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To the Maginot Line Review

Updated on May 17, 2019

It has been some time since the 1970s, but there still remain some books from the era which continue to guard their lustre and appeal about the subject of the Fall of France, above all else the magisterial To Lose a Battle by Alister Horne. Perhaps it was a decade, thirty years after the end of the Second World War, that the events of 1940 were starting to join the normality of history, something which could be examined rationally and scientifically, while at the same time being close enough to the writer and to the audience that it was still something deeply poignant, real, touching, not yet grown cold, stale, dead, with the ineluctable passage of time which wears down memory, which despite its panache and brilliance is no match for the grim and somber march of destiny. The 1970s are also the origin decade of this book, To the Maginot Line, focused upon French military and political decision making on defense matters in the 1920s, where decisions made set the stage for the disastrous 1930s in France. It aims to discover why the French made the decisions that they did, what the impact was.

The first chapter covers the tremendous losses sustained by the French during the First World War, in principally casualty terms. Immediate problems facing the army also receive their due, with the need to reduce its numbers at the end of the war, and its burden on the country - something agreed on by both the right and the left in French politics, despite the attachment of the French right to the honor of the military. To secure security the French hoped to gain the Rhineland, but their hopes would be dashed in the peace settlement.

In the second chapter, the problems related to planning for security are discussed. Here, the French military had a variety of organizational drawbacks which prevented it from firmly preparing for the future (much ink has been spilt on the differences between Foch and Petain, the two principal military men, but more importance can be discerned from education and doctrine), which were both institutional and also related to their temporary position of strength but the knowledge that in the future the Germans would doubtless be able to equalize and then exceed their own forces. Diplomatically the French position was far inferior compared to before the war with a much weakened alliance network and more limited freedom of action.

Nevertheless the French hoped to take advantage of the temporary reduction in German strength by reducing their own troops. In this case, this was achieved via the reduction of military service to 18 months, something which generated substantial polemics concerning whether further reductions could be made, and whether that was sufficient to provide for security. Combined with the organization of military decision making institutions and the debate of what the army was supposed to be intended to do, this constitutes the third chapter.

Diplomatic events continued to proceed with the French occupation of the Ruhr, and their resultant withdrawal and a wide array of concessions made following this which further restricted their gains from victory in the First World War. The French were also bound up with large numbers of troops in Morocco and Syria, and at the same time they began another cycle of military reduction, to bring their terms of military service down to just a single year for conscripts. In the context of this, diplomatic arrangements led to the signing of the Locarno treaties, mutual guarantees for the status quo between France, Germany, and Belgium, guaranteed by Britain and Italy, which the author notes as a modest victory for French diplomacy, bringing some British guarantees to post-war France after the collapse of the Franco-British alliance, and improving the ability to use the demilitarized Rhineland zone as a causus beli if the Germans occupied it.

The actual construction of the Maginot Line, decided upon as a way for the French to defeat a German surprise attack coming from the now vulnerable French frontier, and by psychological factors expanded in its size and scope to a huge scale, is the penultimate result of the book. Its other corollary, defense measures on the Belgian border, where French policy was solidified based upon a movement into Belgium to prevent their own land from being the zone of fighting. The Belgians were not so pleased about the French policy which threatened to make them into a warzone in the future, and they pursued a neutralist policy.

A conclusion paints a dreary picture, of as the 1930s came, the French, trapped by their lack of options, were forced to cave before any German demand as their rival remilitarized and their worst fears came to pass. The birds had come home to roost, and French policy from the 1920s would have its conclusion with French helplessness and ultimate defeat, but in a certain sense the French had no options within their limited array of choices: defeat was, for this author, inevitable.

To give the book credit, working in the 1970s, many French archives were still closed to access, under France's restrictive rules covering archives and the public. This restricted her research, quite naturally, and was something beyond her control. For crediting the book itself, it is short, brief, and to the point, easily digestible and understandable. The major points of the period are covered, and it provides a good summary of events, with a consistent theme and narrative of the limited availability of French options available and their incapability to truly contemplate another war, which deeply constrained their capacity to formulate effective foreign policy against Germany. Other books can ignore some of the French military's own planning in response to Germany, but this book mentions a number of plans throughout the 1920s, never in as great of detail as one might have hoped, but sufficient enough to be able to understand what the French military wished to do and what limitations and capabilities they saw as being within their reach were.

Unfortunately there are certain glaring omissions or oversights. This is a book which is above all else dedicated to the nexus of military-political decision making, but there is little focus on the actual personalities involved and their influence and figures. One of the critical elements is the debate over military service - indeed, this can be defined as the most single important factor in the French and preparing their army for the war, as they switched from 24, to 18, to 12, and then back to 18 and 24, months of military service. And yet there is little explanation of the actual impacts of this beyond the number of troops under arms: this runs in stark contrast to numerous other books or papers which stressed the importance of short-term conscripts in convincing the French military establishment that offensive action was impossible. Ideas such as Charles de Gaulle's professional mechanized force are brought up, but little attempt is made to place them into their appropriate political context. Some elements simply read as wrong or at least deceptive to the modern eye: look at for example, the exceedingly gloomy tone which is painted on the French and their response to the 1936 Rhineland Crisis, where we are serenaded with French politicians and generals and their jeremiads about being militarily weaker than Germany and the doomed nature of any intervention: by contrast we know nowadays that the French military had dramatically overestimated the actual military strength of the Germans and that the German units in the Rhineland were in fact, exceedingly weak and would have retreated before any French response. Similarly French military estimates of German strength are bandied about, but rarely with what they actually were, now that the years have (hopefully) stripped away some of the miasma covering this. To some extent this is unnecessary, since the focus is on why the French did what they did and what their decision and strategy making operations were like, but at the same time it is a book which is out of step with reality and the actual situation on the ground from the era. Perhaps it is the age, perhaps it is limited access to archives, perhaps it is omission - but whatever it is, for the modern reader, it harms the book's overall import.

One of the great strengths and conversely great weaknesses of the book is the focus on determinism, portraying what occurred as perhaps the only possible path which could have happened. In a certain sense, this is a refreshing viewpoint - and one which certainly liberates the French from some of the blame which can be attached to them, because quite rationally they looked at their alternatives, decided what they were willing to support, decided that another Great War was almost certainly one of them, and their remaining options were not enough to actually secure their own defense and security. For myself, I believe that the author paints an overly deterministic view: conversely to what she claimed, the French did have options, even if their field of maneuver was not entirely open.

A serviceable book, but one which demands much of the uninitiated, and for those who have already plunged into the subject, many of the details and contours are already known. Its brevity makes it easily digestible, but its apport is limited for most of its readers, and ne which brings very few new revelations.

2 stars for To the Maginot LIne

© 2019 Ryan Thomas


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