Remembrance tourism in the Vosges
In the spectacular setting of the Massif des Vosges, Germans and French fought it out between 1914 and 1918 in a mountain war which was very different from that which was waged in the other regions of the western front. The close proximity of the enemy lines, the trenches, the sapping, the shelters, everything here was governed by the limitations imposed by the climate and the terrain. Today one can come across many remains as one makes one’s way along the exciting hiking paths, along the impressive concrete barrier which extends some hundred kilometres, from the Col de la Chapelotte (Chapelotte pass) up to the Sundgau.
The Roche Mère-Henry, a threatening view point
The Roche Mère-Henry, which is a pre-war tourist site, forms a viewpoint above the Rabodeau valley, overlooking the town of Senones. After the front was set up in September 1914, Germans and French came face to face on this “tegula” where over a few hundred metres, some of the most violent mountain combat in this part of the world would take place. The first attacks on the German defences occurred in October 1914 culminating in the assault on a bunker on 10 December causing the death of many soldiers from the 363rd Nice infantry regiment. These isolated but very deadly attacks carried on until the Armistice, and included the period when the sector was occupied by American troops in the summer of 1918. They were so fierce that the ridge was nicknamed “Pelé” from 1915 onwards.
The battlefield of la Roche Mère Henry is a model for mountain fighting. Over the several hundred metres which separated no man’s land from the observation rock, the Germans organised several lines of defence and shelters to stop the enemy advancing. Today one only has to visit the site to get an understanding of the changing nature and the diversity of the German fortification and how it was radically different to the French defence system. The visit ends at the disused cemetery of the 363rd infantry regiment and the stele of the Menton sculptor Antoine Sartorio.
Nothing seems to stand out about the hilly terrain all around. However it was on the hill of the Fontenelle, a former nursery school before the war, that the front was established on 12 September 1914. Although the French held the summit, the Germans who were dug in on the eastern flank were out to claim it and both sides organised massive entrenchments which cut the viewpoint in two. On 23 June 1915, the German soldiers unleashed a huge attack which enabled them to take the whole summit. In July, two violent counter-attacks allowed the French troops to retake the whole hill. From then on a war of mines was waged whilst a series of surprise attacks followed the massive attacks.
In a mountain war where observation posts were of paramount importance, the French had the advantage here because they held the whole of the massif de l’Ormont, further to the south, which controlled all the Haute-Meurthe. Here was to be found a multitude of dry stone structures serving as observation posts housing either artillery pieces or technical enclosures cut out from the uniform rocks. The remains of a remarkable iron observation ladder, the only one known to exist for the whole of the front, are still visible. From the col d’Hermanpaire, (Hermanpaire pass) located further down the massif, as far as la Fontenelle, the first German line was based on multiple concrete barriers with very different functions. If one takes the Remembrance path for the front lines one can see how remarkably well they have been preserved.
Although the earth from the cemetery at la Fontenelle was as of 1919 used to fill in the mine trenches and funnels, the disfigurement of the surrounding countryside still bears witness to the violence of the fighting. Just as at Verdun, three hamlets of the Ban-de-Sapt would never be rebuilt: their remains can be seen from the path.
Le Donon, fighting with pitons in the battle for the borders
Coming under German control since 1871, the Petit and the Grand Donon overlooked a dense network of ancient tracks. From August 1914, some rather muddled fighting occurred in the massif. But this awesome natural fortress remained under German control. In the years leading up to 1918, technical troops with labour provided by prisoners, notably Russians, and civilians built a complex network of positions. The Donon became the hub for the German lines of communication: cable cars which supplied the heights and railways for linking the front to the rear echelon.
The Petit Donon has around its summit and on its slopes, dozens of steles for the soldiers who fell in 1914. A path provides access to them. Furthermore, the multiple ruins of infrastructure are still visible. By taking the Path of the Bunkers which links the Donon pass to the Engin pass one can explore the trenches and concrete shelters which have been well preserved to this day.
La Chapelotte, the deepest battlefield of the Great War
The col de la Chapelotte (Chapelotte pass) is the last mountain barrier before the Lorraine plain. From September 1914 onwards, hill 542 became one of the most violent scenes of fighting in the mountain war and was an illustration of the culmination of the war of the mines. It wasn’t possible to make any headway at ground level, so it was underground that the fight was to continue. The first mine, a German one, pierced the ground of hill 542 on 8 June 1915. Up until 2 September 1917, the date of the last French camouflet (a cavern created by an explosion) – a name which is given to a mine which is intended to destroy an enemy gallery whilst preserving buildings at the surface –, hundreds of metres of galleries and wells were dug. 55 mines, of which 38 were French, were exploded along a front 200 metres in length which is more than 300 tonnes of explosives which were used to blow holes underground. By digging up to 120 metres underground the French and German soldiers made la Chapelotte the deepest of its kind on any of the fronts of the Great War.
The surrounding pass and summits still bear the scars of the fighting, even today. Under the nearby fir trees, a few stones are all that is left of the forest house and the fountain still bears the inscription of the soldiers of the 338rd infantry regiment. When approaching it, visitors are asked to be careful not to disturb this open museum of the Great War which is still being restored.
The Chapelotte battlefield and the observation posts on the summits surrounding the valley of la Plaine as far as Donon are what are so interesting about this remarkable site of medium altitude mountain warfare. The forestry commission has kept the observation rocks, the promontory forts and the German as well as French fortified pitons intact, but also all the concrete structures right up to the remarkable steles of the disused German cemeteries.