The Blue Line – the Vosges frontier 1871 to 1914

The frontier separating Alsace from France before the Great War

Jehanne d’Arc

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On 30th May 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 annexed to the German Empire, she became a powerful symbol of resistance, of defiance, of eagerness for liberation.

Jeanne Ballon

The statue on the Ballon d’Alsace – on the French side of the hated border – of Jeanne d’Arc is still defiantly facing Germany, deliberately positioned to show that Alsace and Lorraine challenge their annexation. It was sculpted in 1909 by Mathurin and features in many postcards of the era; this one is typical and the text draws attention to the patriotic crowds at the inauguration.

Ballon d'Alsace statue de Jeanne d'arc

The inspirational figure of Jeanne is a recurrent theme in monuments and memorials after the oppression was lifted. Many Alsacien men were forced to fight for Germany, although it has to be remembered that anyone under the age of 43 when war was declared in 1914 had not known life as a French citizen and many were to all intents and purposes fully fledged Germans. Nevertheless, the theme of a young man being forced to fight for the oppressor is a powerful one and many patriotic images depict the despair of the young soldier and his family.

The mother depicted on the war memorial at Guebwiller pins a small rosette on her son’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 [below] 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 the 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 1914 as each side fought to gain control of the essential cols and the front moved rapidly. 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

In 2012. (There are British aviators and Muslim casualties among the graves.)

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 (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

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.

Jeanne Menil Jeanne 2

It is a memorial of unexpected height and power; the loyal Chasseur figures, bravely ready for any challenger and in death cared for 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 even today. Your eye is drawn upwards from the brave soldiers to their alleged inspiration as they fought to regain Alsace and Moselle for France.

Note. Published to mark the feast day of Ste Jeanne d’Arc, 30th May 2013.

More interesting material on Jehanne here: http://www.maidofheaven.com/ and http://mrssymbols.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/arms-and-maiden.html

Author: Gwyneth Roberts, mightygwyn

History amateur with a fountain pen and a camera. In 'The Blue Line Frontier', I dip into scenes of life in Alsace and the Vosges during the period before the Great War. My 'Shot Silk' blog is more random: it looks this way and that.

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