The Blue Line – the Vosges frontier 1871 to 1914

The frontier separating Alsace from France before the Great War


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April 1915: “Poisson d’Avril” & “Heureuses Pâques”

Poisson d’Avril

Even in war conditions, in an atmosphere which was far from funny, the French soldier might recall the absurd, fun tradition of poisson d’Avril (where a child sticks a paper fish on a victim’s back as an April Fool’s Day trick) by sending a postcard. This one has a particularly patriotic theme: Alsace personified is tied to a tree somewhere in recognisably Alsacien mountain terrain. However, an heroic French soldier is appearing riding a fish to her rescue. The fish’s colours of red and white, combined with his blue, signify patriotism. A German soldier is just seen skulking away. The image is ludicrous but the message is hopeful and serious: “Dearest Alsace! Liberty at last!”

This card from my collection was posted on 1st April 1915.

Patriotic Poisson d'Avril posted 1.4.1915

 

Easter

As far as possible, French soldiers marked Easter, though tinged with sadness; many fathers took the opportunity to send postcards or letters to their children to show that they were thinking of them, and cards were sent to and by their loved ones. Sometimes Christian services were possible, with music, hymns and communion.

Many cards have a patriotic, propaganda flavour. In this one, the tradition of Easter eggs is surreally taken further and to the soldiers’ delight, the egg cracks open to reveal Alsace (with the black coiffe) and Lorraine (in the lace cap). They are clutching the French flag and Alsace’s dress is tinged with the French colours red, white and blue. The message in the bottom left hand corner is Revanche: revenge, the return of the lost territory, and the cheering soldiers reflect the anticipated joy when the two regions will be restored to France.

This card was sent in April 1915 by two friends to Bruno who was serving at sea. As far as I can find out, he survived the war.

 

Patriotic Hereuses Pâques sent 1915


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La Tête des Faux – one hundred years on. Christmas in the Vosges 1914 (2)

Commemorating the Christmas Eve attack on the summit of la Tête des Faux, one hundred years ago, 24th December 1914 – 2014.

Please visit the new gallery of my photos of la Tête des Faux

09 Reclaimed by nature Near the summit (my photo)

The dominant summit of la Tête des Faux was strategically important: its height (1208 m) provides an extensive view over this part of the Vosges and the villages of le Bonhomme, Orbey and Lapoutroie. Initially it was occupied by the Germans, who used the position for surveillance and artillery attacks, particularly on the French based at the Col du Bonhomme.

After the French command post at le Col du Bonhomme was destroyed at the end of November 1914, Chasseurs Alpins [French] attacked and gained a foothold on la Tête des Faux on December 2nd.

On 21st December, the snow began to fall and temperatures dropped to bitterly cold. There was some sporadic shooting, but the German full assault to push back the French began at 22h30 on Christmas Eve, preceded by a heavy mortar attack. The French had to withdraw to await reinforcements, who forced the Germans back into their previous position.

On Christmas Eve, 1914, there was no truce and no football at la Tête des Faux. 137 French and over 500 German soldiers died in the fierce cold and snow on this challenging summit.

Hexenweiher Hexenweiher (my postcard)

 

Please visit the new gallery of my photos of la Tête des Faux

 


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Noël 1914 – Christmas in the Vosges, 1914 (part 1)

Gabard 5 le Jus sent 7 May 1918 ( ‘Le jus’ Illustration Ernest Gabard 1879-1957)

The war on the Vosges front did not stop on Christmas Day, neither for truces nor football games. Personal accounts testify to French units in the region of Hartmannswillerkopf (le Vieil Armand) beginning to relax on Christmas Eve, sharing food in the homes of local people, singing carols, even planning to attend a local midnight mass and temporarily forgetting war. [Note, below]

HWK autour de HWK Hartmannswillerkopf

Their happiness was dispersed when alerts arrived ordering them to mobilise within an hour. They hastily packed food and equipment and were guided in pouring rain through the wet, cold forests, the weather turning to snow and ice as they ascended the mountain. There was little shelter and kitchens could only operate at night because the smoke would attract attention from German artillery. Some men were without food for 48 hours. There were few tracks and trails to form efficient communications routes, so it was difficult to bring up equipment. Men were inadequately dressed, some with little more clothing than they had in summer, suffering bitter temperatures in exposed mountain terrain or in pine forests which gave poor protection from the wind, the snow or rain. The holes they dug for protection from the enemy, such as from snipers, soon filled with water, yet they had to be used.

