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Could it really be that the Maginot Line was a good idea?

I was always taught that the Maginot Line was a military white elephant – colossally expensive and easily by-passed. But this guy begs to differ – kinda sorta. Short version: it would have worked if it hadn’t been for those flibbertygibbet Belgians! Even so he doesn’t address the question of how Germany would have been brought to heel by means of an entirely defensive strategy.

I love this sort of challenge to the narrative and I understand that Samizdata’s own Bertrand Maginot will be joining me. For once.

22 comments to Could it really be that the Maginot Line was a good idea?

  • David

    No, the Maginot Line wouldn’t have worked even if it had been extended to the sea. German commandos attacked one part of the line as a feint and made mincemeat out of it.

  • Mr Ed

    What they needed was a nice, broad, deep Channel…

  • Having a system of defences – perhaps not quite as costly – on France’s border with Germany was always a sensible idea in itself. The first thing Hitler did after remilitarising the Rhineland was build his westwall – at much lesser cost, but it helped deter French attack while he was crushing Poland. The defensive attitude that the maginot line both reflected and encouraged was not good, but you have only to read the first volume of Churchill’s memoirs to realise how reluctant many at the highest levels were to act aggressively anyway in those early days; a less elaborate line might have led to similar phony-war behaviour, and it would have been crazy to have none.

    The Belgian refusal to let the Allies deploy forward during the fall of Poland – nor at any time thereafter until they were attacked – made it inevitable that the Allies would have to commit a very high proportion of their mobile forces to that move forward when it occurred. This had a lot to do with the famous dialog when Churchill first went to France as prime minister:

    “Ou est la masse de manoeuvre?”

    “Il n’y a aucune.”

    because even if Gamelin had tried harder to retain a reserve, it would still have had to have been a large “masse de manoeuvre” that had rushed forward into Belgium and Holland a few days earlier.

    In the early years of WWII, there were many occasions when a country rashly tried to curry favour with the Germans by staying neutral (or, in the case of Greece, by hoping that the Germans would not join their Italian foes if they in turn kept out the British), and then begged Britain for help when it was rather too late. Invariably, the outcome led to much criticism of Britain rather than of the poor judgement of Hitler’s latest victim, though after Norway, the first of these events, it never actually brought down the British government.

  • Alsadius

    Given France’s poor military position(something like half the manpower and economy of Germany), and the general unwillingness to actually enforce Versailles, the Maginot line was a good plan. But they didn’t make use of the fortifications very well – the point of fixed defences is to free up men, not to force yourself to sit besieged. They had an awful, defeatist mindset, and the result was disaster. Maginot helped a bit, but didn’t change it in the end.

    For an interesting take on the question of a reserve, there’s an alt-hist story about it called A Blunted Sickle. The forum-based nature means you read a mountain of side discussions as well(albeit pretty good ones – there’s a lot of tech, and a fascinating discussion of the Japanese “assassin-ocracy”, in the ~300 pages I’ve read thus far), but the core story of what happens if France has a real reserve is clear enough in the first few dozen pages of forum posts. I thought it was very good.

  • lucklucky

    Maginot was good idea but also a sign of a bad culture. Was also not heavily expensive and can be said it worked as what the creators expected it to.

    What did not worked was the rest of French army. At strategic level first mistake was sending the armies to Belgium. That should have been the maneuver element.
    At operational level French units were badly commanded with communication systems completely inappropriate for war. Often they reacted to information that was already too old. There were also big problems with supply starting with tanks. If there is no concept of keeping motorized units on the move, then the effective range of those units is just the fuel they have.

    We should also not forget Communist sabotage a various levels. Second World War up to 22 June 1941 was an Imperialist War for Capitalists profit…
    It is not surprising that the Media censor or “forget” to tell us that French Communist party was forbidden in 1939 do to not protest the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
    Or that the L’Humanité , the communist newspaper tried to get published in occupied France with the argument that a Jewish French minister had sent workers to be punished by death – which was false – so they will never defend Jews…

  • Eric

    What did not worked was the rest of French army. At strategic level first mistake was sending the armies to Belgium. That should have been the maneuver element.

    That was probably more of a political decision than military. The smart thing to do would have been to fight in France, but that’s not something the public would have been thrilled to hear.

  • bloke in spain

    Mr Ed – What they needed was a nice, broad, deep Channel…

    The Germans had one, didn’t they?

