Located between Cernay and the Grand Ballon, at an altitude of 956m, on the foothills of the Vosges mountains, the Hartmannswillerkopf site, with its remarkable landscape and forest environment, offers a panoramic view of the southern Alsace plain.
The Vieil Armand memorial complex includes the necropolis, the national monument and its crypt located at the open summit of the Silberloch Pass (906m), near the ridge road, and the Uhlans German military cemetery under forest cover, located to the south-east, below the Sandgrubenkopf summit (574m).
This high place of memory and homage to peace is one of the most visited sites in Alsace.
In Alsace, the front stabilized on a line passing through the Hartmannswillerkopf, an observatory coveted by the armies. From 26 December 1914 to 9 January 1916, German and French attacks and counter-attacks followed one another for its control; its summit part changed hands eight times during 1915.
The "15-2" (152nd Infantry Regiment) lost half its strength in a few days of fighting. The bombardments transformed the site into a lunar and desert landscape.
Until the end of the hostilities, the two opponents harass each other. Six thousand soldiers would have fallen there.
On July 15, 1920, a committee called "du Vieil Armand" was formed in Mulhouse under the patronage of the French Remembrance and the Association of French Ladies to "build a memorial at the top of Hartmannswillerkopf intended not only for the dead but also to consecrate the victory and heroic resistance of the French soldiers, a monument whose scale would be such that he could see the whole plain and even beyond the Rhine".
On 25 December, the French 66th Division and a battalion of Chasseurs Alpins attacked through deep snow and woods, to improve the French position on the peak of Hartmannswillerkopf.
The French attack was a success but the German defenders were pushed back only a short distance Division Fuchs of Armee-Abteilung Gaede attacked on a line from Hartmannswillerkopf to the Herrengluh ruins,
Wolfskopf and Amselkopf in thick fog from 18–21 January 1915 and managed to surround the French positions, recapture the summit of Hartmannswillerkopf and Hirzstein to the south.
The French counter-attacked but were repulsed and the main German attack on 30 January near Wattwiller made early progress then bogged down against the French defences.
French attacks against Division Fuchs from 19–27 February were repulsed but on 26 February, a French attack gained 110 yards (100 m).
On 5 March, the French captured a blockhouse and a German counter-attack by two regiments was defeated.
The 152nd Infantry Regiment arrived to reinforce the Chasseurs Alpins and after a four-hour artillery preparation, the infantry and chasseurs captured two trench lines and took 250 prisoners but failed to penetrate new German trench lines close to the peak.
The French attacked again on 17 and from 23 March – 6 April and then on 26 March, after a preparatory bombardment, the 152nd Regiment captured the summit of Hartmannswillerkopf in ten minutes, taking 400 prisoners and finding that the ground had been stripped of trees by the artillery exchanges.
The Germans suspended the offensive at Wattwiller and Steinbach to concentrate all reserves in the Hartmannswillerkopf area but on 17 March, the German army chief of staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn, ordered offensive operations in Alsace to cease.
The French success enabled artillery-observers to direct their guns onto the Colmar–Mulhouse railway and local German attacks on 25 April took back the peak; the French recaptured it the next day but the 152e Régiment had 825 casualties.
In December 1915, Dubail as commander of Groupe d'armées de l'Est (GAE: Eastern Army Group) planned a larger operation to consolidate the French position in the region by capturing Mulhouse.
An attack on Hartmannswillerkopf by the 66e Division (General Marcel Serret), which had been fighting in the area all year was to be the prelude to the larger attack.
The division was given 250 more guns for the attack, two of which were super-heavy 370 mm Filloux mortars, an average of one gun per 13 m (14 yd) of German front.
After several postponements, the French bombardment including the super-heavy mortars began on 21 December from Hartmannswillerkopf to Wattwiller.
In the afternoon the 66e Division attacked, taking the peak and trenches at Hirtzstein to the north-west of Wattwille as German reserves established a new front line on the eastern slopes.
Next day the reinforced Landwehr Brigade 82 of the 12th Landwehr Division counter-attacked and re-took the peak, except for trenches on the north slope, which fell on 23 December.
The French 152e Régiment was almost annihilated, losing 1,998 casualties from 21–22 December, along with Serret who was mortally wounded, the Germans taking 1,553 prisoners.
On the afternoon of 24 December, Landwehr Brigade 82 tried to re-gain the lost trenches at Hirtzstein, with the assistance of flame thrower teams but achieved only a partial success.
During the evening of 28 December, French attacks captured several positions between Hartmannswillerkopf and Hirzstein, followed by German counter-attacks during the night; from 29–30 December and an attack on 1 January 1916, the original front line was restored and on 8 January, Landwehr Brigade 187 re-captured the trenches at Hirzstein lost on 21 December.
The fighting from 20 December 1915 to 8 January 1916 cost the French 7,465 casualties, about 50 percent of the attacking force, of whom 1,103 were taken prisoner, along with thirty machine-guns; German casualties were 4,513 men, 1,700 being taken prisoner.
Dubail stopped offensive operations to rest the survivors and to avoid French resources being drained away to little purpose; in Étude au sujet des opérations dans les Vosges (4 January 1916) Dubail recommended that such enterprises be avoided.
Pictures taken by me in April 2017