The Blue Line – the Vosges frontier 1871 to 1914

The frontier separating Alsace from France before the Great War


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An Easter card, April 1915

This card was sent from Alsace by a French soldier, Gaston, Easter 1915. I’ve translated it. The card shows Aspach-le-Haut, in the southern part of Alsace and he is spending Easter temporarily resting in Rodern (now Roderen).

Asbach le Haut military card posted April 1914

To my darling

Since yesterday evening we are again resting in the charming village of Rodern and as today is the feast of Easter we have complete rest, so I can’t let this day pass without sending a few words to you. This time I can tell you that on Friday night around ten o’clock we had an alert: it was to go and support our infantry attacking German outposts. The fight was hot: never had I seen such a storm of fire and shrapnel. Finally after one hour of fighting the enemy fled on foot and our infantry seized the front trenches. The infantry had unimaginable losses and we had none.

Now we are spending 10 days here and then we will return to the trenches. It’s as though you always see the same comedy; also I ask myself, when will it all be over?

I hope that the victory will be soon and we will have the good fortune to relive the best of the old days even better than we experienced them before.

Now I have to suspend my chat with you, but I will resume soon because despite the great distance which separates our thoughts, I think of you always.

I’m still in very good health and I hope you enjoy the same. With this card I send my best memories and my sweetest kisses.

Yours forever

Gaston

 

 

Postcard my own.

 


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The Vosges trams: Ampfersbach to la Schlucht

Ampfersbach 1

When the mist clears, and if in your imagination you replace the modern building with a distinguished Victorian hotel, you will see an alluring destination for travellers in the Vosges during the period before the Great War.

I am in the pretty valley of Ampfersbach, looking upwards –

Ampfersbach 2

and the modern sanatorium is on the site of the fabulous Hotel Altenberg with its exceptional panorama.

Col de la Schlucht Hotel Altenberg posted April 1915

At 1059 m, the luxurious Altenberg was a short walk from the frontier at Col de la Schlucht (1139m). (The original 1896 hotel was destroyed during the Great War and a new hospital building was built on the site between 1922 and 1926. It closed in 2011.) La Schlucht was a popular destination, well supplied with restaurants, hotels and cafés where the intrepid traveller could relax after a stimulating walk in the French Hautes Vosges, contemplate the lost region of Alsace and breathe in the energising mountain air. There were customs buildings for French and German officials.

Col de la Schlucht multi 1896

It is, of course, possible for energetic people to walk up to la Schlucht from Munster or Gérardmer, or to travel by horse. In 1902, the embryonic idea of running a railway up to the Col and down the other side to Gérardmer began to take shape and a tramway was built. This opened up the beautiful valley and Col to tourists from Colmar, who could travel to Munster by train and board a tram, and visitors from further afield. It was a summer service and half a million people took advantage of it between 1907 and 1913.

The tram trundled at 17 kph along the flat floor of the Munster valley, calling at little stations such as Saegmatt in the Ampfersbach valley:

Sagmatt Schlucht tram  posted 1912

It is still possible to see the slightly elevated embanked track (minus rails) along which the tram travelled. When the flat valley reached the sides of the pass, the tramway began to climb at 7.5 kph up slopes of 22% until it reached the Hotel Altenberg.

Tram Schlucht

Tram Munster-Schlucht Melkerei Altenburg posted 1907

The tramway levelled out after the Altenberg, passed under the Schlucht tunnel cut through the rocks –

Col de la Schlucht tunnel with tram

and eventually reached Col de la Schlucht. There, the customs officers awaited in their official premises at the frontier.

Col de la Schlucht German customs building & tram German customs building

 

Col de la Schlucht German frontier & officer German officer, French side in the background

There is much more to say about Col de la Schlucht and the trams in future posts. When the Great War broke out, the French army took the Hotel Altenberg. The tourist trams were used in the early weeks of the war for the transport of troops and the evacuation of wounded soldiers. This stopped when the German troops cut the electricity supply to the tramway.

Returning to Ampfersbach, I am fortunate to have a special card: a postcard sent by a French soldier from Ampfersbach during the Great War. He annotated it clearly, identifying:

  • the small settlement where they were based
  • a chimney next to which was the first aid post
  • the house where he slept in the cellar
  • and the German side of the front.

According to his message, the X near the church marks the place behind the cemetery wall where he was guarding the trenches. Sadly, he didn’t date or sign his card.

