The Blue Line – the Vosges frontier 1871 to 1914

The frontier separating Alsace from France before the Great War


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April 1915: “Poisson d’Avril” & “Heureuses Pâques”

Poisson d’Avril

Even in war conditions, in an atmosphere which was far from funny, the French soldier might recall the absurd, fun tradition of poisson d’Avril (where a child sticks a paper fish on a victim’s back as an April Fool’s Day trick) by sending a postcard. This one has a particularly patriotic theme: Alsace personified is tied to a tree somewhere in recognisably Alsacien mountain terrain. However, an heroic French soldier is appearing riding a fish to her rescue. The fish’s colours of red and white, combined with his blue, signify patriotism. A German soldier is just seen skulking away. The image is ludicrous but the message is hopeful and serious: “Dearest Alsace! Liberty at last!”

This card from my collection was posted on 1st April 1915.

Patriotic Poisson d'Avril posted 1.4.1915

 

Easter

As far as possible, French soldiers marked Easter, though tinged with sadness; many fathers took the opportunity to send postcards or letters to their children to show that they were thinking of them, and cards were sent to and by their loved ones. Sometimes Christian services were possible, with music, hymns and communion.

Many cards have a patriotic, propaganda flavour. In this one, the tradition of Easter eggs is surreally taken further and to the soldiers’ delight, the egg cracks open to reveal Alsace (with the black coiffe) and Lorraine (in the lace cap). They are clutching the French flag and Alsace’s dress is tinged with the French colours red, white and blue. The message in the bottom left hand corner is Revanche: revenge, the return of the lost territory, and the cheering soldiers reflect the anticipated joy when the two regions will be restored to France.

This card was sent in April 1915 by two friends to Bruno who was serving at sea. As far as I can find out, he survived the war.

 

Patriotic Hereuses Pâques sent 1915


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Three armies, one battle, one cross: le Croix du Moulin, Jebsheim.

Ils sont réunis dans la mort

Unissons-nous dans la paix

Sie sind im tode vereint lässt

Uns auch im frieden einig sein

They are together in death

Let us unite in peace

La Croix du Paix

Croix du Moulin

The memorial was built on the site of the old mill at Jebsheim, Alsace. The mill and the village were destroyed during the battle which raged from 02.30h on 25th January to 19.30h on 30th January, 1945, when the Americans pushed the German troops back towards the Rhine. In that time, in inhumane and bitter winter conditions, 1034 men were killed and more 2000 wounded. That is one death every fifteen minutes.

Croix du Moulin close upAs time has passed, there has been a spirit of reconciliation between the former adversaries and the memorial recognises the dead of all three armies: French, American and German. The three facets of the cross represent the three nations and the elegant, peaceful inscription is written in three languages. The armies and units who fought here are listed on bronze plaques, but these are only brought out for official ceremonies, as the first versions were stolen.

The monument was the concept of an American and two French men who fought at Jebsheim and it was inaugurated in June 1988. One aspiration is to bring the message of peace to young people and future generations.

Croix du Moulin bw

Le mur du souvenir

There is also a wall in memory of Alsaciens and Mosellans who were victims of war in violation of their international rights: those interned, those deported, those who were incorporated into the enemy army, those who were prisoners of war, those who were injured or permanently disabled, the fighters in the Resistance in Alsace and in the Free French Army. It recalls people’s long journey of suffering and sacrifices beginning in 1940 and leading to their tragic destiny.

Croix du Moulin victims panel

Battleground to place of peace

This was the battleground in January 1945. In the top picture below, I am standing facing the Vosges and the Rhine is behind me. You can just see a road sign at the right of the picture: this was roughly the position of the front line at the beginning of the battle, and where I am standing in the second picture (I’m by the millrace) is the point of progress made by the end.

Croix du Moulin view to front line    Croix du Moulin battleground

This is a very peaceful location, disturbed only by the occasional passing cyclist or tractor and one can sit on the old stones by the former millrace, thinking of the family who made their living here and the dreadful destruction which was the cost of liberation. It seemed strangely beautiful and appropriate that the mill site, now a place for peace and reflection, is now colonised by these stunning, iridescent damselflies.

Croix du Moulin damselfly

Croix du Moulin bridge    Croix du Moulin bridge close up

 


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Defiance, resolution, inspiration: Jeanne d’Arc on memorials in Alsace

Breitenbach Bas Rhin Jeanne 2

In 1431 a young peasant girl from Domrémy in the Vosges was burned alive after an illegal trial for heresy in Rouen. During the period in which Alsace and Lorraine were part of the German Empire, she became a powerful symbol of resistance, of defiance, of eagerness for liberation

TBreitenbach Bas Rhin Jeanne 1he inspirational figure of Jeanne or Jehanne d’Arc is a recurrent theme in monuments and memorials after the Great War.  In the memorial in the rural village of Breitenbach, Bas-Rhin,  [above and left], Jeanne stands alone.

