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The Maginot Line was a line of concrete and steel defences that stretched between Luxembourg and Switzerland along France's border with Germany. The defensive system had originally been proposed by Joseph Joffre and was built between 1930 and 1935. It had three interdependent fortified belts with anti-tank emplacements and pillboxes standing in front of bombproof artillery casements. Named after Andre Maginot, the French war minister at the time, it cost 7,000 million francs to build and was claimed at the time to provide an impregnable defence against the German Army.
However, when Adolf Hitler ordered the Western Offensive in the spring of 1940, the German armed forces invaded France through the heavily wooded and semi-mountainous area of the Ardennes, an area, north of the Maginot Line. The French military had wrongly believed that the Ardennes was impassable to tanks. Seven panzer divisions led by Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel reached the Meuse River at Dinant on 12th May and the following day the French government was forced to abandon Paris.
The Maginot Line Mostly Worked the Way it was Expected to & Great Footage in Here Too
The moment the Germans entered Belgium, the plan was for the French (and hopefully British) to move in and fight them there and the Maginot Line did that.
The Maginot Line was a series of fortifications built by France between 1929-34 and subsequently enhanced until 1939. Named after André Maginot, the French Minister of War, it ran along the eastern border with Germany and Luxemburg and stretched across 450km (
The fortifications were built as a result of experiences from the exceptionally bloody war in 1914-18. At around 3 billion French Francs, the cost of the Maginot Line was enormous. However, the intention was to save lives and what price can a government put on that?Troops of 51st Highland Division march over a drawbridge into Fort de Sainghain on the Maginot Line, 3 November 1939
The French remembered when the Germans invaded their country in World War I, and were anxious that the same thing should not happen again. The idea behind the creation of the Maginot Line was not only to avoid trench warfare inside France but also to stop or at least delay any potential offensive from the east which would give troops time to prepare a counter-attack.
French military minds thought the Maginot Line was insurmountable. It could defend against most forms of attack, including tanks and air bombings. It had underground railways that could carry troops and equipment from fort to fort. Over 600 main combat objects were supported by 6,000 kinds of various fortifications and obstacles.
A soldier from the Cameron Highlanders looks through a periscope in the Fort de Sainghain on the Maginot Line, 3 November 1939.
The Germans were aware of the pros and cons of the French fortifications. They even built an equivalent which they called the Siegfried Line so that they could obtain first-hand insights into its structure and defenses.
In comparison to French war doctrines, Germans preferred an offensive fight. As such, plans based on the shocking Blitzkrieg method were created.
In September 1939, the Third Reich proved how effective a swift and sudden attack could be, but French still believed in the might of the Maginot Line. However, the enemy did not plan to attack from the east.
German officers entering the ammunition entry at Ouvrage Hackenberg. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 121-0363 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
There was no fortification across the Belgium border because the French planned to use the lowlands for a possible counter-offensive and there was simply no reason to fortify a border with a neutral country. Unfortunately, the Germans recognized and exploited that weakness. They had no problem with violating the neutrality of several countries rather than attacking France head-on.
The Maginot Line itself had some weak points, one of which was at the Ardennes Forest. The French thought the area nearby was difficult enough to cross, even without a heavy defensive system. However, the Nazis proved them wrong and managed to encircle the Allied troops. Many mistakes were repeated from the previous war.
French soldiers on Maginot Line
The German war machine attacked on 10 May 1940. Five days later, the Germans were well into France and continued to advance until 24 May, when they stopped near Dunkirk. In six weeks, France had been conquered. Nevertheless, the Maginot Line itself still stood, intact and ready to fight back. The Germans were unable to capture any of the forts within this complex.
Despite being surrounded, many commanders were prepared to hold out at any cost. However, after the capitulation of France, there was nothing left to defend. The entire garrison of the Maginot Line was captured and sent to POW camps.
American soldiers examine the Maginot Line in 1944
It wasn’t the end of the war for the Maginot Line though. In 1944, this time in hands of the Germans, the line got in the way of advancing U.S. troops. The fortifications were largely bypassed, but not without a few exceptions near Metz and Alsace.
Despite their impressive structure, fixed fortifications on such a vast scale like the Maginot Line and the Siegfried Line were now simply outdated and obsolete. The Maginot Line still exists, but it is not maintained and not used for military purposes anymore.
More photosMap of the Maginot Line
Soldiers of the 51st Highland Division wearing gas masks while on duty in a fort on the Maginot Line in France, November 3, 1939
The British Expeditionary Force in France 1939-1940. HM King George VI visits the BEF, December 1939.
Destroyed turret on the Maginot Line, 1940. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-382-0204-22A / Greiner / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Destroyed bunker, Maginot Line, 1940. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-383-0348-30A / Greiner / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Bunker at the Maginot Line, 1940. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 121-0486 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Maginot Line nowMichelsberg entrance block. Photo: Benrichard3rd / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Main gallery, showing the 60cm internal rail line. Photo: DrAlzheimer / CC-BY-SA 4.0
The power plant at Michelsberg. Photo: DrAlzheimer / CC-BY-SA 4.0
Kitchen in Michelsberg. Photo: DrAlzheimer / CC-BY-SA 4.0
Tunnels under Michelsberg. Photo: Deep Darkness / CC-BY-SA 2.0
Fort de Fermont. Photo: Guido Radig / CC-BY-SA 3.0
The ammunition bunker entrance to Ouvrage Schoenenbour, Maginot Line in Alsace.
View of the entrance and the barbed wire network, Immerhof (Maginot line), Moselle, France. Photo: Lvcvlvs / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Bunker C 23 in Ravin de Crusnes (Maginot Line), Crusnes, Meurthe-et-Moselle, France. Photo: Lvcvlvs / CC-BY-SA 3.0
The view from a battery at Ouvrage Schoenenbourg in Alsace. Notice the retractable turret in the left foreground. Photo: John C. Watkins V.
Entrance at l’ouvrage du Kobenbusch.
