January 07, 2020

Maginot Line

January 7 is the anniversary of the 1932 death of André Maginot. Sadly, dying after eating bad oysters was just the start of his unfortunate legacy.

n. a line of fortifications along the frontier of France from Switzerland to Luxembourg, begun in the 1920s as a defense against German invasion and widely considered impregnable, but outflanked in 1940
n. in extended use, indicating a preoccupation with defense (of the status quo, etc.), or with a particular means of defense
—Oxford English Dictionary

Though French foreign minister André Maginot did not live to witness its naming or its inability to withstand the German invasion in World War II, he will forever be associated with one of the greatest military failures in history—the Maginot Line.

Born in Paris in 1877, Maginot advanced through the political landscape to become the French undersecretary of war in 1913. Had it not been for the outbreak of World War I, Maginot might likely have led a quiet bureaucratic life drinking wine and eating cheese. As it was, Maginot quickly enlisted, distinguished himself in combat, and was promoted to sergeant. He was badly wounded in the leg during the defense of Verdun and received France’s highest military honor for his bravery—the médaille militaire—but his experience of a German invasion stayed with him for life.

The French truly took a glove to the face in World War I, and after the war there were fewer young Frenchmen, fewer French babies, and a national sense of dread that a future war might be devastating. So France decided to start nesting. After becoming the minister of war in 1922, Maginot began supporting a plan to build a fortified wall, almost two hundred miles long, along France’s eastern border from Switzerland to Belgium. He successfully argued that it was a better investment to focus on static defense than modern armor and aircraft. It took four more years to secure funding, but construction finally began in 1930. Sadly, Maginot fell ill after an unsuccessful skirmish with tainted oysters and died of typhoid fever in January 1932 (see also Typhoid Mary). Even though he had not conceived of the idea and was not responsible for its actual design (see also guillotine), the French decided to name the fortification after their fallen hero.

The Maginot Line was actually a series of self-sufficient forts dug deep into the ground, interspersed with machine gun posts, tank obstacles, and “pillbox” bunkers. The line was never truly intended as an impregnable defense, only to provide advance warning against a surprise attack. Unfortunately, its construction in the 1930s fostered a false sense of security, and, in 1940, German tanks entered France relatively easily by circumventing the line to the north and entering through the Belgian forests. To be fair to the hapless French, the Germans did also use high-tech gliders and explosives to break through the Belgian line, and the French forts on the line proper did hold. But the subsequent German roughshod run over the French countryside and the fall of Paris within a month led to a lamentable legacy for Maginot and his beloved line.

France constructed a monument to Maginot near Verdun in 1966. Several structures along the Maginot Line were auctioned off to the public in 1969, but the rest lie in decay to this day.