The Vieil-Armand or Hartmannswillerkopf, is an almost intact Great War battlefield. Nicknamed Hartmannswillerkopf by the Germans, this battlefield remains largely unknown because it is obscured by the great names of war, such as Verdun, Artois or Chemin des Dames. However, it played a significant role and was the scene of some of the deadliest fighting in the war. Not by the number of victims - estimated at around 30,000 - but by the intensity of the fighting over a real "pocket handkerchief".
Le Viel-Armand: strategic point of the Vosges front
Considered from 1914 by the French and German generals as a strategic point entering into the considerations of the plans of the major offensives to come, the Vieil-Armand will gradually be invested by the troops of the two countries which will confront each other at the top for four years, although 1915 is the pivotal year.
Indeed, it was in 1915 that each of the two enemies then concentrated on the peaks of the Vosges. A major offensive was launched by the French on December 21, which ended in failure. In 1916, the front of the Vosges calms down in favor of other places such as the Meuse and Verdun regions ...
Visit of the battlefield
With 30,000 victims over 6 km², more than 30 shells per minute fell at the height of the 1915 bombings and one million visitors per year, the Vieil-Armand battlefield is particularly distinguished from other theaters of operations such as Verdun. , which underwent total reforestation after a decree of 1923 and which have almost disappeared today. The site was left as it is and has remained intact, only undergoing the onslaught of time and the scrap metal workers who came to use abundantly until 1968 when it became a site protected by a rehabilitation program, led by the association. of the Friends of Hartmannswillerkopf.
The main hike: the monument, the cemetery, the cross
When you arrive at the site, you come face to face with the important concrete monument which houses a small museum made of objects exclusively recovered on the battlefield of Vieil-Armand as well as the crypt containing the remains. of twelve thousand unidentified soldiers.
Then comes the Silberloch cemetery which contains the remains of 1,264 identified French soldiers and six ossuaries of 64 bodies each.
At the bottom of the cemetery, the walker can continue to climb to the top, by the main path, to meet the summit cross. 22 meters high, the cross was illuminated in the thirties to be clearly visible from the valley, but the humidity got the better of the electrical system and it has been inactive for years.
From the top, you can go to the monument dedicated to the "Red Devils" of the 152nd IR of Colmar then "descend" into the forest - either on the French side, or on the German side, or both, depending on the weather. visitor will have to explore the system of trenches and fortifications.
At the heart of the battle: visit of the bunkers and trenches
Unlike the Germans, who made lasting improvements to the summit from the end of 1914 by massively concreting and building forts and other bunkers (notably the "Bischofshut"), the French developments have now almost disappeared, except for the Sermet and Mégard "rocks". Indeed, the French have always followed the logic of war of movement: they never buried themselves "as well" as the Germans. French bunkers, moreover solid, were almost always made of wood and consolidated by materials recovered on the battlefield. In addition, the Germans occupying the summit, the French were always forced to occupy the slopes of Hartmannswillerkopf, which is not the "panacea" for the construction of networks and concrete bunkers.
When you walk around the German side, you will be surprised by the quality of their facilities. Engineering pioneers brought electricity to the front lines with the construction of a power station. They also rode a cable car that brought food, ammunition and construction materials directly from the valley, while the French rode it all on the backs of men and mules ...
Tourism for all
We recommend a visit to this high place of the Great War because history buffs and hikers can discover a place where traces of occupation and battles bear witness to the past. If you go deeper into the forest, beware of the barbed wire and "pig tails" that still dot the course.
We will add that due to the extreme brutality of the fighting which took place there, the Vieil-Armand is still full of machines underground. As in Verdun, detection is strictly prohibited there and is punishable by law.
We will end this "review" with a little anecdote: the author of the Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling, visited the front lines of Vieil-Armand in 1916.
A. Wirth, Les Combats Du Hartmannswillerkopf (Vieil-Armand) 1914-1918, Committee of the National Monument of Hartmannswillerkopf, 1977.
Thierry Ehret, 1914-1918, around the Hartmannswillerkopf, Éditions du Rhin, 1988
(we can see here in the "photos of the shelters" section of the glaring difference between the French and German fittings)
A personal site detailing the course of the battle with photos to illustrate the story.