Railway tunnel in l’ouvrage du Four-à-Chaux. Photo: Sylvainlouis / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Entrance at l’ouvrage du Col-de-la-Moutière.
GFM cloche, one of the most common defensive armaments on the Maginot Line. Bunker in de la Ferté.
Destroyed GFM Cloche in l’ouvrage du Kerfent. Photo: Kefrent / CC-BY-SA 3.0
View at the heavy shelled bunker, l’ouvrage du Bambesch. Photo: Lvcvlvs / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Bunker no 8 at l’ouvrage du Hackenberg, damaged by US troops in late 1944. Photo: Nicolas Bouillon / CC-BY-SA 3.0
The Maginot Line: A Complete World War II Failure or Did It Do What It Was Supposed to Do?
Like a disjointed, moss-covered, concrete serpent, the Maginot Line snakes some 800 miles, from the Mediterranean border with Italy northward, until it disappears near the North Sea. The serpent’s blank, unseeing eyes—from which the barrels of cannon and machine guns once unblinkingly stared toward France’s traditional enemy—today gaze across a bucolic landscape that gives little hint of the historic events that transpired along its length over six decades ago. The serpent, constructed over a period of 11 years at a cost of some seven billion prewar francs, was France’s last, best hope to avert another German invasion, another devastating war. The serpent is the largest remaining artifact from World War II. It is the Maginot Line.
Considered by many to be an expensive failure, a symbol of French passivity and retrenchment, of her “bunker mentality” and unwillingness to boldly face the growing Nazi menace in the 1930s, the Maginot Line was an incredibly costly and highly controversial project. In one sense, however, it did exactly what it was designed to do: It forced the enemy to invade France at a different place.
30 Prior German Invasions Into France
La Ligne Maginot was born out of France’s deep-seated fear of another invasion by her neighbor and longtime foe, Germany. Except for a few rivers and the gentle mountains of the Vosges, there are few natural barriers to invasion. Thirty times over the centuries, Teutonic warriors marched virtually unimpeded into France and, five times during the 19th century alone, German guns imperiled Paris. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which was still bitterly recalled by the French generals and political leaders in 1914, brought home how utterly defenseless France was in the face of determined aggression.
To prepare for the future, the French looked to the past. Stoutly constructed, fixed fortifications have existed since ancient times, reaching their pre-Maginot apogee during the reign of King Louis XIV in the late 17th century, when the brilliant army officer and engineer Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban designed and oversaw the construction of a series of fortresses that admirably defended French interests. Vauban’s ingenious creations protected some one hundred towns, villages, and other places of importance, including Tournai (Belgium), Briançon, Ypres, and Strasbourg, to name but a few. Despite their enormous cost and susceptibility to conquest, fixed fortifications remained for centuries the best defense against an attacking force, and the French were among the masters at building this type of fortification.
Such continued to be the case even as late as the Great War of 1914-1918, where the thick concrete walls and deeply buried fortifications of Verdun proved to be very hard nuts for the Kaiser’s forces to crack. One of the huge Verdun forts, Douaumont, was pounded by thousands of shells, up to 420mm in caliber, yet only five of its 30 casemates fell to the Germans in a battle that lasted 10 months and resulted in unimaginable casualties on both sides.
Manpower Hindered by the Great War
This reality, combined with another very salient factor, led the French to believe that their future security lay in ferro-concrete. The other factor that inevitably turned France toward fixed fortifications was the tremendous slaughter of her sons during World War I it is estimated that 1.2 million Frenchmen lost their lives during that conflict. As a result, there were 1.2 million fewer potential fathers coming home from the war, and France’s birthrate fell precipitously after the war. The declining birthrate augured a severe shortage of future soldiers to guard the nation, which meant that other means for the defense of France needed to be found.
To some experts, the Great War proved that fixed fortifications had no future. The next war, these experts contended, would be a highly mobile affair. The advent of the dirigible, airplane, and tank meant that fortifications on the ground could be easily bypassed. Fixed fortifications, the critics argued, were as obsolete and extinct as the dinosaurs. Some brought up Karl von Clausewitz’s postulation: “If you entrench yourself behind strong fortifications, you compel the enemy to seek a solution elsewhere.”
The men charged with France’s defense were not swayed. Since fielding a large standing army was impossible for at least another generation, a line of fortresses, each at least as strong as Douaumont, was seen as the primary means of keeping the invading Huns at bay.
France had another reason for embracing the idea of fixed fortifications. Following the Armistice of 1918, the Americans and British, shocked at the war’s cost and carnage, refused to guarantee that they would come to France’s aid should she ever be attacked again. Feeling betrayed by her allies, France realized she must look inward for her future survival.
The "Continuous Front"
With political and economic turmoil wracking Germany during the late 1920s, French leaders were clearly worried about a new and even more terrible conflict. Security seemed to lie with a successful strategy from the last war: the idea of the “continuous front.” Although the “continuous front” had been severely battered at places, it had, for the most part, held ultimately, the German invaders had been repulsed. The French political and military leadership assumed that the next war—and they firmly believed that there would be another war—would again require the establishment of a continuous front, especially given France’s projected manpower shortage. Some sort of defensive wall guarding her border with Germany—and beyond—would be necessary to halt any invasion long enough for the reserves to be called up and transported to the front.
That, at least, was the theory. The question now was, Could it be put into practice? Such a wall would need to stretch from the Mediterranean to the English Channel, and would cost billions of francs. Only the Great Wall of China, almost 4,000 miles long, covered a greater distance. Was such a thing even possible?
Beginning in 1922, the feasibility of constructing such a defensive work was studied and hotly debated by the Territory Defense Commission, led by Marshals Philippe Pétain, Ferdinand Foch, and Joseph Joffre, France’s heroes of the Great War. While Foch and Joffre advocated a more flexible, mobile approach, Pétain clearly favored a heavily fortified, static defensive line. Gradually, Pétain’s views prevailed and, in December 1925, the commission was succeeded by the Frontier Defense Commission, formed by Minister of War Paul Painlevé, to further look into the matter.
