The past week or so we've been doing some serious hiking in the French Alps, just west of the Italian border and about three hours' driving on twisty roads from Grenoble. We are in the mountain valley of the Ubaye River - strategic for centuries before the European Union and NATO made war between allies like France, Italy, and Germany unthinkable.
In a museum in our little village, there's a piece of elephant tusk - a reminder that Hannibal's army approached Rome from the unexpected Alpine side. On the mountaintops overlooking this valley and many others like it, French military engineers working for 17th/18th century Vauban and 20th century Maginot built fortresses that defy the imagination. "La Route Napoleon" winds through passes and valleys on its way to Italy.
The Maginot Line got its bad reputation because of its northern portion, which guarded the frontier with Germany. Anyone with a passing knowledge of World War II history knows that the piece that was missing - the Ardennes forest between Belgium, Luxembourg, and France - was the very place that the German blitzkrieg was successful. The Maginot fortresses with their hardened artillery emplacements and underground railroads were magnificently useless, bypassed by German tanks roaring through the "impenetrable" forest.
Except for here in the French Alps, where the Maginot Line did its job. In June 1940, Mussolini's troops hopped on Hitler's bandwagon and attacked an overstretched France. Though outnumbered, the French forts held their ground, but the war was already a lost cause in the north. After four long years of occupation by Germans and Italians, French and American troops retook the historic fortifications in the cold winter of 1944-45. Some of the German-held forts only capitulated in the last weeks of the war.
So, back to our June 2009 military tourism. Imagine our surprise when hiking on a mountain trail (photo top left; altitude approximately 6,000 feet) and seeing a machine gun nest inside a six inch thick steel carapace poking out of its reinforced concrete bunker. The woods around the lookout are ringed with barbed wire, with trees bulging around their steel embrace for upwards of 75 years (Maginot built his line in the 1930s). As isolated as this outpost was, it was equipped with an infrared sensor that detected Italian troop movements.
Further back in time, but updated as military technology became ever more sophisticated and lethal, Fort Tournoux (photo, above right) is a remarkable example of "génie militaire," built layer-cake on 2,000 vertical feet of strategic hillside. Thanks to the collective of local municipalities and an association dedicated to preserving this amazing collection of fortresses, guides take visitors up a hair-raising mule trail to visit "Fort Moyen," the lowest of three Tournoux forts which dominate the confluence of the Ubaye and the Ubayette Rivers. Though it was built starting 1852, Fort Tournoux's guns only had their baptism of fire in June 1940, when they supported the Maginot forts further up the Ubayette to stop the Italian advance. The fort was in service in one way or another until the late 1980s.
Up the valley, a testament to an earlier age, the Berwick Redoubt (photo, left) built in the Vauban tradition in the 18th century. Though its stone construction has withstood the test of time better than its wooden North American counterparts, it is redolent of the frontier forts of the French and Indian War of the same period.
France's mountain military tradition continues, though during our stay a contingent based in another historic fortress lowered its flags for the last time. A local woman remarked on the imminent closure of another Alpine unit in the valley, at a time when some of Europe's highest mountain passes offer exceptional training opportunities for France's expeditionary missions. But base closures are never a simple matter for the economies of the communities concerned, and President Sarkozy did promise a major defense realignment last year. "The cannon recoils; the artilleryman never," the proud insignia etched (click on photo, right) on the high altitude barracks on silent Fort Tournoux. Ah, but the artilleryman and the chasseur alpin must bow to the new defense realities and the priorities of their civilian masters.
Europe's internal borders are disappearing, and the "chasseurs alpins" are more likely to see action in Afghanistan's rugged mountains than in these parts. The Schengen Treaty has led to the dismantling of border posts, and EU internal cross-border threats are better handled by customs & immigration "flying patrols" than by the mountaintop Maginot Line.