EUCOM J3 staff explores French underground fortifications

Many military history buffs may have preconceived notions on the wisdom of whether the French made a mistake in building the Maginot Line. Staff officers from U.S. European Command’s J3 Plans and Operations Center not only debated the merits of French military decision-making in light of the Maginot Line, they also got to see it in person. 

The 19 officers, accompanied by Rear Adm. John G. Messerschmitt, the EUCOM J7 Analysis and Assessments director, traveled to the Fort Schoenenbourg fortification on the Maginot Line in France, as well as an older historic fortification at Bitche Citadel, to observe and discuss the impact of strategic decision making and resource allocation for military forces. 

The group began the day with a two-hour bus ride to the Bitche Citadel, an important historical French fortification that was defended against Prussian attack on numerous occasions throughout the 17th to 19th centuries.

The travel time was used to conduct a vigorous discussion, mentored by Messerschmitt and Dr. Michelle Bradley, from the EUCOM Historian’s Office, on the implications of whether fortresses were a positive use of resources, and how the decisions by the French military during the last several hundred years are relevant to the decisions being made by U.S. civilian and military leaders today.

“The group had some great ideas about what the French chose to do and what they could have done.  I provided a bit of additional context beyond what is commonly known, and they incorporated that information beautifully in their arguments,” Bradley said.

Bitche Citadel, approximately 170 kilometers from EUCOM headquarters, provides an opportunity to move deeply through the interior of a fortification that was important to French national defense for centuries. 

Visitors are given headsets through which the displays and accompanying dramatization of the French-Prussian battle of 1870 are presented in the visitor’s native language.

The J3 staff officers listened to the presentation and then toured the grounds of the citadel to observe the vantage points and avenues of approach that the Prussian army used during the battle. 

Following the tour, the officers were transported to Fort Schoenenbourg, considered to be one of the best preserved fortifications on the French Maginot Line. 

Fort Schoenenbourg is a colossal structure consisting of a total of 9,800 feet of galleries that extend between 59 feet and 98 feet below ground.
Its passageways hold kitchens, living areas, power supplies and workings for the various weapons that can be made to pop up out of the ground and then retracted again after firing on an advancing enemy force. 

The officers were led through Fort Schoenenbourg by an English-speaking tour guide who brought to life the creation of the fort, the utilities of its fortifications and weaponry and the lives of the soldiers who manned it.

“I came into this having an impression that the Maginot Line was a big mistake, but after seeing it and talking about the parameters the French were working with at the time, I can see why it was a rational gamble to build it.

“It makes me think about what decisions we are making today to build our own “fortresses” that could prove to be obsolete on first contact with the enemy,” said Cdr. Andrew Strickler.