After the First World War in France, many generals thought that the end of the war was really just a pause before another war began. They wanted to make sure that the next time war broke out with Germany, they were ready and could never be invaded again.
To that end, they created a series of defensive fortifications they believed to be impregnable.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.
Learn more about the Maginot Line, why it was built, and why it failed on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The story of the Maginot Line begins in the First World War.
There is an adage that says generals are always preparing to fight the previous war. This is because soldiers who fought in one war are the leaders years later when the next war takes place.
However, everything they know and all their experience came from previous wars, so that is what shaped their worldviews.
This could be seen in the early days of the First World War when armies engaged in frontal calvary charges. Needless to say, they didn’t work very well against machine guns.
World War One, especially on the Western Front, evolved into a highly defensive war with trenches extending for hundreds of miles along the front line.
When the war ended, French military leaders were in agreement about the need to prepare for the next war with Germany, which they were certain would happen eventually. They didn’t want to have a repeat of the war they had just fought. Of the 8.5 million French men mobilized, 6.5 million were either killed, wounded, or went missing.
In the decade after the end of the war, there were continued, lower-intensity conflicts between Germany and France.
In 1923, Germany defaulted on the reparation payments agreed to in the Treaty of Versailles, and France sent in troops to occupy the Ruhr industrial region.
Moreover, in another clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had begun rearming as early as 1921 with the aid of the Soviet Union.
The British didn’t want the French unilaterally enforcing the treaty, and yet they weren’t really that interested in getting involved in Continental Europe again, either. The Americans had reverted back to their traditional isolationist foreign policy.
Moreover, Germany had a larger economy and a much larger population, 70 million vs 40 million people.
French military theory held that any future war would be a la guerre de longue durée, or a long war, or a war of attrition.
The belief was that the only way to beat a numerically and economically superior German would be to stop a quick German advance and cause Germany to exhaust their natural resources, which they had in short supply.
Basically, sort of what happened during the First World War.
So, there was a widespread belief that there was going to be another war with Germany and that war was going to be a long war of attrition.
However, there was serious disagreement over how France should prepare.
There were two schools of thought as to what France’s strategy should be.
The first camp was led by Marshal Joseph Joffre. Joffre was the commander in chief of French forces on the Western Front for the entirety of the war.
Joffre believed in the creation of a static defensive line, which would be a much stronger, more powerful, and more permanent version of the trenches that developed during the war.
On the other side were younger officers and politicians such as Paul Reynaud and Charles de Gaulle. The members of this camp realized that military technology had evolved rapidly during the war and that two innovations, in particular, aircraft and tanks, would be the future.
They envisioned a defense of France that was highly mobile and modern, able to counter any threat where it would arise.
Needless to say, the old guard won out. Joffree convinced Marshall Philippe Pétain, who held a great deal of clout.
However, the person who championed the idea and managed to make it a reality was the French Minister of War, André Maginot.
Maginot, a member of parliament, introduced legislation to fund the defensive project in 1926. After heavy lobbying efforts, he managed to secure 3.3 billion francs, and the measure was passed by an overwhelming vote of 274 for and 26 against. The value of 3.3 billion Francs would be about $3.8 billion dollars today.
Maginot, for obvious reasons, became the namesake of the fortifications.
Construction on the Maginot Line began in 1928, well before the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1933.
Whatever one thinks about the Maginot Line, you have to confess that they were extremely well designed and were a wonder of engineering at the time.
As Maginot Line author William Allcorn noted, “The Maginot Line was a technological marvel, far and away the most sophisticated and complex set of fortifications built up to that time,”
The line was actually several different lines, each of which served a different purpose.
At the actual border crossing were fortified bunkers. These were designed just to give early warning of an attack as well as to slow any tanks that might come through. They had the ability to lay explosives and to set up roadblocks, but they were only designed to slow, not stop.
About five kilometers or three miles beyond the borders were a series of blockhouses with anti-tank guns. There were also lines of metal anti-tank barriers that would have to be crossed. Again, these were only designed to slow an enemy and give the main line of defense more time.
The main line of defense lay 10 km or 6 miles beyond the border. The main line consisted of a series of large and small fortresses known as gros ouvrages and petite ouvrages. The fortresses were constructed out of steel and concrete and buried underground.
