The Great War on the Vosges Front
The Vosges Front is a mountainous area ranging from the Donon in the north and the Grand Ballon in the south. The old border between the German Empire and France from
1871 to 1918, now in Alsace and the Lorraine, was the only area of the Western Front to see mountain fighting during the Great War
With transportation infrastructure and technology, impacts on the landscape and strategic challenges related to climate and geographic constraints, the Vosges mountains were the scene of numerous battlefields that now make it a genuine open-air museum.
A unique mountain warfare site
Under the Treaty of Frankfurt in May 1871, Alsace and part of Lorraine were annexed by the German Empire. These “lost" provinces inspired rich patriotic and nationalist literature, amplifying a source for revenge and giving rise to one of the secondary objectives of the First World War.
On 4 August 1914, the French army received the order to march on Alsace to seize the main towns and valleys. Mulhouse was occupied on 8 August, evacuated the next day and retaken on the 17th, before being definitively abandoned on the 25th.
Munster was invaded by French troops on 17 August and evacuated on 3 September, with scouts even making their way to the doorstep of Colmar.
After the initial phase of manoeuvre warfare, the front stabilised during October and November 1914. The Saint-Amarin and Masevaux valleys remained under French control. In the Vosges of Lorraine, the lines were determined by the border ridge (Violu), natural observatories (la Fontenelle, la Tête des Faux) or strategic positions (Chapelotte, Roche Mère Henry).
After the front was established on 12 September 1914 on Fontenelle Hill, a pre-war nursery school, the Germans and French found themselves in a head-on confrontation.A war of mines began in July 1915, while on the surface, a series of “coups de main” surprise attacks replaced the tactic of mass attacks. The remains of a remarkable iron observation ladder, the only one known to exist on the entire front, are still visible.
Major memorial sites
With the frontline originating at the Swiss border near Kilometre Zero, the Vosges mountains are overlooked by a mighty rocky spur that overlooks the plain of Alsace, the Hartmannswillerkopf, one of four national monuments dedicated to the Great War.
The French and Germans fought hard over this observation post. In 1915 alone, the peak changed hands 4 times. Fighting on this battlefield continued throughout the entire war, devastating it under the effects of shells, poison gas and flamethrowers. The success of a French offensive on the Mulhouse region was contingent on conquering the peak. The exact number of dead will never be known but at least 30,000 soldiers perished in fighting. A memorial crypt holding the remains of 12,000 unknown soldiers now honours them.
The oldest house in the village of Uffholtz, built in 1581, has been turned into a Memorial Shelter. Visiting it can be a precious step before exploring the “man-eating" mountain and the largest historical site of the Vosges Massif.
Inaugurated in 1973 in Saint-Amarin, the Serret Museum resides in an old courthouse that was used as an Alsatian mobile hospital. Today it contains extensive documentation on the battles and living conditions of soldiers.
Following the old front line to Vallée Noble is the largest Romanian military cemetery in France, the Soultzmatt Romanian Cemetry, inaugurated in 1924 by King Ferdinand and Queen Marie of Romania.
Between 20 July and 15 October 1915, a particularly deadly battle took place on the Linge Battlefield (17,000 soldiers died), followed by a warfare of attrition until 11 November 1918. This battlefield is classified as a historical site and is remarkable in that the well-preserved infrastructure of the solid German defence system and the vestiges of the loose soil trenches built by the French are stirring examples of trench warfare. The Linge Memorial Museum exhibits French and German objects that have been found on the site: weapons, ammunition, personal items and relics.
In order to bring first aid as close to the front as possible, in July 1915, the French army set up an mountain ambulance in the village of Mittlach, which was then back in French hands. This field hospital, now a museum, pays tribute to the lesser-known battles near Metzeral in June 1915 and the memory of General Serret and Colonel Boussat, who fell at Hartmannswillerkopf in December 1915.
In 1914, the Germans occupied the Tête des Faux peak, culminating at 1,220 metres. The Christmas Battle of 1914, fought under harsh winter conditions, resulted in 600 casualties in a single night.
However, the Germans built impressive fortifications that kept the situation at a stalemate until the Armistice.
Further along the old trench line, the Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines Pass is a border station between France and Germany that was controlled by the Germans from 1914. The surrounding peaks of Bernhardstein, Tête du Violu and Côte 607 became the theatre of a latent war.
The Saint-Dié-des-Vosges Museum is home to some exceptional items related to 1914-1918 military history. Ten display cases show uniforms, weapons, ammunition and documents from the Battle of Meurthe and battles at La Chipotte. A rare collection also recounts the famous exploits of flying aces Fonck and Guynemer.
In the Hure Valley, attrition warfare was used in a fight to gain control of the Fontenelle hills and quickly transitioned into a war of mines. A monument was inaugurated in 1925 near the cemetry where 2,348 French soldiers have been laid to rest.
From 28 August to 9 September 1914, La Chipotte Pass was the scene of hand-to-hand combat. Control of it switched between the French and Germans five times, killing 4,000 French soldiers who nicknamed it the "Hell Hole”. This French victory and that of the Marne helped crush the German invasion plan and the war of movement transformed into attrition warfare. La Chipotte Cemetry is a reminder of the heroic sacrifice of French soldiers.
In September 1914, the Germans set up camp near Moyenmoutier in the Val de Senones, the former capital of the Principality of Salm. Perched on a cliff, Roche Mère Henry promontory was attacked by the French several times until January 1915.
At the north end of the military contingent, between the Donon and Raon-l'Etape peaks, La Chapelotte is the last remaining monument that commemorates of the war of mines in the Vosges. In 1914-1918, some positions reached 120 metres deep.
The Germans built impressive fortifications in the soft sandstone rocks. These exploits can be seen at the Centre d’Interprétation et de Documentation 1914-1918 in Pierre-Percée.