“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Alsace is best known for it’s wine route, castles and fairy tale villages. However, 956.5m (3,136 ft) above the Alsace plain, at Hartsmannswillerkopf, or HWK as it is known, you will find an extraordinary relic of WWI.
On a pyramid-shaped, rocky peak, there are between 45 and 60km of trenches, tunnels and shelters. They are incredibly well-preserved, due to both the location and the nature of the battle that took place there.
Unlike many battlefields, once the fighting ceased, the mountainous land was not reclaimed for other uses. Also, a lengthy stalemate in the battle meant that for much of the war, the positions remained static. The troops were well and truly dug in, so the trenches were well-defined and the layout changed little.
The reason that this high point became the epicentre of such violent and merciless warfare was its great strategic importance. HWK has far-reaching views across the Alsace plain, towards the Rhine, and overlooked the Colmar-Mulhouse railway. For the French, HWK was also a highly symbolic prize. In 1914, Alsace had been in German hands since the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. When war was declared again, reclaiming the annexed French territory was a primary objective.
The fighting on HWK was violent and relentless. In 1915, the summit changed hands four times. Although it lost some of its strategic importance when the front moved north in the summer of 1916, a bloody stalemate endured on HWK until the war ended in 1918, with neither side giving ground.
HWK claimed the lives of 30,000 soldiers, while 30,000 more were injured or taken prisoner. The rows and rows of crosses in the cemetery give some indication of what 1,200 lost souls looks like, but the true horror dawns when you realise that the crypt contains the bodies of 12,000 unknown soldiers and the ossuaries in the graveyard 384 more. 7,000 German soldiers are buried nearby in Cernay, but the whole HWK battlefield area is an open air cemetery for those whose remains were never recovered. It was numbing.
The site took a bit of finding, since the 1914-18 graveyard, museum and memorial was signposted Vieil Armand and was not in or anywhere near Wattheim as advertised. HWK literally means ‘head’ (summit) of Hartmannswiller, which is the village at the foot of the mountain. It was l’Illustration magazine who christened it Vieil Armand – Old Armand, in 1915. The name Armand means ‘army man’, so although my research has not been able to confirm it, I suspect that Vieil Armand means something along the lines of ‘The Old Warrior’.
The soldiers who fought there were less euphemistic than the press. French soldiers called HWK, ‘The Man Eater’, while the German soldiers referred to it simply as ‘The Mountain of Death’.
Just outside Wattheim, we stopped at a roadside car park, which had walks signposted. There was a war walk itinerary on a board, but I could see that the actual summit was over 900 metres high, so it would have been a tall order to walk to it from where we were. A walking route from Col de Silberloch with various lookouts was marked on the map, so we decided to drive up to that. The German, French and European flags indicated that by accident, we had found our destination.
The crypt, described as ‘an underground cathedral’, and the large, modern museum and café building were closed due to coronavirus. Nevertheless, we went for a very interesting and moving self-guided walk through history.
On the summit, above the crypt or necropolis, sits ‘The Altar of the Homeland’, a gilded stone sarcophagus, bearing the names and shields of various French towns. From there, flowing down the green flanks of the hill, are rows of plain, white crosses.
From the esplanade and altar, we followed the marked track. The peaceful, sun-dappled woodland belied the horror that had taken place there. There was no sound but birdsong. Verdant green, natural forest had taken over the barbed wire and trenches, although despite the resurgence of nature, it was still clear to see that the whole area was pockmarked with shell craters.
The walk entered the mostly earthen French trenches, then passed into no-man’s land before entering the German trenches. These were markedly different; constructed from masonry, with shelters every few yards, where troops could hide out from bombardment.
Information boards along the way followed a timeline of the battle for HWK with incredible detail. There was an almost daily record of the skirmishes and lives lost in each area. Short excerpts from the diaries of soldiers gave an insight into their lives on HWK. Some are just too upsetting to quote. André Maillet, a literature teacher in civilian life, described the result of a skirmish in December 2015,
“Dawn breaks. It is a horrible sight… Defeated, I am alone at the bottom of the abyss where so many men cried out madly in their distress and pain. For a moment, the vision of my isolation on this bloody rock covered with bodies fills me with an endless despair”
As we walked back through the regimented lines of crosses in the cemetery, I noticed the six, stone-topped ossuaries. Each of these is a mass grave of sixty or more unknown soldiers. It was here that one of the quotes really hit home. From the diary of Auguste Chapotte on 17th June, 1915,
“As soon as daylight allows, I get on the periscope… Imagine my surprise when I get a really clear view of several Huns about ten metres away from me, busy and very calmly digging a communication trench parallel to our trench… These Jerries are really young; they seem to be barely twenty years old.”
At one point, while I was looking inside an underground bunker, Mark wandered off and I experienced for myself the disorientating nature of the trenches. I shouted for him, but he didn’t hear, and that was in the restful tranquility of a summer’s day. Fortunately, Kai missed his mum and came bounding back through the labyrinth to find me. Mark and I had set out in exactly opposite directions and were walking away from each other.
Our day was a very beautiful, interesting and moving walk through lush, shady woods.
By way of contrast, the information panels showed photographs of the devastation left behind by the battle, particularly after the Germans in the Dora fortress deployed two flame-throwers, dubbed ‘the beasts of the apocalypse’. What remained was a lunar landscape of scorched earth and broken trees.
The scale of the carnage in just one small theatre of The Great War was hard to comprehend. So many lives lost for one, small hill top – multiply that by the rest of Europe. Yet the site has become a place of hope; standing as an enduring testament to the senselessness of arbitrary enmity and the pointlessness of war.
Due to its position on the border, Alsace has spent long periods as part of both France and Germany. When WWI broke out, loyalties were divided. Brothers could be fighting brothers and both armies suffered a high level of desertions as a result. Alsatian troops frequently elected to join the navy, rather than the army, to avoid the potential of close combat with family and friends.
Another quote brought home that on both sides, these were just young men who had been told to be enemies, thrown together into a terrible situation that was not of their making.
March 4th, 2014: Artilleryman Henri Martin reported, “Yesterday, a mountain soldier was digging a shallow communication trench 50m from them when he heard a voice, ‘Hey! Hey!’ And he saw one of the enemy who told him, ‘Get down! Get down!’”
With each attack and counter-attack, thousands of lives were lost in the most brutal and terrible circumstances, yet neither side made any real gains. Originally a site of remembrance for French soldiers, in 2014, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WW1, HWK was rededicated as a testament to Franco-German reconciliation. HWK was chosen because it is essentially ‘neutral’ ground, where neither side gained advantage.
While I am sure that the dead would rather have lived, HWK does stand as a beautiful memorial to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
I also found it rather touching that nature has reclaimed the site to such an extent that the diversity of the flora and fauna has earned it Natura 2000 status and protection. This place of brutal, unremitting death has become a vibrant place of life.
Paradise starts with the love we show each other here on earth.
Hartmannswillerkopf reminded me of that, by offering a brief glimpse into hell, .