The Blue Line – the Vosges frontier 1871 to 1914

The frontier separating Alsace from France before the Great War


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How a cow changed the fortunes of a village

Legend says that in 1603, a heifer discovered a mineral water source in Soultzbach les Mains, in the vallée de Munster!

Visitors had been bathing at Soultzbach les Bains for four hundred years before Alsace became part of the new German Empire. In fact, they were doing so before the fortuitous wanderings of the local heifer. Jacques de Hattstatt, seigneur, established a Badehus in the fifteenth century and after the Hattstatt line died out in 1585, the village came into the ownership of the barons Schauenburg Herrlisheim, who set about installing the means of exploiting the mineral water source. There are records of a possibly seventeenth century hall with a basin for the collection of water, at least one room for people seeking a cure and a dwelling; there are records showing that after the Schauenbergs sold the premises to a M Bobenrieth in 1815, there is another wing.

M Bobenrieth saw the commercial potential for selling health-giving waters and he collected the spring water in pitchers for sale. At the same time, the popularity of the source was attracting large numbers of tourists into the village, where they lodged, until disaster struck: a large fire, which reduced the accommodation available.

By this time, a Swiss industrialist called M de Gonzenbach had bought the premises. He halted the activity at the source and reconsidered. He decided that the source was to become a thermal hotel, with an extra floor added to the building, a new wing built for entertainment of the guests and the garden transformed into an agreeable pleasure park. By 1854, there were up to 200 ‘patients’ taking the waters and enjoying the delights of a smart hotel in beautiful mountainous surroundings with invigorating fresh air and plenty of opportunities for gentle exercise should they be so minded.

Soultzbach source Gonzenbach - spa 1902

Postcard sent 1902

Alongside the hotel business, M de Gonzenbach’s commercial acumen prompted him to develop the external sales of water. It was sold under the name Source Gonzenbach and by 1863, sales reached 49171 bottles and jugs.

Soultzbach source Gonzenbach rear

Postcard view of the rear – casino wing on left

The business was sold on by M de Gonzenbach’s son-in-law but the new owner suffered financial ruin after the Great War and he ceded the source to the water company Carola of Ribeauvillé. (Carola still exists and is a prominent supplier of bottled water in the region.) Over the next few years, Carola mechanised the water collection and built bottling units, but the cramped location restricted development. Perrier-Nestlé bought the source and ceased operations there in 1993. From the meanderings of a village cow to a multinational company in four centuries!

The premises are now in private ownership and the industrial units have been removed. My photo shows two wings and the main building forming a courtyard. According to Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel* the ground floor and first floor correspond with the original building. The right wing was the casino.

Gonzenbach now

We particularly noticed the columns with Doric capitals and the entablature with frieze with gryphons.

Gonzenbach gryphons and frieze

The south wing used to contain the casino and looking at the elegant arched windows, it doesn’t take much imagination to people the room with elegant fashions and animated conversations.

Gonzenbach casino window smaller

I am very grateful to the current owner who allowed us to wander around and take photos after we chanced upon this wonderful building in a quiet part of Soultzbach. I’m sure the disused hotel Au Relais de la Source across the road from the thermal hotel has its own stories, too.

 

Au Relais de la Source

 

 

References:

*http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/inventai/patrimoine/

Des usines au fil de la Fecht: Le patrimoine industriel de la vallée de Munster, editions LieuxDits, 2008

My photos and 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


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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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Tour de France Stage 9: July 13th, 2014. A view through old postcards

The Tour de France in the Vosges and Alsace passes some of the most historically interesting parts of the area, places significant in the period before the Great War when Alsace and Lorraine were under German occupation and sites of sadness and commemoration afterwards. Postcard writers, travellers, tourists and soldiers, sent innumerable cards home from the Vosges. This is a small selection from my own collection, following the route of the Tour in two parts, Stage 9 and Stage 10.

Gérardmer

A German shell on display in Gérardmer:

01 Col de la Schlucht Gerardmer shell on display

Travelling in style from Gérardmer to Col de la Schlucht:

02 Services automobiles Gerardmer - la Schlucht

Xonrupt-Longemer to La Roche du Diable

Le Tunnel de la Roche de Diable:

03 Col de la Schlucht tunnel with people

Le Collet

The tramway from Gérardmer up to Col de la Schlucht, close to le Collet. The tram line was used for military transport during the Great War. The embankments and the path of the tramway can still be seen.

04 Col de la Schlucht le Collet tramway posted 1908

Col de la Schlucht (1140 m) This was a busy destination on the frontier between France and Alsace (annexed to Germany, 1871). The original bornes frontières (boundary stones) can still be traced following the frontier up the hillside, marked with F on the French side and D on the German.

The German side of the frontier with a customs officer:

05 Col de la Schlucht German frontier & officer

French customs:

06 Col de la Schlucht poste de Douane française posted 1917

A military halt at Col de la Schlucht before the Great War:

07 Col de la Schlucht grand'halte militaire avant la guerre

Chasseur à Pied at Col de la Schlucht, posted 1907:

07a Chasseurs à pied posted Schlucht 1910

The Hotel Français in ruins, posted 1917. (The Hotel is the furthest building on the right hand side of the road in the first picture.)

