This years summer holiday was to the beautiful area of Alsace, and we had decided to book onto a Headwater self guided walking holiday – Contrasts of Alsace and Vosges Walk. This saw a week of wandering through vineyards, hiking up through the mountains and discovering ruined chateaux.
One of the walks brought us to the battlefield of Tête-des-Faux; during the First World War this area was heavily fought over between the French and Germans, and most famously known for the German attack on the Christmas Eve in 1914 which cost over 600 soldiers their lives. But this day has other connotations, and is commonly referred to as the “Christmas truce”, when a widespread ceasefire along the Western Front took place, and in some areas games of football were played between the enemies.
The Tête des Faux is situated between the villages of Bonhomme, Lapoutroie and Orbey and was considered in 1914 by the French to be a very important strategic position, due to the dominant position of the mountain summit. During the First World War it was an area subject to a brief but intense battle between the men of the 28th and 30th Battalions of Apline Hunters (BCA) and the German side.
From August 1914, German observers set themselves on top of the Tête des Faux, directing their fire towards Bonhomme. Towards the end of November, the shelling from the enemy destroyed the main camp of the French army, and on the 2nd of December 1914, the 28th BCA attacked the summit of Tête des Faux, but the Germans weren’t giving up the precious look out post too easily. The 18th of December saw the 30th BCA take over the summit, settling four companies at the top (one company consisting of five officers, 28 non-commissioned officers and 225 men). The right side of the Tête des Faux was occupied by a company of the 229th Infantry Regiment and the left side by the 51st Territorial, another 51st company was stationed at Bonhomme, and two other companies of the 30th BCA were kept for reserve. As Christmas approached, the snow fell and the temperature dropped dramatically, and during the night of December the 23rd 1914, sporadic shootings took place.
The next day on Christmas Eve, the French were heavily pounded by German mortars (mainly on the eastern slopes). At 10.30pm the Germans attacked, with a great focus on the front line at the top of Tête des Faux, but the terrain at the top was unsuitable for trenches so not easy to defend, so Captain Touchon (who was commanding the area) had built a second line 50 yards back. The Germans reached the front line despite heavy fire from the French, and as the wounded and dead soldiers accumulated in front of the battlements, they provided cover for the French defenders. The fighting continued face to face between the enemies, and the French were forced to fall back to their second line. Captain Touchon telephoned the other companies for all important reinforcements as the Germans further advanced towards the French’s second line. With the arrival of the support troops, the German assaults were contained at around 3.45am, and by 4.00am the German troops were pushed back to the French front line. At 4.45am they triggered a new attack, which ultimately rendered the position conquered by the Germans unsustainable. They retreated back before daybreak and the French reoccupied the French front line, but fighting continued throughout the day.
The attack for such a small piece of land on the summit of Tête des Faux cost the lives of 137 French and more than 500 Germans, with more than half falling at the summit. The Germans continued to launch attacks, but the French remained in control of the area for the rest of the war.
The walk has 10 main areas of interest, but what struck me was how many relics of the war are still here and haven’t been removed or taken, the area is preserved in time and gives a great but harrowing opportunity to look back into the past.
- You begin the walk in the German sector of the hill, with the first point of interest being a former cemetery. It was created in 1916 but the buried soldiers were transferred to the German cemetery Baerenstall at Linge. The photo on the panel is of “All Saints Day” November 1st 1915.
Today little remains of the cemetery apart from the entrance gate, and the wall. To the west are a series of shelters connected by trenches but for most of the year are covered in vegetation. As you continue along the marked route, look out on your right for the remains of a telephone wire used by the Germans (there’s a sign just above it).
- The second site is in a large shelter composed of two rooms and served as an infirmary.
- Site 3 takes us to the l’étang du Devin – a large shelter which was the engine room for the German camp and housed water pumps (for the shelters at the front line and to make cement), a large generator providing lighting and equipment for sending compressed air. There is also some written evidence that a cable car connected the camp to the top of the Tête des Faux, enabling the transportation of supplies, and also an underground cable link between here and the summit, but there’s little left for proof. Kitchens, stone crushing machines to make roads coming from Lapoutroie for access to construct the cable car are also said to be here. To the left you’ll see a “green” pond.
- The path continues to wind its way towards the summit, still on German ground. Site 4 is the terminus of the cable car, which started at Lapoutroie (in front of the church). Visible today is a large shelter of concrete slabs, with two tunnels.One was on a railway which gave access to wagons pulled by the cable car and the other is said to be for pedestrians (mainly the wounded). The shelter was covered in corrugated iron, beams, earth and other camouflage and led to the shelters at the summit, 1100m away.
