MILITARY HISTORY SITES IN NORTHEASTERN FRANCE
This week, we’ll be commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. This famous and heroic battle is well-known in the annals of World War II. But the “debarquement” at Normandy was only the beginning a long, hard-fought series of battles that took place across France in the following six months. And while we hope these battles were the last that the people of France will experience on their soil, they also certainly weren’t the first. France, as is the case with all of Europe, has experienced much conflict and warfare over the centuries, and the regions of Alsace and Lorraine are no exception. So in preparation of the upcoming 70th anniversary commemorations of World War II, and the centennial commemorations for the Great War of 1914-18, I thought some of our followers might be interested in learning a bit about some of the military history to be found in our Consular District.
Anyone who knows about the history of Alsace is aware that for centuries it has been a zone of conflict in Europe’s wars. In fact, when I was learning about European history prior to my arrival here, I had an instructor who said: “If I had to describe the history of Europe in once sentence, this would be it: ‘Following the death of Charlemagne, Europe was divided into three parts – the East, the West, and the Middle – and ever since then, the East and West have been fighting over the Middle.'” Perhaps a bit of an oversimplification, but Alsace has the misfortune of being located in the Middle.
As one drives along the A35 freeway or the beautiful Route du Vin that runs north-south through the region between Strasbourg and Mulhouse, you will see the ruins of ancient castles dotting the hilltops that served to offer protection to the region’s inhabitants dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Most lie in ruins, and some, like the ones above the villages of Kaysersberg and Ribeauville, can be visited if you’re willing to hike up a mountain side. But the largest and most impressive, Haut Koenigsbourg, is a major tourist attraction. It was restored in the early 20th Century by Kaiser Wilhelm during a period when Alsace was a part of Germany. Today, it is visited by thousands of tourists who learn what it was like to live in a medieval castle-fortress and who enjoy spectacular views of the Rhine river valley below. More information on this fascinating place to visit can be found at http://www.haut-koenigsbourg.fr/en/.
Students of military fortifications will be well aware of the work of the great military engineer, Vauban, who served King Louis XIV and who, between 1667 and 1707 built or upgraded more than 300 major fortifications across France. Many of them are located in our Consular District. In Strasbourg, one can visit the Citadel, now a park, or view the Vauban Barrage (dam) in the Petite France part of the city. An impressive and large star-shaped fort which still encloses a whole town can be visited at Neuf Brisach on the banks of the Rhine near Colmar. Check it out on Google Maps and you’ll see what I mean. Other examples of his work can be seen in Metz and Verdun in Lorraine. But perhaps the most impressive example of Vauban’s work in our District is the Citadel in Besancon. This impressive hill-top fortress now houses several museums, including one on the French Resistance in World War II. If you’re passing through the Region of Franche Comte, it’s definitely worth a stop! For more information, visit Besancon’s web site for the Citadel at http://www.citadelle.com/en/. A similar hill-top Vauban fortress can be found in Belfort, where you can also see Bartholdi’s gigantic “Lion of Belfort” statue. (It was Bartholdi, born in Colmar, who designed and built the Statue of Liberty, one of America’s most famous icons.)
German era fortifications and Fort Mutzig
The next generation of military fortifications in the Strasbourg area was constructed by the Germans, who built a ring of 17 forts to counter a possible French return to Alsace after Germany took control of the region following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Today, these forts, many of which have been abandoned and are overgrown, are linked by a bicycle path called “le piste des forts”. Some of them have been restored and can be visited. Two that I’ve visited are Fort Rapp (Moltke) in Reichstett near the Rhine-Marne canal, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Rapp, and Fort Kleber (Bismarck) in Wolfisheim, now used as a community park and venue for events. (The forts were named for German generals and personalities, but when the French returned to Alsace after World War I, the forts were all renamed for French generals.)