HWK boyau central glass slide best5 R cropped Trench, Hartmannswillerkopf, glass slide

The French objectives included the villages of Uffholtz and Steinbach. The battle was fierce. Among those who survived, some had frostbite, some bronchitis. Because of the difficulties in accessing positions by effective routes, it was difficult to carry stretchers and evacuate the wounded.

These two winter postcards are undated but in sharing them I intend that they reflect the aftermath of the dreadful Christmas of 1914.

HWK Tombeaux des Chasseurs written 1920  French

HWK German graves in the snow German

 

 

 

Please bear in mind that I am not a military historian and I am writing for general readers. There is an excellent resource (in French) on the website of l’association Les Amis du Hartmannswillerkopf, http://www.ahwk.fr.

Note: Source http://www.ahwk.fr/noel-1914-avec-le-15eme-b-c-p/

Postcards and glass slide from my own collection.


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L’église de l’Emm, Mémorial de la Première Guerre mondiale: a post for 11th, 11th, 2014.

La Chapelle d’Emm, Metzeral – a memorial to those who died in the Vosges

Please visit A gallery of images 

L’église de l’Emm takes its name from Emma, niece of Charlemagne, who founded a hermitage on this colline near Metzeral in memory of her fiancé, Roland de Roncevaux, in the fifteenth century. Through the next five centuries, the original chapel was variously destroyed, rebuilt, rededicated, refounded and eventually wrecked in the Battle of Metzeral (15th – 21st June, 1915).

00 Metzeral Chapelle Emm

After the war, the ancient chapel stood in ruins. Curate Martin Behe arrived in the Fecht valley in 1921 and was deeply affected by the damaged valley, dreadfully scarred by warfare and the resting places for thousands of French soldiers, some in the cemeteries and some lost possibly forever in the mountainous landscape of the Vosges. He urged the construction of a memorial.

The colline was designated as the site for a church consecrated to the memory of the soldiers who fell in the Vosges, particularly those who died in the battle for Metzeral and who still lie in the Vosges. It was to be a focus for families to remember their husbands, their fathers, their sons, their neighbours, and people were encouraged to contribute. The site of the old chapel was chosen and a new church was built as église-mémorial de l’Emm. It is an expression of mourning and of gratitude by the people of Alsace.

The project was overseen by a committee under the banner Souvenir Alsacien, which included the bishop of Strasbourg and General Pouydraguin. Fundraising took place across France and abroad. The builders used local red sandstone (the same as was used for the cathedral in Strasbourg) and prominent on the façade is the inscription expressing the gratitude of Alsace: “À nos vaillants soldats, l’Alsace reconnaissante”.

26 A nos vaillants 2014

The building was finally dedicated on October 4th, 1931 and the bells were dedicated nine months later in July 1932. I believe the bell tower contains four bells. One is intended to evoke the majestic sound of the bell in the ossuary at Douaument.

Inside, the walls are lined with 1.80m high marble panels, each engraved with the names of the soldiers who died in the battle for Metzeral. Stained glass windows throw their saturated light on to the light marble. It is a profoundly peaceful place which encourages reflection. One window depicts a chaplain ministering to a dying comrade among the debris and flashing lights of the battlefield. It is called, simply, ‘Nos morts’.

16a Emm poilus closeup

Gallery of images

Note 1: The Battle of Metzeral (1915)

Metzeral is 6.5 km west of Munster, in the valley of the river Fecht. Control of the valley was important for both sides and military operations took place there early in 1915, coinciding with the intense fighting at Hartmannswillerkopf. The battle for Metzeral in June 1915 tends to be overshadowed by the bitter struggle for Hartmannswillerkopf and (beginning just one month later) the fierce battle at le Linge, but it was important and deadly.

The combined forces of Major General Pouydraguin (47th Division) and General Serret (66th division) were deployed to remove the enemy from the upper valley of the Fecht. Initially they were unsuccessful and the two generals decided to carry out a major assault.

The populations of the villages or Metzeral and Sondernach were evacuated on June 9th and the attack began on June 15th. The main action took place on 20th and 21st June, with heavy fighting street by street, building by building, hand against hand, bayonet against bayonet. The village was ruined beyond recognition, the tranquil river valley destroyed. By the 24th June, the French had secured Metzeral but the human cost was devastating. The French cemeteries of Chêne Millet and Sondernach, the German cemetery of Breitenbach, are witness to the losses in the valley of the Fecht.

Note 2:

I have photographed all the panels, but I have not transcribed them. All the names can be found here: http://www.amisdelemm.fr/images/sampledata/Documents/plaques_votives.pdf

Please visit the gallery of images


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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.


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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.