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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Defiance, resolution, inspiration: Jeanne d’Arc on memorials in Alsace

Breitenbach Bas Rhin Jeanne 2

In 1431 a young peasant girl from Domrémy in the Vosges was burned alive after an illegal trial for heresy in Rouen. During the period in which Alsace and Lorraine were part of the German Empire, she became a powerful symbol of resistance, of defiance, of eagerness for liberation

TBreitenbach Bas Rhin Jeanne 1he inspirational figure of Jeanne or Jehanne d’Arc is a recurrent theme in monuments and memorials after the Great War.  In the memorial in the rural village of Breitenbach, Bas-Rhin,  [above and left], Jeanne stands alone.

Many Alsacien men were forced to fight for Germany, although anyone under the age of 43 when war was declared in 1914 had not known life as a French citizen and Alsacien men in the German army had grown up as Germans. Nevertheless, the theme of a young man being forced to fight for the oppressor is a powerful one and many patriotic and propaganda images depict the despair of the young soldier and his family.

The woman depicted on the war memorial at Guebwiller [previous blog post] pins a small rosette on a young man’s chest under his jacket and tells him, “Remember you are French.” These rosettes were red, white and blue (the colours of the French flag). The memorial at Rosheim shows a French poilu offering the open hand of friendship to a young man who has opened his jacket to reveal the patriotic rosette over his heart; his enforced pickelhaube has been discarded at his feet and Jeanne embraces the two in a gesture which emphasises harmony and unity restored between France and her lost départements.

Rosheim Jeanne

The inspiration of Jeanne in times of oppression and war is reflected in her use in cemeteries. The village and community of Plaine, north of Saales, suffered dreadfully in the raging combats of August 1914 as each side fought to gain control of the essential cols. Jeanne was erected in this cemetery on 12th August 1923. The base of the statue says, “À eux l’immortalité, à nous le souvenir.”

Plaine cimetière militaire

Plaine Jeanne

Menil-sur-Belvitte is a large 1917 nécropole nationale south of Baccarat and it is the resting place of a thousand men, many casualties from the Bataille de la Mortagne (August 1914) and the ghastly fighting at Col de la Chipote. Opposite the cemetery, peacefully surrounded by pastures with the characteristic Vosgienne cows, is a memorial privately erected in 1927 by l’Abbé Collé, the village curé. He also established a small commemorative museum which was destroyed by German troops in 1944.

Menil Jeanne 1

The essential figures on this memorial are in gold; one is Jeanne (“custos patriae”) at the pinnacle and the others (in what seems like slightly toned down gold) are the brave heroes of the 13th, 14th 15th and 21st Corps d’Armée 1914.

Poilus

It is a memorial of unexpected height and power; the loyal Chasseur figures, bravely ready for any challenger and cared for in death by a despairing figure of Mary, demand attention. Jeanne’s immense elevation, her raised cruciform sword and her striking gold armour communicate as a symbol of defiance and inner strength. Your eye is drawn upwards from the brave soldiers to their alleged inspiration as they fought to regain Alsace and Moselle for France.

Jeanne d'Arc, Ballon d'Alsace

Jeanne d’Arc, Ballon d’Alsace

Note:

Le cimetière militaire Plaine also includes a small plot containing the remains of 40 British casualties from the Great War. It is in the far left hand corner of my photograph.

Much of this text has been adapted from a previous blog post. It is published here in the period of Remembrance.


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Bitter grief: allegorical women on war memorials in Alsace. A post for Remembrance

Nancy    Le Souvenir, Nancy

Le Souvenir in plas Maginot, Nancy is a bronze sculpture commemorating the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine by Germany in 1871 . It was created by Paul Dubois and erected in 1910 after his death. The two women wear the coiffes of their respective regions and Alsace, on the right, stares with bleak unseeing eyes into the mid-distance. Lorraine is so preoccupied with grief that she rests her head on her companion’s shoulder, while the two embrace.

