were built with military manpower (or main d'oeuvre militaire, whence the name "MOM Line"). The unquestionable strength of the Maginot Line inevitably led the German leadership to seek a way to flank it in the event of invasion—that is, to advance through Belgium. This eventuality was anticipated by the French, who threw their best troops into Belgium when the Germans moved but the German plan had been modified—at the last minute, it is true—and the decision taken to pass through the almost undefended Ardennes. The resulting German offensive took the French troops from the rear while at the same time allowing the Germans to flow behind the Maginot Line. The Maginot positions still had the capacity to defend themselves but to no good purpose: the German armies were overrunning France, and once the armistice was signed the garrisons of the line had no choice but to surrender.

The building of the Maginot Line was thus a vain enterprise it pointed up the French command's disastrous strategic notions and, worse still, swallowed immense amounts of money that would have been better spent on tanks and aircraft.

After the war, the Maginot Line was abandoned, and some of its physical structures were even sold off to private citizens.

Watch the video: FORT CASSO, the MOST EPIC FORT of the MAGINOT LINE (August 2022).