Painlevé’s board determined that three most likely invasion routes required immediate fortification. Three Régions Fortifiées, or fortified regions, were established: the Metz R.F., in the Moselle Valley between Longuyon and Teting on the Nied River, which was designed to block any incursion into the valley and protect the Briey-Thionville industrial area the Lauter R.F., east of the Hagenau Forest between the Saar and Rhine Rivers, which would seal off the invasion route used by the Germans in 1870 and the Belfort, or Upper Alsace, R.F., which would guard the Belfort Gap in the Vosges Mountains, near where the borders of France, Germany, and Switzerland come together.
Historian and journalist William Shirer observed, “The trouble with the Maginot Line was that it was in the wrong place. The classical invasion route to France which the Germans had taken for nearly two millennia, since the earliest tribal days, lay through Belgium. This was the shortest way and the easiest, for it lay through level land with few rivers of any consequence to cross.”
The planners countered their critics by saying that defenses in the Alsace-Lorraine region would force the Germans into disastrous frontal attacks against the strongpoint. If the Germans chose to outflank the defenses, the thinking went, they would have to violate the neutrality of either Belgium or Switzerland, and the French assumed the Germans would not risk worldwide condemnation by violating neutral territory again. But, most of all, it was hoped that just the sheer presence of such a massive defensive line would dissuade the Germans from even considering invasion.
In September 1927, the Organizing Committee for the Fortified Regions (CORF) was established, and the following February construction began on two small-scale experimental facilities that would allow engineers to work out the practical details.
In early 1930, with the world in the grip of an economic depression, initial appropriations for the massive project—some three billion francs—were closely scrutinized by France’s Chamber of Deputies Painlevé was out of office, and there was no assurance that the necessary funds would be allocated. Painlevé’s successor as Minister of War was a literal giant of a man (he stood six feet, six inches tall), André Maginot, a former member of the Chamber of Deputies and a disabled veteran of the Great War.
"One Imperious Necessity"
Maginot had also served, in 1913-1914, as Under-Secretary of State for War. When World War I broke out, he had a choice of serving either in Parliament or the army he chose the latter, eschewing a commission to serve as a common soldier. Recipient of France’s highest award for valor, Sergeant Maginot was gravely wounded while on a patrol on the night of November 9, 1914. His kneecap was shattered, but his leg was saved he would walk with a fused knee for the rest of his life. Once he became Minister of War, the 53-year-old Maginot threw himself and his department whole-heartedly into turning the idea of Painlevé’s defensive line into reality.
The Maginot Line
The Maginot Line dominated French military thinking in the inter-war years. The Maginot Line was a vast fortification that spread along the French/German border but became a military liability when the Germans attacked France in the spring of 1940 using blitzkrieg – a tactic that completely emasculated the Maginot Line’s purpose.
France had suffered appalling damage to both men and buildings in World War One. After Versailles in 1919, there was a clear intention on the part of the French that France should never have to suffer such a catastrophe again. After 1920, those men in both political positions and the military favoured adopting a military strategy that would simply stop any form of German invasion again.
Senior figures in the French military, such as Marshall Foch, believed that the German anger over Versailles all but guaranteed that Germany would seek revenge. The main thrust of French military policy, as a result, was to embrace the power of the defence.
As head of the armed forces, Marshall Petain commissioned a number of teams to come up with a solution to the French dilemma. Three schools of thought developed:
- 1) That France should adopt a policy of offence as opposed to defence. One of the main supporters of this was Charles de Gaulle. He wanted France to develop an army based on speed, mobility and mechanised vehicles. There were few who supported his ideas as many in the military saw them as aggressive and likely to provoke a response as opposed to guard against a German one.
- 2) France should base its military in a line of small heavily defended areas from which a counter-attack could be launched if required. Marshall Joffre favoured this idea.
- 3) France should build a long line of fortifications along the whole French/German border which would be both long and deep into France. Marshall Petain favoured this idea.
Petain had come out of World War One with a degree of credit and with his backing the idea of a long and deep defensive barrier gained political support. In this, Petain was supported by Andre Maginot, the Minister of War.
Maginot was Minister of War between 1922 and 1924. However, even after 1924, Maginot was involved in the project. In 1926, Maginot and his successor, Paul Painleve, got the funding for a body that was known as the Committee of Frontier Defence (CFD). The CFD was given the funding to build three sections of an experimental defence line – based on what Petain had recommended – which was to develop into the Maginot Line.
In 1929, Maginot returned to government office. He gained more money from the government to build a full-scale defence barrier along the German border. He overcame any opposition to his plan very simply – the fortification, he argued, would end any chance there was that France would suffer the terrible bloodshed of 1914 -1918 should there ever be another war. Also, in 1930, French troops that had occupied the Rhineland as part of the Versailles Treaty, had to leave the area that bordered onto France – this at a time when the Nazi Party and Hitler were making real headway in Germany.
Maginot had a number of sound military arguments on his side:
- The Line would hinder any German attack for so long that the bulk of the large French army would be fully mobilised to counter the attack.
- The troops stationed in the Line would also be used to fight against the invading Germans should they get through any one part of the Line and attack them from the rear.
- All the fighting would take place near to the French/German border so that there would be minimal damage to property.
- The Ardennes in the north would act as a natural continuation of the man-made Line as it was considered impenetrable, so the Line need not go all the way to the Channel.
Work on the Maginot Line proper started in 1930 when the French government gave a grant of 3 billion francs for its building. The work continued until 1940. Maginot himself died in 1932, and the line was named after him in his honour.
What exactly was the Maginot Line?
