I recently published an article about a great bike ride from Vence to Sainte-Agnès. Sainte-Agnès (one of the official Most Beautiful Villages of France) is such a great little village that I thought I’d write another article about a very interesting landmark located there that is not very well known. I visited it a while back and some of my French friends here in Vence had no idea what I was talking about. It’s a huge underground fort, built deep into the side of the mountain, part of something known as the “Little Maginot Line” (named after French Minister of War André Maginot), a group of concrete fortifications, obstacles and weapon installations built by France in the 1930s to deter invasion by Germany. Because it is almost completely buried underground, and only open during limited hours, it’s very easy to miss when visiting the village. In reality, it is a huge installation, covering over 2000 square meters (21,500 square feet). It was maintained by the French army until 1990 when ownership was transferred to the village and it was turned into a museum.
[more info after the photo gallery]
I’m not really much of a fan of “war history” in general, but I am intrigued about things related to either the First or Second World Wars in France. This particular “fort” had been on my radar for several years but because of the limited opening hours, and the distance from Vence, it took me awhile to find a chance to visit it. When I was finally able to go I was not disappointed. It was very interesting to walk around the structure, all of which is located underground, explore all the rooms and corridors, and imagine what it must have been like to live there as a solider in the 1930s and 1940s. I did a bit of research to find out more about how it came to be, how it’s constructed and it if was really ever used.
From the 16th Century
We have to go back to the 1500s to get to the beginning of this story. The House of Savoy, a royal dynasty established in 1003, built the first fortifications in Sainte-Agnès. Because of its location high up on the side of mountain (with an elevation of over 2,500 feet) that overlooks the Mediterranean, the village was a strategic position between the Counts of Provence and Genoa. In 1814, after battles between the French and the Sardinians, the village and the fortifications became possesions of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardina. Later, Napoleon III set up Séré de Rivières type structures in the Alpine arc to defend the passes and valleys that could be easily penetrated. The village and fortifications were only returned to France in 1860.
Construction in the 1930s
When Mussolini came to power in 1922 the French realized that existing defensive systems were not very strong. French military authorities decided to modernize the protections along the border. In the 1930s France was worried about possible German and Italian aggression and work was undertaken to build a long line of fortifications between the countries. The Maginot Line was the biggest of these undertakings, a long line of fortifications, obstacles and weapon installations running along the French borders with Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Luxembourg. The line was impervious to most forms of attack, including aerial bombings and tank fire, and had a system of underground railways as a backup. French military experts at the time considered the Line as a work of genius that would deter a German invasion by slowing the invading armies long enough for the French forces to mobilize and counterattack. The structure built at Sainte-Agnès was specifically planned to defend the Bay of Menton and to prevent the attack of other French coastal cities along the Côte d’Azur. The location at Sainte-Agnès was critical for three reasons: 1. the elevation; 2. the close proximity to the sea; and 3. it lies just 3 kilometres from Italy.
The “ouvrage” (as the French call these kinds of military installations) at Sainte-Agnès was built between November 1931 and October 1934 and cost over 16 million Francs (a fair amount of money at the time). It consists of one “entry block,” two “artillery blocks,” two “infantry blocks” and one “observation block” facing Italy. The entire fortification is protected by over 55 metres of rock cover.
1. The entry block contained one machine gun embrasure, one machine gun cloche and one grenade launcher cloche. In military terms a “cloche” (the French word for bell) is very similar to a turret, it’s a non-retractable firing position made of a thick iron casting which shields its occupant. Turrets can be rotated and sometimes lowered, but “cloches” are permanently fixed.
2. The first artillery block contained one machine gun turret, one grenade launcher cloche, one twin maching gun port, two 75mm gun ports and two 81mm mortar ports.
3. The second artillery block contained one observation cloche, one twin machine gun port, two 75mm gun ports, two 81mm mortar ports and two 135mm gun ports.
4. The observation block contained one machine gun/observation turret and one machine gun port.
5 and 6. Each infantry block contained one machine gun port each.
These guns at Sainte-Agnès constituted the largest artillery block in the entire Maginot Line.
The fort at Sainte-Agnès was equiped with ultra-modern equipment for the time. Even though the village itself did not have running water and sewers until 1960, the fort had these amenities in 1938. The structure housed over 310 men and 80 officers and was completely self-contained. There are 144 sleeping places, divided among six rooms with 24 beds each. A system known as “Hot Banette” was used meaning that each bed was used successively by three soldiers so that everyone had a chance to sleep. Water came from a nearby spring and a huge kitchen fed the inhabitants. Air was piped throughout the structure using a circuit of large pipes, filters and ventilators. This was necessary for three reasons: 1. with almost 400 men living underground in a confined space, new air was necessary for survivial; 2. the French Army feared a gas attack (remember World War I); and 3. the guns and firearms used in the facility produced poison gases which had to be evacuated as soon as possible. Electricity was provided via generators made from diesel engines.
In addition to the main installation at Sainte-Agnès, there were 10 much smaller installations, known as “observation posts,” spread throughout the area that reported to Sainte-Agnès, including ones in Pic-de-Garuche, Cime de Biancon, Pic-de-Garuche-Sud and Siricocca.
The Second World War
In June 1940 the Italians launched an offensive and the ouvrage at Sainte-Agnès was put into action, firing on Italian troops who were advancing along the coast. Hundreds of rounds from the big 75mm and 135mm guns were fired as well as some 81mm mortars. Shots were fired on the coastal roads and also on the Col du Razet (a nearby mountain pass) to discourage the advancement of the Italians. After two weeks of fighting the Italians gave up and retreated. It’s one of the rare, and little known, victories for the French during World War II.
Things did not go as well up north. Instead of attacking directly along the borders that were protected by the Maginot Line, the Germans invaded through the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Though the French anticipated this, there was a weak point in their strategy: the Ardenees forest. The French believed that this region, with its rough terrain, would be an unlikely invasion route for the Germans, and that even if they did invade here they would be slowed down enough for the French to bring up reserves and counterattack. However, the Germans did indeed advance rapidly through the forest, encircling much of the Allied forces, leading to the famous evacuation at Dunkirk. The Allied forces to the south were unable to mount an effective resistance to the German invasion of France. In the end the remarkable Maginot Line became a moot point and France was occupied. Today the line has become a metaphor for expensive efforts that offer a false sense of security.
Sainte-Agnès is about an hours drive from Vence, 45 minutes from Nice and 25 minutes from Menton. As I mentioned, Sainte-Agnès is one of the official Most Beautiful Villages of France, so if you do plan to visit the fort, make sure to give yourself time to explore the village as well. I had cycled through Sainte-Angès many, many times but visiting the fort required a trip by car. It really is a very interesting experience. The fort is a marvel of engineering and construction and I was fascinated with the fact that it is almost all hidden away underground. It’s like discovering a huge new village inside the main one.
During the tourist season (July 1 to September 30) the fort is open every day and there are guided tours in the morning at 10:30 and in the afternoon at 2:30 and 4:00. The rest of the year it is open only on Saturday and Sunday with guided tours in the afternoon at 2:30 and 4:00. The cost for adults is 6€ and just 3€ for children. There are special prices for groups of 20. (If you plan to visit, please check with the museum as hours and costs may have changed.) There is plenty of parking all around Sainte-Agnès and there is also a popular bus that runs up from Menton.