WIESBADEN, Germany - History was not kind to the grand ideas of French Minister of War Andre Maginot.
As the namesake for the massive line of fortifications intended to stop Germany from ever again overrunning France after the Franco-Prussian and First World Wars, Maginot, who died in 1932, didn't live long enough to see the completion and ultimate failure of his vision.
The Ligne Maginot, as it became known to the French people and first envisioned by Marshal Joffre, took 10 years to build starting in 1929. The series of underground bunkers lining the French border with Germany cost billions of French Francs " money that might have been better spent arming the French forces with tanks, artillery and aircraft, as General Charles de Gaulle suggested during the planning stages.
But after the Treaty of Versailles was negotiated in 1919 calling for Germany to return territory taken during the previous century and pay France for the destruction it had caused in the first world war, France's military planners were eager to reassure its citizens that an impenetrable line of defenses could be constructed to provide security in case Germany ever again decided to stray beyond its borders. Unfortunately, the Nazis had other plans. Rather than hurling forces against the massive defensive line, German military might poured through the least fortified section of the line " through Belgium and the Ardennes Forest " to quickly overwhelm the French military and to claim Paris in mid-June of 1940.
While few of the underground fortresses of the line were actually taken by the Germans during fighting, when France fell, the men who defended the Maginot Line were ordered by their own government following the armistice to exit the fortifications and to surrender as prisoners of war.
Later during the course of the war several of the underground fortresses, which were primarily used by the Germans as storage bunkers, were once again defended, but this time by the Nazis, to attempt to stall the approaching Allies from occupying Germany. After changing hands a couple of times, the Germans were finally driven out for good and Bitche was liberated by the U.S. 100th Infantry Division in mid-March 1945.
U.S. military community members in the Baumholder and Kaiserslautern areas can get a firsthand look at this unique military engineering feat with a visit to one of the ouvrages in the area around Bitche, France. Tours, available in several languages including English, are offered at Fort Casso near Rohrbach and Simserhof, located between Bitche and Siersthal.
As one drives along the route south of Zweibrucken toward Bitche, one is struck by the expanse of rolling countryside and deep valleys that separate the two European neighbors. Nearing the Ligne Maginot, one sees the occasional concrete bunker in a farmer's field, but doesn't truly get an idea of just how incredibly massive the Maginot fortifications are until entering one of its entranceways.
At Simserhof, visitors are invited to watch a film about the events leading up to its construction and eventual surrender before entering the hillside past gun ports, over a retractable metal walkway and climbing down 149 steps (or using the elevator) to begin a tour of the some five kilometers of tunnels, underground barracks, kitchens, doctor's office and other facilities. The tour concludes with a train ride through the tunnels with an interactive media display depicting what life must have been like for those who served deep underground.
Visitors are advised to bring a jacket as the temperature quickly drops after leaving the summer warmth outside and entering a space where the average temperature underground remains around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
While the fortresses weren't connected to one another to prevent a breach of the entire line, they each covered several kilometers of defensive line and were spaced about 15 kilometers apart.
More than 800 men served in the Simserhof ouvrage " remaining underground for months at a time in the dimly lit tunnels which served as passage for an electric railway system that connected the service and combat sections. One can only imagine what it must have been like for its defenders to overcome the claustrophobia of serving deep underground, cut off from their families and friends, only to be ordered to give up the fight and to surrender to their enemy.
In the years after World War II some of the Maginot Line facilities were used by the French military and as part of a Cold War defense against any possible Warsaw Pact invasion.
These days, visitors pass amiable cows and an abundance of wildflowers before descending into this unique landscape upon which the hopes of a nation hung in the balance in the years leading up to World War II. Both the Fort Casso and Simserhof fortresses offer regular tours every day of the week during the summer months. During other months of the year, tours are only offered during certain weekdays and weekends. For exact times visit www.simserhof.fr, http://casso.fortiff.be or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
For more information about the nearby town of Bitche and its citadel, read the story on the garrison home page at www.wiesbaden.army.mil/hunion/Travel/Bitche.htm.