  • Stephen K

    “For an interesting take on the question of a reserve, there’s an alt-hist story about it called A Blunted Sickle. The forum-based nature means you read a mountain of side discussions as well(albeit pretty good ones – there’s a lot of tech, and a fascinating discussion of the Japanese “assassin-ocracy”, in the ~300 pages I’ve read thus far), but the core story of what happens if France has a real reserve is clear enough in the first few dozen pages of forum posts. I thought it was very good.”
    +1 to this, it’s a great story.

  • Mr Black

    I can’t see a reserve making any difference to the outcome. The French command and communication infrastructure was so bad that a reserve would have been committed too late and in the wrong place, having taken a week to plan the operation before anyone had orders to move.

  • jmc

    The Maginot Line was part of a very sophisticated and well thought out military strategy. The problem was the French governments never built or financed the second part. A very large, very mobile force to deal with the inevitable break through of the primary defense line. The mobile force was the key part of the whole strategy. In the discussion papers of the early / mid 1920’s in France the opinion of the younger officers was there was no point building the Maginot Line if the mobile force was not created. Which it never was.

    So in some ways the French version of what the British did in Singapore. Build the impressive infrastructure but not the forces needed to implement the military strategy the infrastructure was built for in the first place.

    The British Empire ended on February 15’th 1942 with the Fall of Singapore. The independence of India in ’47 and the Suez Crisis in ’56 were just the last nails in the coffin, But Singapore is where it actually died.

    In France in June 1940 the real trauma was not so much the defeat, a rerun of Sedan in 1870, but L’Exode. When about 25% of the population became refugees. More traumatic than the Trek of the 12 million Germans in ’44/’45 which was much more of a slow motion catastrophe.

  • Christopher JR.

    I think the basic idea the Allies had in 1939-40 was for France to bomb and ideally occupy the Ruhr industrial heartland, while Britain used her navy forces to cut off supplies of Norwegian iron ore to Germany by mining the seas, and then goading Hitler into invading Sweden and fighting them there, hoping to blockade and starve the country into an anti-Nazi revolution, with Prussian officers effecting a putch similar to what almost happened in 1944, leading to a negotiated peace and withdrawal from most of Poland. It might almost have worked. But France was too hesitant to advance into the Ruhr while German divisions were preoccupied with the Polish invasion, and the British attempt to mine Norwegian waters came far too late.

  • John B

    Old technology will be replaced by new.

    Swords and shields were a good idea until… guns; castles were a good idea until… cannon; battleships were a good idea until… aircraft carriers; nuclear bombers were a good idea… until ICBMs; Maginot Line was a good idea until… modern tanks and aircraft.

    Warfare had moved on from being static in WWI to being very mobile in WWII.

  • lucklucky

    Nah. That was only achieved somewhat by US Army. And British Army when it was small. For example most German Army was horse/rail bound.

  • What did not work was the rest of French army. At strategic level first mistake was sending the armies to Belgium. That should have been the manoeuvre element. (Eric, November 24, 2018 at 6:14 am)

    Moving into Belgium offered a shorter defence line (and a better start point for subsequent attack). It also added the Belgian army to the allied line, while protecting a useful part of the Belgian populace for it to recruit from and some of Belgian industry to support it. By refusing to allow the move before the Germans attacked, or even to plan effective coordination, the Belgians gave the allies two choices, both with disadvantages. Either they rushed forward into Belgium, or they invited the weakened, unsupported remnants of the Belgian army to join them on the Sambre while the Germans added Belgium’s industry to their war machine and Belgian aerodromes to the Luftwaffe’s range, etc.

    The allied plan was well devised to counter a rerun Schlieffen plan, which was very much what the German general staff had offered Hitler when he first demanded attack soon after the Polish campaign. During the repeated brief delays that Hitler ordered to the attack between then and May 1940, the allies were several times warned of imminent attack under this plan by anti-Hitler elements (especially in the Abwehr). Meanwhile, von Manstein converted Hitler to the idea of a very different plan, in which the original plan became not the real attack but what the Germans would pretend to do. Thus these anti-Hitler warnings of the first plan unintentionally helped the second. However the second very much depended on the Belgians keeping the allies out until the Germans attacked, and then begging the British and French forces to move forward as far and fast as they could.

    General Gamelin’s insistence on sending the French 7th army into Holland, thus leaving no mobile reserve at a crucial moment during the move forward, was the icing on the cake of a plan that was already well-designed to counter the first German plan – and for that reason already likely to fall into the second German plan’s trap.

  • Paul Marks

    As the film actually admits the Germans did need Belgian line of attack (as they used in 1914) the Germans broke through in the Ardennes region – via which France has been invaded many times.

