The Blue Line – the Vosges frontier 1871 to 1914

The frontier separating Alsace from France before the Great War


Leave a comment

Le Col de la Chipotte, 25th August 1914 – le Trou d’Enfer, the Hell Hole

Le Col de la Chipotte (or Chipote) is in the west of the Vosges mountains on the principal route between the towns of Rambervillers and Raon-l’Étape. From Raon-l’Étape and St-Dié to its south east there are relatively easy ways through the mountains. Therefore, possession of the col was strategically vital for both the Germans and the French. Winning the Col was part of Joffre’s two-pronged strategy for reclaiming French territory lost in 1871: Alsace and Lorraine.

01 Col de la Chipote crossroads written 1916 Before: a simple Vosges col at 453 metres.

03 Col de la Chipote tombe written Feb 1919 After

The territory is dense forest, including steep slopes and ravines. At that stage of the war, few men on either side had any experience in or training for that sort of terrain. It was almost impossible effectively to use artillery and visibility was obscured by trees. There are some small villages to the west of the col, though these were ruined by bombardment early on.

The Germans needed to be able to move their troops efficiently to other theatres of operations and by late August were in a strong position to organise their defensive strategy to progress west towards the Meurthe. On 22nd August Moltke sent the order to continue as far south as Épinal, pushing the French south and breaking their stronghold at Épinal. By the evening of the 24th August, it was considered unlikely that the French would disrupt the manoeuvres and the Germans pressed through to hold a line in the region of the villages of Étival-Moyenmoutier, Baccarat and St-Benoit in the low western foothills of the Vosges. Von Heeringen chose not to push through as far as Rambervillers and stopped at the Col de la Chipotte.

On the 25th August, the French fought back but were repelled. Some French units, separated by forests, dared not venture any further but others counter-attacked, successfully halting or even pushing back the German advance. By the evening, the Germans were ordered to suspend their forward thrust. The next day, however, they secured the forests of Sainte-Barbe. The French attacked again, somewhat overrating successes elsewhere in the region and confidently expecting their opponents to collapse.

What happened during the next day was confusing but it gives a flavour of the days to come. French unit diaries even record their soldiers hidden high in trees firing at the enemy, which may be an exaggeration. Some units failed to arrive where they were supposed to be because of failures in the transmission of orders. Others inexplicably spent the morning constructing trenches even though they had not been ordered to and the unit was not even in a status of alert. Expected reinforcements did not come. In early afternoon, the French began a retreat which quickly turned into a messy rout and by 15h00 the Germans were able to secure the col. There were already heavy casualties on both sides.

At 16h30 French troops were conscious that an attack was imminent, probably within the hour. They were heavily bombarded and hid in the woods. Panic set in and the frightened, exhausted men fled to the nearest village for shelter. Scornfully, the Germans promptly called them ‘fuyards’ [fugitives]. However, the French rallied and were able to drive the Germans back and hold the col, but at a huge cost of French lives.

On 27th, the Germans were determined to regain the Col. They needed to split the French and secure a route through the Vosges from the east to the west. The Col changed hands again and again, with a huge death toll. Despite heavy bombardments and repeated attacks over the next few days, neither side managed to secure the col.

Reports claim that this small piece of land was littered with bodies, French men lying next to Germans. One unit which started on 1st August with 3000 men and 50 officers was reduced to 1050 men and 15 officers within two days of the battle for the col. Capitaine Pasdeloup, 10e BCP, wrote on 3rd September that he was commanding the remains of two companies: 190 fusiliers instead of 500. The commandant was dead, 4 captains [plus other officers] were killed or wounded, but morale was, he said, good. On 30th August, he noted that within eight minutes of an attack on Chipotte his company lost one sergeant major, one sergeant and 41 chasseurs.

Another unit diarist recorded that between 31st August and 3rd September, his unit lost 47 killed, 252 wounded and 305 had disappeared (almost certainly dead), with 5 officers killed and 9 wounded. Out of 71 officers, he said, he had 15 left: 79% had been killed or wounded. His troops had started with 4740 men and after those 4 days there were 1905 remaining, which he said represented a loss of 60%.

05 Col de la Chipote graves with kepi

In another ghastly scene, one small French unit was trapped in an isolated location surrounded by putrefying bodies for two and a half days.

In the evening of 5th September, German high command ordered its troops to cease all attacks and to prepare to move to another theatre of operations. A week later, on the 12th September, French troops reoccupied the Col de la Chipotte and fighting there ended.

Current thinking is that the soldiers on both the French and the German sides fought for the Col de la Chipotte with courage, endurance and determination. Many were inexperienced in mountain and forest combat, and the nature of the terrain undoubtedly contributed to the huge losses and injuries on both sides. One of my postcards of le Col de la Chipotte sent by a poilu from the Front instructs his wife: “Put the card in your album and save it because at la Col de la Chipotte 19000 men, French and German, fell and they are buried in the same graves.” I think his numbers may be wrong, but his sense of awe and horror is palpable.

