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…