    The film admits that Winston Churchill understood the danger of the Maginot line not covering the Ardennes region (after all his own ancestor had attacked France via the Ardennes – and in his book on his ancestor the Duke of M. I believe Winston Churchill mentions that the “impassable” Ardennes is actually a pleasant land of gentle hills and fairly open woodland) and that tanks could go through the region, and tried to warn the French in 1940 – but the film does not mention that the FRENCH had used tanks in the Ardennes region in their 1930s military exercises.

    Why the French ignored the results of their own military exercises I just do not know. I am ignorant of the reasons they ignored their own military exercises – but there must be a reason or reasons.

    By the way the sort of thing that the Duke of Marlborough did in the early 1700s would be impossible in the time of Winston Churchill – but the great FAULT of Churchill was that he never understood WHY this was so (the reason is NOT changes in technology).

    In the time of John Churchill (later Duke of Marlborough) a political leader (which is what John Churchill really was) could come up a daring plan (such as taking his army from covering Holland to the middle of Bavaria) – and had total power to do whatever he liked to carry out his plan, on the understanding that if it failed he was DEAD MAN (as his political enemies would have him executed on his return to Britain). The Roman principle of “do whatever you like – but you had better WIN, for if you lose we will KILL YOU” was understood in early 18th century Britain, but totally forgotten in 20th century Britain – where even the man who surrendered Singapore in 1942 could come home in 1945 without any fear of being publically hanged to entertain the public (as he would have been a couple of centuries before). “But it was not really his fault – there are these factors to consider….” – that would NOT have been accepted as a defence.

    By the 20th century a military and civil BUREAUCRACY had been created – a political leader could still come up with a daring plan (say – “if we force our way in here we can take Constantinople, knock the Ottomans and Bulgaria out of the war and relieve Russia”) but if that political leader then attempted to take personal command of the mission (which would have been the normal thing in the time of John Churchill) hanging or shooting anyone who disobeyed his orders, that political leader would have been thought stark-staring-mad (at least in Britain).

    Therefore the test of any British military plan in the 20th century had to be (and Winston Churchill never understood this) NOT “what could I achieve?” – but rather “what could this bunch of civilian and military bureaucrats achieve?” If a plan could not be achieved by THEM (the bureaucracy) then it is NOT a good plan – not in the 20th century.

    On the German side Mr Hitler could overrule his military and civilian bureaucracy (who were against the Ardennes plan) and order a “risk everything” approach – that was not possible on the Allied side.

    The Britain that had created the Empire was dead by the 20th century – PERHAPS Victorian morality (people would have been horrified by such things as Royal Navy sailors being BORN on the war ships – being the “son of a gun” as they spent their first months slung under a cannon, although removed during battles, indeed women of-easy-virtue aboard warships would have shocked the Victorians), and certainly LATE Victorian (and Edwardian) BUREAUCRACY, had killed it.

    Although, I must admit, by the LATE 18th century a commander who followed the principle of “do anything you like, as long as you WIN” would have come under the prosecution of Edmund Burke (dragged to the Bar of the House of Lords to explain all the dead civilians and so on) – and Mr Burke is a hero of mine, so I am very torn on all this.

  • Paul Marks

    Remember the fate of Admiral Byng – hanged for not destroying the enemy (very Roman).

    If General Cornwallis not had the Royal Navy to blame for his defeat (he found himself trapped between the Americans on land and the French at sea) and had the War of American Independence not been an unpopular one in some important circles in Britain, he might also have been in very serious trouble.

  • lucklucky

    Moving into Belgium offered a shorter defence line (and a better start point for subsequent attack).

    It is not a shorter defense line. Also it extends the supply lines.

  • lucklucky (November 24, 2018 at 8:51 pm), the planned line – north along the River Dyle to the coast – is shorter than north-west along the French/Belgian border. Belgium’s excellent road and rail network meant supply lines would not have been a problem.

    There was also Holland. The planned line included a small part of Holland. The hope was that the move forward, by concentrating German attention further south, would allow Dutch divisions to join the allied line in good order.

  • Paul Marks

    Of course the Ardennes mountains are not just “hills” – but they are not “impassable” either and (as I have pointed out) French military exercises showed that tanks could be moved through this area.

    It was a very narrow front – and the Germans had to keep moving (without rest) in order to be through the Ardennes (and back in formation for war) before there could be a response.

    According to the History Channel programme “Nazis on drugs” this was achieved by the German tank crews being on drugs and advancing (without rest) for three days straight.

