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"I don't want to imagine their screams" - historian recounts carnage of WWI battlefield in Alsace

brussels bureau

"I don't want to imagine their screams" - historian recounts carnage of WWI battlefield in Alsace


As the world marks 100 years since the start of World War I, euronews reporter Rudolph Herbert has been visiting Hartmann Hill in Alsace.

The hill – also known as Le Vieil Armand – was hotly-disputed by the French and Germans.

Gerd Krumeich, German historian and expert on the war, said: “Here at Hartmann they really fought eye for eye and tooth for tooth. It’s a place that is highly-charged, emotionally. I do not want to imagine their screams. They were hitting, cutting each other with spades, they fought with machine guns and with gas. The only thing they could not get up on the hill were tanks.”

Hartmannsweilerkopf is nestled in the Vosges mountains of Alsace, some 900 metres above sea level.

The strategically-important area was the subject of intense fighting during World War I.

Krumeich added: “The battles there carried a great significance, but only for a short time – as the war moved away, into other realms. But fighting continued there until 1918 and therefore it has an absurd dimension, making all the suffering even worse.”

The battlefield was devastated by shelling, gases and flamethrowers.

Roughly one quarter of the original fortifications remain in place today.

The German army managed to dig a network of shelters, blockhouses and trenches.

However, in 1915 alone, the area changed hands four times.

Whoever controlled it could deploy direct artillery fire, and destroy any army that tried to advance across the plain between the nearby towns of Belfort and Mulhouse

Historians say there are lessons to be learnt from World War I, even more so today.

Krumeich said: “Today we have a better knowledge of the First World War because we see the war in its global dimension. Former military history has never been world history.”

The exact number of dead will never be known, but at least 30,000 soldiers perished here.

A memorial crypt containing the remains of 12,000 unknown soldiers now pays homage to them.

Krumeich said: “We have never been able in Germany to form what the French call a mourning community, something that has been conserved within families, over generations. We have failed to do so in Germany from the beginning. Among the French the First World War got less important in the collective memory since the “anciens combattants” (the old fighters) disappered. But the Great War is still absolutely present in normal everyday consciousness as something which concerns the country, ‘la France’, and every individual family.”

“Commemorating also the German soldiers in the crypt of the monument will be a sensation – we’ll see if it really happens after so many years of discussion. It might be also a particularity of the Alsace region that on the third of August in the crypt of the monument on the Hartmannsweilerkopf for the first time ever German and French victims will be commemorated together.”

The ceremony will underscore the extent to which the two nations have been reconciled over the past decades , leaving behind them a history of hostility.

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