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

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

 

 

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

 

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.

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