This Memorial Day I want to remember a seldom talked about French fortification system from WWII – the Maginot Line. It was built in the 1930’s and named after Andre Maginot, the Minister of War. A series of underground bunkers stretching from Luxembourg to Switzerland on France’s northeast border, and armed with heavy artillery, it was intended to protect the country from another German invasion. There were dozens of bunkers and support out – buildings. And fronting them was an anti-tank line of heavy metal rods and concrete blocks sunk into the peaceful countryside. Other obstacles were thick barbed wire and basins and rivers that could be flooded at will. As robust and costly as the line of defense was, it had a terrible flaw. The Germans just went around the end of it and entered France from Belgium. France fell in 10 days.
I visited one of the remaining bunkers of the Maginot Line several years ago, and although it wasn’t as haunting as a concentration camp, it was such a somber reminder of that terrible point of history. The area is rural and quiet. Small towns dot the idyllic countryside and church bells tinkle through the air. People go about their daily business as I imagine they did 75 years ago. And then you find the out of place concrete blocks running through a farm field and the history hits you.
Touring the underground bunker was sort of like touring a submarine on a much larger scale. Everything was narrow and closed in. I can’t imagine having to live underground in such quarters for any amount of time. My hour tour was plenty for me to wish for sunshine and fresh air. Unlike a submarine, this network was immense. Structured as a small city there were workshops, offices, sleeping quarters, dining hall, infirmary, generators and storage areas, and communication rooms. An internal electric railway system moved goods and people between areas. My tour was in one of the smaller ouvrages that would have held 100 – 200 men. The larger ones were manned by up to 1000 troops.
The Maginot Line fortifications had several stationary or retractable gun turrets. They weren’t monstrosities in the landscape but enough to seem very very out of place, like something from a Steampunk movie.
When I think of France I like to remember the delicious bakeries, the castles, the art. I love the sound of the language and can hear old men arguing together and shopkeepers telling me au revoir even as I type this. I have so many happy and bright memories of the country. This memory was not one of that type. I think it’s necessary to look at the sad parts of a county’s history as well as the current popular tourist sites. It gives a traveler a bit more context. And at this time of year I chose to remember the challenges and the spirit of the French during WWII.