The Blue Line – the Vosges frontier 1871 to 1914

The frontier separating Alsace from France before the Great War


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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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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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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/