The Blue Line – the Vosges frontier 1871 to 1914

The frontier separating Alsace from France before the Great War


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The start of a 550 km journey: the Col du Bussang and the Moselle

On the former French side of the Col du Bussang a small stream emerges from an insignificant hole in the hillside. It is distinguished only by the shape sculpted around it: an M shape which could represent mountains…

Moselle M

… or indicate the name of the river. An elegant design set into the adjacent wall informs you that this is the source of the Moselle at 715 m and a map traces the route through France and Germany (where it becomes the Mosel) to Koblenz, where it flows grandly into the Rhine, 550 km from its insignificant source.

Moselle map

Now the main road N66 races through the Col, taking heavy traffic through the Vosges between Thann and Remiremont on dual carriageways and viaducts. About a kilometre onwards from the Col, a traveller in the time of Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen would be able to see the bridge over le Séchenat, a tributary of the Moselle. In these two postcards, horse-drawn traffic is warily crossing the Pont du Séchenat.

Bussang Pont de Sechenat Grand Hôtel des Sources

Bussang Pont de Sechenat winter

In three kilometres or so the road down from the Col flattens out into the valley of Bussang, distantly overlooked by the Ballon d’Alsace* to the south. It then heads on west, under the shadow of the Ballon de Servance.

Bussang Vue générale et le Ballon-d'Alsace

Looking at the bitter winter climate even lower down from the heights, it’s unsurprising that the military personnel stationed on the Ballon du Servance needed protective clothing.

Ballon de Servance La Tenue de la Troupe en hiver au Ballon de Servance

 

 

All photographs and postcards are my own.

*Please see other blog posts to read more about the Ballon d’Alsace.


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Crossing the frontier by tunnel: the Col de Bussang

See d'Urbes resized

The main road between Thann and Remiremont passes the tranquil, natural lake of the See d’Urbès, where you can walk round the water’s edge and watch dragonflies darting among the marshes. You can take the little road to peaceful Storckensohn, walk past the pretty Alsacien houses and pause by the old oil mill, a watermill. I imagine that visitors from a century ago would have seen a similar scene.

Afternoon sun Urbes  –  Storckensohn. Timeless –  The oil mill, Urbes

Then you can return to the main N66 and begin the winding climb to the Col de Bussang. You pass the memorial to those whose lives ended in the Dachau satellite camp at the foot of Vallon. (It was also administratively connected to the concentration camp at Natzweiler-Struthof, 50 km SE of Strasbourg.) In 1944, the Germans requisitioned a partly complete early rail tunnel to the west of Urbès for an arms factory under the Daimler-Benz umbrella, in a scheme which was code-named KRANISCH-10. Two thousand prisoners and deportees, arriving in waves, were employed in atrocious conditions there between March and September 1944. A current project (2012-2016) aims to provide a memorial to those who worked and died there, with interpretation panels, a trail, a rose bed and art works by young people.*

Memorial

The N66 is a fast, winding road and I imagine that many drivers keen to finish the steep climb to the Col du Bussang (731m) are completely unaware that just to the north of the summit (the col) there is a tunnel through the hillside. It replaced an important road which passed above the site where the tunnel was constructed. The sign over the French entrance to the tunnel was specific: Limite de territoire français 155m de l’origine de tunnel. Shortly after entering the tunnel, the traveller was entering German territory.

Col de Bussang Côté Français

Customs and security on the other side of the tunnel were markedly different from that on the French side, in the officials’ uniforms and the language.

Col de Bussang côté de l'Alsace  Wirtschaft zum Tunnel

The tunnel was a great draw for tourists and travellers. The café was, I believe, Café Murat and postcards dated after the Great War show that ‘Wirtschaft zum Tunnel’ was promptly obliterated and replaced with ‘Café du tunnel’.

Col de Bussang Alsace side

Col de Bussang after war   Café du Tunnel

The entrance to the tunnel is still visible from the former German side (the Urbès side), but I have not been able to see any evidence of the former French entrance (the Bussang side). However, you can see the source of the great river Moselle (Mosel) as it trickles out of the hillside. (Take the D89, route des Sources, not avenue des Sources, and after passing the turning up the hill to Drumont there is a small picnic area at the source.)

Tunnel Col Urbes side (Former German side. Tunnel to the left of the picture. Modern hotel.)

These two cards demonstrate the difficulties of travelling through the Vosges in winter. Both show the French side of the frontier and the customs officials are visible in each. (The stamped card was posted in Wesserling, Alsace, German territory at that time, hence the German stamp.) The small chalet nearest the camera was built by Touring-Club.