Ampfersbach annotated by soldier trench marked

In very faint pencil marks, he marked his trench line. I have traced his line in red.

It’s a privilege beyond words to have bought such a detailed snapshot of someone’s war for five euros.

 

 

All postcards and photographs my own.

 

Note:

Ampfersbach and the Hotel Altenberg are in Alsace, in the territory annexed by Germany.

Statistics about the tram sourced from La Vallée de Munster: Le Tramway Munster-Schlucht et les environs de la Schlucht by Gérard Jacquat and Gérard Leser.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Two quiet Cols: Oderen and Bramont

Compared with the bustle and activity in the better known areas of the former frontier, the Col de Bramont and the Col d’Oderen are very still. There is little traffic, mainly occasional cyclists challenging the steep routes on a blazing hot day.

The Col d’Oderen (884m) is north of the Col du Bussang on the main route between Ventron and Kruth. Unlike the busy border crossings which benefited from cafés and hotels, this remote Col does not seem to have been particular popular with tourists, though it was patrolled by customs officials watching out for contraband such as matches and tobacco.

The officers in this postcard are in annexed Alsace , on German territory, standing by the frontier posts of Germany (the round plaque with the Imperial eagle) and France (the adjacent oblong plaque nearer the photographer).

Col d'Oderen posted 1906

My photos were taken on one of those stifling summer days when the tarmac had turned to liquid black stickiness, and leaving an air-conditioned car meant stepping into a daunting blast of heat. A couple of women were peacefully picnicking under the trees. Apart from that, the air was utterly still, gently muddied by the hum of bees and ripped by the raucous cackle of magpies, with the occasional plaintive wails of birds of prey soaring in the thermals. The modern départementale stone is at the site of the ancient frontier, with borne 3102 next to it.

Oderen 2 Former French side

Oderen 1 Boundary – former frontier

Oderen borne Borne 3102

Close to the frontier is a stone monument. Its gold lettered text says:

“À la gloire des unites du groupement tactique de la 3ème D.I.A. et de son chef le Général Duval qui libérerent Ventron le 25 novembre 1944 et s’emparerent du Col d’Oderen le 1er décembre 1944 après de rudes combats.”

[la 3ème D.I.A. = 33e division d’infanterie algérienne]

This is a Second World War action. Briefly* : Alsace was again occupied by Germany. 3ème DIA pushed the enemy back from the Gérardmer area through the Vosges cols of Bussang, Oderen and Bramont, liberating various small towns and eventually reaching Colmar, thus playing an important role in facilitating the liberation of Alsace in 1945. It’s worth remembering that Vosges winters are bitter. The icy cold in 1944/5 was unbearably raw.

Col d'Oderen monument original

 

The Col de Bramont (956m) is north of the Col d’Oderen, east of the busy ski resort la Bresse and south of the popular Col de la Schlucht. It is one of the wilder of the frontier cols, and in the period when it was actively guarded, there was nothing at all there apart from a small wooden hut which provided shelter for customs officials. Consequently smuggling flourished in the area. Contemporary postcards reveal a muddy, poorly-formed road, surrounded by ferns and forest. It looks inaccessible and still is fairly difficult in places : the D-road from Wildenstein climbs a series of steep, challenging hairpin bends.

My photograph was taken looking into the former German territory from the former French side and the contemporary postcard shows the same view from the opposite side of the road. The German frontier post (with the eagle) is approximately where the départementale sign is now. The photographer was probably standing by the douaniers’ hut.

 

Col du Bramont looking to German side

Col de Bramont posted 1902 edited

 

A pleasant drive or walk from the Col de Bramont is to follow the signs to Col de la Vierge and Lac des Corbeaux (via chemin Béry). The pretty lake is in a perfectly formed glacial corrie surrounded by pine forests. It’s popular for gentle pottering round the lake, strolls along shaded woodland paths, fishing and just relaxing with a picnic. Apparently the water is very cold even in summer – though swimming from the sandy beaches is officially forbidden. However, I suspect that on a future visit, the bathing costumes may well be ready in the car!

Lac des Corbeaux

 

 

All postcards and photographs my own.

 

*Note: further reading in English on Alsace and the Vosges in the Second World War includes:

Bonn, Keith. When the odds were even: The Vosges Mountain Campaign October 1944 – January 1945

Whiting, Charles. The Other Battle of the Bulge: Operation Northwind

Zaloga, Steven J. Operation Nordwind 1945. Hitler’s last offensive in the West