The Maginot Line and the Evacuation of Paris Part III: How Did It Work Out?


On September 13, 1939, the Allied forces declared war on Germany. The French people had been told with confidence that they would be triumphant, that the Maginot Line would succeed, and that the Germans would be swiftly overpowered. The evacuation plans put into place were either seen as adequate or unnecessary. During the Phony War, the period marked by a lack of hostilities that occurred from the initial declaration of war in September 1939 to the actual beginning of the Battle of France in May 1940, a number of events occurred that made it clear to the French government that the evacuation plans had serious problems.

For the most part, France was not enthusiastic about this war. Memories from WWI as well as the many scarred and wounded veterans that could be seen daily served as reminders to what sort of bloodbath could be expected. Politically, the war was unpopular. The Communists had begun speaking against the war since the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The Socialists had little unity on support for the war. The right had a very defeatist attitude, and at sometimes blatant Nazi sympathies. To keep the public interested, the government ramped up propaganda, echoing the anti-“boche” message of WWI and highlighting the destruction caused by the Nazis at Guernica and Poland. The result of this was that while advocating the invincibility of the Maginot Line, the government also reminded France that the Germans were horrific monsters that could strike at any time. [2] Following the initial declaration of war, roughly 550,000 Parisians left, expecting horrific air raids would strike Paris the next day. One Parisian, Georgette Guillot, wrote that “When war broke out we thought that Paris would be pulverized the very next day, that clouds of gas would kill us, and none of that happened”.  It appeared that these people evacuated for no reason, as no German offensive occurred. Of course this is great; if a German air raid would have occurred there would have been widespread panic in Paris. This first evacuation, although initially viewed as a folly, demonstrated to the government some serious flaws in Paris’s evacuation plan. Many of the problems with the plan are still problems with disaster planning today. For instance, disaster situations can exacerbate existing social equalities, and hit more vulnerable populations more seriously.

In times of disaster women and children have been particularly vulnerable, and lower class women and children experience persistent unemployment, homelessness, or domestic violence following a disaster. This can be seen during the evacuation of refugees, where many female refugees on the road were victims of sexual assault and rape.  The French government itself targeted children under 14 and pregnant women as the most vulnerable populations that needed to be evacuated.

            Originally, nothing was planned specifically for pregnant women, mothers, those with children, let alone for the working class people or emigrant populations in the lower socioeconomic classes. In fact, making arrangements for evacuation was largely left to the individual’s discretion. They could follow the official plan, and were eligible to 10 francs a week in benefits, and a further 6 francs for each child they were with, so long as they went to their proper host department and followed official plans for evacuation.   If a Parisian wanted to leave for their department before the rush, or to a more preferable destination (relatives in some other department, or more comfortable lodgings), they were free to do so. In fact, the government actively encouraged them to secure their own arrangements for evacuation, and to leave immediately in case of an airstrike.  People who wanted to beat the rush, or not follow the official plan were not eligible for benefits, and were dependent on their own financial resources to secure lodging and transportation. As a result, only the populations able to take the financial burden could leave and those in the more vulnerable lower socioeconomic classes either had to pool their resources to leave, or had to stay put.

            To their credit, the government had made arrangements for children of Paris before September 13, 1939. In the summer of 1939, close to 15,000 children were already away from Paris at one of France’s many summer camps. On August 25, 1939, as war seemed more and more likely, the government asked these camps to extend their operating period beyond the initial closing date of September 15-20. Only children already enrolled in these camps enjoyed the extended holiday. The government made plans at the end of August to extend protection to children not within these camps, and encouraged Parisian teachers and municipal councils to organize the evacuation of another 30,000 children, aged 6-14, from Paris. This early evacuation effort had mixed results.  In some cases, it worked very well. For example, the suburb of Suresnes had only 820 of its 4600 students remaining at the end of October.

On the other hand, many families had difficulties withdrawing their children from Paris. Families who were unable to send their children to camp, families who’s children fell outside of the plan’s age range, or families whose local schools and municipal councils were not participating in the evacuation effort, had to find their own means to move their children. Only those with the means, such as financial resources or family in the outer provinces were able to take the precaution of sending children away. Others struggled to find a school or a camp willing to take their children, as many of these institutions, fearing overcrowding, limited availability to students from certain departments. 

