Hartmannswillerkopf is a 3,136-foot rocky spur on the eastern ridge of the Vosges Mountains in France’s Alsace region. Site of one of the least known of the major World War I battles, it is also one of the most impressive and remarkably well-preserved battlefields of any period. Some 30,000 French and German soldiers fell here during several fierce battles, among the very few World War I engagements fought on what at the time was German territory.
Following the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War, Germany annexed the regions of Alsace, along the west bank of the upper Rhine, and Lorraine to the north. Recapture of the two lost provinces had been a burning objective for the French ever since. It became a central element of their operational Plan XVII.
At the onset of World War I in August 1914, the French Army pushed rapidly into Alsace and sought to capture the city of Mulhouse (Mülhausen in German). The city sits a few miles back from the Rhine, on the broad plain between the river and the Vosges Mountains to the west. The Germans prevailed at Mulhouse, however, and the French withdrew to the eastern slopes of the Vosges, still just inside German territory. From their commanding position on the ridge, the French could observe the entire plain on both sides of the upper Rhine. Hartmannswillerkopf, which the French called Vieil Armand, was an especially key piece of high ground from which the French could direct long-range artillery fire against both the vital north-south Mulhouse-to-Colmar rail line and the eastwest roads the Germans used to move troops and supplies to the front.
As the French dug into the rocky ground along the crest, the Germans burrowed into the face of the steep eastern slope. The Germans did not wait long to assault the summit. On Jan. 19, 1915, troops from the Mecklenburg 14th Jäger Battalion and the 11th and 15th Uhlan Regiments attacked, taking the crest the following day. The Germans wasted no time reinforcing their positions, and the French counterattacked unsuccessfully five times over the following two months. Finally, on March 26, French mountain troops of the 66th Infantry Division under the command of General Marcel Serret retook the summit.
The Germans struck back immediately. On April 1 Major Hans Schenk zu Schweinsberg’s 14th Jäger Battalion pushed the French out of their newly gained front lines, which faced straight down the eastern slope, and by April 26 the summit was again in German hands. The Germans succeeded in part by using gas, which they had deployed only four days earlier at Ypres for the first time in the war. The Germans beat back another French attack on September 9.
The French attacked again in force on December 21, using flamethrowers to retake the summit and annihilate the 14th Jäger Battalion. Only Schenk zu Schweinsberg and 80 of his soldiers survived the battle. The following day, however, the 8th Jäger Battalion, accompanied by the major and his remaining men, took Hartmannswillerkopf yet again. On December 29 Serret was mortally wounded in the struggle for the heights. He died in a French military hospital eight days later. The fighting, known as the Weinachtskämpfen (“Christmas battles”), raged back and forth until January 8, 1916, with the Germans holding the summit.
From late January through war’s end the situation on Hartmannswillerkopf settled down into a stalemate, with the exception of two abortive French attacks in September 1916. The French still had a toehold in what was officially German territory, but the Germans retained control of the critical heights.
About 15 miles northwest of Mulhouse and 20 miles west of the German border, Hartmannswillerkopf today is a French national monument. During the almost four-year standoff both sides dug bunker complexes and carved extensive trench works into the solid rock, which accounts largely for their excellent state of preservation. In places the opposing trench lines are within a hand grenade’s toss of each other. A museum and French military cemetery stand on the French side of the line. A German military cemetery sits farther downslope, on the winding mountain road that approaches the summit from the south.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.