04 Col de la Chipote mixed graves soldiers French and Germans lie dead together.

The French dead have their memorials, the Germans have none here. Cimetière Militaire de la Chipotte contains 1899 dead, plus 893 in two ossuaries. Inside the cemetery there are monuments including one to 349 unknown soldiers and a monument erected by local people (I think) to the soldiers killed on the battlefield. By the modern car parking space, there is a monument to the Chasseurs à pied and there is a roadside monument to the Colonial regiments.

02 Col de la Chipote with monument posted 1920

07 Col de la Chipotte inauguration Monument des Chasseurs

08 Col de la Chipotte Monument des Chasseurs woman bike

Col  de la Chipotte cemetery bw  September 2012

Col  de la Chipotte segment (N) September 2012

Note:

Please make allowances for the fact that I am not a military historian but an enthusiast for the Vosges and their battlefields. I intend that my text should be accessible to non-specialists. I am happy to correct mistakes.

There is a full account with maps and photographs in 14-18 magazine [Le magazine de la Grande Guerre], number 59, November-January 2013. Back issues are available from the publisher. http://www.hommell-magazines.com/magpress/site/hommell/14-18-MAGAZINE/fr/kiosk/title.html

Col de la Chipotte

All postcards and photographs my own except for the colour photo of the cemetery, which is by Nigel Holbrook.


1 Comment

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

 

 

 

 


Leave a comment

The start of a 550 km journey: the Col du Bussang and the Moselle

On the former French side of the Col du Bussang a small stream emerges from an insignificant hole in the hillside. It is distinguished only by the shape sculpted around it: an M shape which could represent mountains…

Moselle M

… or indicate the name of the river. An elegant design set into the adjacent wall informs you that this is the source of the Moselle at 715 m and a map traces the route through France and Germany (where it becomes the Mosel) to Koblenz, where it flows grandly into the Rhine, 550 km from its insignificant source.

Moselle map

Now the main road N66 races through the Col, taking heavy traffic through the Vosges between Thann and Remiremont on dual carriageways and viaducts. About a kilometre onwards from the Col, a traveller in the time of Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen would be able to see the bridge over le Séchenat, a tributary of the Moselle. In these two postcards, horse-drawn traffic is warily crossing the Pont du Séchenat.

Bussang Pont de Sechenat Grand Hôtel des Sources

Bussang Pont de Sechenat winter

In three kilometres or so the road down from the Col flattens out into the valley of Bussang, distantly overlooked by the Ballon d’Alsace* to the south. It then heads on west, under the shadow of the Ballon de Servance.

Bussang Vue générale et le Ballon-d'Alsace

Looking at the bitter winter climate even lower down from the heights, it’s unsurprising that the military personnel stationed on the Ballon du Servance needed protective clothing.

Ballon de Servance La Tenue de la Troupe en hiver au Ballon de Servance

 

 

All photographs and postcards are my own.

*Please see other blog posts to read more about the Ballon d’Alsace.


Leave a comment

Crossing the frontier by tunnel: the Col de Bussang

See d'Urbes resized

The main road between Thann and Remiremont passes the tranquil, natural lake of the See d’Urbès, where you can walk round the water’s edge and watch dragonflies darting among the marshes. You can take the little road to peaceful Storckensohn, walk past the pretty Alsacien houses and pause by the old oil mill, a watermill. I imagine that visitors from a century ago would have seen a similar scene.

Afternoon sun Urbes  –  Storckensohn. Timeless –  The oil mill, Urbes

Then you can return to the main N66 and begin the winding climb to the Col de Bussang. You pass the memorial to those whose lives ended in the Dachau satellite camp at the foot of Vallon. (It was also administratively connected to the concentration camp at Natzweiler-Struthof, 50 km SE of Strasbourg.) In 1944, the Germans requisitioned a partly complete early rail tunnel to the west of Urbès for an arms factory under the Daimler-Benz umbrella, in a scheme which was code-named KRANISCH-10. Two thousand prisoners and deportees, arriving in waves, were employed in atrocious conditions there between March and September 1944. A current project (2012-2016) aims to provide a memorial to those who worked and died there, with interpretation panels, a trail, a rose bed and art works by young people.*

Memorial

The N66 is a fast, winding road and I imagine that many drivers keen to finish the steep climb to the Col du Bussang (731m) are completely unaware that just to the north of the summit (the col) there is a tunnel through the hillside. It replaced an important road which passed above the site where the tunnel was constructed. The sign over the French entrance to the tunnel was specific: Limite de territoire français 155m de l’origine de tunnel. Shortly after entering the tunnel, the traveller was entering German territory.

Col de Bussang Côté Français

Customs and security on the other side of the tunnel were markedly different from that on the French side, in the officials’ uniforms and the language.

