From as early as 1871, French elites had concluded that France had no hope of defeating Germany on its own, this was proved in the First World War.
France would not be able to survive another massive invasion, and with worries that Germany wouldn’t abide by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles (mainly, maintaining the de-militarisation of the Rhineland), alternatives had to be considered.
Three plans were considered to counter a future offensive.
- France should adopt an offensive policy, training a mobile, aggressive army. This plan was backed by Charles de Gaulle but was deemed by many to be too provocative.
- France should focus its military in a small number of heavily fortified bases along the frontier in position to launch a counter-attack.
- France should build a huge, heavily fortified defensive line along the frontier.
The French Government opted for the third.
Geography of the Maginot Line
Andre Maginot, Minister of War between 1922 and 1924, mobilised a strong body of support behind the proposal by emphasising that the Line would impede any German attack long enough to fully mobilise the French army, fighting would be restricted to line (therefore minimising damage in France) and the Ardennes would act as a natural extension of the Line.
Work on the Line ran from 1929 to 1940. It consisted of 50 ouvrages – large forts about 9 miles apart – linked by smaller forts. As can be seen from the diagrams below it was an impressive structure that theoretically could at least halt a large invading force.
However it had two significant faults in its design. First the line was not mobile and second it assumed that the Ardennes was impenetrable.
It was therefore vulnerable to the Blitzkrieg attack by which Germany simply went around the Line. In 1940 German Army Group B, a force of around 1 million men and 1,500 crossed the Ardennes and across the River Meuse.
Subsequently the Line was of minimal military importance, and many of the fortress divisions surrendered without even fighting. Battles on the Western front were little effected by the Line.
After the war the Line fell into general disrepair, although some points were strengthened for a potential nuclear conflict, whereas others were sold off to private enterprises, from which wine cellars and even discos have arose.
Did the Maginot Line fail?
Despite the fact that, today, the Maginot Line is often regarded as almost comical in its insufficiency, some historians have debated that the Maginot Line was not rendered as superfluous as it may initially seem.
Ariel Roth argues that the line’s main purpose was not simply to make France invulnerable, but rather to discourage a direct border assault from the Germans, instead making any future advance be through the low countries. This would hopefully allow the French army sufficient time to mobilise.
With this argument, the main purpose of the line was recognised. The French military planners were not as oblivious to a German flank through Belgium as common knowledge would often suggest. However, this doesn’t necessarily account for the oversight of a possible fast advance through the Ardennes, which was eventually the line’s downfall.
Historian Clayton Donnell agrees with Roth, arguing that, “prevent[ing] a concerted attack on France through the traditional invasion routes and to permit time for the mobilization of troops … was fulfilled”.
Despite its literal fulfilment of this purpose, the line’s effectiveness remains contentious due to its sheer cost, and the outcome of German invasion anyway. It is often argued that the image of the line as making French ‘invulnerable’ was actually believed by a significant proportion of the French population, creating a false sense of security.