In the 1920s, determined to avoid a repeat of the kind of slaughter witnessed in the trenches around Verdun, which bled out a good proportion of its male population, the French government established CORF, the Commission d’Organisation des Régions Fortifiées, to create an impregnable network of border fortresses facing Germany.
The Maginot Line was designed t o prevent a German breakthrough in the areas covered (mainly the Franco-German border between Belgium and Switzerland) and to funnel a German offensive to the North or South, while giving the French mobile army time to move up.
In a second phase in the 1930s, attempts were made to plug the gap facing Luxembourg and Belgium, but ran out of money or came too late before the onset of World War II.
When the German attack did come, modern fortresses like Eben-Emael in Belgium proved vulnerable to directly targeted airborne and commando assault. However, contrary to oft-quoted popular belief, the French forts did not fall to simple attack from behind after being encircled via the North, when the French high command, thinking France safe behind massive concrete walls, blithely disregarded the threat of attack through the Low Countries.
The Franco-Belgian border was fortified – just inadequately as it turned out, and the French in 1940 did advance into the Netherlands to attempt to counter the German invasion. But due to poor planning and execution, coupled with German surprise, this pre-emptive move to the North-East was ineffective in stopping the Wehrmacht.
Nor was the German attack a cakewalk, as is often suggested – the French army, despite a comparative lack of mobile tactics and poor air-ground coordination, managed to put credible dents in the German offensive, such as in the impressive armored counterattack at Stonne – where it was shown that none of the German armor in service, and little in the way of anti-tank weaponry, could effectively counteract the heavy French armor in the form of the Char B1 or SOMUA S35.
But break through the Germans did, decisively cutting the badly deployed French mobile forces to shreds in late May and June of 1940, cutting South behind the massive fortifications of the Maginot Line. Some of these were captured by German assault tactics similar to those used at Eben-Emael, but most either succeeded in stopping localized German attacks or were simply sabotaged and abandoned by their garrisons after it turned out that further resistance was pointless, and that the intended mobile reinforcements were no longer to be found anywhere. None of the major fortresses were ever taken, from the rear or otherwise.
We spent an entire morning searching for something worthwhile to look at; most of our list of targets was flooded, destroyed, or stripped of equipment. One enterprising farmer had installed electrical pumps in a heavily swamped bunker network under his fields, using the constant ingress of water as a source of free irrigation. A sad little plaque at the entrance to this installation commemorated the site’s only casualty, a French soldier with the dumb luck to catch a chunk of shrapnel through the eye while looking out of a tiny observation slit. Bad luck, bud.
And then, after hours of stomping through shit-filled cow fields, fighting through brambles, and banging around nearly impassible forest and farm roads past suspiciously leering locals, we hit the jackpot.
This particular “gros ouvrage”, or great works, is a larger example of the more complicated fortresses to be found in the Northern and central sections of the Maginot Line. It consists of separate crew and supplies entrances, relying on a kilometers-long underground narrow gauge rail network to ferry personnel, munitions, and equipment between various bunkers.
An elaborate system of overhead shell hauling rails connects local magazines to elevators, and the numerous retractable turrets of 75mm and 135mm cannon provided interlocking fields of fire, being locally protected by machine gun casemates. The entire system is a vast rat’s warren of crew quarters, workshops, storage bunkers, connecting tunnels, and many, many long flights of stairs winding the 30+ meters upwards between the main underground level and the various combat posts.
Most of the site, remarkably, was still reasonably intact, despite the depredations of cable thieves – at least they had had the courtesy to knock through several layers of heavy steel barriers welded over the entrance we’d previously thought sealed, as well as a secondary interior wall of concrete blocks.
We even got one of the old hauling carts working; unfortunately, after almost 7 hours of putzing around in just one fortress, following close on the heels of another 6 comparatively fruitless hours of searching for something good and with none of us having slept more than a few hours the night before, we didn’t manage to check out the supposedly nicely preserved workshops or ammunition entrance.
The whole damn thing was in the middle of a godforsaken plot of forest, making you feel at least somewhat sorry for the poor guys stuck underground for months at a time. Because everyone knows that German spies have dashing pencil mustaches and are busy sexing up strippers in Parisian cafés – and the nearby village definitely did not appear to have either cafés or strippers.
There are other large fortresses, some of which are much better preserved than this one, but the rusting gun mechanisms and machinery made for some good photography nonetheless; among the human touches remaining are murals and workplace safety posters from the 1930s, plus a decaying fresco in what must have been the crew chapel.
Check out Defender’s excellent pictures (many of mine are similar to his, since we spent a significant amount of time shouting OOH OOH OOH LOOK AT THIS OOH OOH OOH and setting up our tripods next to each other for the same shot) at noplaceto.be.