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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Chalet Hartmann: romance to ruins in 90 years

Approaching the summit of Col de la Schlucht (1139m) from the Munster valley, one of the first signs of habitation is the Hotel du Chalet. For decades travellers have refreshed themselves and relaxed here: cyclists and walkers –

Schlucht Hotel du Chalet

motorists –

Col de la Schlucht Hotel du Chalet with people & cars

and skiers –

Col de la Schlucht Hotel du Chalet with skiers

Adjoining the hotel premises is a patch of gravelly ground with a set of stone steps leading up to what looks like the foundations of a building. The excursionists of the Occupation era would have seen a pretty Swiss-style building called Chalet Hartmann here (seen in the second postcard above) and might possibly even have crossed paths with a distinguished visitor.

Col de la Schlucht 11 septembre 1908 après arrivée de l'Empereur Guillaume

1908 – crowds linger after the arrival of Wilhelm II and his entourage. The dark building on the left is the German customs building.

 

Chalet Hartmann was built in 1859/60 by a prominent industrialist, Frédéric Hartmann-Metzger, known for his fabric factories in Munster and his benevolent treatment of his staff, including establishing schools in the valley. He constructed the Chalet to mark the completion of the steep, winding road up to the Col from Munster begun fifteen years earlier.

Col de la Schlucht Chalet Hartmann day scene Before the Great War

Many illustrious people visited it, including Napoléon III (twice before the war of 1870) and Wilhelm II in September 1908. With Alsace returned to German territory, Hitler visited la Schlucht in 1940.

Col de la Schlucht Chalet Hartmann Kaiser visit query 28.07.1909 1908 (Unfortunately the original card is blurred.)

For part of its life, Chalet Hartmann was a restaurant popular with celebrities. It was badly damaged in the Great War, abandoned in the 1930s, and then damaged again in the Second World War. In 1946 it was completely demolished.

Col de la Schlucht Chalet Hartmann ruined A sad sight after the Great War

This is what the once beautiful Chalet Hartmann looks like now, photographed from the footpath which climbs behind the semi-derelict Hotel Tetras and overlooks the site of the original German customs building. All that remains is the set of steps into the house.

Chalet Hartmann site

The époque of a rather elegant, leisured, somewhat romantically inclined tourist industry was over and la Schlucht began to look for modern ways of exploiting the white gold of the high mountains.

Col de la Schlucht Chalet Hartmann

 

(All postcards and photographs are my own. Modern photographs June 2013)

 

 

 


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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.


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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


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Map

By way of orientation, here’s an annotated “bird’s eye” map showing the Ballon d’Alsace. These cards were very popular among soldiers writing home from the Front. Most of mine are German and the place names used are those which replaced the French names during the period of occupation.

Picture map Belfort labelled

 

 


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Fresh air and fun: Winter tourism on the Ballon d’Alsace before the Great War

Ballon d'Alsace Jumenterie in snow Hôtel de la Jumenterie (left) and farm

People living in developing industrial areas, in expanding cities such as Strasbourg and in increasingly urban environments viewed the mountains tracing their blue line on the horizon and dreamed of escapes to rural idylls where they could recapture an historic rural lifestyle, breathe fresh air and benefit from outdoor exercise. By the early twentieth century, the mountain areas were increasingly accessible and for those in north eastern France or in the territories to the east of the frontier, the Vosges offered beautiful landscapes, snow, space, pure air, a healthy environment and a range of accommodation. Families could choose between hotels, chalets and small establishments whether they were simply intending to explore the Massif privately or participate in great public  events.

Organisations dedicated to the pleasures and practicalities of visiting the mountains developed and by the time the Great War was on the horizon, these clubs were flourishing. Ski-club Vogesen-Straßburg was launched in 1896 – the German name was used  because Strasbourg was in Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen, the annexed part of France – and in 1902, the defiantly named Les Vosges-Trotters de Colmar was started by French-minded Alsaciens. Some of these clubs were modelled on the winter sports clubs which were already popular in the Black Forest, on the other side of the Rhine.

Ballon d'Alsace skiers, piste, Feb 1910 Skiers, Ballon d’Alsace, February 1910

The idea of a rural idyll was partly a myth, but it was a myth enthusiastically fostered by travel organisations and tourist literature. La Compagnie des Chemins de fer de l’Est promoted the Vosges with a vigorous poster campaign. Numerous intrepid travellers published works describing the unspoiled romantic beauty of the Vosges, an area apparently populated by simple honest folk who sang as they went about their daily lives and mingled with innocent animals straight out of fairy tales. The shallow, charming portraits almost entirely ignored the fact that the Vosges is a working area.

Ballon d'Alsace Jumenterie corridor to farm in snow Path cut to provide access to the farm

Ballon d'Alsace la récolte de la glace Cutting a path through the snow

However, the tourists came. Refuges were built, some by Club Vosgien*, chalets were constructed, farmers saw the opportunity to sell refreshments and their own produce such as cheese.