As a consequence of the time in which Alsace and Lorraine were part of Germany, Great War memorials in Alsace tend to be different from those elsewhere. They were built at a time when Alsace had been returned to France, but during the 1914-1918 war, many local men had been fighting as German soldiers. An image of a German soldier was unlikely to be palatable, so a device often used is a bereaved woman. She represents mothers, wives and daughters and may be carrying children. She is often dressed in Alsacien costume so that she is an allegory for Alsace mourning her lost sons, which takes on another layer of meaning if you choose to think of Alsace lost to France for nearly five decades.

Bennwihr’s memorial is called Fidelité, depicting the loyalty of Alsace (with the large coiffe: bow) and Lorraine (with the soft cap) to France. It was erected in 1925 and remained in place during the Second World War. The scars and marks on the memorial testify to the violence of the battle for the Liberation in December 1944: the village was almost entirely obliterated, as my postcard shows.

Bennwihr Fidelité            Bennwihr monument and church Bennwihr

Bennwihr Ste-Odile  Ste-Odile, part of Bennwihr’s Peace memorial

The grieving woman below is the figure on Illhausern’s memorial to the dead of both wars, though she was part of the original Great War memorial. Civilian deaths are listed on brass plaques on the wall of the church. Occupied by the Germans from 1940 onwards, my postcard shows that the village and original church were almost obliterated in the combats of December 1944.

Illhausern memorial 2     Illhausern

Illhausern memorial 1          Illhausern église sinistrée

Memorials showing bereaved women with their fatherless children include Kintzheim [below]

Kintzheim         Kintzheim scene

and Zellenberg [below].

Zellenberg

Sometimes a women is shown alone, distraught with grief.

Westhalten         Westhalten 2    Westhalten

And sometimes all she has is a corpse.

Thanenkirch A nos morts Thannenkirch

All photos and postcards my own.


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“His heart is French!” One of a set of posts for Remembrance

Patriotic Sous l'uniforme allemand Propaganda: ‘Sous l’uniforme allemand son cœur est français!’

A young man in Alsace before the Great War was almost certainly likely to have been born and raised German, because Alsace had been part of Reichsland Elsaß Lothringen since 1871. He would probably speak little French, if any. Many men carried out military service in the German Army and there seems to be evidence from contemporary writers that the population was not generally resentful. By contrast there was suspicion of French soldiers, locally called ròthòsa (“red trousers”) because of their uniforms, when they arrived during the Great War.

Guebwiller memorial 1 Guebwiller

Some 1914-1918 war memorials in Alsace reflect the problem of memorialising local young men who fought and died as Germans. A German soldier would not be a popular choice of symbol, so the notion of wearing a tricolore badge under his German uniform was chosen. The war memorial in Guebwiller [above] shows a woman pinning a badge under a young man’s jacket, saying to him, ‘Remember that you are French.’ She could be his mother, his wife, his sister: wearing her coiffe, she symbolises the idealised patriotic women of Alsace, secretly longing to be French again. My postcard shows this memorial before the Second World War.

Guebwiller memorial 2           Guebwiller Monument aux Morts pre WW2 Guebwiller

The memorial at Rosheim [below] shows Jeanne d’Arc mediating between two soldiers. The man on the right is pointing to the badge of loyalty hidden under his German jacket. His pickelhaube is abandoned on the floor and he is unarmed. The man on the left is a French poilu, helmet garlanded with leaves of peace; he is reaching out a hand to the young man who reluctantly fought in the German army and his weapons pose no threat.

Rosheim Jeanne Rosheim

The two propaganda postcards purport to depict the devastated family of a young Alsacien who has to fight for Germany. One [above] says, ‘Sous l’uniforme allemand son cœur est français!’ and shows a woman pinning the secret tricolore badge on his shirt. The other [below] shows two ailing, elderly people and a young man in the depths of despair: ‘Le pauvre enfant est soldat allemand!’

Patriotic Le pauvre enfant est soldat allemand Propaganda

(My photographs, my postcards)


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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