The French government considered the Maginot Line the jewel in the crown of the country’s defences despite the fact that during the First World War Krupp and Skoda howitzers had smashed forts from Belgium to the Urals. It was at Verdun that the Germans tried to deliver the French Army a body blow from which is could never recover. Fought on the hills of north-eastern France just north of Verdun-sur-Meuse, the battle lasted from 21 February to 18 December 1916.
Within the French Army Verdun became a byword for slaughter and bravery in equal measure. This bloodbath resulted in over ¼ million dead and at least ½ million wounded. Many of the casualties were victims of the 40 million artillery shells fired by both sides. The battle was popularised by General Robert Nivelle’s order of the day on 23 June 1916, ‘They shall not pass’. This sentiment still pervaded in France twenty-four years later.
Following the painful political and economic upheavals in the wake of the First World War the French eventually built fixed fortifications along the Franco-German border named after Minister of War, André Maginot. He had argued that if France was to be faced by positional trench warfare again she might as well be well prepared with state of the art ferro-concrete defences. Maginot himself had fought in the trenches during the First World War as an infantry sergeant so had seen the horrors first-hand. He proposed defensive works following the French border from the Channel to the Swiss border. This was not to be a collection of separate forts but a continuous subterranean defensive line whose only visible features would be retractable steel turrets for the artillery and smaller cupolas for anti-tank guns, mortars and machine guns.
The overall flaw in France’s defensive strategy was its lack of manpower and the speed with which it could mobilise its reserve. The Maginot Line was not only intended to deter an aggressor and repel him if necessary, it also had to defend Alsace and Lorraine with fewer and less mobile units while buying time for the reserve call-up. The reality was that France was relying on older and therefore lessfit reservists who would take longer to mobilise and would harm French industrial production once they were back in uniform.
In a stroke France passed the military initiative over to Germany in any future war. The French also fell down when it came to training. As a result of their fixation with their border defences, many of the troops were only trained to man the static fortifications. This gave them minimal tactical awareness and flexibility when it came to mobile warfare despite Charles de Gaulle’s best efforts. When the Germans invaded Poland the French Army shut themselves up in the Maginot Line and waited for the Nazi onslaught.
Despite the German outflanking move of August 1914, in order to avoid offending the Belgians and because of the cost the Maginot plan was modified, halting the defences at Montmedy near the junction of the French and Belgian/German borders. The gap between Liège and Maastricht was covered by the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael, built during the 1930s and thought to be impregnable. Conventional attack on this was all but impossible for as well as being protected by a ditch it was guarded on the German side by the Albert Canal. In addition the Belgians were smug in the knowledge that the Germans had no super heavy artillery that could penetrate the concrete. Unfortunately the two things it could not do were fend off airborne assault or hollow charge demolition mines.
Work on the Maginot Line commenced in 1930 and took seven years to complete at a cost of $200 million, soaking up most of the country’s military budget. The defences consisted of an 87-mile-long string of underground forts facing the German frontier which were protected by tank traps, barbed wire and pillboxes. Behind these were rows and rows of concrete gun emplacements armed with machine guns and anti-tank guns. Beyond these were a series of blockhouses designed to slow the enemy down while the garrisons in the main fortresses or ouvrages prepared their defences. At 3 to 5-mile intervals were vast concrete fortresses that extended up to 100ft below the ground.
In reality all the Maginot Line did was tie down large numbers of French troops thereby doing German leader Adolf Hitler a favour. The peacetime French Army consisted of sixty-four line regiments, twelve of which were ‘Fortress Infantry’ Regiments. In the spring of 1940 they were reorganised into five fortress divisions, which utilised the existing infantry and artillery units supplemented by engineers and signallers. These were purely static divisions with no offensive capabilities and were reliant on other Army units for basic medical and supply services. In total France had to commit thirty-six divisions to hold the Maginot Line in Alsace and Lorraine.
When it was built, where money permitted, the Maginot Line was state of the art with the defences varying in depths of anything from 12 to 16 miles deep. The main line of resistance began about 6 miles from the border and comprised infantry casemates or bunkers and ouvrages of varying sizes. The main fortresses were the anchor stone of the Maginot Line and were blast-proof and contained the heaviest artillery. Like self-contained battleships, each had generators, ventilation, stores, water storage and contained barracks and mess halls for up to 1,000 men. They were linked by field telephones in order to coordinate fields of fire. Beyond these were infantry reserve shelters and natural flood zones. In total the line included almost 600 ouvrages and casemates as well as 5,000 blockhouses.
