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Wednesday, 22 January 2014

"To The Maginot Line" by Judith M. Hughes

Since the New Year, I have read this book, "To The Maginot Line" , subtitled "The Politics of French Military Preparation in the 1920's". The Author is Judith M. Hughes, published in 1971 by Harvard University Press, reissued as a paperback in 2006.

My reading of this book was prompted by a question on the website "The Miniatures Page" - the question was "Was the Maginot Line effective?". I bought the book a few years ago and gave it a cursory reading but this time I instructed myself "sit down and read this properly", which is what I have done and been well rewarded for the effort. The book is an expansion on Ms. Hughes' doctoral dissertation. She spent a year in Paris researching the subject and struggling with the French authorities, her acknowledgements contain the line "I remain unburdened by debts of gratitude to French officialdom". Ms Hughes was very fortunate in meeting some of the families of the great names in French history, including Madame Bécourt-Foch and Madame la Maréchale de Lattre de Tassigny (de Lattre was a young officer in the 1920's). Currently, she is Professor of History at UC San Diego.

Ms Hughes wrote about why the Maginot Line was built, about the formulation of that military strategy, the factors that went into the formulation and the inputs of military strategists and soldiers and of politicians who had to pay for the Line and then to justify it to the French public. The period covered is from the signing of the Peace Treaties in 1919 to the start of building in 1929/30.

The main topics in the book are population issues, strategy of forward defence, conscription, the Allies and the twin strategic defences.

The population of France in terms of actual numbers was of concern to many. In simple mathematical terms, the French nation of 40 million cannot hope to defeat 60 million Germans. Alsace and Lorraine and their populations were returned to France but the casualties in the War had been so high that the 1921 census still showed fewer males of military age than in 1911.  This was compounded by the birthrates of the two countries, France had been declining since the mid-19th century, Germany had been growing, so the German armed forces would be able to call on a higher proportion of young people. Add to this that Germany had a more industrialised economy with more heavy metal working companies.

Forward defence. In the Versailles negotiations the Allies demanded that part of Germany be occupied by them. This was the Rhineland, the left or West bank, that is the area between the River Rhine and the French, Belgian and Dutch borders with Germany. In addition, on the Right Bank there was to be 50 mile demilitarised bridgeheads and a neutral zone running all the way from Switzerland to Holland. The occupation was to last 15 years, until 1935, however by the mid-20's the Allies, particularly the British, were getting restless and wanted to be out of Germany.

Map of Rhine area in 1919, pinched from Wikipedia

Allies. Prior to World War One, the Allies were France, Russia and Britain. In 1919, Russia was out of the picture, the new Soviet government did not want to side with any capitalists. France tried to offset this loss by signing a Mutual Defence Treaty with Poland, but from the start there were doubts as to whether the French would send forces to Poland should they be invaded, as it turned out these doubts were justified. Meanwhile the British were reducing their armed forces back to pre-war levels. Should war with Germany start again, the British would need time to build, equip and train their forces as they had in 1915/16. The US Congress had not ratified the Versailles Treaties. Many in France believed they would be alone in any new war for some time.

Conscription. There was considerable political pressure to reduce the period of national service. In 1913 the period had been increased to three years. By 1928 it was reduced to one year. As the planned expansion in the number of career soldiers did not happen, the number of active soldiers fell. French imperial commitments also drained the number of available troops. In the 1920's there were uprisings in Syria and Morocco and West Africa which drew troops away from Metropolitan France. In addition, the mid-thirties would be hollow years, when the effects of World War One casualties would seriously depress the number of young men available for national service.

Twin strategy. The easiest invasion routes from Germany were those taken in 1870, through Alsace and Lorraine. Another concern of the French High Command was the Attaque Brusquée. One day, Germany would rearm and reintroduce conscription to build her armed forces. They may launch a surprise attack across the River Rhine. So Alsace-Lorraine with its industrial base had to be defended on their border with Germany. The French realised this would greatly increase the likelihood of a German attack through Belgium (the Belgians realised this as well and were not pleased). Not to be outflanked the French devised a strategy for a motorised advance into Belgium.

All these factors were considered. The solution the French arrived at was a line of fixed fortifications (the future Maginot Line) supported by a move into Belgium if required, to buy time, to stall the Germans and give principally the British time enough to raise their armed forces and join the fighting.

This was a very good book, lots of very high level military strategy and politics. I found it to be fascinating, I am still thinking about the ideas in the book, trying to understand then and to see the ramifications.

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