hartmansvillerkopf

26 March 1915 – French Heights

The 3,100-foot peak of Hartmannsweilerkopf, also known as Le Vieil Armand, overlooks the Mulhouse-Colmar railway line as well as German access roads to their front lines. This makes it a primary objective for the French Army, which has conducted a bitter campaign here since January. Today, after a three-and-a-half hour preparatory bombardment, the 152nd Infantry Regiment finally assaults and retakes the mountaintop with the help of men from six different Bataillons de Chasseurs Alpin, elite mountain infantry units. In the process, the German 25th Infantry Regiment is nearly destroyed and the Germans are left clinging to the eastern side of the mountain.

Still fighting for his native country on a leave of absence from Stanford University, professor and chasseur Robert Edouard Pellissier is currently recovering from weeks of Winter fighting as he writes to a friend about the rotation of units to the front lines — and the conditions of the war on the Alsatian frontier.

In Alsace, for months it has been guerrilla warfare. We had just enough soldiers to hold the trenches and support our artillery. There were no forces behind us and often we felt uncomfortable at the thought of what would happen were our lines to be pierced at such and such a place. I do believe that a similar state of things prevails all along the frontier and yet I am told the depots are overcrowded. Life in the trenches tires the men out and takes all the vim out of them; therefore, it is very wise to leave on the front a thin line of men until the time when the troops who are resting will march forward to the final offensive.

France will hold the peak against a series of German counterattacks until April 26th, when an evening bombardment and assault ends with neither side able to remain on the now-exposed mountaintop anymore, for constant artillery bombardment has destroyed the fir trees. The peak of Hartmannswillerkopf thus becomes the highest stretch of no man’s land on the Western Front. By the end of the year, each side will expend 15,000 lives trying to gain control of it.

The Voisin Type 3 aircraft

A Voisin III aircraft. Built with a ‘push’ propeller, these planes were used in both bombing and air superiority roles

Meanwhile today, French airmen conduct their largest bombing raids of the war so far. Eighteen Voison Type III aircraft hit the BASF chemical works in the German city of Ludwigshafen, causing minor damage and disruption. A separate flight of six planes bombs the Frescaty railway station and a barracks in Metz, again doing relatively little material damage but demonstrating the Gallic nation’s willingness and ability to match or exceed the pace of German strategic bombing operations.

Indeed, French aviators lead the way in development of aerial combat technologies and techniques. By 1917, the Type III will be exceeded by the Type VIII, which carries twice the bomb load and has very nearly twice the operating range of its predecessor — a clear example of Moore’s Law of technology at work. By that time, aircraft designs have begun to split into more distinctive fighting and bombing roles, and the bombs have become correspondingly more powerful. Attacks like the one today, which amount to little more than a lethal harassment, will escalate in volume and destructive power.

However, the biggest blow that lands today is not made by a bomb, but a bomber pilot. According to her citation for the Legion d’Honneur, a century ago today Marie Marvingt becomes the first woman in world history to fly a combat mission.

French aviatrix Marie Marvingt

French aviatrix Marie Marvingt photographed before the war, when she was already a licensed pilot and national heroine

The necessities of total war, especially the huge demand for industrial labor, are rapidly altering gender roles in combatant societies in ways that will become a permanent part of our modern world. In 1915, Marvingt still scandalizes the Paris newspapers by flying without wearing a corset; but by 1918, French women have forever cast aside those metal-intensive garments for the sake of the national emergency, adopting the brassiere instead.

Known as the ‘Bride of Danger,’ Marvingt is said to have a personal friendship with General Ferdinand Foch, whose influence helps her reach martial heights which few women have even dared to dream about in 1915. Forty years old, she is still a stellar athlete and sport-shooter capable of swimming for miles, skiing across country, or racing a bicycle faster than most men. Legend has it that, after today’s bombing mission, she disguises herself as a man in order to serve in the 42nd Bataillon de Chasseurs Alpin, fighting in trench combat until she is discovered and sent home. 

In 1916, Foch assists her in winning an assignment to a French regiment that is being sent to support the Italian Army in their mountain battles against the Austrians. Working with the Red Cross, she will train medics and treat wounded soldiers in the Dolomite Range. Although the French government has rejected her proposal to use planes as ‘air ambulances,’ her concept presages the way our modern emergency response services use helicopters to evacuate casualties. Marvingt is not ‘ahead of her time’ — she inaugurates our time.

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A serious-looking Marie Marvingt photographed with the 3rd Alpine Regiment in Italy. Note the flowers and musical instruments