Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Military History and Warfare: Castles: A few thoughts on the Maginot Line

In military history, the ‘Maginot line’ has become a byword for expensive and inadequate war preparations. The defences themselves are usually associated with the fortifications constructed by France along its Eastern border with Germany in the 1930s. Less well known to historians are the completely separate line of heavy fortifications that ran along the frontiers with Switzerland and Italy. In addition, the line also consisted of less extensive fortifications along the Belgium and Luxembourg borders. Collectively, these three segments of fortifications were designed to guarantee French security in the event of a German invasion. In total, they cost three billion French francs.

Historical background to the Maginot Line

The decision to construct new fortifications was not a particularly radical change in French military planning. Since the seventeenth century, French military planners had relied upon forts and defensive concentrations to secure strongholds along the nation’s vast borders. The utter failure of Plan XVII in 1914 to win the war through a great offensive had seemed to suggest that only a campaign of attrition would ensure victory in future wars. This was supported by France’s experience during the rest of the First World War. For much of the conflict, successful offensive operations were almost impossible to achieve without huge casualties. As such, French military planners in the 1920s and 30s had to take into account the lower birth-rate during the years 1914-1918. They calculated that in 1935, a numerically much inferior age group would arrive at conscription age. By contrast, Germany’s population outnumbered France by twenty million. Germany’s manpower resources would remain significantly higher than France. By constructing a system of large defensive fortifications, the French military hoped to negate the effects of future manpower shortages.

It was at the Battle of Verdun (1916) that the design of the Maginot line had its origins. During the battle, the French forts had proved their value in withstanding massive artillery bombardments. Therefore large parts of the Maginot line were based upon the use of forts which would provide and be exposed to direct fire in order to give close and medium fire support. Around these forts were lesser positions which would assist in a close combat role.

Design of the Maginot Line

The French forts of the Maginot line were designated as ouverages. There were two types: the gros ouverage and the petit ouverage. The gros ouverage was designated as an artillery fort whilst the smaller variant consisted of nothing large than an artillery mortar. The gros ouverages became the centrepiece of the Maginot line and mounted artillery pieces consisting of 75mm guns and 81mm mortars. Some also included 135mm and 95mm guns. None of these weapons had a particularly long range. It was therefore the job of these forts to provide support fire and together with other ouverages inhibit the enemy advance. Surprisingly the ouverages were not protected by minefields, since only the Germans had developed this technology and put it into large-scale use. Apart from a few booby traps and anti-tank mines, the Maginot forts were only protected by wire obstacles and anti-tank rails. The main defensive element was the firepower which could be laid down by each fort and those supporting it. Behind the Maginot line was the support line which included communications and logistical areas.

Of particular interest to the military historian was the deliberate ‘Achilles Heel’ built into the rear of the ouverages. In 1916, the French had unexpectedly lost Fort Douaumont to the Germans. The subsequent attempt to recapture the position took months and cost thousands of lives. Much of the damage seen today was caused by French heavy artillery. However, the fort was so well constructed that much of the surface damage was superficial. Realising that a fort lost to the enemy could be used to help maintain a permanent breach in the defences, the French ensured that parts of the Maginot line could not be captured and then turned against them.

In front of the line were advanced positions which were intended to provide early warning and delay the enemy. These fortified houses and positions were called avant-postes. In the Maginot line proper, these formed a useful network of advanced outposts. However, in the north (the area known as the Maginot Extension covering the frontier between Longuyon and Sedan) these lower level fortifications were the only defences covering the region. These were clearly not up to the standards of the rest of the line. Unsurprisingly, it was here that the Germans broke through in 1940.


Although the Maginot line has been widely criticised for failing to prevent a German invasion, it did fulfil its primary objective. The main German blow fell away from the bulk of the line. The French High Command had expected this and were able to deploy the majority of their forces on the Belgian frontier. It was the French field army that failed to keep the Germans out. By contrast, the Maginot line completely repulsed an Italian invasion in the south of France. After the war the Maginot line was reoccupied by France and remained in use until the 1960s when parts were sold off to the public. Despite its reputation, the Maginot line was a highly formidable set of defences which the German army took very seriously in 1940.

Enno Kraehe, ‘The Motives behind the Maginot Line’, Military affairs, 8 (1944)

J.E. Kaufmann, ‘Unusual aspects of a unique fortification: the Maginot Line, Military affairs, 52:2 (1988:Apr.)

1 comment:

Scott said...

That was a good read. I had no idea the line extended along the frontiers of Switzerland and Italy.

Keep up the military history writing. The Internet needs more fresh, quality articles like this.