Evacuation efforts outside of Paris also had their issues. Although the evacuation of Strassbourg had been a success, a few problems arose with the evacuation of other towns along the Maginot line. Many of the people evacuated from this area faced long uncomfortable trips in goods cars, and were unhappy with arrangements in host departments upon arriving. Also, the high proportion of industrial workers in these areas offered a problem to the mostly rural hosts. The hosts lacked large amounts of their agricultural workforce due to mobilization, and newly arrived factory workers could not offer their services and made poor replacements for the badly needed agricultural workers. Eventually, relationships broke down between these two populations, and hosts resented the presence of newcomers and viewed them as lazy and useless


The Maginot Line and the Evacuation of Paris Part II: What DID They Plan For?

Although government and military officials were happy to tout the Maginot Line as impenetrable, past experiences had taught them that it would be worth making plans for evacuations of French cities. In 1918, nearly 2 million French refugees had fled from German occupied areas. Paris was under siege by Prussia in 1870, and the city had been hit by bombs in the Great War. Yet Paris survived these attacks, and they had occurred before the border had been fortified by the Maginot Line, which Paris was very far away from. Thus, the government saw no serious need for a comprehensive evacuation plan for Paris or areas far away from the Maginot Line, as it appeared that they were not seriously threatened.  Instead, discussions for a planned evacuation during the mid-1930’s focused on populations in the North of France, the South East along Italy’s border, and along the Maginot Line, especially in Alsace-Lorraine. These areas were in close proximity to combat zones and were the most threatened by an invasion. By 1938, this region had a concrete evacuation plan, and departments (similar to a state, a department is a sub level political unit comprising of one area of France)  had predetermined destinations to host departments, although many in Alsace-Lorraine, used to the threat of invasion, took the initiative to leave before plans were put into place or a declaration was made to evacuate. For the most part, evacuation in this area was successful. Strasbourg for instance, evacuated 250,000 inhabitants to Perigueux in just one day and by Sept 3, the city appeared deserted.

Outside of the most threatened areas, preparations for an invasion and for an evacuation were underdeveloped or nonexistent. Not only were these areas far removed from the Maginot Line, but such plans seemed to run counter to the government and military’s stance and appeared defeatist in nature. The military’s strategy was to keep Germans out of French territory, and evacuation plans would suggest that the government lacked faith in the strategy as well as the Maginot Line in repelling an invasion. Arved Arenstam, a Latvian political correspondent located in Paris at the time, described the situation:

“The Maginot Line is a wonderful narcotic. ‘They’ll never cross the Maginot Line’ is a phrase that has become a national axiom…Generally speaking the mentality of the World War prevails. Germany will be starved out. Something or other is bound to happen, and Germany will be defeated. What is that something? Nobody knows-nobody tries to define it. But no one believes for a moment that France could possibly lose the war.”

Instead, the government and media prepared the French population for certain victory. The Maginot Line was impenetrable, and the invincible French army, with its wise leadership, would beat back any German attack. The effect of this was that populations were under prepared for an evacuation, as the military collapse and true nature of the disaster were hidden by the media. For instance, after Germany’s crossing of the river Meuse and success in Belgium and Northern France, the people of France were reminded that this correlated to the events of 1914, as well as to the strategies of the victorious WWI officers still in charge. The image of France’s military superiority was shown off even after the German’s defied the Maginot Line and the rough terrain of the Ardennes, even after floods of terrified refugees and retreating soldiers began to stream into Paris. On May 24th 1940 Prime Minister Paul Reynaud proclaimed that “France has been invaded a hundred times and never beaten… our belief in victory is intact.”

Following the events of 1870 and WWI, the French government was aware that Paris might not be safe from all forms of attack. For instance, the examples of Guernica   and Poland highlight the destruction that a German air raid could cause. Yet the government was rather uncertain as to how effective such a raid would be getting to Paris. Ultimately, plans enacted were no more comprehensive than those in 1870 and WWI, leading many to believe that once again, Paris will come out of this conflict just fine. The plans also reflected the government’s uncertainty. A few bomb shelters were constructed and some of the more obvious monuments were protected, and a fairly impractical preliminary evacuation plan was drawn up.

The preliminary plan for the Department of Seine, which includes Paris and its suburbs, was the arrondisement plan. Paris was already split into arrondisement, which were similar to boroughs. Each arrondisement, and any suburb near a particular arrondisement, was designated to one of twelve host departments. These host departments would provide for the refugees of their predetermined arrondisement in case of an evacuation. The plan was very simple, and hastily thrown together with few considerations for the makeup of Paris.