It was not a continuous line of forts as some believe. In parts, especially in the south from Basle to Haguenau, it was nothing more than a series of outposts as the steep geography of the region and the River Rhine provided its own defence between France and Germany. The Line comprised of over 500 separate buildings but was dominated by large forts (known as ‘ouvrages’) which were built about nine miles from each other. Each ouvrage housed 1000 soldiers with artillery. Between each ouvrage were smaller forts which housed between 200 to 500 men depending on their size.
There were 50 ouvrages in total along the German border. Each one had the necessary fire power to cover the two nearest ouvrages to the north and south. They were protected by reinforced steel that was inches deep and capable of taking a direct hit from most known artillery fire.
The smaller forts were obviously not as well armed or protected as the ouvrages but they were still well built. They were further protected by minefields and anti-tank ditches. Forward defence lines were designed to give the defenders a good warning of an impending attack. In theory, the Maginot Line was capable of creating a massive continuous line of fire that should have devastated any attack.
The Maginot Line was such an impressive piece of construction that dignitaries from around the world visited it.
However, the Maginot Line had two major failings – it was obviously not mobile and it assumed that the Ardennes was impenetrable. Any attack that could get around it would leave it floundering like a beached whale. Blitzkrieg was the means by which Germany simply went around the whole Line. By doing this, the Maginot Line was isolated and the plan that soldiers in the Line could assist the mobilised French troops was a non-starter. The speed with which Germany attacked France and Belgium in May 1940, completely isolated all the forts. The German attack was code-named “cut-of-the-sickle” (Sichlschnitt) – an appropriate name for the attack.
German Army Group B attacked through the Ardennes – such an attack was believed to be impossible by the French. One million men and 1,500 tanks crossed the seemingly impenetrable forests in the Ardennes. The Germans wanted to drive the Allies to the sea. Once the Maginot Line had been isolated it had little military importance and the Germans only turned their attention to it in early June 1940. Many of the ouvrages surrendered after the government signed its surrender with Germany – few had to be captured in battle, though some forts did fight the Germans. One in seven French divisions was a fortress division – so the Maginot Line took out 15% of the French Army. Though not a huge figure, these men may have had an impact on the advance of the Germans – or at least got evacuated at Dunkirk to fight another time.
After the war, parts of the Maginot Line were repaired and modernised to provide post-war France with more defence. Some of the forts were supposedly made nuclear war proof. However, many parts of the Maginot Line fell into disrepair and remain so.
The Maginot Line had its critics and supporters. The critics had a vast amount of evidence to support their views. However, an argument was put forward that the Maginot Line was a success and that its failure was a failure of planning in that the Line ended at the Belgium border. If the Maginot Line had been built all along the French/Belgium border, the outcome in the spring of 1940 may have been very different as the Germans would have had to go through a major fortification as opposed to going round it. It all senses, this is a superfluous argument as the Maginot Line did not go round Belgium’s border whereas the German military did go through the Ardennes therefore neutralising the Maginot Line.
What Your History Teacher Told You About the Maginot Line Is Wrong
The Maginot Line arose neither from French cowardice nor stupidity. It was conceived because of babies—or rather, a lack of babies. France in 1939 had a population of about forty million. Germany had a population of about seventy million. As the Germans themselves learned at the hands of the Soviets, fighting a numerically superior enemy is dangerous.
Or was Paris simply doomed?
“Fixed fortifications are monuments to man’s stupidity,” George Patton said. “If mountain ranges and oceans can be overcome, anything made by man can be overcome.”
No doubt Patton was thinking of the Maginot Line, which has gone down as a salutary lesson in why expensive fortifications are a bad idea.
But with all due respect to Ol’ Blood and Guts (“our blood and his guts,” as Patton’s men used to complain), that’s misreading history.
The Maginot Line arose neither from French cowardice nor stupidity. It was conceived because of babies—or rather, a lack of babies. France in 1939 had a population of about forty million. Germany had a population of about seventy million. As the Germans themselves learned at the hands of the Soviets, fighting a numerically superior enemy is dangerous.
France’s birth rate had actually been declining since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. But World War I worsened the problem. France lost about 1.4 million dead and 4.2 million wounded, while Germany lost two million dead and also 4.2 million wounded. But with almost twice the population, Germany was left with a larger manpower base. As the euphoria of victory in 1918 began to fade, French planners grimly contemplated population graphs predicting the pool of draft-age young men would hit a nadir in the 1930s.
What to do? One solution was to form alliances with the new eastern European states, and even the Soviet Union, to threaten Germany’s eastern border. Another was to count on Britain fighting alongside France to stop a German invasion, as in 1914. Neither would save France in 1940.
That left the traditional solution for a weaker power: the shovel and the concrete mixer. Fortifications are a force multiplier that allow a weaker army to defend against a stronger attacker, or defend part of its territory with minimum forces while concentrating the bulk of its troops for an attack somewhere else.
Viewed in this light, the Maginot Line was a sensible idea. It was a line of almost six thousand forts, blockhouses, dragon’s-teeth antitank barriers and other fortifications along the Franco-German border, starting in the south near Switzerland and extending north to the France-Luxembourg border. It was an impressive engineering achievement of retractable cannon-armed turrets that could rise up and down out of the ground, fortified machine-gun nests, and underground quarters complete with cinemas and subterranean trolleys. By all accounts, these were cold, damp places to garrison, yet they would have been quite formidable had the Germans attacked them.
The Maginot Line allowed France to defend its border with Germany with second-rate fortress troops. This let the French concentrate their best armies and their mechanized troops in the open terrain of north of France, where they would advance through Belgium to stop a German attack advancing along the same invasion route taken by the kaiser’s armies in 1914.
This plan might have worked, had the Germans done what they were supposed to. But instead of butting their turrets against the Maginot Line in the south, or the cream of the French army in the north, Hitler’s panzers went up the middle. On May 10, 1940, they struck through Luxembourg and southern Belgium, through narrow country roads traversing forested hills that could have been easily defended by small forces—but weren’t. Six weeks later, France capitulated.