    However, as the same programme also said that the Allied aircraft spotted the German tanks SEVERAL TIMES and the French high command just discounted the reports of their own aircraft – perhaps the Germans did not need to use the drugs.

    In Operation Market Garden (1944) the British ignored evidence of German tanks as well (which did not turn out well for the soldiers the British army then parachuted into Holland).

    The principle appears to be a subjective view of reality – namely “If I do not accept the tanks are there – they are not there”.

    Not good – but then there is the “Fog of War” lots of FALSE reports of enemy strength. The Union States General George McClennan was well know for falling for reports which overstressed the strength of Confederate forces. Assuming “there was a Rebel behind every tree, and every log was a Confederate cannon” – and General Lee (who got to know of McClennan’s paranoia) exploited this weakness.

    Although it should be pointed out that George McClennan killed a lot of Confederates – and his casualties were not as severe as other Union Generals. This was remembered by the men under his command – if not by unsympathetic historians. In nearly every engagement between General McClennan and General Lee it was GENERAL LEE who lost more men (and the South had far less men to lose in the first place).

    Even the famous story of General McClennan getting General Lee’s plans (wrapped round a bunch of cigars and found by change by a Union cavalry patrol) and yet assuming that the plans might well be a trap – and failing to exploit them to destroy the army of General Lee, can be read two ways.

    YES – sitting here, I (and anyone else) can destroy the army of General Robert E. Lee – but imagine yourself in a bitter war against a highly intelligent opponent. Some soldiers rush up to you “General, we have found Bobby Lee’s plans – where all his forces are, and what he plans to do! They were just left wrapped round some cigars!”

    Would you not have suspected a TRAP?

  • Albion's Blue Front Door

    Years ago I heard a criticism of the Maginot Line that all the guns merely faced towards Germany. Understandable enough, but once the enemy got behind the Line the forts were useless as the guns could not be turned round. Also, the retreating thousands of French troops in the forts apparently had few actual moveable weapons between them. I heard it said they had virtually no rifles when they fled.

  • Would you not have suspected a TRAP? (Paul Marks, November 24, 2018 at 11:40 pm

    There is no evidence General McClellan suspected anything of the kind. Later, he said, “I was satisfied with the genuineness of the order and made no further enquiries.” His slowness in reacting reflected his command style; Jackson would have had his men moving within the hour.

    (A more debated point is when Lee discovered that his orders had fallen into McClellan’s hands. Lee himself said he learnt of it “before daybreak” of the following day. I see the argument that Lee must have known by 10pm on the day it happened, based on an order Lee issued at that time, as not proven.)

    BTW, despite having Lee’s orders, McClellan lost more men than Lee at Antietam and at South Mountain, and of course the capture of the garrison at Harper’s Ferry meant the overall ratio of casualties in that campaign approached three-to-one in Lee’s favour. Given that the ratio of forces was more like three-to-one in McClellan’s favour, that was quite an achievement. In the prior Richmond campaign, Lee did indeed lose more men than McClellan while driving him away from the Confederate capitol, but the strategic victory was all Lee’s.

    It’s a very normal human faculty to be slow to accept brief information that contradicts an existing view of reality. (A reported psychology experiment in which subjects report when various lights flash says that some subjects are slower to report the flash of a light that very rarely flashes, as if wanting more information to believe something the experiment has taught them is very rare event.) The idea that the Ardennes were unsuited to army-level maneouvres began as an excuse for the failure of the French attack at the start of WWI and thus became enshrined in the minds of officers from that war who were senior commanders in the next one. So reports of tanks were not quickly believed. The same occurred when Soviet pilots reported a 12-mile panzer column moving on Yuknov at the start of October 1941. Beria ordered the first one interrogated for “spreading provocationist intelligence” and soviet army headquarters was very testy at the third confirming report. It was obviously impossible that the nazis could simply have obliterated the Moscow covering armies, so the intelligence couldn’t be true.

    In war, politics and similar, defeat can become worse from the human tendency to resist admitting how bad it already is in time to mitigate.

  • lucklucky

    Niall Kilmartin
    November 24, 2018 at 10:51 pm
    “lucklucky (November 24, 2018 at 8:51 pm), the planned line – north along the River Dyle to the coast – is shorter than north-west along the French/Belgian border. Belgium’s excellent road and rail network meant supply lines would not have been a problem.

    There was also Holland. The planned line included a small part of Holland. The hope was that the move forward, by concentrating German attention further south, would allow Dutch divisions to join the allied line in good order.”

    Yeah you are right, the French Belgian border have many salients so it is more distance.

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