The Blue Line – the Vosges frontier 1871 to 1914

The frontier separating Alsace from France before the Great War


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Crossing the frontier before the Great War – the Cols

 Rainbow over Reichackerkopf

(Rainbow over Reichackerkopf, 1915 battleground. The valley rises eventually to Col de la Schlucht, to right of photograph, off scene)

The landcape of the Vosges is mountainous and very beautiful; it forms deceptively rounded peaks rising to a series of summits called les Ballons. West of Thann, the Ballon d’Alsace is 1247 metres (4091 feet) and the Ballon d’Servance is 1216 metres. The Grand Ballon, west of Guebwiller, is 1424 metres (4672 feet). Le Hohneck, west of Munster, is 1363 metres (4472 feet).

It’s an exceptional area. The wild, silent forests with towering pines, still mysterious pools where dragonflies hover in summer, high open pastures of the Hautes Vosges dotted with the distinctive Vosgienne cows, waterfalls, peaty bogs and meadows of mountain flowers are a natural habitat for diverse wildlife. In May, after six months of safe confinement down in the lower farms, humans herd the cows up into the high mountain pastures where they run with their new freedom in a cacophony of hundreds of cow bells: transhumance is a cause for celebration and festivity. The mountain products are sought after and relished: cheese, hams, honey, kirsch. Alsace wine is very special. Biodiversity flourishes even in sites ravaged by war. People come to the Vosges to walk, ski, drive, cycle; to examine flora and fauna; to investigate rocks and minerals; to eat well or stay in peace; to buy produce to take home; to enjoy the hot brightness and the mountain air after the humidity of the Rhine plain in summer, or to have fun in the deep snows. It was equally a source of pleasure, exploration and challenge before the Great War.

Ballon d'Alsace La Borne et le Sommet (cars)

Access through the Vosges is historically through a series of cols. When Alsace and Moselle became the newly-named Reichsland Elsaß Lothringen, the cols ceased to be the passages from one department to another: they became the legal crossing from one state to another. Travellers and tourists still visited the Vosges and they crossed the frontier with a mixture of bewilderment, curiosity, anger, despair, sadness and astonishment, evidenced by the thousands of postcards on sale and their poignant hand-written messages.

Patriotic cards showing the return of Alsace and Lorraine to France were popular before and during the Great War, then sent by soldiers who perhaps didn’t wish to depict the awful scenes they witnessed, or perhaps written by senders who wished to encourage and motivate. Some of the minor cols were heavily fought over because of their strategic importance: Col de la Chipotte (south west of Raon l’Étape) is less famous than the well-known sites such as le Linge and le Vieil-Armand / Hartmannswillerkopf but the human suffering and loss on both sides there in August-September 1914 was appalling.

 Patriotique l'Arrivée des Diables Bleus

(Card posted 1915. The woman on the left wearing a black coiffe represents Alsace, the one on the right Lorraine.)

The map shows the main cols in the Vosges, approximately marked. I’ve also included the summits of the Ballon d’Alsace and Hohneck. North of the map area were the cols of Donon (west of Molsheim) and Hantz (west of Barr). I will feature each of the cols in forthcoming individual pieces. They are all worthy of special attention!

 Cols on map

I intend to write a lot more about the Vosges themselves later in the blog. For the meantime, there’s an interactive map here: http://www.parc-ballons-vosges.fr/la-carte-du-parc/


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A tale of two posts: les poteaux sur les frontières

After the establishment of the new German state, it was essential for the German authorities to indicate the new boundaries as quickly as possible. At each of the crossing points through the Vosges mountains, they erected wooden posts painted in the German colours. But soon it was obvious that these were susceptible to the extreme weather variations and to vandalism.

By contrast, and probably understandably, the French authorities were rather slow in marking the hated frontier and eventually, in 1885, the German ambassador had to intervene and insist that the work was carried out, arguing that there were risks to France in not indicating the border. A survey was carried out to evaluate the problem and twelve crossing points were identified. Reluctantly, the French agreed to erect their own posts. The Ministry of the Interior made a grant available to fund ten posts at the most important crossings and they were ordered in July, 1886, from a foundry in St-Dié. The Ministry of Public Works funded two more, one at the Col de Ste-Marie between St-Dié and Sélestat and one at the Col du Bussang north of the Ballon d’Alsace. They were in place by the end of 1886. Painting them was considered too expensive.

 Col de Ste-Marie & borne before War written 1918

(Col de Ste-Marie. Borne centre, poteau to right)

Of course, they soon began to deteriorate. Newspapers began to complain about the shameful lack of maintenance of the national symbol, comparing them to the pristine condition of the German markers. Meanwhile the foundries of Kaiserslautern were busy making imposing plaques declaring to all travellers that they were entering the German Empire. From 1889, these were in place, dominating the less cared-for French markers, often mounted on striped posts in the Empire’s colours.

Col de la Schlucht frontiere franco-allemande 1911 2 people

(Col de la Schlucht, German and French customs officials)

Col de la Schlucht German customs, tram

 (Col de la Schlucht. Tram arrival, poteau to left.)

Many cards and pictures show the joyful destruction of these loathed posts in the early days of the Great War and many messages declare the writer’s pleasure in …

 Col de la Schlucht plus de frontiere

… ‘Plus de frontière!’

