This French line of defense was constructed along the country’s border with Germany during the 1930s and named after Minister of War André Maginot. It primarily extended from La Ferté to the Rhine River, though sections also stretched along the Rhine and the Italian frontier. The main fortifications on the northeast frontier included 22 large underground fortresses and 36 smaller fortresses, as well as blockhouses, bunkers and rail lines. Despite its strength and elaborate design, the line was unable to prevent an invasion by German troops who entered France via Belgium in May 1940.
The Maginot line was named after Andre Maginot (1877-1932), a politician who served in World War I until wounded in November 1914. He used crutches and walking sticks for the remainder of his life. While serving after World War I as France’s minister of war and then as president of the Chamber of Deputies’ Army Commission, he helped complete plans for the defensive line along the northeastern frontier and obtain funds to build it.
The main fortifications of the Maginot line extended from La Ferte (thirty kilometers east of Sedan) to the Rhine River, but fortifications also stretched along the Rhine and along the Italian frontier. The fortifications on the northeast frontier included twenty-two huge underground fortresses and thirty-six smaller fortresses, as well as many blockhouses and bunkers. The French placed most of their largest fortresses in the northeast because of their desire to protect the large population, key industries, and abundant natural resources located near the Moselle valley.
The first attack by the Germans against the Maginot line itself occurred on May 16, 1940, and was directed against the isolated fortifications at La Ferte on the extreme western tip of the line. The Germans managed to capture the casemates only after four days of hard fighting, and with the support of large amounts of heavy artillery and high-velocity 88-mm fire. Despite the use of massive force, the Germans failed to capture a single major fortress before the armistice on June 25. Though designed to withstand attacks from Germany, the Maginot line fortresses could be defended against attacks from the rear; consequently, the Americans had no easy task fighting their way through the line in 1944-1945.
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The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.