The Blue Line – the Vosges frontier 1871 to 1914

The frontier separating Alsace from France before the Great War


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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

 

 

 

 


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The frontier in the south: the Ballon d’Alsace

 Ballon d'Alsace cafes   View across Rhine plain to Black Forest.

In fine weather, people today head off up to the Ballon d’Alsace. In hot weather, it’s refreshing and there are cafés and souvenir shops to tempt exhausted travellers.  You can walk round the summit , watch the parapentists, admire the orchids, contemplate the  dramatic monument aux Démineurs (1952) and even spot remnants of the trenches from Great War.

The scene on the mountain summit (1247m) has not changed much since the period of the frontier when it was a popular attraction for walkers and later, cyclists and motorists. Several establishments were set up to benefit from increasing tourism; there were hotels and cafes to refresh travellers exhausted from the demanding walk, winding drive or steep cycle ride to the summit. The views are spectacular, including the Vosgien massif, the Rhine plain and the Black Forest. At certain times of year, when the vegetation had died down, it was sometimes possible for the traveller to see chasseurs à pied (infantry) on manoeuvres or even local patriotic groups practising military tactics.

Ballon d'Alsace overview

Ballon d'Alsace Le Sommet et la Borne Frontiere 1914  Card posted 1914; borne frontière.

Ballon d'Alsace Summit car people borne

This part of the frontier was particularly susceptible to smuggling: illegal trade in tobacco was especially rife. Consequently the customs officials were firmly established in an attempt to intercept the smugglers. A new customs building on the descent to Giromagny was built before the Great War. (Not shown)

Ballon d'Alsace Borne Zéro posted Feb 1910  Card posted 1910.

Ballon d'Alsace La Borne people and dog

The current borne routière interdepartemental is close to the Bar des Démineurs and the 1952 monument aux Démineurs, but in the fields by the terrasse of the Ferme auberge du Ballon is the original borne signifying the frontier.  It is small, square, sturdy and the F for France is clear.

Ballon d'Alsace borne

The author Charles-Marie Laurent recorded his observations: he noted the damage to many hated stones, where the face looking towards Germany had been hacked at, chipped, shot, deeply cut and dented. “Infortunés et braves Alsaciens!” he declared.

Ballon d'Alsace statue de Jeanne d'arc

Looking across the Rhine plain to the Black Forest is Jeanne d’Arc. She is proud, defiant, deliberately positioned to show that Alsace and Lorraine challenge their annexation and to provide hope of return to those who chose to resettle on the French side of the new border. Mathurin Marchal was the sculptor and apparently more than ten thousand patriotic Alsaciens attended its inauguration in 1909, eager to see the proud symbol of their desire that the lost regions be returned to France. Jeanne has actually changed position more than once: at one stage she faced France to call the motherland to rescue the abandoned people.

Jeanne Ballon

Another popular attraction was the statue of Mary: la Vierge du Sommet, Notre-Dame du Ballon. Although she is close to the frontier, she was actually erected in 1862 by a farmer, Joseph Grisward, in gratitude for being saved from a severe snowstorm in 1860. Later on, though, after the Treaty of Frankfurt, the phrase ‘Marie protégez la France’ was added, which C-M Laurent thought had an air of being wise after the event.

Despite its loathed frontier and all it represented, the Ballon was a place for play and excitement. Motorists enjoyed the challenge of the steep, winding road to the summit and the opportunity to speed on the top.  In 1905-6 the mountain featured in the Tour de France Automobile and it was also included in the 1905 Tour de France.

Ballon d'Alsace La Borne et le Sommet (cars)

Ballon d'Alsace La montée devant le Poste des Douaniers posted 1907

Spring on the Ballon d’Alsace is pleasant, often with the traces of snow remaining in the crevices, evidence of the bitter winters. Then, life on the frontier became far more challenging. In a future post, I’ll write about the experience of winter on the Ballon d’Alsace.

Ballon d'Alsace ferme

Photographs June 2012 and June 2013.

All postcards from my collection.


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A tale of two posts: les poteaux sur les frontières

After the establishment of the new German state, it was essential for the German authorities to indicate the new boundaries as quickly as possible. At each of the crossing points through the Vosges mountains, they erected wooden posts painted in the German colours. But soon it was obvious that these were susceptible to the extreme weather variations and to vandalism.

By contrast, and probably understandably, the French authorities were rather slow in marking the hated frontier and eventually, in 1885, the German ambassador had to intervene and insist that the work was carried out, arguing that there were risks to France in not indicating the border. A survey was carried out to evaluate the problem and twelve crossing points were identified. Reluctantly, the French agreed to erect their own posts. The Ministry of the Interior made a grant available to fund ten posts at the most important crossings and they were ordered in July, 1886, from a foundry in St-Dié. The Ministry of Public Works funded two more, one at the Col de Ste-Marie between St-Dié and Sélestat and one at the Col du Bussang north of the Ballon d’Alsace. They were in place by the end of 1886. Painting them was considered too expensive.

 Col de Ste-Marie & borne before War written 1918

(Col de Ste-Marie. Borne centre, poteau to right)

Of course, they soon began to deteriorate. Newspapers began to complain about the shameful lack of maintenance of the national symbol, comparing them to the pristine condition of the German markers. Meanwhile the foundries of Kaiserslautern were busy making imposing plaques declaring to all travellers that they were entering the German Empire. From 1889, these were in place, dominating the less cared-for French markers, often mounted on striped posts in the Empire’s colours.

Col de la Schlucht frontiere franco-allemande 1911 2 people

(Col de la Schlucht, German and French customs officials)

Col de la Schlucht German customs, tram

 (Col de la Schlucht. Tram arrival, poteau to left.)

Many cards and pictures show the joyful destruction of these loathed posts in the early days of the Great War and many messages declare the writer’s pleasure in …

 Col de la Schlucht plus de frontiere

… ‘Plus de frontière!’

(Above: Col de la Schlucht, deserted customs building. The Hotel Français was destroyed during the Great War. More of that anon.)


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A few words about bornes

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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.

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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:

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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*.

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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.

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 Card posted before the Great War:

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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!