The Blue Line – the Vosges frontier 1871 to 1914

The frontier separating Alsace from France before the Great War


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Tour de France Stage 9: July 13th, 2014. A view through old postcards

The Tour de France in the Vosges and Alsace passes some of the most historically interesting parts of the area, places significant in the period before the Great War when Alsace and Lorraine were under German occupation and sites of sadness and commemoration afterwards. Postcard writers, travellers, tourists and soldiers, sent innumerable cards home from the Vosges. This is a small selection from my own collection, following the route of the Tour in two parts, Stage 9 and Stage 10.

Gérardmer

A German shell on display in Gérardmer:

01 Col de la Schlucht Gerardmer shell on display

Travelling in style from Gérardmer to Col de la Schlucht:

02 Services automobiles Gerardmer - la Schlucht

Xonrupt-Longemer to La Roche du Diable

Le Tunnel de la Roche de Diable:

03 Col de la Schlucht tunnel with people

Le Collet

The tramway from Gérardmer up to Col de la Schlucht, close to le Collet. The tram line was used for military transport during the Great War. The embankments and the path of the tramway can still be seen.

04 Col de la Schlucht le Collet tramway posted 1908

Col de la Schlucht (1140 m) This was a busy destination on the frontier between France and Alsace (annexed to Germany, 1871). The original bornes frontières (boundary stones) can still be traced following the frontier up the hillside, marked with F on the French side and D on the German.

The German side of the frontier with a customs officer:

05 Col de la Schlucht German frontier & officer

French customs:

06 Col de la Schlucht poste de Douane française posted 1917

A military halt at Col de la Schlucht before the Great War:

07 Col de la Schlucht grand'halte militaire avant la guerre

Chasseur à Pied at Col de la Schlucht, posted 1907:

07a Chasseurs à pied posted Schlucht 1910

The Hotel Français in ruins, posted 1917. (The Hotel is the furthest building on the right hand side of the road in the first picture.)

08 Col de la Schlucht destoyed hotel written 1917

Col de la Schlucht in ruins, posted 1918:

09 Col de la Schlucht posted Nov 1918

The grand Hotel Altenberg, which hosted many international royals, politicians and celebrities before the war:

10 Col de la Schlucht Hotel Altenberg posted 1915

The Hotel Altenberg after the war (rebuilt as a hospital, now semi-derelict):

11 Col de la Schlucht Hotel Altenberg after war

Station du Lac Blanc

Lac Blanc in peaceful times:

11 Lac Blanc with car

The 1914 mountain battleground of la Tête des Faux overlooks Lac Blanc and towards the villages of Orbey and Lapoutroie. Lac Blanc after the Great War, the hotel in ruins:

12 Lac Blanc après la guerre - ruines d l'hotel

Basses-Huttes – the Tour does not visit Lac Noir, but goes close. Lac Noir was a peaceful destination with a popular restaurant. During the Great War, it was used as a place of shelter: Gen Pouydraguin had his headquarters here. The small single storey buildings to the left of the lower picture were used as a hospital. They have recently been demolished. The restaurant was rebuilt and remains busy.

12a Lac Noir snow posted 1907

12b Lac Noir Grande Guerre

Col du Wettstein (880m) The Tour enters one of its most sobering stages. 17000 men, including 10000 Chasseurs, died at le Linge between July 20th and October 15th, 1915. The French dead of le Linge, Schratzmännele and Barrenkopf lie in the great cemetery at the Col du Wettstein.

Two early postcards of the great French cemetery:

14 Wettstein

13 Wettstein cimetière Orbey

An image posted in 1930:

15 Wettstein cimetiere posted 1930

Le Linge

A selection of images showing le Linge during and after the Great War. It was, obviously, a place of pilgrimage and reflection for those who had lost loved ones or friends there, or who had experienced the hell themselves.

16 Le Linge Set 14 Barrenkopf & Schratz, road, people

17 Album - le Linge sur les pentes de la tête du Linge

18 Le Linge with tourists posted 1925

18a Le Linge Set 03  German cemetery Linge

18b Le Linge Set 10 Schratzmaennele

19 Le Linge with car and people

The German dead are buried in their military cemetery, Hohrod. The bunker outside the walls is still there, adjacent to the road.