Visitors tended to gravitate towards their nearest mountain heights. The Ballon d’Alsace drew many visitors from the Belfort region to the south of the Vosges. Several hoteliers set up premises at the summit and one particularly original one is the ‘new’ Hôtel de la Jumenterie. It was built on the site of a small farm and its crenelated appearance deliberately evokes an historic past. The original jumenterie was a stable for brood mares, established by the Ducs de Lorraine in the 18th century. There is still la Jumenterie, now a riding-based holiday centre on the road to St-Maurice, but it does not use the original premises. I’ve been unable to see evidence of these and I think they have been demolished.

Ballon d'Alsace Jumenterie engloutie sous la neige Road snowed up between Hôtel de la Jumenterie (left) and farm

Yet, despite the tourists, the Ballon d’Alsace was still a frontier area, and customs officials still had to pursue their responsibilities, even in the bitterest winter, the deepest snows. The fun was a temporary mask; the realities could be extremely harsh, as the soldiers serving in the Hautes-Vosges in the Great War would discover in little more than a decade’s time.

Ballon d'Alsace Vierge dans un bloc de glace The statue of la Vierge du Sommet, Notre-Dame du Ballon, completely frozen into an ice sculpture

Ballon d'Alsace la Baraque des Douanes en hiver written 1911 The customs officers’ premises, card posted 1911

*Club Vosgien, founded 1872, focussed on walkers. It mapped footpaths and provided excellent sign posts through the whole massif of the Vosges. Today they have covered 17000 km of paths. Appealing to the less bourgeois who might not be attracted to the winter sports culture, Les Amis de la nature came to the Vosges just before the Great War, founding branches from 1912-14.  

All postcards my own

 


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Winter tourism (and some inventive transport) before the Great War: have a fabulous week in the Vosges!

Traîneau - promenade en traîneau   (Card posted 1908)

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, there was a growing appetite for affordable travel and the bicycle offered a perfect means of economic transport. The Bicycle Touring Club was founded in Britain in 1878, but changed its name five years later to the Cyclists’ Touring Club so that tricycle users could join.

Le Touring Club de France was launched in January 1890, modelling itself on the British association. It published guides, routes, journals and postcards for tourists and it promoted awareness of tourist provision such as road signs, orientation tables and refreshment facilities. It funded benches, shelters and some road improvements. (Travellers today may see the Vaulthier sculptures which mark the former Great War front line. They are squat granite pillars topped with an Adrian helmet and a laurel wreath. Touring Club de France was responsible for organising these. Three remain in the Vosges and six in Haut-Rhin, Alsace; one is at Hartmannswillerkopf.)

Naturally the Vosges mountains offered plenty of opportunities for the early tourism industry and Touring Club de France organised a series of exhibitions to promote the pleasures of spending a week in winter enjoying snow sports. The intermittent adventures of wealthy individuals with plenty of time could now potentially be enjoyed by more people.

February 1910 was bitterly cold and the heavy snowfall was an auspicious start to the new winter sports tourism industry. Gérardmer, on the French side of the 1871 frontier in the Hautes-Vosges, was an extremely popular summer destination but moribund in winter. The efforts of Touring Club de France could transform its tourist trade in its quietest season.

The problems of getting around on snow and ice kindled people’s imaginations. Bobsleighs were popular. Reminiscent of the craze for velocipedes (ingenious pedal cycles with up to four wheels), various comical transport machines were invented:

the vélo-ski…

Vélo-ski posted 1910 (Card posted 1910)

the auto-traîneau…

Traineau Auto-traineau

the traîneau à hélice…

Traineau à Hélice

(I find it hard to see how the unshielded propeller could possibly be safe!)

Even the customs and military organisations investigated the possibilities of ski transport. Here are customs officials at Col de la Schlucht:

Col de la Schlucht Prussian gendarme posted 1910 German  (Card posted 1910)

Col de la Schlucht sous le neige (Douanes) French (doorway shows height of snow)

and military skiers on the Ballon d’Alsace. Security is non-existent!

Ballon d'Alsace Skieurs Militaires card 1917

The spirit of adventure inevitably led to mishaps. One particular accident near Col de la Schlucht involved two French officers who aspired to reach the summit of Hohneck (1363m), undaunted by the atrocious weather conditions. Inevitably, they were caught in snowfall and fog. Suddenly, one vanished before his companion’s horrified eyes. He had fallen down a ravine, but fortunately his fall was cushioned by snow and he survived, bruised. This didn’t deter others from intrepid escapades and there were deaths.

The winter sports season was a great success and hopes were high for the coming years. Unfortunately in 1911 the snow failed to materialise. In 1912/3, le Club alpin français held the seventh Concours internationale de Gérardmer, an international snow sports event. A winter sports programme was organised for January 1914, with skiing and evening skating by electric lighting on constructed ice rinks. This was the last winter sports season on the French side of the frontier. By the time the Hautes-Vosges were next available for winter pleasure, Alsace and the Vosges had been restored to France.

Hohneck Avalanche rompue au coucher du soleil posted 1904

All postcards my own.