Many Alsacien men were forced to fight for Germany, although anyone under the age of 43 when war was declared in 1914 had not known life as a French citizen and Alsacien men in the German army had grown up as Germans. Nevertheless, the theme of a young man being forced to fight for the oppressor is a powerful one and many patriotic and propaganda images depict the despair of the young soldier and his family.

The woman depicted on the war memorial at Guebwiller [previous blog post] pins a small rosette on a young man’s chest under his jacket and tells him, “Remember you are French.” These rosettes were red, white and blue (the colours of the French flag). The memorial at Rosheim shows a French poilu offering the open hand of friendship to a young man who has opened his jacket to reveal the patriotic rosette over his heart; his enforced pickelhaube has been discarded at his feet and Jeanne embraces the two in a gesture which emphasises harmony and unity restored between France and her lost départements.

Rosheim Jeanne

The inspiration of Jeanne in times of oppression and war is reflected in her use in cemeteries. The village and community of Plaine, north of Saales, suffered dreadfully in the raging combats of August 1914 as each side fought to gain control of the essential cols. Jeanne was erected in this cemetery on 12th August 1923. The base of the statue says, “À eux l’immortalité, à nous le souvenir.”

Plaine cimetière militaire

Plaine Jeanne

Menil-sur-Belvitte is a large 1917 nécropole nationale south of Baccarat and it is the resting place of a thousand men, many casualties from the Bataille de la Mortagne (August 1914) and the ghastly fighting at Col de la Chipote. Opposite the cemetery, peacefully surrounded by pastures with the characteristic Vosgienne cows, is a memorial privately erected in 1927 by l’Abbé Collé, the village curé. He also established a small commemorative museum which was destroyed by German troops in 1944.

Menil Jeanne 1

The essential figures on this memorial are in gold; one is Jeanne (“custos patriae”) at the pinnacle and the others (in what seems like slightly toned down gold) are the brave heroes of the 13th, 14th 15th and 21st Corps d’Armée 1914.

Poilus

It is a memorial of unexpected height and power; the loyal Chasseur figures, bravely ready for any challenger and cared for in death by a despairing figure of Mary, demand attention. Jeanne’s immense elevation, her raised cruciform sword and her striking gold armour communicate as a symbol of defiance and inner strength. Your eye is drawn upwards from the brave soldiers to their alleged inspiration as they fought to regain Alsace and Moselle for France.

Jeanne d'Arc, Ballon d'Alsace

Jeanne d’Arc, Ballon d’Alsace

Note:

Le cimetière militaire Plaine also includes a small plot containing the remains of 40 British casualties from the Great War. It is in the far left hand corner of my photograph.

Much of this text has been adapted from a previous blog post. It is published here in the period of Remembrance.


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Bitter grief: allegorical women on war memorials in Alsace. A post for Remembrance

Nancy    Le Souvenir, Nancy

Le Souvenir in plas Maginot, Nancy is a bronze sculpture commemorating the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine by Germany in 1871 . It was created by Paul Dubois and erected in 1910 after his death. The two women wear the coiffes of their respective regions and Alsace, on the right, stares with bleak unseeing eyes into the mid-distance. Lorraine is so preoccupied with grief that she rests her head on her companion’s shoulder, while the two embrace.

As a consequence of the time in which Alsace and Lorraine were part of Germany, Great War memorials in Alsace tend to be different from those elsewhere. They were built at a time when Alsace had been returned to France, but during the 1914-1918 war, local men had been fighting as German soldiers. An image of a German soldier was unlikely to be palatable, so a device often used is a bereaved woman. She represents mothers, wives and daughters and may be carrying children. She is often dressed in Alsacien costume so that she is an allegory for Alsace mourning her lost sons, which takes on another layer of meaning if you choose to think of Alsace lost to France for nearly five decades.

Bennwihr’s memorial is called Fidelité, depicting the loyalty of Alsace (with the large coiffe: bow) and Lorraine (with the soft cap) to France. It was erected in 1925 and remained in place during the Second World War. The scars and marks on the memorial testify to the violence of the battle for the Liberation in December 1944: the village was almost entirely obliterated, as my postcard shows.

