Its name is synonymous with battlefield debacle. As a fortress, France's Maginot Line had more in common with ripe Brie than concrete and steel. Its legend now centers on frustration and defeat in 1940.
Thus the French have since seemed to find numerous excuses to deflect the limelight away from this undertaking—still pristine because the blitzkreig circled around it to the undefended north. Only in recent years have first one, and then another of the forts been opened to the public, mainly at the urging of nearby towns in search of tourism euros.
My own attempts to crack the Maginot Line were not without a long series of frustrations. For 25 years, my personal assaults on the fortifications were almost laughable because the most common excuse was the continuing need for secrecy. Consider for a moment the extent of hiding such a monumental fiasco that in size ranks second only to the Great Wall of China.
If not thwarted by wild tangles of stinging nettle and poison ivy, I was confronted by interlacing concertina barbed wire and a stern sentry. Or maybe no sentry, but numerous skull-and-crossbones posters signaling unexploded ordnance.
What a surprise when serendipitously I stumbled upon a rusting sign south of Strasbourg that pointed simply to 'Maginot Fort.' This turned out to be a minor strongpoint now open to the public.
Approaching my final goal, a wry smile flashed across my face. Hanging next to the double-reinforced steel entrance designed to resist everything from armor-piercing 88mm rounds to poison gas stood an ordinary 1935-vintage, garden-variety civilian mailbox.
Now just for a moment consider the image that came to my mind. It's 1940 and a sly Prussian sergeant stands before this door:
“Der facteur de poste,” the invader would attempt with his best Gallic accent, meanwhile directing a stage wink to a platoon of infantry hiding in the nearby brambles.
Since my flash of low vaudevillian humor, several more interesting sections of the Maginot Line have been opened. From a tourist’s standpoint perhaps the most important is Le Hackenberg near Veckring, not far south of Luxemburg. The Hackenberg fort was an underground city, with electricity to serve a population of 10,000. It contains 17 firing outlets, elevators covering 12 underground levels and separate ventilation for winter and summer. Riding on a small train (part of the original construction), the two-mile tour of its dormitories, recreation halls, kitchen, chapel, hospital, ready rooms and showers took three hours.
In contrast, the 173 soldiers of Fort Casso near Biche lived like submariners with one shower. Having been under the control of the French Army, however, its turrets and arming gear for the main batteries remained until recently in operating condition.
Andre Maginot, the World War I sergeant turned military architect, set out to protect only Alsace and Lorraine. Later his vision of an iron ring around France extended to an interlinking series of 25 major fortifications from the Mediterranean to the English Channel. Unfortunately, the latter portion was never completed. This omission was not overlooked by the 1940 invaders, who circled around this enduring monument to military frustration.