The French campaign of 1940 groans under the weight of what-ifs. What if the Maginot Line had been extended to cover the Belgian border (which would have been an expensive proposition)? What if the narrow roads through Luxembourg had been better defended? What if the French high command had been less lethargic, and moved quickly to seal off the breakthrough? What if French troops had displayed greater initiative and higher morale?
Yet none of these have anything to do with the actual Maginot Line. In hindsight, France could have chosen not to build fortifications, and spent the money on raising more infantry divisions, or buying more tanks and aircraft. But that wouldn’t have solved France’s manpower gap, especially since more troops would have been needed to replace the fortifications along the German border. And there is no reason to believe more money would have resulted in more competent French generals, or that French tanks would have been used more adroitly.
It is a harsh lesson of history that an idea can be brilliant in itself, yet fail for all sorts of reasons. Especially in military history, which is a vast graveyard of plans and technology that didn’t work as advertised. If a jet fighter offers disappointing performance, we consider it a flawed design, and not that jet fighters are a bad concept.
Fortifications are not invulnerable. As Patton observed, any obstacles devised by humans can be penetrated by humans (or by ants, as any home dweller can attest). But used properly, and supported by a field army able and willing to fight, they can be most formidable.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.
The Maginot Mentality
O ver the course of nearly a century the mili tary moniker “Maginot Line” has become something of a punch line—a euphemism, according to Merriam-Webster, for any “defensive barrier or strategy that inspires a false sense of security.” A belief prevails among historians that the line’s failure to stop or even impede Germany’s stunning 1940 blitzkrieg assault enabled the rapid Nazi take- over of France. The truth is more nuanced, involving sophisticated planning and technology, but ending, ultimately, with abandonment at the highest levels of the French war machine.
The concept of a fortified defensive barrier between France and its archenemy, Germany, first surfaced in the early 1920s. Less than a decade before, in the early days of World War I, France had suffered an invasion and humiliating partial occupation by Germany. As a result, a number of the conflict’s most devastating battles raged on French soil. The loss of life was nothing short of cata clysmic, wiping out nearly an entire generation of young men. The postwar government was determined not to let such an invasion happen again. While some French political and military leaders met the proposal with skep ticism, supporters of a defensive line carried the day.
Engineers undertook a number of feasibility studies, and in 1927 the French government approved the basic concept. The Commission for the Organization of For tified Regions (CORF) would design the barrier and assume responsibility for its construction and maintenance. The line was not the brainchild of its namesake, André Maginot that bit of folklore derived from a 1935 newspaper article. Maginot was, however, the second of two persuasive ministers of war—the first being Paul Painlevé—who lobbied tirelessly for the funding to construct the barrier.
After considerable debate, organizers signed off on a plan for an interdependent chain of fortified installations along hundreds of miles of the French-German border, blocking the most likely routes of a future invasion. The project was expected to take nearly a decade and cost untold billions of francs.
The first step was to determine where to build the initial defenses. The Alps buttressed the nation’s shared borders with Italy and Switzerland, while the Rhine River and low-lying Vosges Mountains to the east also presented natural barriers. The French Ministry of War, therefore, focused on the Rhineland as the most immediate area of concern. Bordering Alsace and Lorraine and encompass ing the heavily industrial Ruhr Valley, that region had been demilitarized as a condition of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and for a time had served as an effective buffer zone between France and Germany. However, the 1929 Hague Conference on German Reparations stipulated that Allied occupation forces must vacate the Rhineland no later than June of the following year, once again leav ing France vulnerable. It was only a matter of time before Germany moved to reoccupy and remilitarize the region.
Historically speaking, the path of Germanic inva sions had occurred elsewhere. “The trouble with the Maginot Line was that it was in the wrong place,” war correspondent William Shirer wrote. “The classical inva sion route to France which the Germans had taken since the earliest tribal days—for nearly two millennia—lay through Belgium. This was the shortest way and the easiest, for it lay through level land with few rivers of any consequence to cross.”
But the French strategists knew that. As planned, the barrier would end just short of the French-Belgian border. According to various historians, the French hoped the line would divert a German invasion through Bel gium, thus enabling them and their allies to fight on non-Gallic soil. To paraphrase 19th century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, if you entrench yourself behind strong fortifications, you compel the enemy to seek a solution elsewhere. As far as the French were concerned, “elsewhere” would be the fields and streets of their traditional ally, Belgium.
German sappers closely examine the gap beneath a displaced domed cloche. (Ullstein Bild, Getty Images)
In 1929 local contractors under CORF supervision began construction on the Maginot Line. Contrary to popular imagination, the barrier was not an unbroken wall but a staggered length of reinforced strongpoints with interlocking fields of fire—a system of defense in depth. It comprised a series of subterranean fortifications, with various support structures extending back several miles. The whole was designed to blend with the terrain.
Directly along the border stood reinforced concrete barracks—maisons fortes—whose function was to delay an initial attack and sound the alarm to the primary defenses. Far to the rear stood bunkers equipped with automatic weapons and anti-tank guns. Fronting them were barbed wire coils and rows of tank barriers made of upended steel rails. Behind and between the bunkers was a row of reinforced two-story concrete casemates. Often built into a hillside to conceal their profile, the case mates featured firing embrasures and retractable turrets armed with both small- and large-caliber weapons.
The casemates’ main function was to supplement what one chronicler called the “real ‘teeth’ of the Maginot Line,” the ouvrages (“works”). These varied in size and com plexity from a single massive concrete block sunk deep into the ground and capped with a retractable armored turret to a combination of turreted surface blocks and subterranean support facilities. Also fronting the ouvrages and casemates were barbed wire and steel obstacles, as well as small cloches—domelike thick steel structures used as both observation and close-in defense posts.
The ouvrages came in two sizes: petit (“small”) and gros (“large”). The turrets of the gros ouvrages were armed with machine guns, anti-tank guns and/or artillery pieces those of the petits ouvrages were armed only with infantry weapons. While the gros ouvrages each held garrisons ranging from 200 to 1,000 men, depending on size, the complements within the petits ouvrages were considerably smaller.
