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


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