Real History, The Maginot Line

IanHunter N. Thorpe
The Maginot Line: Creation and Failure
The French government after the First World War was paralyzed by fear of another conflict with Germany. The creation of a defensive barrier was determined to an urgently necessary policy in order to protect France from future invasion. The French based their strategy for the new defensive fortifications off of knowledge gained regarding static defenses that were utilized during World War One. Post World War One the nature of conflict changed in Europe but the French perception of how wars should be fought did not. The French were worried about another invasion from the east. The considerable disasters experienced by the French in defending itself against past invasions resulted in a defensive mentality narrowly oriented against Germany. The French had been invaded from the east three times in the last one hundred years; they had no intention of allowing that trend to continue. The French Military failure to stop the German invasion of 1940 was a result of an overconfidence and an over-reliance in the defenses of the Maginot line, a traditional static defensive fortification line.
The Maginot line, a huge complex of steel and concrete bunker fortifications linked together by massive tunnel networks, was designed and constructed to stop any German invasion at the border allowing France time to mobilize its forces for a prolonged war. The plans for the creation of the Maginot line on the eastern border were approved in 1929 at a cost to France of several million francs. Historically, the construction of fortifications and accompanying large defensive structures was not uncommon for French military preparations and planning. The French tradition of building fixed fortifications as a part of military operations had been around from the sixteenth century with Sebastien Vauban. The French established a national identity for defending positions. French military planning for the Maginot line came into being because the French identified their strength by establishing defense against invasion.
During the First World War, the French fortified city of Verdun became a national symbol of defense. The French victory at Verdun fueled the French affirmative mindset towards fix fortifications when conflict with Germany was considered. The Germans had successfully invaded France in the First World War and Verdun had been a key holding point for the French. Verdun cost the French dearly in men and materials but it helped bolster a serious commitment to national defense. The leading French authorities on industrial mobilization had formulated the national dilemma as one of numbers and production. If reconstituted, German national forces would seriously outnumber the post-World War One French forces. The French formulated that in order to match the Germans on equal footing, France would have to draw very heavily from their allies for manpower. The French were in a logistical dilemma; their army would be required to aggressively fight to maintain position in order to afford time for their allies to send supplemental forces. Meanwhile French domestic forces would have to fight from defensive positions to accommodate for their delayed concentration while awaiting additional domestic reinforcement.
Verdun was considered a center of resistance against invasion. Verdun was the proving ground for French ideas on defense. The elaborate system of trenches and machine guns captured the popular imagination of France. The French minds of the time lauded great acclaim on the Verdun fortifications. General Normand proclaimed powerfully about Verdun’s status by pronouncing that it was a fortress built in a time of peace, that it was prepared in advance for conflict, and that the city fortress helped protect France. The Verdun fortifications justified themselves by serving as a powerful buffer between the interior of France and the German invasion. Verdun became a symbol and a pattern that would be repeated in the installation and construction of the Maginot line.
The French were still mired in the defensive mindset of the First World War. The French continued to believe that the defense was still stronger and more affirmatively secure than an eastern offense ever could be. The French had paid a heavy toll in disastrous, attempted offensive operations in the First World War; their military cultural core was shaken and their entire approach to the war was altered and tainted by that cumulative toll. The French Offensive plan in WWI XVII was such a catastrophic failure that it shifted their goals to that of static defense. Entire French intrinsic values of life and of military accomplishment had been impacted by the massive death toll delivered by the war upon France.
The French people suffered tremendous losses; in France there was no one who had not lost a family member to the war. The whole French population and culture had been shaken by the losses in the war. The disabled veterans served as a constant reminder of the cost France paid. The disabled solders were not the only cost from the war; some 1,400,000 were estimated dead on the Western Front with Germany. The war had caused a large decline in the birth rate in France. The French stated that it was a crisis of the family; cities like Bordeaux from 1911 through 1921 had a 50% decrease in the number of marriages. The vast number of widows caused another problem; it was suggested that the American soldiers be persuaded to marry French girls and settle in France in the hopes of stopping the decline. Decades would pass before France’s population would fully recover.
Entering the 1920s France, even with the addition of Alsace and Loraine populations, still had a smaller population than it had in 1911. The war had cost France a great number of lives that were not being replaced. The French hastily put anti-birth control measures into place to try and stem the countries shrinking birth rate. The French even went as far to ban birth control information and claim it was German propaganda. Increasing the French birthrate was promulgated as a patriotic duty to the nation. France obsessively compared their vital statistics such as their birthrate to that of Germany. Culturally, France measured their strength and vitality against their adversary; the decline in the French birthrate created a great deal of anxiety about France’s future.
The size of Germany conscription pool surpassed that of France; angst over that adversarial inequity was of considerable weight to the French. The French were very fearful of the potential strength of Germany even after the treaty of Versailles was in place. The German army was limited to a professional force of only 100,000; still the French were convinced that German youth received substantial military training. The French believed that the militarily trained German youth could rapidly supplement the professional force by 400,000 men; another 1,200,000 million veterans in reserve were also available for rapid experienced reinforcement. German General Von Seeckt directed the German army towards a more mechanized platform for operations. The main goal of Von Seeckt’s mechanized army was to attack and destroy the enemy before they finished mobilization. The idea of a German mechanized army attacking France while its forces were undergoing mobilization alarmed the French military establishment; their view of battle planning against the Germans was predicated on French forces impeding invasion until forces had been fully mobilized. The French intended to slow the German advance while the whole of the France was mobilized against the threat.
