Invading Switzerland?

By Rob Morgan

Monty, when writing up his splendid “History of Warfare,” wisely suggested that experience has taught that the first rule of warfare appeared to be “Don’t march on Moscow,”  but Switzerland seems to have a similar dread for commanders, and it was last invaded, if I’m right, by the Burgundians, who suffered for it.

Well, I’ve been dipping into early editions of the academic journal War in History, and Volume 10 (No.1) published way back in January 2003, has an excellent article by one D.M. Segesser, entitled “Military Co-operation- France/Switzerland” and intends largely  to deal with the 1920s and the 1930s but actually provides a very good pair of World War I scenarios, both “what-if’s?” naturally.

From the outbreak of the Great War, the Swiss frontier was lightly defended by the French, with only one infantry division from the active army, three Reserve infantry divisions and a single cavalry division. But by late 1915, the French, by then desperate to find a way out of the stalemate of the Western Front, were undertaking detailed covert reconnaissance missions in Switzerland with a view to striking through that country to capture the vital basin of the Danube, and thus end the war with a single strike. Hmmm?

The missions produced a remarkable report. It said that a French invasion of Swiss territory would almost certainly founder along a line from Rangiers to Olten and the St.Gotthard Pass, barely a third of Switzerland. For those not entirely familiar with the terrain, this is quite the “flattest” parts of the country. The rest would represent a massive redoubt, even without the subtle fortifications, everything from underground barracks and gun posts covering the passes to portable Grusson cupolas.

The French report suggested that even if the Germans reinforced the Swiss army with a mere 3–4 infantry divisions, including mountain troops, from Stuttgart and Munich through Konstantz and Dornbirn, then the attack would be a disaster for the French Army. Faced with some 150,000-200,000 Swiss troops and those of her (potentially) new ally, not to mention the likely input of Austria-Hungary into the eastern cantons of Switzerland through the Brenner Pass and to the north of Lake Como, a convenient back door to enter Italy.

The French invasion plan was shelved, but at the Wilhelmstrasse, similar thoughts were ticking over, in Teutonic minds.

From mid-1915 onwards, the prospect of an attack by the Central Powers through the route Zurich-Berne-Lausanne into the Rhone Valley, capable of delivering an outflanking left hook towards Paris, or of an Austrian assault, as already mentioned, remained a fear. So, French generals took a hand in the proposed Swiss defence line against German attacks, called the Rangiers-Haverstein Line, anchored in the Swiss Jura. The Swiss armies, not surprisingly, lacked adequate experience of modern war, and French involvement was to prove of great value to them throughout the period up to 1940. So, as a potential wargame campaign it’s interesting enough to be played on map or table-top, and indeed, if Belgium, why not Switzerland?

“War in History”.ISSN 0729-2473, published quarterly. Usually found in academic libraries but can be accessed through the JSTOR system.

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