While the Maginot Line may have been state of the art, like all underground structures if the sump pumps and air conditioning were not maintained it became damp and the air stale. Heavy rains often filled the lower galleries with water and mildew grew on the walls. When possible the fortress units often avoided spending the night in their concrete quarters, preferring barracks nearby on the surface. The guns also had to be constantly maintained or they became fouled or froze solid in the cold weather. Likewise the retractable turrets had to be kept clear of debris or they could become jammed and the mechanism damaged.
This mindset that certain terrain was tank-proof and other terrain could be held by concrete and steel fortifications meant that the best mobile armoured units of the French Army were simply not deployed in a manner to enable them to conduct immediate and concentrated counterattacks. This meant that there was every likelihood of the light mechanised divisions and new tank divisions being flung piecemeal into battle only to be swamped by superior concentrations of enemy tanks. Most of France’s armoured commanders were ineffective and the outnumbered British tank force was not in a position, except for one outstanding effort, to make a decisive contribution to the battle for France. France had a shield but no sword with which to strike back.
After September 1939 the French and British forces worked to extend the Maginot Line to the coast. In the event France’s static defences saw very little action. When the Germans overran France’s border defences with Belgium they captured several forts in the Maubeuge area held by the French 101st Fortress Infantry Division. On 19 May 1940 south-east of Sedan the German Army captured petit ouvrage La Ferte after an attack by combat engineers support by heavy gunfire. The entire garrison was killed during the assault.
Thanks to the Blitzkrieg the Maginot Line was cut off from the rest of France by early June. The Germans then attacked the line between St Avold and Saarbrücken in mid-June as well as attacking defences in northern Alsace and the Vosges Mountains. Significantly although some of the forts were attacked from the rear, the Germans were unsuccessful in capturing any of the main fortifications. Although some garrison commanders were prepared to hold out, the French surrender forced them out of the Maginot Line and into the hands of the Germans.
Although the fortifications had deterred a direct attack, they were rendered strategically redundant by the German invasion through the Low Countries. The likes of de Gaulle who had argued that mobile armoured formations not static concrete defences were the way forward can have taken little pleasure in being proved right.
French workers laying the groundwork for France’s defences. Through the 1930s France embarked on a massive programme to create the concrete fortifications of the Maginot Line facing the German border. This was considered the jewel in the crown of the country’s defensive measures that sought to emulate the stronghold ofVerdun, which had held out against the Germans during the First World War.
It was hoped that the concrete forts such as the ones seen here would deter Germany from ever attacking France again. While the subterranean defences of the Maginot Line were elaborate consisting of massive fortresses, underground tunnels and weapons cupolas, General Heinz Guderian’s panzers simply drove through the unprotected Ardennes sector.
This looks like a scene from the First World War but the photograph was actually taken in early October 1939. This heavy French gun is in the Strasbourg area shelling German positions on the far side of the Rhine. The French Army not only deployed troops in the Maginot Line but also behind it such as this heavy field gun. Two whole French army groups were tied up holding France’s fixed defences while another was earmarked to help defend the Low Countries.
The French had plenty of artillery but the doctrine for their deployment was very inflexible – these shots show howitzers and mountain guns respectively. The weapons in the second row of the photograph to the left are 1937 Puteaux 47mm anti-tank guns, and the French Army was also equipped with the 1934 Hotchkiss and 1937 Puteaux 25mm anti-tank guns – both of which were obsolete. Most French units were up to 50 per cent below their establishment for anti-tank weapons.
The basic French Army uniform had changed very little since the First World War. The most common type of helmet was the M1926 which was a direct descendant of the 1915 Adrian helmet worn during the First World War – however, there were also M1935 and M1936 pattern helmets. The most common type of rifle was the MAS36.
In opposition to the Maginot Line the Germans built their second Siegfried Line along the western frontier of Germany. This would eventually come into use in 1944–5.
An emplaced German howitzer – the Phoney War of 1939 was characterised by intermittent shelling and patrolling. The German armed forces had to keep units in the shape of Army Group C’s eighteen infantry divisions in front of the Maginot Line, while Army Groups B and A made their right hook through the Low Countries and the Ardennes.
Snow-covered French FT-17 light tank and French field guns. During the winter of the Phoney War, 1939–40, the British and French armies were largely inactive while gaining a false sense of security from the defences of the Maginot Line. During the spring of 1940 France’s fortress infantry regiments were reorganised into five fortress divisions.
Although largely ignored by the Germans, this was the fate of some of the Maginot’s Line’s strongpoints. This particular observation cupola has survived a series of direct hits while the ground around it has been churned up by the heavy shelling.