Bennwihr Fidelité            Bennwihr monument and church Bennwihr

Bennwihr Ste-Odile  Ste-Odile, part of Bennwihr’s Peace memorial

The grieving woman below is the figure on Illhausern’s memorial to the dead of both wars, though she was part of the original Great War memorial. Civilian deaths are listed on brass plaques on the wall of the church. Occupied by the Germans from 1940 onwards, my postcard shows that the village and original church were almost obliterated in the combats of December 1944.

Illhausern memorial 2     Illhausern

Illhausern memorial 1          Illhausern église sinistrée

Memorials showing bereaved women with their fatherless children include Kintzheim [below]

Kintzheim         Kintzheim scene

and Zellenberg [below].

Zellenberg

Sometimes a women is shown alone, distraught with grief.

Westhalten         Westhalten 2    Westhalten

And sometimes all she has is a corpse.

Thanenkirch A nos morts Thannenkirch

All photos and postcards my own.


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“His heart is French!” One of a set of posts for Remembrance

Patriotic Sous l'uniforme allemand Propaganda: ‘Sous l’uniforme allemand son cœur est français!’

A young man in Alsace before the Great War was likely to have been born and raised German, because Alsace had been part of Reichsland Elsaß Lothringen since 1871. He would probably speak little French. Men carried out military service in the German Army and there seems to be evidence from contemporary writers that the population was not generally resentful. By contrast there was suspicion of French soldiers, locally called ròthòsa (“red trousers”) because of their uniforms, when they arrived during the Great War.

Guebwiller memorial 1 Guebwiller

Some 1914-1918 war memorials in Alsace reflect the problem of memorialising local young men who fought and died as Germans. A German soldier would not be a popular choice of symbol, so the notion of wearing a tricolore badge under his German uniform was chosen. The war memorial in Guebwiller [above] shows a woman pinning a badge under a young man’s jacket, saying to him, ‘Remember that you are French.’ She could be his mother, his wife, his sister: wearing her coiffe, she symbolises the idealised patriotic women of Alsace, secretly longing to be French again. My postcard shows this memorial before the Second World War.

Guebwiller memorial 2           Guebwiller Monument aux Morts pre WW2 Guebwiller

The memorial at Rosheim [below] shows Jeanne d’Arc mediating between two soldiers. The man on the right is pointing to the badge of loyalty hidden under his German jacket. His pickelhaube is abandoned on the floor and he is unarmed. The man on the left is a French poilu, helmet garlanded with leaves of peace; he is reaching out a hand to the young man who reluctantly fought in the German army and his weapons pose no threat.

Rosheim Jeanne Rosheim

The two propaganda postcards purport to depict the devastated family of a young Alsacien who has to fight for Germany. One [above] says, ‘Sous l’uniforme allemand son cœur est français!’ and shows a woman pinning the secret tricolore badge on his shirt. The other [below] shows two ailing, elderly people and a young man in the depths of despair: ‘Le pauvre enfant est soldat allemand!’

Patriotic Le pauvre enfant est soldat allemand Propaganda

(My photographs, my postcards)


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Poisson d’Avril, 1915

Even in war conditions, in an atmosphere which was far from funny, the French soldier might recall the absurd, fun tradition of poisson d’Avril (where a child sticks a paper fish on a victim’s back as an April Fool’s Day trick) by sending a postcard. This one has a particularly patriotic theme: Alsace personified is tied to a tree somewhere in recognisably Alsacien mountain terrain. However, an heroic French soldier is appearing riding a fish to her rescue. The fish’s colours of red and white, combined with his blue, signify patriotism. A German soldier is just seen skulking away. The image is ludicrous but the message is hopeful and serious: “Dearest Alsace! Liberty at last!”

Patriotic Poisson d'Avril posted 1.4.1915

This card from my collection was posted on 1st April 1915.

 

 

 


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Cimetière militaire Munster: a place of stories

A re-blog for the 70th anniversary: 6th / 7th February 1945 and a shoot-out in the cemetery in Munster

Shot Silk

Munster Cemetery in Alsace is a place of stories. It tells of the worldness of war. From here I can see the graves of men who were French, German, British, Chinese, Jewish, Canadian and Muslim. Cimetière militaire Munster is at the back of the civic cemetery. It has a quiet, spacious dignity and though it flies a French flag, the graves of all are immaculate. Just looking at one small row of ten French graves tells the story of the war-stripped  mountains and wrecked valley-bed villages so bitterly fought for, so close by: ten men killed at Stosswihr, at Sattel, at Soultzbach; ten men brought from cemeteries at Ampfersbach, Stosswihr, Wihr-au-Val, Breitenbach, Metzeral in the early 1920s and reinterred. Paul from the Loire was 21, Gilbert from Allier was 41. Three of the ten are from Gérardmer, killed 30 kilometres from their loved ones at home. When these ten died, the…

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