There were 142 ouvrages scattered across the border of France and Germany.
These were a far cry from the muddy trenches of the Great War. The fortress were connected by underground tunnels. They had barracks for sleeping and living, as well as mess halls and offices.
Redundant telephone lines connected the fortresses. Large guns that could be retracted underground were placed in the fortresses. Small train tracks connected the fortresses to the outside so they could be safely supplied with munitions.
The air supply was also filtered to prevent the use of chemical weapons on everyone inside.
All of the fortifications were electrified and could withstand a very long war in relative comfort, at least compared to the previous war.
On top of the major fortresses, there were fortified observation posts on hilltops and machine gun nests.
One of the really innovative defensive schemes were entire valleys that could be flooded in the event of an enemy attack.
In addition to the physical military aspects of the Maginot Line, there were political and diplomatic ones as well. By creating the line, it was a signal to the rest of the world, and especially the British, that France was not going to be the aggressor in any future war. To Germany, it was a message that they should not try another invasion of France.
While the design of the Maginot Line was impressive, it went way over budget and had massive delays in construction. The total cost ended up being between two to three times more than the original budgeted amount.
The fortifications were still being worked on as late as 1939 and 1940 after the war had already begun.
In response to the Maginot Line, the Germans in 1936 began construction of their own defensive fortifications along the French, Belgian, and Dutch borders known as the Siegfried Line.
Up until this point, what I’ve described is a marvel of engineering and something that should have withstood any attack.
Yet, if you have even a cursory understanding of history, you know that the Maginot Line failed miserably.
So, what happened?
Germany knew about the line, it wasn’t a secret and they knew about the long war theory, which they largely knew to be true.
When Germany finally invaded on May 10, 1940, their entire invasion plan, known as the Manstein Plan, was largey built around avoiding the Maginot Line. The Germans had three armies: one facing the Maginot Line near the French border, one which would enter Belgium, and one between the two which would go through the Ardennes in Southeast Belgium.
Despite all the effort and money that went into the construction of the Maginot Line, there was one glaring failure.
The line only extended along the French and German border. The French-Belgian border was only lightly defended. The ironic thing is that, if you remember back to my episode on the Schlieffen Plan, in the First World War, the Germans invaded France through Belgium.
In the Manstein Plan, the army pointed at the Maginot Line, which was just a diversion. The main attack thrust came through the Ardennes, which was heavily forested and thought to be impassible, and through the plains of Belgium.
By bypassing the Maginot Line, they were able to conquer France in just six weeks, a speed that shocked not only the French but the Germans themselves.
There were some hastily built forts along the Belgian border that were constructed in the months before the invasion, but they did next to nothing.
The Germans didn’t bypass the line completely. There was one fortress that was assuted with the Germans taking it in four days, with a complete loss of all the French personnel inside. The few other attacks along the line were largely successful.
The Maginot Line was cut off by German forces from the rest of France, rendering it inert.
After the invasion, the Germans took control of the Maginot Line, and when the Allies invaded France in 1944, they also largely just ignored it.
But the failure of the Maginot Line wasn’t just a colossal failure of military planning and tactics.
The Maginot Line resulted in over a decade of misallocation of resources.
From the moment the funding was initially approved in the bill sponsored by Andre Maginot, the Maginot Line was overwhelmingly the largest expenditure in France’s military budget. The fact that they had large cost overruns only made things worse.
All of the money spent on the Maginot Line was money that could have been spent on building tanks and airplanes capable of fighting a modern war. They could have built an army to rival the German army, but instead, they spent everything on static defenses.
Furthermore, when the invasion they had spent almost 20 years preparing for finally happened, 52% of the French Army was tied up in the Maginot Line and was unable to respond and maneuver when the German threat arrived.
Arguably, the Maginot Line did more to hurt France than to protect it.
Believe it or not, after the Second World War ended, France initially reoccupied the Maginot Line. However, by the early 1960s, it became obvious that the fortifications had no defensive value and it was abandoned.
Much of it was sold to private parties, and some of the fortresses were turned into museums. Some current uses include wine cellars and mushroom farms.
Today, the very term Maginot Line has become a metaphor for a defensive barrier or strategy that inspires a false sense of security.
The Maginot Line was ultimately a failure because the French military establishment was trying to fight the previous war, not the next one.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.
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