The Front in the Vosges stabilised in the autumn of 1914. Joffre assured the Alsaciens that, “Notre retour est définitif. Je suis le France, vous êtes l’Alsace. Je vous apport le baiser de la France.” The French took key points in the mountains: the summit of le Voilu, la Tête des Faux, Hartmannswillerkopf. The village of Steinbach was won back house by house. The aftermath was utter desolation.
Winter was coming.
In January 1915, the Germans launched ferocious attacks and by February, they were occupying the peaceful village of Metzeral by the River Fecht. Within a week, they had taken Reichackerkopf*, then the villages of Hohrod, Hohrodberg, Stosswihr. The weather was atrocious. Snow fell relentlessly. It was bitterly, utterly cold. When the attack ceased towards the end of February, the French had lost over one and a half thousand men, either wounded, killed or taken prisoner.
It took until mid-summer, after the weather finally had begun to improve, for the French to recapture the villages of Metzeral and Sondernach. The two nécropoles nationales by those peaceful valley villages are silent witnesses to the horrors men went through in that Vosgien winter.
Dead men, dead trees, amputated men, amputated trees. A French soldier, Bellouard, saw parallels between the French soldiers and the green pine-trees. He reflected on a mound marked by a small cross topped with a solitary képi, distilled the forest silence, imagined the earth caring for the man and, in sombre mood, as the forest shade fell on his comrade, I assume he longed for peace.
In the bitter winter, bread froze to crystals, wine darkened and thickened like ink, water had to be kept melting. Men’s beards and moustaches froze with the humidity of their breath. Although the very beginning of January 1917 was unusually warm, temperatures dropped steadily and the rest of the first quarter of 1917 was particularly harsh. For weeks in some places temperatures hovered about -27°. Weapons would not fire. Icicles a metre wide and several metres long hung from the shelters, a brittle mockery of drawing room curtains. Men succumbed to respiratory illnesses and severe frostbite. Patrols and lookouts could manage only a short spell before having to be revived with a hot drink, but even the wood for fires to heat the water had to be deglazed before use. By the time they left the trench lines, some men could no longer walk on their feet and had to crawl.
This card was posted in September, 1919. For two months, the sender has been engaged in clearing the area and he writes that, “The valley is in a lamentable state: ruins, nothing but ruins.”
As December progressed, men knew they would be facing Christmas in the trenches. One noted in his diary that the earth had put on its white festive coat, he himself was wearing a blue coat and the pink clay was (almost) red. Ever the tricolore. How lucky we are that despite the privations and the discomfort, men persisted in writing their letters, their postcards and their diaries. A few minutes of someone’s history for a few euros. Priceless.
*Reichackerkopf – vital mountain overlooking Munster valley, Alsace.
Climate information 1917 from Météo France.
All postcards and photos are mine. Introductory information, board cimetière Sondernach.