Col de Bussang côté de l'Alsace  Wirtschaft zum Tunnel

The tunnel was a great draw for tourists and travellers. The café was, I believe, Café Murat and postcards dated after the Great War show that ‘Wirtschaft zum Tunnel’ was promptly obliterated and replaced with ‘Café du tunnel’.

Col de Bussang Alsace side

Col de Bussang after war   Café du Tunnel

The entrance to the tunnel is still visible from the former German side (the Urbès side), but I have not been able to see any evidence of the former French entrance (the Bussang side). However, you can see the source of the great river Moselle (Mosel) as it trickles out of the hillside. (Take the D89, route des Sources, not avenue des Sources, and after passing the turning up the hill to Drumont there is a small picnic area at the source.)

Tunnel Col Urbes side (Former German side. Tunnel to the left of the picture. Modern hotel.)

These two cards demonstrate the difficulties of travelling through the Vosges in winter. Both show the French side of the frontier and the customs officials are visible in each. (The stamped card was posted in Wesserling, Alsace, German territory at that time, hence the German stamp.) The small chalet nearest the camera was built by Touring-Club.

Col de Bussang sous la Neige - La frontière en sortant du Tunnel

Col de Bussang route de Wesserling

The N66 remains an important road under pressure. In earlier centuries the route was vital for the defence of France and the movement of troops through the Vosges towards the Swiss border; now trucks are its significant load. The fast road is worth using briefly for the natural beauty on either side of the Col: from St-Maurice you can pick up the steep route to the Ballon d’Alsace , or it’s pleasant to linger in the tranquil nature reserves and lakes near Urbès and Kruth.

Window box

All postcards and photographs are my own.

• For more information please see http://www.struthof.fr/fr/nos-partenaires/memoriaux-des-camps-annexes/ and click on le Kommando Urbès. Also see http://www.lieux-insolites.fr/alsace/urbes/urbes.htm


Leave a comment

Haicot – an altered Great War monument

In the forest high above the Col de Bagenelles is a beautiful mosaic created by German soldiers in the Great War. Its text identifies the creators as Landsturm Friedberg and it depicts a proud, growling crowned lion bearing a sword. It is the Hessian Lion – Btl Friedberg was a Hessian unit.

Haicot lion compressed

(The edge blur is because the precious mosaic is protected by a shelter.)

In the woods in front of the mosaic it’s easy to pick out vestiges of trenches. Walking on, eventually the path curves round the flank of the mountainside and unexpectedly you come to a small grotto which contains a monument inscribed to  2. Landsturm Infanterie Batallion 2 “Bonn” part of Landsturm VIII. Armee-Korps / Coblenz. In 1918 it became 2nd Btl, of Landsturm Infanterie Regiment 48. (Thank you to Rob Schaefer @GERArmyResearch for the assistance in deciphering this and for the information about Btl Friedberg.)

I photographed the monument in 2013 :

Haicot Bonn monument 1 compressed

The 1920s postcard below shows the grotto; and adjacent to it is a projecting structure which I believe to be part of the German position at Haicot (alternatively spelt Haycot).

Haycot l'abri

This (below) is the monument in 2013…

Haicot Bonn monument 2 compressed (my photo)

… and this (below) is a postcard photograph of it taken after the Second World War. The monument has been adapted to memorialise members of les Amis de la Nature who died in 1944. A close comparison of the ‘now’ photograph shows the holes where the Second World War memorial plaque was screwed in over the top of the original.

Haycot memorial

I have read elsewhere that l’Auberge du Haycot has been built on a German structure. While I do not know whether this is true or not, I believe that the author is mistaken.  Close to the Bonn monument is the Refuge de les Amis de la Nature Haycot, one of several refuges for walkers in the Vosges. (My photo, below, 2013) The owner of l’Auberge du Haycot told me that the refuge, not the Auberge, is the historic building.

Haicot refuge compressed

There was undoubtedly a German position at Haicot, shown in these two postcards from immediately after the First World War.

Haycot le Front des Vosges Abri Haycot

(Above. The  structure projecting over the slope ties in with that just visible in the early postcard showing the grotto: 331 Le Front des Vosges. 3rd picture from top, above.)

Haycot Positions allemandes du Haycot posted 1923

IMG_4507 (June 2014)

I am convinced that the ground floor of the current refuge is the same building as the ground floor of the premises shown in the postcards. The windows and doors match and there is early corrugated iron embedded into the wall. The landscape falls in the same way, steeply down the mountainside.

Provided that one isn’t attempting to walk to here from the Col de Bagenelles (a steep walk) and instead drives up and parks near l’Auberge du Haycot, this is an easy and rewarding walk in an important but less visited area of the early Front.

Haicot setting compressed

(My photographs and my postcards. Please don’t borrow them without asking.)

Rob Schaefer’s blog is http://gottmituns.net/ – very much worth visiting.


Leave a comment

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/


2 Comments

A few words about bornes

Image

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.

Image

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:

 Image

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*.

 Image

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.

 Image

 Card posted before the Great War:

 Image

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!