`Good fences make good neighbors,’ wrote American poet Robert Frost. But not according to President Donald Trump whose proposed Great Wall is supposed to protect the nation from hordes of rabid, murderous, drug crazed rapists and unwhites from south of the border.
I’m a life-long student of military architecture, with a particular passion for modern fortification, chief among which is France’s own Great Wall, the magnificent and unfairly reviled Maginot Line.
Given the heated debate in America over Trump’s proposed barrier along the Mexican border, it’s worth looking back to the Maginot Line. It was supposed to have been France’s savior after the bloodbath of World War I.
Proposed by Deputy André Maginot in the 1920’s, the Line was supposed to cover key parts of France’s frontiers with German and Italy. Due to the terrible losses of the Great War, France did not have enough soldiers to properly defend its long frontiers. So it made sense to erect fortifications to compensate for manpower weakness and to block surprise attacks from next door enemy forces.
The first large Maginot fort was built in the 1920’s north of Nice to protect the Cote d’Azur from possible Italian attacks. Mussolini was demanding France return the Riviera coast to its former Italian rulers. Work on the principal Line along the German and Luxembourg borders began soon after. Phase one covered 260 miles from near the Rhine to Longuyon, a rail junction south of the Belgian border.
The Line consisted of hundreds of steel and concrete machine gun and anti-tank casemates with interlocking flanking fire. They were surrounded by upright rails designed to halt tanks and dense belts of interwoven barbed wire covered by machine guns. Artillery casemates with 75mm, 81mm and 135mm guns covered the fort’s fronts and sides.
Within and behind the Maginot Line were based an army of specialized fortress troops and hundreds of field artillery guns. The era’s most advanced electronic communications systems meshed the defenses together. The big forts were mostly buried 90 feet underground, proof from any projectiles of the era.
But the problem was that a wall or barrier is only effective so long as there are adequate troops to man it.
In the spring of 1940, France had deployed nearly a third of its field army behind the Maginot Line. But then the Germans staged a brilliant breakthrough north of the Line across the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes forest region. In 1938, a French parliamentarian named Perrier (from the French water family) had toured the Ardennes area and warned the military that it was very vulnerable to a German breakthrough. The generals scoffed at ‘this civilian’ and ignored Perrier’s warning.
Sure enough, the German armored and infantry assault came right through this Ardennes weak point near Sedan, forcing a rapid retreat by French and British forces in the region that ended up at Dunkerque.
As outflanked Allied forces pulled back from the frontier, they exposed the northern flank of the Maginot Line. The French high command, fearing their armies around the Line would be encircled, ordered the interval forces to retreat towards the highlands of central France. The Line was thus denuded of its troops and artillery. These units, who were armed and trained for static defense, had to make their way cross country on foot. Most were captured en route by advancing German forces.
In spring 1940 the Line was unfinished with large gaps and open flanks due to budgetary constraints caused by the 1930’s depression. The Germans drove through them, wisely avoiding most of big forts, and attacked the Line from the rear. Ironically, in 1944/45, German troops ended up defending the Maginot Forts from the advancing US Army.
The Line worked as planned, protecting vulnerable areas. But it was never extended to the Channel due to Belgium’s high water table and reluctance to fortify behind the French ally. The Belgians believed their powerful forts near Liege would delay the Germans until the French Army could intervene. They were wrong.
The French public ascribed almost magical powers to the Line. It would keep them invulnerable they believed. Building the fortifications became a national works project during the Depression, rather like the US WPA labor program. But Adolf Hitler vowed he would go around the Line and chop it up. He did.
A Trump wall or barrier will cost far more than believed and be likely unfinished, with large gaps like the Maginot Line. Some better way of blocking the border must be found. If not, we may end up having to wall and garrison the Canadian border as well.