For instance, the plan did not take into consideration the rural origins of many Parisians. Many Parisians had come from rural backgrounds, or were one generation away from a rural community, and nothing prevented them from staying with family rather than their designated department. Along the same lines, it wasn’t considered what would happen if Parisians in general went to somewhere other than their host departments, or what would occur if they tried to return to Paris. Also, Paris was largest city in France, and it was not considered how well the host departments could accommodate this large population. Also, based on the spirit and memory of the Miracle of the Marne, it was presumed that Paris would have the capabilities to transport its large population at once. The plan was underdeveloped; it was meant to be. Military and government authorities saw comprehensive evacuation plans of large cities as bad idea which would harm morale, and preference was given to plans on how to protect these cities from attack. Besides, the existence of a plan, even if it was premature, created the illusion that Paris would be ready in case of an attack.

The evacuation plans of Paris and the most threatened regions also overlooked a number of issues of French society. For one, nearly an entire generation of French males had died during WWI. This high number of casualties coupled with a low birth rate during the Inter War years meant that France was facing a demographic crisis at the outset of the war; they had a shortage of young males. As a result, the government had to call up a wider age range for soldiers, leaving a large portion of the French population without husbands or fathers. The evacuation plans did not mention how to assist these wives and mothers, most of who were of working class origins, who would single-handedly have to come up with the means to evacuate their children and any elderly or sick relatives. Also, the government struggled to find a balance between th0e manpower needs of the military with what would be necessary to keep key industries operating. The government had to place many of the specially designated workers exempt from mobilization in Paris, where most of the factories that produced for the war were located. This meant that these workers would have to be considered into the evacuation plan, and also that it would need to be calculated how many workers could evacuate without crippling the war effort. Paris also had a substantial emigrant population, many of whom were Jewish refugees that had fled from the Nazis and added to the already thriving Parisian Jewish population. In the event of a , these populations would have been the most at risk, but they received no special provision for evacuation. Instead, the Jewish and non-French peoples in Paris faced attacks due to Fifth Column suspicions, and were interned based on these suspicions.

The Maginot Line and the Evacuation of Paris Part I: The Maginot Huh?

Shifting gears from the ;last post, I drag you now from the Ancient Rome to just last century with a look at France’s preparation for WWII.NOTE: This topic will require a few lengthy posts to cover, so this is the first installment in a series. I may have to do the same with my “How everyone nearly made the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century worse” research.

On June 14, Nazi tanks rolled into the mostly evacuated city of Paris. Some Parisians had gotten lucky and were able to secure transportation to safety, but most Parisians had to take to the road, where they faced an exhausting trip, often on foot, in the hot summer sun and terrorizing attacks from the air. Many faced animosity based on their sex or ethnicity. Their destinations struggled to accommodate for the flood of people pouring in, and often did not have sufficient food and lodging to help the Parisians who had become refugees in their own country. Worst of all, these refugees had no certainty if they would ever see their home again Unbelievably, this wasn’t the worst case scenario. The French government had an evacuation plan in place that had achieved mixed success in the past, and the Parisians who suffered on the road had followed that plan. The plan had serious flaws, and events during the Phony War made the government aware of these flaws. Yet the government either was unable to find a politically acceptable solution for the plan’s problems or took actions that exacerbated existing problems. French military planning since WWII, mainly the Maginot Line needs to be examined to understand why the government had such an inadequate plan in place.

The Maginot Line was string of armed fortifications that ran along France’s Eastern frontier. This Line ran from the Swiss border to Longwy, near the Luxembourg border, with military installations at regular intervals. Ultimately, these armed concrete and steel structures would repel any attempt at German invasion. For all practical purposes, the Line ended at Sedan, near Belgium’s Ardennes. The Line didn’t cover Belgium for a number of reasons. For instance, the area was seen as outside of France’s responsibility and Belgium’s declaration of neutrality in 1936 made it diplomatically impossible to expand the Maginot Line. The rough terrain of the Ardennes made a German invasion there unlikely. Also, leaving the Belgium border open would mean that a German invasion would have to go through Belgium, which would act as a speed bump, giving France enough time to mobilize its army.

