Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Linge (Lingekopf) Vosges France.

A cross, marking the grave of an unknown French soldier, viewed through a German rifle shield on the Linge.

A dead Frenchman viewed through a firing port (Schießscharte) on the ‘Schratzmännele’ 1915.

During a walking holiday (2011) in the Vosges mountains I stumbled on some of the best preserved trench architecture currently on the Western Front.  For most British Great War enthusiasts the Vosges is that forgotten section of the Western Front, the section where French units went to rest and recuperate after being mauled elsewhere.  This perception is correct for 1916 onwards but the battles in the region during 1914 and 1915 matched the intensity of those further north, in addition they were fought on terrain that makes the British sector to the north appear very benign.

The Linge viewed through a German scissors rangefinder 1915.
This trench architecture is located at the Linge (Le Linge - Lingekopf) Museum.  The Linge is a spur some 983 metres high, situated to the east of the main ridge that runs between the Weiss and Fecht valleys.  The German army had occupied the Linge (the Lingekopf as they called it) in September 1914 and by July 1915 under the cover of dense pine trees had constructed a series of blockhouses and bunkers interconnected by a maze of tunnels and trenches protected by belts of barbed wire.
The Linge Trench Plan.

German Front Line Trench (Linge).

Blockhouse (Fort Carré) on the Linge.

Inside Fort Carré.

Many of the bunkers and much of the German trenching are incredibly well preserved and is still easily accessed.  Standing in the German trenches looking down towards the French front line, no more than 10 metres away, left me both stunned an in awe.  Stunned that an assault was attempted against such a well prepared position; in awe of the men who carried out the assault.

View from the German Front Line.

The French Front Line (Marker).

Lt Albert Drangmeister, Platoon Leader with ‘8.Kompanie Bayerisches Landwehr Infanterie Regiment 1 (8./BLIR 1)’, picture taken 22 Jul 1915 prior to the French attack.  He was killed by a grenade during the French noon attack at the Linge on 22 Jul 1915 and is buried in a mass grave at the Bärenstall (Hohrod) German Cemetery. (Text courtesy of egbert)
Because German occupation of the Ligne hindered French communication between the upper Weiss and upper Fecht valleys, and as part of a flanking manoeuvre to capture the town of Munster, the French attacked the Linge and the associated heights of Schratzmännele (1010m) and Barrenkopf (980) on 20 July 1915.  The attack was controversial at the time* and involved the French infantry descending from the heights, crossing a marshy valley, and scaling steep rock-strewn slopes under withering fire from a well hidden, by the dense pine trees, and entrenched enemy.  French re-supply proved problematic, and depended on a 12 mile mule trail.

The Second Battle of Munster - July to October 1915.

Between 20 July 1915 and the end of October 1915 the fighting swayed too and fro with the peaks of the Linge, Schratzmännele, and Barrenkopf changing hands several times.  By the end of 1915 the line had stabilised, the Germans had retained hold of the summits with the French lines in close proximity, a status quo that existed until the end of the war.

Walk Overview - Google Earth 3D View.

There are numerous historical walking routes around the Ligne the one I followed went from the museum car park south past the Ligne memorial following a moderately steep path through the trees towards the Schratzmännele summit.  Turning right at the summit it is possible to discern within the foliage a maze of trenches, tunnel entrances, fortifications and blockhouses many carved into the rock.

Trench on the Schratzmännele.

Continuing along the path heading south east you come across a blockhouse guarding a trail that drops steeply into the ‘small’ Schratz quarry.  Below the quarry the path continues down swinging south to the tree line at the base of the Barrenkopf.  At this point the German trench line, running north-south, is clearly visible within the tree line; to the east no more than 10 metres away is the French trench line.  This junction was known as ‘La Courtine’ and here there is an option to continue south and climb the Barrenkopf or as I did to turn east (right) and head across a shell cratered meadow (the ‘prairie’) towards the Hurlin (1000m), the location of the French command post during the assault on the Linge.

Contemporary picture of La Courtine 'prairie', Schratzmännele on the left. Note the exposed French trenches. La Courtine was the point used by the French to attack both the Schratzmännele and Barrenkopf.

Contemporary view of exposed French trenches on the 'prairie' overlooked by the Schratzmännele.
(Courtesy of egbert)

Contemporary view from the Schratzmännele south towards the Barrenkopf, winter 1915. The La Courtine 'prairie' falls away to the right. Note the proximity of the Front Line trenches.
(Courtesy of egber)

View from La Courtine across the 'prairie'. The Hurlin is visible behind the tree.

Skirting to the south of the Hurlin takes you down to the French Military Cemetery known locally as the ‘Cimetière des Chasseurs’ or the ‘Cimetière du Wettstein’ where more than 3,500 French soldiers are buried.  From here the route continues out the back of the cemetery along a forest trail that skirts around the base of the Linge before branching right and climbing fairly steeply through the trees on the Linge’s reverse slope to the Hohrod German War Cemetery where 2,438 German soldiers are buried.  It was only as I walked around the base of the Linge that I began to fully appreciate how difficult the French assault would have been.  The route then follows the road back to the Ligne museum.

The Hurlin.

Cimetière de Wettstein.

Hohrod German War Cemetery.

*General de Pouydraguin following a personal reconnaissance stated that he ‘consider [ed] as highly adventurous and ill-omened, an offensive made through several miles of very steep, wooded ground, at high altitude, where the action of [his]  artillery would be made inaccurate through a lack of observation . . .’  (The Linge 1915, Memorial du Linge, p. 6.)

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