08 Col de la Schlucht destoyed hotel written 1917

Col de la Schlucht in ruins, posted 1918:

09 Col de la Schlucht posted Nov 1918

The grand Hotel Altenberg, which hosted many international royals, politicians and celebrities before the war:

10 Col de la Schlucht Hotel Altenberg posted 1915

The Hotel Altenberg after the war (rebuilt as a hospital, now semi-derelict):

11 Col de la Schlucht Hotel Altenberg after war

Station du Lac Blanc

Lac Blanc in peaceful times:

11 Lac Blanc with car

The 1914 mountain battleground of la Tête des Faux overlooks Lac Blanc and towards the villages of Orbey and Lapoutroie. Lac Blanc after the Great War, the hotel in ruins:

12 Lac Blanc après la guerre - ruines d l'hotel

Basses-Huttes – the Tour does not visit Lac Noir, but goes close. Lac Noir was a peaceful destination with a popular restaurant. During the Great War, it was used as a place of shelter: Gen Pouydraguin had his headquarters here. The small single storey buildings to the left of the lower picture were used as a hospital. They have recently been demolished. The restaurant was rebuilt and remains busy.

12a Lac Noir snow posted 1907

12b Lac Noir Grande Guerre

Col du Wettstein (880m) The Tour enters one of its most sobering stages. 17000 men, including 10000 Chasseurs, died at le Linge between July 20th and October 15th, 1915. The French dead of le Linge, Schratzmännele and Barrenkopf lie in the great cemetery at the Col du Wettstein.

Two early postcards of the great French cemetery:

14 Wettstein

13 Wettstein cimetière Orbey

An image posted in 1930:

15 Wettstein cimetiere posted 1930

Le Linge

A selection of images showing le Linge during and after the Great War. It was, obviously, a place of pilgrimage and reflection for those who had lost loved ones or friends there, or who had experienced the hell themselves.

16 Le Linge Set 14 Barrenkopf & Schratz, road, people

17 Album - le Linge sur les pentes de la tête du Linge

18 Le Linge with tourists posted 1925

18a Le Linge Set 03  German cemetery Linge

18b Le Linge Set 10 Schratzmaennele

19 Le Linge with car and people

The German dead are buried in their military cemetery, Hohrod. The bunker outside the walls is still there, adjacent to the road.

19a Hohrod Cemetery showing bunker

19b Hohrod Barenstall German military cemetery

Trois-Épis

The town before the Great War while under German occupation, labelled with its German name Drei Ähren. There is now a  rather special German military cemetery in the town. Its headstones have been replaced with modern crosses and wild flowers dominate the grounds.

20 Drei Ahren Trois Epis

21 Trois Epis military cemetery

Trois Epis German Cemetery 2

Trois Epis German Cemetery 1

Le Markstein (1183 m) – vestiges of the Great War can easily be seen from the Route des Crêtes, established by Joffre for the efficient movement of troops and supplies.  My photo shows how close these vestiges are to the Route des Crêtes (they are best seen in spring before the vegetation has grown back).

IMG_3981

Grand Ballon (1336m)

Postcard posted 1903 written in both German (the language of Alsace in occupation) and French, which was discouraged.

22 Grand Ballon posted 1903

Uffholtz, Cernay

This is the area of Hartmannswillerkopf / le Vieil Armand, the strategically vital mountain which gave views over and control of the Rhine Valley, bitterly fought over in 1915.

23 HWK région des combats devant Cernay et HWK posted 1916

HWK autour de HWK

Next: Tour de France Stage 10 July 14th, 2014

Please explore the index of my blog for more pieces about this lovely region before the Great War!

All postcards and photographs are my own.


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Chalet Hartmann: romance to ruins in 90 years

Approaching the summit of Col de la Schlucht (1139m) from the Munster valley, one of the first signs of habitation is the Hotel du Chalet. For decades travellers have refreshed themselves and relaxed here: cyclists and walkers –

Schlucht Hotel du Chalet

motorists –

Col de la Schlucht Hotel du Chalet with people & cars

and skiers –

Col de la Schlucht Hotel du Chalet with skiers

Adjoining the hotel premises is a patch of gravelly ground with a set of stone steps leading up to what looks like the foundations of a building. The excursionists of the Occupation era would have seen a pretty Swiss-style building called Chalet Hartmann here (seen in the second postcard above) and might possibly even have crossed paths with a distinguished visitor.

Col de la Schlucht 11 septembre 1908 après arrivée de l'Empereur Guillaume

1908 – crowds linger after the arrival of Wilhelm II and his entourage. The dark building on the left is the German customs building.

 

Chalet Hartmann was built in 1859/60 by a prominent industrialist, Frédéric Hartmann-Metzger, known for his fabric factories in Munster and his benevolent treatment of his staff, including establishing schools in the valley. He constructed the Chalet to mark the completion of the steep, winding road up to the Col from Munster begun fifteen years earlier.

Col de la Schlucht Chalet Hartmann day scene Before the Great War

Many illustrious people visited it, including Napoléon III (twice before the war of 1870) and Wilhelm II in September 1908. With Alsace returned to German territory, Hitler visited la Schlucht in 1940.

Col de la Schlucht Chalet Hartmann Kaiser visit query 28.07.1909 1908 (Unfortunately the original card is blurred.)

For part of its life, Chalet Hartmann was a restaurant popular with celebrities. It was badly damaged in the Great War, abandoned in the 1930s, and then damaged again in the Second World War. In 1946 it was completely demolished.

Col de la Schlucht Chalet Hartmann ruined A sad sight after the Great War

This is what the once beautiful Chalet Hartmann looks like now, photographed from the footpath which climbs behind the semi-derelict Hotel Tetras and overlooks the site of the original German customs building. All that remains is the set of steps into the house.

Chalet Hartmann site

The époque of a rather elegant, leisured, somewhat romantically inclined tourist industry was over and la Schlucht began to look for modern ways of exploiting the white gold of the high mountains.

Col de la Schlucht Chalet Hartmann

 

(All postcards and photographs are my own. Modern photographs June 2013)