It’s easy to scoff at the Maginot Line now. The structures lacked mobility in every sense, so if the Line was ever broken, it would be impossible to regroup and reform. The Maginot Line was extremely expensive, and as military spending was cut during the 20’s and early 30’s, funding had to be diverted away from programs, like the development of airplanes and tanks, to fund the construction of the Line, which would take over a decade to build and still wouldn’t be finished by the declaration of war in 1939. Also, the Belgium border was a major gap, and the strategy that Belgium would buy time for France underestimated the capabilities of Germany. At the time it was proposed and constructed, the Maginot Line was a solution that most everyone agreed with.

As France entered the 1920’s, its Eastern frontier had been invaded by Germany twice in the past 50 years, and after the carnage of WWI something had to be done to ensure that it would never happen again. André Maginot, the Minister of War at the time and a wounded veteran of the war, proclaimed:“Whatever form a new war may take, whatever part is taken in it by aviation, by gas, by the different destructive processes of modern warfare, there is one imperious necessity, and that is to prevent the violation of our territory by enemy armies. We all know the cost of invasion, with its sad procession of material ruin and moral desolation.”

The experts, scientists, and the officer corps, especially Marshal Pétain, had all come to the conclusion that the best way to prepare for an invasion was to prepare for another World War One. The concrete structure would hold out, just like it had in the past war, and would hold back any German invasion. The Maginot Line would be equipped with a modern arsenal and firepower would be used defensively, wearing down invaders before they stepped foot on French soil. The Maginot Line certainly had critics, such as Charles de Gaulle who felt that France was putting too much faith in the Maginot Line and should invest more in the development of tanks and planes. 

The Maginot Line seemed to address so many problems.France had experienced a demographic nightmare, having lost almost an entire generation of young males as well as seeing a frighteningly low birth rate in the 20’s and 30’s. This combined with drained finances and a political trends pushing for cuts in military spending and service time meant that France’s army was going to be significantly smaller than it had been in the past. Fortunately, the Maginot Line could be manned by a relatively small number of soldiers. Also, the Maginot Line provided protection for the key industries in the Eastern frontier. Those that doubted the Line would rest assured knowing that the designers had tricked out the Line with every conceivable weapon and defense mechanism which would quash any attempted invasion. In other words, the Maginot Line was impenetrable.

Or so they thought…

The Great Fire: How Roman Senators Got What They Paid For


  In the summer of 69 A.D., Emperor Nero left Rome to go to his palace in Anzio. Summers in Rome were unbearable hot, and Anzio seemed like another country. On July 19th,  Nero and his entourage were enjoying themselves, when a messenger came to inform Nero that a fire broke out.

This wasn’t big news. Rome had a chronic problem with fires.

In fact, just a century and a half prior, the Roman firefighting force, the Vigiles , were not even a concept. In fact, one of the members of the first Triumvirate, Crassus, had a made a fortune by filling this void with a private firefighting corps. Crassus’s men would show up at the scene of a fire, then , instead of putting it out right away, they would bargain for an acceptable price for their services. If no price was agreed upon , the fire was allowed to burn the buildings to the ground.

Augusts Caesar improved upon this idea with the creation of the Vigiles in 6 A.D. This force would patrol the streets for fires and crime. In the event of a fire, the Vigiles would put it out with bucket brigades (so long as there was water) or dismantle buildings with poles and hooks to stop the advance of the flames.

It’s great that they had responders. But this was only because Rome had serious enough problems where fire was a constant threat. The city was filthy and most buildings made from cheap, easily flammable material. This problem would only get worse in the summer heat.

This was to be no ordinary fire. Starting somewhere around the Circus Maximus, the great stadium which by this point was made of cheap, low quality wood, the fire soon spread to the neighboring shops and warehouses, which fueled the flames further.

The fire didn’t discriminate either. The rampaged the chic Esquiline district, which housed much of the patrician class and Senators. The fire hit the poorest neighborhoods hardest though. These neighborhoods were also home to many immigrants. The sound of buildings crashing down, and screams of terror in many languages made effective communication impossible for Vigiles.

After 1 or 2 more messengers, Nero realized the city was in danger. He quickly gathered up his entourage and returned to Rome, where he was actually very heroic. Day after day, unescorted, Nero went to decimated districts to help in the response. He joined searches for missing, transported victims out of the city, provided food and shelter, and even opened his private garden to refugees, Also, he promised to take care and to rebuild Rome (nearly 70% of the city was destroyed), which he started almost immediately. He included fire preparedness features in his designs, such as setting height restrictions for tenement buildings, widening the streets (a number of people were trampled), and installed water reservoirs for the Vigiles. He also reimbursed landowners who had to build the expensive porticoes in front of their buildings and rewarded expedient builders.

