I rarely venture into the Second World War. I’m much happier contemplating and writing about the Great War for reasons I find difficult to articulate. Maybe: To understand the Second Great War you must understand the First.
Today, I would like to make an exception and discuss a topic that I feel has brought forth many misconceptions and downright falsehoods. In popular opinion, and even amongst professional historians, the French Maginot line constructed between 1930 and 1940 was an expensive folly responsible for squandering vast resources and money for no avail. Subsequent events seem to vindicate this harsh analysis as the Germans bypassed the frontier fortifications along the Franco-German border. In mitigation, I would argue that this assessment does not consider France’s strategical, social and political dilemma following the Great War.
Although victorious in the Great War, France suffered greatly at the hands of its German enemy. Her manhood had been stripped bare during the 4-year war resulting in 1,400,000 deaths. In comparison, Germany lost 1,600,000 men. While it is true Germany suffered greater causalities than the French, in terms of proportion of the population the French losses were much larger due to the larger size of the German population. French society was transformed by the loss of a generation of young men and the deep-seated psychological trauma shaped strategic thought leading up to the Second World War.
The problem, from the French perspective, was although Germany had been thoroughly humbled and demilitarised following defeat in November 1918 and hobbled by the Treaty of Versailles, it was recognised that a day would come when Germany would emerge as a powerful European nation. What was not apparent immediately following the war was whether a resurgent Germany would masquerade as friend or foe. Certainly, from past history, the latter possibility seemed most likely. Indeed, sage heads considered the future conflict between the nations inevitable given Germany’s humiliation at the end of the Great War.
Although not without political opposition or controversy, the French government decided to build a strong line of fortifications along the frontier with Germany. The Maginot line project began in 1930 and continued until France’s defeat in 1940. The Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933 added fresh urgency to the building of the fortifications. The bellicose and expansionist nature of the German National Socialist regime made the prospect of war almost a certainty.
How was France to respond to a war from a powerful populous neighbour given France’s declining population? Maintaining a military alliance with Britain was part of the solution. But British power would only manifest in a prolonged conflict. Initially, the French would have to bear the brunt of German aggression in any future war. Thus, the concept of border fortifications became a reality.
The line on the German border would not be continuous but consist of a series of mutually supporting forts. In keeping with later First World War doctrine, defence would occur in depth. A series of large forts together with a number of smaller redoubts would form the backbone of the defence. Retractable reinforced turrets were designed to resist the heaviest of bombardment. Great galleries were built to accommodate the men, the ammunition and food. Anti-tank ditches and extensive barbed wire belts were built to deter and impede the attacker. The cost of the Maginot line exceeded 3 billion francs, not a trifling sum for 1930s France.
Although France and the international community seemed mightily impressed with the line, Belgium appeared less so. Allied with France during the 20s and up to 1936, Belgium realised that the border fortification almost guaranteed that the next war would involve an invasion of Belgium territory. Perhaps this accounted for Belgium’s decision to become neutral in 1936. However, due to strategic priorities, it would be unlikely that the Germans would refrain from invasion regardless of neutral status. Belgium was under no illusion how a future war would evolve and her neutral status would ensure that not only would she be invaded by the Germans, but the French and British as well.
The Maginot line was not perceived as an impenetrable barrier. Lessons from the first war had shown that formidable fortifications and earthworks, although conceived in depth, could eventually be pierced given time, energy and men. The Maginot line was meant to be a temporary stop, designed to occupy the attacking Germans and deflect manpower from more vulnerable sectors if only the Germans would/could oblige. The French hoped that they would buy time and send the bulk of their army to engage and defeat the dreaded Boche in Belgium, or at least form a trench line, again in Belgium. Fettered by doctrine belonging to the First World War, the British and French responded in a predictable manner once Belgium was attacked. For the French, it was vitally important that they did not cede vast swaths of northeastern France, as happened, in the Great War. Mayhap the French were being unduly optimistic or fatalistic, depending on stance.
The Germans had other plans based on their concept of ‘Blitz Krieg’. On the 10th May 1940, the German army made a predictable advance into Belgium taking in the Netherlands as an afterthought. However, the main armoured thrust occurred through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes. When the Germans debouched from the Ardennes the French army was outflanked and outmanoeuvred. This is something the Allies hadn’t anticipated or could respond to- France was defeated within 6 weeks and the Maginot line was bypassed and rendered useless.
The Maginot line should have worked if the Germans had envisaged a future war as the French did. The French hadn’t prepared for a war of movement spearheaded by concentrated tank thrusts combined with tactical air power. Both powers appeared to have learned important lessons from the Great War, however, only one power appeared to have looked beyond the tactics of that war. Vae Victis.