- Continuing uphill we reached La Roche du Corbeau (Rabenfelsen) at 1145 m altitude. This was a very important observatory post during the war, and make sure to find the information sign to see photos from a very snowy winter spent there.
The entrance (which we didn’t manage to find!) is on the east side and leads through a corridor into a room equipped with embrasure for machine gun, and going in further to an observatory. You’ll notice many smaller shelters scattered all around the look out post.
- From now on it’s a steep climb through the remains of well constructed shelters, which were connected by a number of trenches. These were in easy sight of the French and underwent numerous artillery fire.
Also interesting to note is how different the French side of the mountain is, but more on that later. Notice the huge amount of barbed wire and posts which have been left behind (still surprised it’s all been left to be honest), which adds to a very moving experience seeing everything which was used by the soldiers throughout the war.Particularly saddening are the screw pickets, which were used to insert the posts for the barbed wire in total silence so not to draw attention to yourself from the chillingly close enemy.Reaching the summit of Tête des Faux will surely stop you in your tracks, the remains of a two story castle like construction marks the area conquered by the Germans, and which homed around 200 soldiers at a time.
Originally this was the terminus of the cable car, home to shelters, dormitories, an infirmary and even a chapel, but today there are little traces.
- Carrying on you will come to a singular tall white cross surrounded by uneven terrain covered in a series of railway tracks – this is what remains here of the French fort, with only the railway tracks at the foot of the cross remaining (which were used for the roof).
The area has totally collapsed and barely recognisable, and this small piece of land was what the soldiers were fighting over, whilst enemies further down the front line were playing a friendly game of football against each other . Throughout the war 1,200 men were killed here mainly during the two attacks the Germans launched on December the 24th 1914 and February the 21st 1915. On this silent spot now surrounded by trees, wild flowers and not a single other person in sight, take a minute and remember all those who fought in the First World War. Within 300 metres the French sector begins, and straight away you’ll be hit with how little there is to see. The contrast in tactics is clearly seen with the lack of French shelters; they were generally built from materials available on the spot (such as stones, trees trunks etc.) and thus rather precarious. The Germans considered themselves “at home” and in turn they were defending their country against the French invasion, so were building long term with no question of retreating. For the French, it was a matter of reconquering Alsace which was lost in 1871, so it was necessary to advance, and no worth wasting time in constructing shelters. However, the French remained here for four long years in these temporary shelters and structures, hence why little remains to this day.
- The trail further descends to a memorial which translates too “Here fell for France on July 6, 1916, Captain Demmler, Dr. Spain, Jean-François Bouvier, Jean-Marie Renaud of the 62nd BCA.” These were most likely the victims of a shell which fell on a shelter located there.
- Towards the end of the descent you’ll be walking along a paved track. French troops built this road for easier access to supply the troops stationed at the top, you may also be able to see paths to the trenches and shelters which used to be here. In a clearing you will come to the Duchesne cemetary, on the site of the French back camp. Here are the graves of 408 soldiers, 116 of which are together in an ossuary, created in 1924.
Also here is a commemorative monument dedicated to “My Brothers in Arms for the Fatherland, 14th BCA – June 1915” and “To Major J. Duchesne, 215th Battalion Chief, Died for the Fatherland on 2 XII 14 in the assault of Grimaud “. Captain Duchesne was killed during the first French assault on the Tête des Faux, which held the summit in early December 1914. After that assault, French fighters remained at the top of the summit for the remainder of the war.
The cemetery, together with the summit of the Tête des Faux, has been classified as a historic monument since 1921.
Following the path there are little remains of the war for quite some time, but rounding the hill towards the end of the walk sees us return to the German sector.
10. The German Intermediate Station of the cable car between Lapoutrois and the Roche du Corbeau observatory post. It was also used as a machine and engine room (evidence of electric motors found here).
11. A little further on you will come to a large sheleter which served as an infirmary (notice the sign above the entrance.
Before coming back to Devin pond you will pass a second German cemetery, also abandoned. It has recently been restored.
It was a truly memorable walk through the tiny battlefield of such a high intensity battle during the First World War. This was an itinerary for one of the “rest days” Headwater had suggested during our walking holiday, and because of my interest in the war, was the one of most interest and importance. Having visited Ypres last year to find the grave of a family member, my curiosity of the First World War grows and grows, and this was an especially moving day out tracing out the front line.