(Above: Col de la Schlucht, deserted customs building. The Hotel Français was destroyed during the Great War. More of that anon.)


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A few words about bornes

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The Col du Bonhomme has been a route through the Vosges for centuries. It’s at the point where the main road from Nancy and St-Dié to Colmar crosses the Route des Crêtes, which was established in the Great War as a route along the ridge of the Vosges for the easier movement of French troops. It used to look like the card below posted in 1913 shows. As a border crossing between annexed Alsace and the rest of France, it was patrolled by customs officials and the frontier was marked with a metal plaque on a striped post: a poteau frontière.

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Behind the hotel at the left hand side of the picture, there are now woods, with footpaths tracking through. Before long, you come across stones set at intervals, like these two:

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On closer examination, it’s clear that these are the original bornes frontières (frontier stones). The smaller, more rugged one was a rudimentary interim measure while the occupying forces of the German Empire had marked stones made. I think these date from the mid-1890s. The bornes were numbered and on this one it’s possible – just – to distinguish the number 207*.

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Bornes marked the frontier at crossing points, at cols, across meadows and across high pastures (chaumes),  from the border with Luxembourg to the border with Switzerland. From Luxembourg to Donon they were the responsibility of the German authorities and France was responsible for the rest.  Originally the stones were not very visible and thus easily damaged by passing vehicles, or by disgruntled locals, so the bornes considered most at risk from traffic damage were painted white.

The original bornes were supposed to be just over a metre tall at the front with a face about 30cm across, with a base sunk into the ground to about 60 cm. They were lettered D (Deutschland) and F (France) and they carried their identification number. (It is often possible to distinguish the letters on the  bornes which remain.) Given the length of the new frontier, the necessity of marking it quickly and the difficulties imposed by the mountainous terrain, some were less well executed than others.

This borne is at the Col de Ste-Marie.

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 Card posted before the Great War:

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Tourists and travellers sent thousands of postcards showing the new controversial frontier posts. Their photos and messages evoke an era of longing and, as a visitor wrote to her cousin on a card I possess (translated):

 “So many regrets in these few words! Our Alsace. So close to us yet no longer of us!

 


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A contemporary map

This is an extract from a larger map, unfortunately undated, showing  Elsaß Lothringen.

Elsass Lothringen map extract

 Towns and villages were given German names. Examples, working south:

Strassburg or Straßburg is Strasbourg

Schlettstadt is Sélestat

Markirch is Ste-Marie-aux-Mines

St Pilt is St-Hippolyte

Rappoltsweiler is Ribeauvillé

Münster is Munster

Gebweiler is Guebwiller

Sulz is Soultz

Sennheim is Cernay

Mulhausen is Mulhouse

(I have a directory of German placenames and am happy to give other translations.)


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The blue line of the Vosges: starting with a little history

When you drive eastwards across France, you gradually become aware of a line of mountains in the distance and by the time you’ve passed Nancy, you’re in the beginning of foothills. The mountain summits seem to take on a blue cast and gradually, as you begin to ascend, you realise that you’ve entered a very beautiful mountain region: the Vosges.

 A little history. Napoleon declared war on Prussia in July, 1870. It was disastrous. The French army was poorly prepared and in the next three months suffered defeats which are marked on memorials in some French towns: names like Wissembourg, Froeschwiller, Strasbourg, Gravelotte, Metz and Sedan came to be remembered for French losses. In January, 1871, France surrendered. The new German Empire was proclaimed in Versailles in February. By the Treaty of Frankfurt, May 1871, France ceded Alsace (except Belfort) and most of Moselle to the German Empire.

 A new frontier was devised. In May,  the départements of Alsace and  Moselle became the newly-named Reichsland Elsaß Lothringen. The Treaty made provision for people to leave the areas and go to France: 125000 people did so. After that, those who remained lived under occupation, males being required to carry out military service in the German Army, civilians bound by laws enforced by German officials and the army.

 The natural frontier was the summit of the Vosges mountains. On the western side was France, minus Alsace, part of Lorraine and most of the Moselle department; on the other was Germany and the annexed regions. The watershed formed a natural boundary along most of the frontier as far as the Ballon d’Alsace except for the Donon region. The crest line became known wistfully as la ligne bleue des Vosges.

Blog Picture map Schlucht showing border

 (Frontier marked by me.)

The lives of the inhabitants of the region changed markedly. Access through the difficult Vosges mountains was historically through a series of cols, which became part of the new artificial frontier.  Customs officials of both countries patrolled the new border crossings between annexed Alsace and the rest of France. The German administration quickly erected poteaux frontières in the Empire’s colours, on striped posts displaying the German eagle in a circle. A long series of bornes frontières [boundary stones] was set in place and still can be spotted today. The stones are a reminder of one of the causes of the Great War.

France wanted the annexed regions back.

Patriotic Poilus Strasbourg in distance Hugo quote

There is a valid argument that these regions historically belonged to Germany. However, I don’t intend to discuss that; there are plenty of good sources of information on the Internet.

I intend to dip into the scenes of life in Alsace and the Vosges during the period before the Great War, using my own collection of postcards, maps and documents and my own photographs. I hope you enjoy them.

Patriotic O France!... bouclier de Paix