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The Maginot Line: Triumph of Military Engineering

Jeffrey Syken

“Fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man. Anything built by man can be destroyed by him.”

General George S. Patton

It’s a common misconception – even among the French public today, that the extensive fortifications built along France’s eastern frontiers during the 1930s that came to be collectively known as “The Maginot Line” (after late WWI hero and Minister of War Andre Maginot) was a complete and utter failure and the main cause for the Fall of France in June 1940. Not so. In fact, the Maginot Line did exactly what it was supposed to do: prevent massed German armies from overrunning France at the outset of war. It remains a fact that not one of the “gros ouvrages” (large forts) of the main-line fortifications succumbed to German attack, even when the line was outflanked and the forts were attacked from their weaker, yet still formidable, rear and by heavy artillery. Like the chain that was only as strong as its weakest link, so too the chain of fortifications that was the Maginot Line had many weak links and, more importantly, a missing link. With war clouds gathering, the “Maginot Line Extension” (of the latter 1930s) sought to extend the line all the way to the North Sea with several, less expensive-to-build “petit ouvrages” (small forts) and other, lesser, fortifications. Though formidable, they were not in the same league as the gros ouvrages and cost-saving measures (i.e. spacing them further apart which did not allow for mutual fire support) would cost the French dearly. More significantly, the “Hero of Verdun” - Marshall Philippe Petain, had determined that Defense Sector 4 (facing the Belgian Ardennes) was unsuitable for modern armored warfare and was thus unworthy of expensive fortifications. This would prove to be the Achilles Heel of the Maginot Line. The Wehrmacht’s Army Group B (consisting of a million men and 1,500 tanks) would pass through the Ardennes with relative ease, coming out the other side virtually unopposed. It appears the planners of “Fall Gelb” (the May 1940 German invasion of France) were following General MacArthur’s maxim, to: “hit ‘em where they ain’t.”

Two previous wars: The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the First World War (1914-1918) would influence the designers of the Maginot Line. Without the Rhine River as a natural border (after the 1871 Prussian victory), the extensive fortifications built by French General Raymond Seres de Rivieres (to defend the now wide-open eastern frontier) would prove their worth at the 1916 Battle of Verdun whereby the French spent months and thousands of lives trying to retake forts they had foolishly abandoned in the wake of the fall of the Liege (Belgium) forts to German heavy artillery (in August 1914, at the outset of WWI). French military engineers applied the French army’s WWI experiences to the sophisticated designs and armaments of the Maginot Line fortifications to good effect. What was lacking on the French side was not courage or determination to defend the nation. Indeed, the French suffered 90K dead in just six weeks of heavy fighting (the Germans suffered 50K dead). Rather, it appears to be a case of erroneous beliefs and generals who were fighting the last war. General Patton’s maxim concerning fixed fortifications being: “a monument to stupidity” was, apparently, both true and false at the same time in the case of the Maginot Line.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of course materials.

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