Fanning out deep beneath each ouvrage ran a series of tunnels and galleries containing the power plant, storerooms, barracks, washrooms, kitchen, ammunition depot and infirmary. The longest gallery often included an electric-powered train—dubbed the Metro, after the Paris subway—that carried ammunition to the gun em placements. Surface rail lines enabled the replenishment of each ouvrage’s supplies and ammunition. In addition to the use of terrain for concealment, work crews applied camouflage to the fortifications. With the exception of the nonretractable cloches, the entire line displayed a low profile, in some places virtually invisible.
At a time when many French villages lacked plumbing and/or electricity, the ouvrages featured indoor plumbing and were powered by a sophisticated electrical system. An elaborate telephone network connected every struc ture in the Maginot Line and was linked to the French public phone system by buried cables.
Modern conveniences aside, life was far from pleasant for soldiers assigned to the ouvrages. Buried deep under ground, the structures were generally damp and cold, and while air filtration systems kept out poison gas, the drainage for the latrines had a tendency to back up, often creating a markedly malodorous atmosphere.
The war ministry assigned 35 divisions of mobile “interval” troops, as well as units of towed artillery, to fill the gaps between structures. Troops manning the fortifications were confident in their ability to stop any attack—indeed, their motto and uniform badges read On Ne Passe Pas—idiomatically translated as They Shall Not Pass.
The line, which eventually added an extension dubbed the “Little Maginot Line” along the mountainous French-Italian border, was mobilized in 1936 and considered fully operational two years later. On completion it comprised more than 50 million cubic feet of concrete, 150,000 tons of steel and 280 miles of internal roads and railways. It was, according to one chronicler, “the greatest defensive barrier constructed since the Great Wall of China.”
German armor bypassed much of the line by moving through the “impenetrable” Ardennes Forest. (Ullstein Bild, Getty Images)
Despite the effort put into building, equipping and manning the Maginot Line, underlying flaws lay at the very core of the ambitious project, ones having nothing to do with its impressive state-of-the-art engineering. A general misconception at the time—one that survives today—was that the line was built to stop a German invasion in its tracks. It was not. The goal was to create a stout first line of defense against an enemy attack, to delay the Germans long enough (perhaps a week or two) for France to mobilize its army for a counterattack.
Unfortunately, the French government’s confidence in its army’s ability to effectively respond to a German offensive was misplaced. While the Maginot Line was fully capable of stalling the enemy, the army was largely incapable of mounting a sustained counterattack. The horrendous loss of manpower in World War I was reflected all too clearly in the emaciated state of the interwar French army. Enlistment was at an all-time low, and the length of compulsory military service had been reduced to just one year.
Gradually, instead of being regarded as an adjunct to a French field army, the Maginot Line was increasingly seen as a substitute for the army, capable of holding off a German invasion indefinitely. Suffering from what has come to be referred to as the “Maginot mentality,” the French High Command refused to plan for an offensive war.
Most important, however, the French army was com manded by old men, who looked backward for their vision of the future. By focusing exclusively on a static, land-based deterrent to invasion, they were wholly ignoring transformational developments in the areas of airborne and combined arms warfare. Admittedly, at the time the Maginot Line was first conceived, aerial combat and dedicated armored warfare remained in relative infancy. However, by the 1930s the concept of controlling the skies had clearly taken hold. Around the time the line was completed, Germany was demonstrating for the world the effectiveness of destruction from above in Spain.
Meanwhile, powerful and highly mobile armored units—again embraced first by Germany—were rapidly establishing themselves as the vanguard of the infantry, as tanks blazed trails for infantry to follow. Any obstacles not surmountable on the ground could simply be flown over.
Unable or unwilling to adapt to the new technology, the French Ministry of War instead turned to propa ganda, hyping the Maginot Line far beyond the reality in an attempt to convince its own citizens and the world, in particular the Germans, of its invulnerability. The propagandists disseminated exaggerated artwork and overblown, misleading descriptions in France, Britain, the United States and elsewhere, depicting a fantastical network of impregnable fortifications through which the enemy simply could not pass. While the campaign lulled the French people into comfortable complacency, it did little to discourage the Germans.
Belatedly the war ministry realized that its failure to extend the line along the Belgian border had been a grave mistake. French planners scrambled frantically to close the gap between the existing line and the English Channel, but funding was low, time was short and any new con struction failed to measure up to the original in every way. The French-Belgian border was heavily industrialized, with little room for new construction. Further, the terrain was flat, with no natural barriers. Finally, the land ap proaching the coastline had a high water table, rendering the building of underground structures and tunnels im possible. The generals deployed troops along the border to compensate for such deficiencies. Still, a crucial gap remained in the line, through the Ardennes Forest. The French generals considered the woodland impervious to penetration by an invading army and had taken little notice of it. That proved a fatal oversight.
In March 1936 Germany, in violation of Versailles, re militarized the Rhineland. France’s allies did nothing in response, and the French refused to act alone, choos ing instead to hide behind their purportedly invulnerable Maginot Line. Meanwhile, the Belgians withdrew from their alliance with France and declared themselves neu tral. In September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, finally spurring France and England to declare war. The soldiers of the Maginot Line went on full alert.
On May 10, 1940, Adolf Hitler launched a three-pronged campaign against the Low Countries. In the north German units powered through Belgium and the Netherlands on into France. Farther south infantry and artillery pinned down the interval troops of the Maginot Line, while the German central group stormed through the Ar dennes, swiftly navigating terrain the French High Command had deemed impenetrable. Ironically, the very strength of the Maginot Line, real or perceived, had channeled the German attack through France’s weakest point of defense.
On May 17 and 18, in their drive toward the Meuse River, advance elements of the German 71st Infantry Division attacked La Ferté, the weak westernmost petit ouvrage of the isolated and incomplete Maginot Line extension. It comprised just two blocks linked by a tunnel, its turrets armed with twin machine guns, 25 mm anti-tank guns and a single 47 mm anti tank gun. La Ferté’s garrison numbered 104 enlisted men and three officers.