Col de Bussang sous la Neige - La frontière en sortant du Tunnel

Col de Bussang route de Wesserling

The N66 remains an important road under pressure. In earlier centuries the route was vital for the defence of France and the movement of troops through the Vosges towards the Swiss border; now trucks are its significant load. The fast road is worth using briefly for the natural beauty on either side of the Col: from St-Maurice you can pick up the steep route to the Ballon d’Alsace , or it’s pleasant to linger in the tranquil nature reserves and lakes near Urbès and Kruth.

Window box

All postcards and photographs are my own.

• For more information please see http://www.struthof.fr/fr/nos-partenaires/memoriaux-des-camps-annexes/ and click on le Kommando Urbès. Also see http://www.lieux-insolites.fr/alsace/urbes/urbes.htm


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Fresh air and fun: Winter tourism on the Ballon d’Alsace before the Great War

Ballon d'Alsace Jumenterie in snow Hôtel de la Jumenterie (left) and farm

People living in developing industrial areas, in expanding cities such as Strasbourg and in increasingly urban environments viewed the mountains tracing their blue line on the horizon and dreamed of escapes to rural idylls where they could recapture an historic rural lifestyle, breathe fresh air and benefit from outdoor exercise. By the early twentieth century, the mountain areas were increasingly accessible and for those in north eastern France or in the territories to the east of the frontier, the Vosges offered beautiful landscapes, snow, space, pure air, a healthy environment and a range of accommodation. Families could choose between hotels, chalets and small establishments whether they were simply intending to explore the Massif privately or participate in great public  events.

Organisations dedicated to the pleasures and practicalities of visiting the mountains developed and by the time the Great War was on the horizon, these clubs were flourishing. Ski-club Vogesen-Straßburg was launched in 1896 – the German name was used  because Strasbourg was in Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen, the annexed part of France – and in 1902, the defiantly named Les Vosges-Trotters de Colmar was started by French-minded Alsaciens. Some of these clubs were modelled on the winter sports clubs which were already popular in the Black Forest, on the other side of the Rhine.

Ballon d'Alsace skiers, piste, Feb 1910 Skiers, Ballon d’Alsace, February 1910

The idea of a rural idyll was partly a myth, but it was a myth enthusiastically fostered by travel organisations and tourist literature. La Compagnie des Chemins de fer de l’Est promoted the Vosges with a vigorous poster campaign. Numerous intrepid travellers published works describing the unspoiled romantic beauty of the Vosges, an area apparently populated by simple honest folk who sang as they went about their daily lives and mingled with innocent animals straight out of fairy tales. The shallow, charming portraits almost entirely ignored the fact that the Vosges is a working area.

Ballon d'Alsace Jumenterie corridor to farm in snow Path cut to provide access to the farm

Ballon d'Alsace la récolte de la glace Cutting a path through the snow

However, the tourists came. Refuges were built, some by Club Vosgien*, chalets were constructed, farmers saw the opportunity to sell refreshments and their own produce such as cheese.

Visitors tended to gravitate towards their nearest mountain heights. The Ballon d’Alsace drew many visitors from the Belfort region to the south of the Vosges. Several hoteliers set up premises at the summit and one particularly original one is the ‘new’ Hôtel de la Jumenterie. It was built on the site of a small farm and its crenelated appearance deliberately evokes an historic past. The original jumenterie was a stable for brood mares, established by the Ducs de Lorraine in the 18th century. There is still la Jumenterie, now a riding-based holiday centre on the road to St-Maurice, but it does not use the original premises. I’ve been unable to see evidence of these and I think they have been demolished.

Ballon d'Alsace Jumenterie engloutie sous la neige Road snowed up between Hôtel de la Jumenterie (left) and farm

Yet, despite the tourists, the Ballon d’Alsace was still a frontier area, and customs officials still had to pursue their responsibilities, even in the bitterest winter, the deepest snows. The fun was a temporary mask; the realities could be extremely harsh, as the soldiers serving in the Hautes-Vosges in the Great War would discover in little more than a decade’s time.

Ballon d'Alsace Vierge dans un bloc de glace The statue of la Vierge du Sommet, Notre-Dame du Ballon, completely frozen into an ice sculpture

Ballon d'Alsace la Baraque des Douanes en hiver written 1911 The customs officers’ premises, card posted 1911

*Club Vosgien, founded 1872, focussed on walkers. It mapped footpaths and provided excellent sign posts through the whole massif of the Vosges. Today they have covered 17000 km of paths. Appealing to the less bourgeois who might not be attracted to the winter sports culture, Les Amis de la nature came to the Vosges just before the Great War, founding branches from 1912-14.  

All postcards my own