A young man in Alsace before the Great War was almost certainly 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, if any. Many 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.
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.
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.
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!’
(My photographs, my postcards)