The Maginot Line
1918 saw the end of the First World War. Although victorious, France is emerging exhausted from this conflict of unprecedented violence. The north of the country was devastated by the fighting, almost 2 million men were wounded and nearly 1.5 million lost their lives. Yet France must move forward. The Treaty of Versailles sets out the conditions from the winners to the losers. Among these, the restitution of Alsace and Moselle, territories that have been at the centre of quarrels between France and Germany for decades.
These territories must therefore be protected from the newly defeated enemy who, perhaps tomorrow or the day after, will want to fight to avenge this defeat and the humiliation of the Treaty, which has been seen as a “diktat”.
Thus, the idea was quickly born within the French General Staff to build a line of fortifications on these new eastern borders that would protect France from any sudden attack and calm down enemy attempts. The Maginot line, named after the War Minister André Maginot who supervised its construction, emerged from the ground in the mid-1920s.
In the northeast, it consists of 53 structures, or forts, between which interval casemates are built, casemates which, facing the Rhine in particular, even constitute the main line of resistance. Because the Maginot line, if it runs from north to south of France, is above all a composition of several sections more or less fortified depending on the location. Moselle is thus the most fortified territory, as well as the Alps facing Italy, when the Belgian border is dotted only with small bunkers.
On September 1, 1939, Germany sent its troops to invade Poland. This is the beginning of the Second World War. France and Great Britain declare war on Germany. To cover the general mobilization, the Maginot line was immediately occupied.
This was followed by a long period of what would be called the “funny war” since, from September 1939 to May 1940, despite a French offensive in Saarland and then a few skirmishes on the border, nothing happened. The French and the Allies were feverishly waiting for a German attack and did not dare to go and provoke the enemy.
On May 10, 1940, Germany finally launched its offensive in the west. The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium and France are attacked. French and allied troops then applied the Dyle plan and advanced into Belgian territory to carry the combat as far as possible from French territory. The German General Staff, anticipating this movement, actually concentrated most of its troops in front of the Ardennes forest, behind which the French General Staff had a few weakly experienced troops and very weak fortifications. The forest is then considered impassable to motorized vehicles.
The German army proved the opposite and, making a stunning breakthrough through this massif, took the Allied armies by surprise, which, completely disorganized, fought while gradually withdrawing towards the sea, the retreat ending in Dunkirk where thousands of French and Allied soldiers were killed, taken prisoner or evacuated to Great Britain.
The German troops then continued their offensive to the south. France is gradually being invaded. In Alsace, the Maginot line was breached in several places, as well as in the Vosges and Saarland, these areas being relatively weakly fortified and having been evacuated by the troops normally stationed in support on the rear.
From then on, the enemy found himself on the other side of the Maginot line. The most powerful structures are bombed but easily keep the attackers at bay. In weaker fortified areas, such as Faulquemont, German infantrymen and artillerymen tried their luck and, for glory rather than strategic interest, tried to bring down the structures. Some fall but most hold out by resisting fiercely.
On June 25, 1940, at 12:25 a.m., when the Armistice came into effect, 48 of the 53 structures in the northeast were undefeated. In the Alps, at 1:10, the structures and their crews defeated all the Italian attacks, which were thus nailed to the border.
From July 1, however, undefeated, the 22,000 or so men occupying the Maginot Line were sent to Germany in captivity with military honours. They returned to France after the Liberation in 1945