19a Hohrod Cemetery showing bunker

19b Hohrod Barenstall German military cemetery

Trois-Épis

The town before the Great War while under German occupation, labelled with its German name Drei Ähren. There is now a  rather special German military cemetery in the town. Its headstones have been replaced with modern crosses and wild flowers dominate the grounds.

20 Drei Ahren Trois Epis

21 Trois Epis military cemetery

Trois Epis German Cemetery 2

Trois Epis German Cemetery 1

Le Markstein (1183 m) – vestiges of the Great War can easily be seen from the Route des Crêtes, established by Joffre for the efficient movement of troops and supplies.  My photo shows how close these vestiges are to the Route des Crêtes (they are best seen in spring before the vegetation has grown back).

IMG_3981

Grand Ballon (1336m)

Postcard posted 1903 written in both German (the language of Alsace in occupation) and French, which was discouraged.

22 Grand Ballon posted 1903

Uffholtz, Cernay

This is the area of Hartmannswillerkopf / le Vieil Armand, the strategically vital mountain which gave views over and control of the Rhine Valley, bitterly fought over in 1915.

23 HWK région des combats devant Cernay et HWK posted 1916

HWK autour de HWK

Next: Tour de France Stage 10 July 14th, 2014

Please explore the index of my blog for more pieces about this lovely region before the Great War!

All postcards and photographs are my own.


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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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The Kaiser’s Birthday, place Kléber, Strasbourg

January 27th, 1859 was the day the future Kaiser Wilhelm II was born.  During the occupation of Alsace, it was evidently deemed fitting that parades were held in Strasbourg to mark great events and as the central of Strasbourg’s various squares and places, place Kléber would be an obvious choice for a birthday Mass.

Place Kléber is named after General Jean-Baptiste Kléber, whose statue dominates the space. He was assassinated in Egypt in 1800, but Napoleon refused to allow his body to be brought home to his native Alsace. Eventually Philippe Glass designed a monument which was inaugurated in 1840 and Kléber’s ashes lie underneath. (1)

The Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1, brought to an end a peaceful, prosperous period for the city of Strasbourg. The inhabitants and buildings of Strasbourg suffered considerably during the war. German troops led by General von Werder intended to capture the city and France was unable to send help because of its losses at Sedan, so the small garrison at Strasbourg was effectively isolated. The city was heavily bombarded from August 1870 until it surrendered on 28th September.  President Poincaré awarded the city the Légion d’Honneur in 1919 and his speech tracing that period is reproduced in Guides Illustrées Michelin des Champs de Bataille (1914-1918) : Strasbourg (2)

This postcard artistically depicts the terrible scene. General Kléber’s statue is clearly visible among the chaos.

Strasbourg Place Kleber bombardment 1870

From then on, Strasbourg was German.  This card shows an open air service to mark the Kaiser’s birthday in January 1915. General Kléber’s snow-covered statue is surrounded by German troops. It is a massive statement of power.

Strasbourg Place Kleber Kaiser's birthday & open air service 1915

There is a certain irony and poignancy in the next two cards, both featuring the same location, place Kléber. The first shows French troops re-entering Strasbourg after the Great War. General Kléber’s statue is in the centre of the photograph.

Strasbourg Place Kleber entry of troops after War

Here is the entry of Maréchal Pétain on November 25th, 1918.

Strasbourg Place Kleber Petain troops 25.11.1918

Place Kléber seems to have changed little since that time and many visitors to Strasbourg in the Christmas period head straight to see the le Grand Sapin de Noël. (Unfortunately I didn’t capture Kléber in this photo.) Happy times.

Sapin

Peace restored to the city: place Kléber in the era of trams where the troops once stood. Kléber and the cathedral pin the view to its past while business people, shoppers and travellers pass through to their work, the great department stores and the cafés as they do today.

Strasbourg Place Kleber (Card undated)

 

 

 

All cards and the photo are my own.

Notes:

(1)    Information on Strasbourg’s architecture and monuments:  http://www.archi-strasbourg.org/

(2)    Guides Illustrées Michelin des Champs de Bataille (1914-1918) : Strasbourg, pp 5-7 and 8.