The French obsessed over the German Attaque brusquee which generated fear that a mechanized German army could move across the Rhine and strike deep into the heart of France before the French could be fully mobilized to oppose it. The French again returned to the idea of centers of resistance like Verdun which represented a method to allow the French to stop the Germans at the border while it provided time to mobilize against the threat. The French thought that if a skeleton crew was vigilant behind large static defensive installations along the eastern border it could hold off any invasion long enough for the whole of France to mobilize against the threat.
The French had occupied the Rhineland in the 1920s because its fear of another war with Germany. However, durring the Hague conference of 1928 France agreed to withdraw its forces from the Rhineland. The French, as a result, by 1928 and 1929 became increasing concerned with the German attaque brusque. The French felt that their occupation of the east bank of the Rhine River was justified because it allowed them to counter any Germany army operations within German territory. The French withdrawal meant that any German move at France would not meet any serious opposition until it hit the French border. The French reacted in a direct defensive action and greatly increased the number of defensive structures on their eastern frontier with Germany.
The French were internally divided over withdrawing from the Rhineland; conservative parties were in complete disagreement with the other more liberal parties over the topic of withdrawing. The conservative parties had made military preparedness a mandate for domestic security. The French ruling government acted against the conservative parties and legislated a military service law that limited compulsory military service to just a single year. The military service limitation created another issue for the conservative parties to rally against in the Chamber of Deputies. The fear among the conservative parties was that the new laws would slow France’s ability to mobilize. France in 1929 was in worse shape to mobilize than it had been in 1914. Some in the French government said the French army due to the service limitation was dangerously slow and compromised military experience in the ranks in comparison to that of the German military service model which had a 15 year service requirement.
The French military reorganization law was opposed by a number of people in the French government. Andre Maginot, for who the defensive line is named, greatly opposed the law stating that it would constantly reduce French forces under arms by one third each year. Maginot and his supporters used the reorganization law to their favor and were able to put pressure on the government to create the eastern fortifications on the border with Germany. Andre Maginot promoted consideration for larger fortifications so that France could afford a shorter service time.
The French due to their low population predictions for 1935 through 1939 thought that a defensive barrier along the border would be a necessity because of the diminished size of France’s army. The French came to call this prediction the lean years when France’s birth rates would be too low to provide for a large conscription pool. The defensive barrier was perceived as a necessary shield for France allowing time to supplement border defensive troops against an invasion. The French became increasing paranoid with all arguments push toward the creation of the fortification.
The French ministers promoted the argument that the only true security for France lay in military strength. The French began to feel increasingly isolated from her allies and that was yet another factor that was pushing forward the investment in a serious static defensive line installations. The French ministers stated that the line could be finished by 1935 if construction started in 1930. The French felt that it was becoming increasingly important for construction to start considering that the lean years would be on their way and the military reorganization law was soon to be in effect.
The French had a serious problem when it came to waging the war against Germany. France unlike Germany had the majority of its most productive industrial areas located in the border regions. France was in less than favorable position when it came to facing off against Germany; France’s industrial heartland was exposed. In the First World War, France was invaded and lost a large portion of its most productive regions as the war started. The French were determined to not let such an event happen again. France had the problem with defending its industrial regions before 1918 but it was now faced with another problem of defending two new provinces gained after WWI. Alsace and Lorraine were outside of the preexisting defense lines and a new one would definitely have to be created to protect those regions as well. The Maginot defensive barrier was built so that it Alsace and Lorraine were protected.
The French constructed the Maginot line as their primary defense against the Germans. The French were so concerned with the protecting the boarder that any other strategy for countering German movements was over looked. A news paper article from the New York Times dated Nov, 4 1936 explains that the Maginot line would be extended to protect along the Swiss border at a cost of 23,000,000 francs. The expansion of the line to the north along the Belgium border was not as seriously undertaken. The French left the border with Belgium mostly unprotected with the exception of a few light fortifications because the Maginot line was exceeding its original design size considerably. The French over looked the border near the Arden because it was thought no modern force could assemble and penetrate through such rough country. The French had claimed it was their great wall against invaders from the east but it proved to be only half a great wall.
The French placed too much faith in the Maginot line. The line became so great a symbol for French resistance against the Germans that any changes in defensive doctrine became seen as radical. By 1938 the French army had an active strength of 700,000 men. Many in the French government thought that the standing army was enough to protect the country because the Maginot line would do most of the defending. Very few in the government thought any more forces were necessary except for a few: members of a French independent party were calling for 150,000 additional men to be conscripted for service. The independent party also called for additional defensive works to be constructed around the Paris region and another secondary line to support the Maginot Line. The independent party was labeled as radical because they wanted a larger army as well as a fully garrisoned Maginot Line.
The French failed to learn from the lessons of the last days of the First World War. The war in its last stages turned into a war of mobility and no defensive works could stop an advancing force supported by tanks and air power. The French had been so badly beaten in spirit from the First World War that they needed a symbolic shield for protection. The Maginot Line became a symbolic shield that had a fatal flaw; it was static defensive fortification that was not designed to combat the war of mobility that would dominate future conflicts.

Work Cited
Primary Sources
Bloch, Marc. Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940. Translated by Gerard Hopkins. New York: Octagon Books Inc, 1968.
Kraehe, Enno. “The Motives Behind the Maginot Line.” Military Affairs, Vol. 8, No 2 (1944): 108-122.
Gibson, Irving. “The Maginot Line.” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 17, No. 2 (1945): 130-146.
“Urges New Defenses Behind Maginot Line.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Nov 06, 1938.
Wireless to THE NEW,YORK TIMES. “France to Fortify Her Swiss Border.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Nov 05, 1936.
Secondary Sources
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Shepperd, Alan. France 1940: Blitzkrieg in the West. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Limited, 2004.
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Categories: Real History