Fixed Plans and Obsolescence – The Story of the Maginot Line

WWI, Trench Warfare and the Building of the Maginot Line

A key feature of World War I (28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918) was the tragic fighting under conditions called trench warfare. In trench warfare opposing sides dig long lines of trenches from which they face their enemies and periodically launch attacks. Trench warfare had been used in earlier wars, in particular the American Civil war. However, the scale of this form of warfare during WWI had never been experienced before. Millions of soldiers, primarily Germans on one side and the French and British on the other side faced each other across trenches that stretched from the North Sea in the west to France’s border with Switzerland east.

At the end of WWI, the French became (rightly) obsessed with developing a way through which they could defend against German aggression. From 1929 onwards, the French began constructing a series of fortifications built along France’s border with Germany. This was called the Maginot Line, named after André Maginot, the French war minister in the 1920s. Its objective was to allow the French to slow down any surprise invasion by the Germans and provide a solid defense against which the French could repel the Germans.

France spent an enormous amount of money on this project which took ten years to complete. Its greatest proponents were the generals, including Marshal Pétain, who were in charge of the French army during WWI.

The Results of the Maginot Mentality

Military historian, John Keegan, said that many of the older generals in France succumbed to the Maginot mentality which resulted in Germany easily invading and defeating the French at the start of WWII. There were three facets to this failed mindset.

Trench Warfare

The Maginot Line was based on premises that trench warfare would continue to be the way armies battled in the future. In trench warfare, defenders held an advantage and could, in theory, repulse an enemy indefinitely. Not everyone was so blinkered. Younger officers, led by (then) Colonel Charles de Gaulle, repeatedly pointed out that this almost complete focus on defense was highly risky. New technologies, especially in armored forces like tanks and fighter aircraft, meant that more attention and resources should be made available for mobile forces.

The old guard in France resisted strongly and dismissed de Gaulle’s entreaties. Stuck in a mindset that was twenty years old, Pétain and his comrades believed in the inviolability of the Maginot Line. It was thought to be “impermeable.”

Organization

This rigid adherence to an old strategy was not limited to just the Maginot Line. The German army had been organized in a simplified manner. There were only a few layers between army groups and the top, and importantly, this allowed the airforce (Luftwaffe) and the army to easily cooperate. In contrast, the French army had more complicated chains of command, and the British Expeditionary Force in Europe had an even more complicated structure, reporting on the ground to a French General and politically to the British cabinet.

In his superb book “The Second World War,” Keegan writes that “personal failings compounded structural deficiencies. French and British generals were old and weary, based their analysis on the result of WWI, and were overconfident that they would defeat the Germans again. Keegan writes that when Winston Churchill visited the French armies, he was” struck by the prevailing atmosphere of calm aloofness, by the seemingly poor quality of work in hand, and by the lack of visible activity of any kind.”

Tactics

When Germany finally invaded France in May 1940, they surrounded and cut off French and British forces by driving their Panzer (tank) divisions through the Ardennes Forest. In his book “Brave Genius,” Sean Carroll recounts how at a French Senate hearing in 1934, the French Marshal Pétain was asked about the possibility of an invasion through the Ardennes. Pétain replied, ‘It is impenetrable. We consider it a zone of destruction. The enemy could not commit himself there. This sector is not dangerous [to us].”

The Germans had fewer such mental blocks and their tanks easily surprised the French who never imagined a route through the Ardennes.

Lessons to Remember

A fixed strategy and an over-reliance on rigid, older thought processes can be fatal in all aspects of life. This applies as much to military strategy as to business. Time and time again companies and individuals forget these important lessons. Obsolescence starts in the mind and one must always be aware of risks from a 360-degree angle.

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

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