Deep in the forest of Wattwiller, Alsace, France, famous for the mineral water that flows there, Susie Woodhams discovers an extraordinary history lesson…
We climbed a small slope of tangled ivy and dried leaves to reach what seemed like a practical lunch spot: the moss-covered roof of a building nearly a century old, tucked deep in the forest of the Vosges Mountains. Five Frenchmen, an Englishman, and I plopped our backpacks atop cement ledges and pulled out canned sardines, dried sausages, cheese, baguettes, and the ubiquitous bottles of red wine.
Yet even as towering oak, birch, fir and pine trees reminded me how much I like hiking in this part of northeastern France, I couldn’t help worrying. Was it disrespectful to sit atop a World War I field hospital, built by the Germans in 1915, when fighting against the French at the mountain’s summit had been at its most intense? Who knew how many bloodied, mangled bodies had been carried into the now gutted chambers a few feet beneath us?
“Soldiers probably ate here during the war, just like us,” said Jean-Bernard Scherrer as he heated a can of sausage on a tiny folding stove. Bart Pocock, the lone Englishman, who had moved to a nearby village more than 20 years ago, opened his bottle of Medoc, prompting conversation peppered with WWI minutiae.
Did I know that daily rations for French soldiers when the war began in 1914 included a quarter liter (one cup) of wine, and increased to a pint by early 1916? Or that when a soldier received double rations of alcohol, it was a good bet he was about to be sent to the front line?
I didn’t join this hike for the history lesson; that became the bonus. I signed up to see how a team of 15 volunteers, equipped with rakes, hoes, spades and chainsaws, tends some 28 miles of hiking trails and trenches, where nature’s beauty often intersects the vestiges of war’s brutality.
Already during the morning’s first post-winter session in April to assess overgrown brush and degraded paths, Pocock and Scherrer had pointed out rusted barbed wire beside stone trenches. The strands that were coiled into fat disks once served as mini-trampolines, meant to send incoming grenades back toward enemy lines 20 yards away. We passed massive four-pronged tree trunks, likely split by mortars. Gingerly, we ventured into a German bunker built into the mountain’s granite, with openings for ventilation, stairs to an upper entrance, a lookout toward no-man’s land, and an outdoor station for running water. We even wondered if wide patches of periwinkles beside bunkers shared roots with those supposedly planted during the war, to honor temporary graves of comrades.
Such musing plays well in the battlefield tourism business, which has had a surge in popularity in 2014 thanks to the 70th anniversary of D-Day and 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.
Yet from a desire to preserve history, these volunteers glean and share knowledge as members of the non-profit association “Les Amis (Friends) de Hartmannswillerkopf,” or AHWK. Started by a local French mathematics teacher in 1969, AHWK works to protect trails leading to thousands of WWI bunkers, trenches and other relics scattered throughout Hartmannswillerkopf. Also named Vieil Armand by French soldiers who had trouble pronouncing it, the pyramid-shaped rocky spur rises 3,100 feet high, offering spectacular as well as strategic views of the Alsatian plain, Black Forest and Swiss Alps.
A majority of the association’s 140 members have at least one relative who fought in the war. Yet while many grew up here, fewer are related to one of the 30,000 French and German soldiers who died fighting for control of the Hartmannswillerkopf summit, which changed hands eight times by 1916. As intense fighting died down, a deadlock ensued until the end of the war, with each claiming it had control while camped in trenches separated by 30 feet of no-man’s land. A national monument since 1921, Hartmannswillerkopf remains such a symbolic WWI site that the French and German presidents came here for the 100th anniversary on Aug. 3.
They laid the first stone for a Franco-German historical unit and museum scheduled to open by 2017, and inaugurated a recently completed three-mile trail along the summit’s front line, where signage in English, French and German is being added to describe 44 points of interest. Funded by the Hartmannswillerkopf National Monument Committee, which is a non-profit association with partners in France and Germany, the museum and historical unit will complete a nine-year project, including nearly €6 million in renovations of the site’s esplanade, trail, and crypt for bodies of 12,000 unknown soldiers. While most tourists come for the national monument and cemetery with 1,264 crosses atop French graves, many want to see the only terrain on the Western Front where the Allies fought on German soil during the war.
Once the Germans declared war on France on Aug. 3, the French immediately began a campaign to reclaim the Alsace region that had been theirs until the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. With the mountain ridge serving as the border, it wasn’t uncommon for brothers, cousins, or in-laws who lived a few kilometers apart but in different countries to fight on opposite sides. For an expat Englishman who had no known ties to the war when he moved to the region, Pocock said his curiosity was piqued the first time he noticed from his porch the 72-foot “Cross of Peace in Europe,” rising from a gap on the mountain range. He later learned on a tour that the memorial replaced an original wood cross that was erected in 1919 in no-man’s land.
“Then finding out that there are some 1,500 bunkers lying around – it’s global heritage. How can you not want to be a part of it?” said Pocock, who serves as Vice-President of AHWK. “Most of the pictures you get of WWI are mud and fields in the north, certainly not mountain warfare like this.”
Depending on which side of the mountain you’re hiking, you’ll find stark differences in how each army dealt with the challenging terrain. By extending their railroad to the base of the mountain, the Germans easily transported material to build sophisticated bunkers, sometimes into the rock. Just below the field hospital, we examined a tall steel support that was once part of a cable car system built to haul ammunition, supplies, and even generators for electricity.
The French relied on man and mule power to haul mortars and provisions, taking as much as eight hours to reach the top in brutal winter conditions. Because of that, and a strategy to attack and move forward, they built crude bunkers and trenches from rocks, scrap metal and wood.
Hiking through the forest feels like a treasure hunt; you can spend hours searching for relics. But when I have friends visiting with only an hour to spare, I make sure they at least visit the spur’s eastern edge on the summit’s main trail, and climb onto the jagged rock that the French named “Rocher Panorama.” With its sweeping view of the plain, forest and mountains, the Germans called it “Aussichtsfelsen” (Lookout Rock), and built a bunker beneath it, which is worth a peek.
A short distance below, mounted on the rock face, there’s an impressive bronze statue of five members of the revered French 152nd Regiment. Nicknamed “Les Diables Rouges” (Red Devils), they’re depicted as if charging forward above the landscape. Inaugurated in 1921, the monument was destroyed by the Nazis in 1940, but redone by the same artist in 1954, remaining one of the most iconic monuments of Hartmannswillkerkopf.
Yet protecting some of the lesser-known French and German vestiges from sprawling vegetation and invasive roots is one of AHWK’s biggest challenges – along with recruiting younger volunteers to continue the work into the next generation.
“Our work is a constant fight, lost in advance and constantly starting over because of vegetation,” AHWK President Robert Lenhardt said. “But if there hadn’t been this group the past 50 years, we wouldn’t have many of the vestiges you see today.”
How to get there: Local tourist offices often refer groups seeking guided tours to AHWK (www.ahwk.fr). Depending on schedules, a member will lead a two-to-three hour hike, for a fee of €60, which is divided between the association and the member. Located on the Route des Crêtes, in Wattwiller, France, Hartmannswillerkopf is a 30-minute drive from Mulhouse (45 minutes from Colmar), with the final 10 minutes on an uphill winding road through forest. The road is closed from November until the end of March, but hiking trails starting in surrounding villages are open year round. The crypt is also closed during winter months. Entrance to the war memorial site is free.
Contact for the Hartmannswillerkopf National Monument Committee is through the Tourist Information Office in Colmar, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susie Woodhams is co-author of the ebook, The Expat’s Guide to Southern Alsace, www.xpatsguide.com.