The Germans opened up on the fort with mortars and 88 mm antitank guns, which proved ineffectual. Ultimately, however, combat engineers blew an outlying cloche and one of the retractable turrets sky-high, then dropped smoke grenades into the resulting holes. Thick smoke soon choked the tunnel and both blocks, suffocating all 107 men of La Ferté’s garrison. Though the petit ouvrage was a pale imitation of the central Maginot Line fortresses, the German propaganda machine made much of its capture.
Following the destruction of La Ferté, as the German army drove Allied forces inexorably toward the English Channel, the enemy took a handful of minor forts, primarily by compromising their ventilation systems. The Wehrmacht jugger naut then turned its attention south toward Paris. Meanwhile, the men concealed within the Maginot Line’s interconnected subterranean for tresses, largely unaware of develop ments elsewhere, could only sit and wait. By then the French High Command had severely compro mised the line’s surface defenses by redeploying entire divisions of interval troops to bolster the field army.
By early June both the French army and government were in disarray, while the Maginot Line stood defiant, if alone and increasingly irrelevant. On the 10th—the same day the French government fled Paris—Italian dictator Benito Mussolini decided to join the fray, attempting repeatedly to breach the line in the south along the Alpine front. He failed utterly.
On June 12 the panicked French High Command sent word to garrison commanders along the Maginot Line to prepare to demolish their works and withdraw by midnight on the 14th. The order to abandon the line was, in the words of one historian, “the final death blow to French…morale.”
Early on June 14, before the French garrisons could fully comply with the order, the Germans rolled into Paris. At the same time a battle was raging along one stretch of the Maginot Line. Unaware of the French order to abandon the fortifications, the Germans had chosen that day to launch Operation Tiger, sending three entire corps against a narrow, weakly defended stretch of the line at the Saar Gap. For hours, supported by Junkers Ju 87 dive bombers, they pummeled the defenders with sustained fire from more than 1,000 guns of every conceivable type, including massive 420 mm railway guns. It was, writes one chronicler, “the biggest artillery bom bardment of the entire Western campaign.”
In a remarkable show of resistance, the remaining French interval artillery and line troops responded with accurate, deadly fire, killing 1,000 Germans and wound ing some 4,000 more. Ultimately, however, the enemy managed to break through, effectively splitting the line in two. The German penetrated another section the next day, but only after its defenders had withdrawn to stronger positions in the Vosges.
Notwithstanding the few breakthroughs, the Maginot Line remained largely intact and combat-ready. Though the commander in chief of the French armies ordered a general surrender, and an armistice went into effect on June 25, many troops along the line refused to admit defeat. Isolated and surrounded, they grimly fought on into early July and were the last French troops to lay down their arms. Even as the rest of the army suffered fatal setbacks, they had impeded the invasion, preventing the Germans from taking a single major fortress by force and stopping the Italians cold.
In January 1945, a week into Operation Nordwind, the Germans’ last major offensive on the Western Front, a section of the Maginot Line defending Strasbourg again demonstrated its effectiveness, as outnumbered and out gunned elements of the U.S. Seventh Army within the fortifications repelled the German assault. “A part of the line was used for the purpose it had been designed for and showed what a superb fortification it was,” World War II historian Stephen Ambrose wrote.
In the final analysis, the Maginot Line was neither a glowing success nor a fiasco. Although the heavily reinforced structures proved surprisingly impervious to both aerial bombardment and siege artillery fire, they had not been designed to sustain such attacks indefinitely. Yet, the forts built to impede the German invasion had fulfilled their mandate, delaying the enemy’s progress and inflicting a significant toll in the bargain.
Ultimately, owing to the French government’s shortsightedness, timidity, poor planning and archaic thinking, the Maginot Line was doomed from the outset, its potential squandered. “Had the fortifications been used properly by the High Command,” military historian Anthony Kemp notes, “the course of history could well have been altered.” Indeed, given proper support and utilized as a base for vigorous counterattacks as origi nally conceived, the Maginot Line—heralded by one historian as “the last defiant bastion of France during the Nazi conquest”—might well have proved decisive.
Ron Soodalter has written for Smithsonian, Civil War Times, and Wild West. For further reading he recommends To the Maginot Line, by Judith M. Hughes and The Maginot Line: Myth and Reality, by Anthony Kemp.
The Maginot Line masked a somewhat underhanded strategy
On the surface, the Maginot Line was engineered to blunt a direct German attack into France, while safeguarding vital industries situated in the contested Alsace and Lorraine regions. But the Maginot strategy also concealed a hidden agenda worthy of Machiavelli. Defence planners imagined that the menacing barrier might compel Germany to avoid a frontal assault altogether and instead attack by way of Belgium. Such a move would no doubt draw other European powers, namely Great Britain, into a conflict and arouse world opinion against Berlin. It was hoped that in such a scenario, the invaders would be defeated by an Allied army in Belgium.
The Abandoned Bunkers and Fortresses of the Maginot Line
The Maginot Line was a series of fortifications built by the French Government in the 1930s. It ran along the border with Germany and was named after André Maginot, the French Minister of War.
France built it to hold back a possible German invasion. The idea behind it was to hold back enemy forces while the French mobilized their own armies. The French remembered when the Germans invaded their country in World War I, and so were anxious that the same thing should not happen again.
French military experts thought the Maginot Line was wonderful. It could turn back most forms of attack, including tanks and bombing from the air. It had underground railways to carry troops and equipment from fort to fort.
The living quarters for the soldiers were comfortable, and they even had air – conditioning. The French generals were certain it would stop any attacks from the east.
Maginot line – By Made by Niels Bosboom CC BY-SA 3.0
But the enemy did not attack from the east. The Maginot Line did not extend across the northern border with Belgium. This was because Belgium was a neutral country and France did not want to offend the Belgians.
