Verdun, France; Eben-Emael, Belgium; Thionville, France
The Franco-German border was one of the world’s last heavily fortified frontiers. Long after the Middle Ages were over, and even a century after the armies of Napolean had dismantled many of Central Europe’s greatest fortresses, the region stretching from the Low Countries to the border of Switzerland remained an armed camp. From the early 17th century to the mid-20th century, the French and Germans fought over half a dozen major wars. Even during the World Wars, both sides continued to rely on powerful fortifications in the face of overwhelming advancements in artillery. Among the most famous are the Verdun Fortress, which witnessed one of the bloodiest battles of World War I; the Eben Emael Fortress, a mighty Belgian stronghold that was overwhelmed by paratroops in World War II; and the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line.
The frontier between Germany, France and the Low Countries has been Central Europe’s bloodiest battleground since the empire of Charlemagne was divided up in the 9th century. This was particularly true after the advent of gunpowder weapons. The 17th century witnessed a victory for the French during the Thirty Years War, and 18th century witnessed a victory of sorts for the Prussians during the Seven Years War. In the 19th century, the region was ravaged by both sides, with victories ultimately going to the Germans during the Napoleanic Wars and Franco-Prussian War.
The rivalry came to a head during World War I, when the Western Front between the two nations became the chief focus of carnage for the conflict. Over the course of four years of fighting, as many as eight million casualties were inflicted on the Western Front alone. Most of these came from a few major battles, and one of the largest of these was the Battle of Verdun. It revolved around the Fortress of Verdun, a fortification that had stood in Eastern France since the early Middle Ages. Throughout the 19th century it had been expanded into a massive series of defensive works, and in 1916 the two sides fought bitterly for its possession. Over the course of ten months of fighting, approximately 500,000 Allies and 400,000 Germans were killed or wounded. In the end, the French successfully held the fortress.
In the aftermath of World War I, the French endeavored to build a fortification so intimidating that the Germans would never again contemplate invading again. This was the fabled Maginot line, the largest and most expensive defensive system built in the modern age. Consisting of a series of concrete fortifications, a veritable maze of underground tunnels that stretched for miles and powerful but fixed gun emplacements, the Maginot was virtually impregnable. Unfortunately, in order not to offend the delicate sensibilities of their neighbors in the Low Countries, the line was only constructed from Switzerland to Luxembourg. When World War II began, the Germans surmounted this great obstacle simply by going around it.
Although Belgium did not want the Maginot Line extended to its western border, it was not unsympathetic to the French cause, especially after four years of occupation by the Germans in World War I. During the 1930s they constructed the Eben Emael Fortress, the largest single citadel built during the modern age. Unfortunately, when the Germans rolled through in 1940, they took the fort completely by surprise and overwhelmed its defenders using airborne troops. In less than a day, the mightiest fortress in Europe surrendered. The virtually effortless conquest of the supposedly impregnable Eben Emael Fortress and Maginot Line marked the final triumph of modern weapons and ended the age of fixed fortifications forever.
The Verdun Fortress can be traced back to the reign of Charlemagne, and perhaps even earlier. It was fought over many times, including during the Napoleanic Wars, Franco-Prussian War and World War I. Virtually the entire site was laid waste during the latter, and most traces of the old citadel on the surface are long gone. However, extensive sections of Verdun’s underground fortifications can still be visited, from trenches to bunkers to a labyrinth of communication tunnels. Also on site is the Doaumont Ossuary, where the unidentified skeletal remains of over 100,000 soldiers are stored.
The Eben Emael Fortress, which was more recently built and much less damaged in combat, survived World War II relatively intact. While Eben Emael is in much better shape than Verdun, like Verdun it is primarily underground. In fact, much of the exterior is barely distinguishable from a large hill. The main entrance is a large, squat bunkhouse that looks less like poured cement and more like it was carved from a giant rock jutting out of the hillside. Through the entrance and down the stairs is a labyrinth of passageways and bunkers, which interconnect the numerous machine gun and artillery turrets which sprout from the hilltop like mushrooms. The fortress is still under Belgian military jurisdiction.
The Maginot Line, the largest and most expensive fortification constructed in the 20th century, is like the Eben Emael Fortress on steroids. Stretching almost two hundred miles along the French-German border and over ten miles deep in some places, it consisted of an enormous chain of fortifications, blockhouses, machine gun and artillery emplacements, and observation posts that could support each other in the event of another German invasion. Hundreds of these defensive works can still be seen all over Eastern France.
The Verdun Fortress and battlefield spread out to the northeast of the city of Verdun, approximately 160 miles east of Paris. The primary visitor destinations are the fort (actually known as Fort Douaumont) and the Douamont Ossuary. The Eben Emael Fortress is located almost exactly at the point where Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands meet, just south of Maastricht and about eighty miles east of Brussels. Opening times vary widely. Cost of admission is E6.00. The Maginot Line is immense, and sections can be visited all along the French-German border. The best locations are generally concentrated around Thionville, about twenty miles south of Luxembourg, and most are open sites. Web: www.verdun-tourisme.com (official tourism website of the city of Verdun); www.fort-eben-emael.be (official website); www.lignemaginot.com (official website).
From the late Middle Ages until the 19th century, the tiny city of Luxembourg was one of the most heavily fortified cities in Central Europe. Fear of both the French and Germans led the duchy to construct the Gibraltar of the North. Although the city’s fortifications saw little action during the World Wars, the Bock Casemates, a labyrinth of tunnels and sheltered artillery positions, can still be toured.