Contrary to popular belief, Nero didn’t play violin while Rome burned. If not for the simple fact that violin wasn’t invented yet (but Nero did love to play lute) then because Nero was unpopular enough that such rumors were easy to spread. Nero’s popularity and public image issues were already damaged by a number of factors.

First, Nero wanted to rebuild Rome before the fire. Fire was such a problem, and the city was so filthy, that Nero was ashamed that he didn’t reside in a sleek, safe, modern city. Efforts had been made in the past to fix the cities fire problem.

Half a century earlier , Augustus Caesar had decreed that buildings shouldn’t exceed 70 feet, due to the threat they posed during fires.. During fires, buildings came tumbling to the ground, and the dense populations and state of such buildings created additional hazards. Due to a rapidly growing population, the decree was forgotten or blatantly skirted by landlords. As the population swelled into the millions, greedy landlords built 7 to 8 story buildings, which were poorly constructed eyesores that lacked basic amenities like access to water. They were bunched close together, and the fire could hop from building to building quite quickly.

Nero wanted a new city, but the Senate said no. Many senators had made money as landlords, and they saw these changes as targeting them. The Senator who were landlords were afraid they would be expected to share the cost. The Senate’s veto was publicly known, and it fed a dirty rumor that Nero started the fire to get a city.

Also, the Emperor seemed like the kind of guy who would play lute during the fire. He was a patron of the arts, and saw himself as a great artist. He also seemed like a man who would start the fire. He had come to the throne by killing his stepbrother. He had banished and executed his first wife. He even killed his mother.

Plus, history hasn’t been kind to Nero, and historians were biased by his sheer unpopularity. The Great Fire was well documented by Tacitus who was only 9 at time of fire) and Suetonius who was born several years after the fire) and both show a clear bias against Nero. There are accounts of Nero taking a music break while fighting the fires though.

The Emperor’s biggest problem was that he couldn’t control his own public image, and he wasn’t above spreading false information. Accurate information is vital during disasters, and false info, whether spread maliciously or accidentally can be damaging. I’m reminded of 2011 Japanese earthquake and Tsunami, when tweets for assistance were repeated even after the victims were rescued, causing confusion for first responders.

When rumors of his role in the fire finally reached Nero, he panicked and had a major public info flub by passing the buck onto someone else. In this case, the Christians. Nearly 1000 Christians would be executed after the false accusation of starting the fire. Nero was a poor judge of mood of his people. Despite being a disliked minority, Romans were disgusted by the grotesque executions.

Nero handled the turn in  public opinion poorly, mainly by nearly bankrupting the city in rebuilding his palace. He also went  on vacation to Greece when the city was almost on the verge of famine due to the bankruptcy. The public rioted. The provinces refused to recognize his authority. The Senate, generals, and the Praetorian Guard were prepared for a coup. All the while, Nero was performing in Greek plays and pretending to be a great artist in Greece. The role of government no longer concerned him.

Nero would eventually commit suicide to avoid being murdered. Let his death serve as a warning to those who don’t cultivate good channels of communication during disasters. Although he was heroic during the response to the fire, and advocated fixing the structural hazards in town, he was a bloody and arrogant man, who was not concerned with being (or at least appearing as ) a good governor. Still, he leaves a legacy in the sleek and clean new city which can still be seen in modern Rome.

Welcome to Not the worst blog ever

Throughout history, people have had to deal with moments of crisis. Earthquakes. Invasion. Famine. Floods. Terrorism.

In many ways, you’re reading this today because someone or some government body was able to handle an emergency well.

Sometimes, emergencies aren’t handled well. France’s poorly planned evacuation when Germany invaded during WWII. Tsar Nicholas held feasts while the rest of Russia was in the middle of famine. Numerous cholera epidemics in the 19th century Europe were testing grounds for what today seem like crazy medical practices.

Disasters, public emergencies, and crisis test governments. They also shed light on clear strengths and weaknesses of a state. Many times, despite clear issues, governments succeed in meeting the challenges of an emergency.

This blog is about the times when governments fail in their efforts to prevent, respond, or recover from a serious emergency.

If you are an emergency manager who takes lessons from the past, a pessimist historian, someone who loves to hate government, or just someone who want to hear about the Hudson Bay Company’s handling of famine, this blog is for you.