World War I Memorial Site—Vieil Armand / Hartmannswillerkopf
By Michelle Kirby
November is not only the time for the Herbstmesse, pumpkins, and glorious autumnal colors, but in Europe, and primarily the U.K., is also a time for Remembrance—the commemoration of the efforts and sacrifices of the generations before us who fought in the World Wars.
The Alsace region just across the border from Basel in France has a rich military history, which includes several nationally and regionally significant military memorial sites. Perhaps the best known of these is the Memorial Site and Trenches Walk at Vieil Armand or Hartmannswillerkopf, high in the Vosges Mountains, about 45 km from Basel.
The battle of Hartmannswillerkopf was actively fought in 1915 as part of the First World War (1914–1918). At this location, at about 950 m altitude in the Vosges mountains, the Germans and French were entrenched in a battle that lasted over 11 months. Both sides built, occupied, and fought in trenches where the soldiers lived, slept, and fought in all weather, including the harsh winter months, to defend their positions. It was a place of huge tragedy, and an estimated 30,000 soldiers, mostly French, had lost their lives by the time the battle ended. The trenches were occupied and positions held until the end of the war in 1918.
Today, the site of the battle is the location of a national French memorial and cemetery. There is also a museum—opened in August 2017—that provides a visual history of the First World War and details the story of the battle for Hartmannswillerkopf specifically. The highlight of any visit to this moving place is a walk of the site itself. Information boards mark a set route of about 5 km and guide visitors through the site. The route starts along the supply lines, and it is here that the first evidence of war is seen—the barbed wire and steel joists. Quickly, visitors join a clear network of paths, gun turrets, refuge huts, and vantage points, before entering the trenches themselves. The German and French trenches, and the no-man’s land between them, are clearly demarcated, and are architecturally very distinct. They are in places so well preserved that it is easy to feel time collapse and to imagine and visualize the harshness of the life of the soldier. In places the route is claustrophobic, narrow, and disorientating. The walk ends at the National Cemetery and Memorial.
This visit is not only a must for those with an interest in military history, but also offers an incredible opportunity for families and school-aged children to learn about the world at war. The information panels throughout offer information in French, German, and English. The path is open and free all year round, although it may not be accessible in snowy conditions (check their website before heading out) and is not stroller friendly. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from around Easter until the middle of November (this year closing November 14, 2022 and reopening April 1, 2023); entrance costs € 6 (free under age 10). Picnic tables and seating areas are peppered along the site. The museum building offers some café facilities as well as toilets.
Hartmannswillerkopf/ Vieil Armand can be accessed by car, via the motorway system to Mulhouse. The full address is Monument National du Hartmannswillerkopf, Col du Silberlock, 68700 Wattwiller. Free parking is available at the memorial/ museum.