But the most impressive of all the German forts is Fort Mutzig, a huge underground complex that was a precursor to the later, more advanced subterranean facilities that comprised the Maginot Line. Located about thirty minutes west of Strasbourg, the fort was constructed under a hill that commanded a pass that would be the likely approach route of a French force approaching Strasbourg. Originally known by the Germans as “Feste Kaiser Wilhelm II”, it was constructed in the 1890’s, was one of the strongest forts in Europe, and used all the most advanced technology of the time, including concrete to counter newly developed high explosives that rendered the earlier masonry forts obsolete, electricity, ventilation systems, radio communications, and pop-up turrets that contained long range artillery pieces and anti-tank weapons. Working and living in the fort was like being on a battleship at sea, but with no portholes or fresh air! Today, the fort is operated as a museum by l’Association Fort de Mutzig, headed by President Bernard Bour, who was kind enough to give me a personal tour some time ago. Tours are available during the summer months, and anyone interested in the warfare of the World War I period should definitely visit this impressive fortification which has been restored and preserved by Mr. Bour’s association. You can find out more about the Fort at its website: http://www.fort-mutzig.eu.
The Maginot Line
Of course, the most well-known military fortifications to be found in Alsace are the remains of the famous Maginot Line, which was constructed between World Wars I and II to block a German and/or Italian invasion from the east. The Line was not actually a continuous wall like the Great Wall of China, but a series of interlinked forts and smaller fortified positions stretching from the Mareath Line in Tunisia, through Corsica, then from Nice to Dunkirk. In Alsace, it followed along the Rhine River, then curved west toward Lorraine. The line was anchored by Fort Schoenenbourg in the Hagenau defense sector. Today, this remarkable fort has been restored by the Association des Amis de la Ligne Maginot d’Alsace, and can be visited by the public everyday between May 1 and September 30, and on weekends and some holidays in April and October. I was recently given a tour of this impressive fortress by the Association’s President, Mr. Marc Halter. More information may be found at the website at http://www.lignemaginot.com. If you’re visiting the Lorraine region and would like to visit a Maginot Line fortress, then swing by the Hackenberg Fortress, which is the largest of the Maginot Line forts that can still be visited. Not far from Thionville and the Luxembourg border, it is also open every day during the summer months. The website is http://maginot-hackenberg.com/presentationanglais.htm.
Cemeteries and Battlefields
The heavy price paid by France, the United States, and Germany may be seen firsthand at the several military cemeteries found throughout the region. In our Consular District you can find four American military cemeteries, maintained and operated by the American Battle Monuments Commission, http://www.abmc.gov. If you are interested in World War I, then visit the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery near Romagne-sur-Montfaucon. This is the largest U.S. military cemetery in Europe and is the final resting place of 14,246 American warriors. Or visit the Saint Mihiel World War I American Cemetery in Thiaucourt. The Lorraine American Memorial in St. Avold is the largest World War II cemetery in Europe, with 10,489 graves. A second World War II cemetery can be found in Epinal, anbears testimony to the terrible cost of the campaign in the southern Vosges mountains. For the French perspective of World War I, a visit to Verdun is a must, with its memorial center, large cemetery, and unique looking Douomount Osuary monument. As you drive around the area, notice how the landscape is still cratered all these years later. In the Vosges, the monument at Hartsmanvillerkopf has recently been renovated and will be the site of the first major Franco-German commemoration of the war on August 3, 2014. There is a cemetery at the site, and one can also visit the trenches which are still visible in the hard, rocky landscape along the crest of the mountain.
As you drive anywhere in this region, you will come across small memorials to the men who fought and died in these small villages or on cold, wet mountainsides. Likewise for the rolling fields near Arracourt in Lorraine, where the largest tank engagement of the Western front took place during the Lorraine campaign in the drive to liberate Metz. There are also small museums dedicated to keeping reminding us of the terrible price paid. If you’re near Colmar, don’t miss the Battle of the Colmar Pocket Memorial and Museum, in Turckheim, http://www.musee.turckheim-alsace.com.
So, if you are in France to participate in the D-Day commemorations, or for any other reason, and find yourself in the Alsace-Lorraine-Franche Comte regions, we hope you’ll take the time to stop to visit some of the fascinating historical sites in this lovely part of France. Bon route!!
Evan G. Reade
Deputy Permanent Observer to the Council of Europe