So in 1941 the Germans violated the neutrality of Belgium and invaded France through that country, just as they had in World War I. They went right around the Maginot, and for all its might it was effectively useless. The German Army captured Paris and conquered France in six weeks.
But the Maginot Line had problems of its own, even if the Germans had bothered to attack it. It was very costly to maintain and was not provided with the money that it needed to keep the troops and equipment necessary for war.
The Maginot Line still exists, but is not maintained and not used for military purposes anymore.
Inside the vast tunnel system that links the Maginot line Flickr / Romain DECKER
Inside the massive tunnel system Flickr / Thomas Bresson
Small bunker on the maginot line near Crusnes Flickr / Morten Jensen
Fort Fermont on the Maginot Line Flickr / Morten Jensen
Galgenberg fortress in the Maginot Line. Flickr / Morten Jensen
Galgenberg fortress in the Maginot Line. Flickr / Morten Jensen
Fortress Bois Karre on the Maginot line Flickr / Morten Jensen
Fortress Kobenbusch in the Maginot-Line Flickr / Morten Jensen
Abri Zeiterholz on the Maginot-line Flickr / Morten Jensen
Villers-Pol (Nord) Blockhaus BLK A64 for 8-12 men. Flickr / Daniel Jolivet
Mendoza, an effective defensive player from Chihuahua, Mexico, played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers and usually struggled at the plate. Mendoza was known as a sub-.200 hitter whose average frequently fell into the .180 to .199 range during any particular year—four times in the five years from 1975 to 1979.
The "Mendoza Line" was created as a clubhouse joke among baseball players in 1979, when from early May onwards, Mendoza's average was always within a few points of .200 either way, finishing out the season at .198 for the year (and .201 for his career to that point). "My teammates Tom Paciorek and Bruce Bochte used it to make fun of me," Mendoza said in 2010. "Then they were giving George Brett a hard time because he had a slow start that year, so they told him, 'Hey, man, you're going to sink down below the Mendoza Line if you're not careful.' And then Brett mentioned it to Chris Berman from ESPN, and eventually it spread and became a part of the game." Berman deflects credit back to Brett in popularizing the term. "Mario Mendoza?—it's all George Brett," Berman said. "We used it all the time in those 1980s SportsCenters. It was just a humorous way to describe how someone was hitting." 
Mendoza had two more full years in the majors, with a handful of plate appearances in 1982 his hitting improved noticeably in that stretch, so that by the end of his career, his batting average had risen to .215.  By that point, however, the phrase was already embedded in baseball culture. Mendoza proved to be a prolific hitter after going back to his home country to play in the Mexican League his career batting average in the Mexican League was .291, and in 2000 he was inducted into the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame.
The term is also used outside of baseball to describe the line dividing mediocrity from badness:
- On an episode of How I Met Your Mother, Barney explains the "Vicky Mendoza Diagonal" line, which determines how attractive a girl must be in order for him to date her depending on how "crazy" she is. 
- In an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210, Brandon and Steve's professor says "And look, if you've done the reading you don't have to worry, you will not fall below the Mendoza Line for a grade of a C." to which a student asks "Umm, the Mendoza Line? Was that in the chapters?"
- "A sub-$2,000 per theater average. is the Mendoza Line of box office numbers. " 
- "Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. argues that these numbers have crossed below the political 'Mendoza line'. " 
- "The U.S. 10-year note yield declined below 2%. before moving back above the Mendoza Line. to 2.09% by early afternoon." 
- Ex-Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's play has been described as "The Dalton Line": the minimum level of production and efficiency that should be expected from a franchise quarterback in the National Football League. 
On the other hand, in recent years as batting average against has come to be a closely followed pitching statistic, the Mendoza line has increasingly come into focus with respect to measuring the effectiveness of the game's elite pitchers. Pitching below the Mendoza line (assuming a pitcher has faced the minimum number of batters) over at least a season is considered a great achievement, and typically accomplished by only a handful of pitchers in Major League Baseball over the course of a season.
Another expression used in baseball to indicate that a hitter is not being effective is "on the interstate", which derives from batting averages in the .1xx range looking similar to the route designations of the Interstate Highway System in the United States, in which roads are referred to using "I" to indicate an Interstate Highway, and a number to indicate the specific route. Thus a batting average of .195 looks roughly similar to "I-95", and the batter is said to be "on the Interstate." 
The Maginot Line
The term “Maginot Line” is often associated with both cutting-edge military technology and one of the most serious misplanning incidents in the history of war. The French built a defense system consisting of a line of bunkers along the French border with Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and Italy that was built between 1930 and 1940.
The system is named after French Defense Minister André Maginot. The main purpose of the defense system was to deter German invasion.
The individual bunkers of the Maginot Line were more than ordinary military bases. Most of these bases had their own hospital, recreation center, kitchens, living areas, ammunition bunkers, and their own diesel engines for power.
Large parts of the bases were additionally equipped with air filtration systems against gas attacks. At the time, the budget for construction was far overdrawn at three billion francs, which accounted for many unfinished bases. Most of the architecture was built primarily on the basis of experience in the First World War.
In order to preserve Belgium’s neutrality, the border with Belgium was only very thinly defended by the Maginot Line.
As an alternative, French and British generals devised a counterattack plan in the event of a German attack through neutral Belgium: While numerous elite troops would defend the Line, several French armies and the British Expeditionary Corps would march into Belgium in the event of war and, together with Belgian troops, repel the Wehrmacht at the Deyle River.
As a result, they moved most of their best formations into Belgium, which made it possible for the Germans to penetrate through the weakly occupied Ardennes and bypass the Maginot Line completely.
The French were forced to surrender and faced a massive defeat.
The Maginot Line, which put a massive economic burden on France and failed to prevent the German attack, turns out to be one of the biggest misplanning as well as a waste of money and troops in the history of war, over $3 billion French Francs were spent on construction.