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20 July 1915 – Le Linge

Having lost Alsace to the hated Germans in the humiliation of 1871, France has been keen to reconquer the region since the war’s opening weeks. But with the war nearly a year old, today the French Army attacks up the Fecht River Valley towards Munster, with the hardest fighting on the peak known as Le Linge (see above), claiming only yards of progress in a fight that has become as protracted as any on the Western Front. Only in the last few months has the fighting here in the Vosges Mountains taken on the most familiar characteristics of the Great War elsewhere, for the shallow soil and steep slopes force both sides to cut their trenches in solid rock.

Today’s operation is typical of both the new French doctrine and the uniquely-difficult conditions of this terrain, where mountaintops are being transformed into no man’s land. A ten hour bombardment precedes the assault, which requires the French infantry to descend the heights they hold, cross the low valley full of bogs and natural obstacles, and then climb rocky, unstable slopes — all while under constant machine gun fire. The preparatory artillery fire might last even longer if the logistical links here consisted of more than single-file mule paths, and it might be more effective with better observer sightlines, but the French are not content to wait until better support can be arranged.

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A map of the trench system on Le Linge; it will remain largely unchanged until 1918. Via Tim Slater

Because it is the only slice of German territory occupied by the allies, the French General Staff sees this theater of war as a moral necessity, undertaking the offensive even as such operations grind to a halt elsewhere. Because it is the only slice of German territory in enemy hands, the German General Staff sees the defense of the Vosges as a moral necessity, undertaking counterattacks here even as most points along the Western Front remain static in July.

When the fighting finally sputters to an exhausted halt in August, Le Linge has consumed more than 50,000 shells, and seven German brigades have held the line against sixteen French brigades of Chasseurs Alpins (light infantry) and two infantry regiments. Unlike France, which emphasizes offensive action and seldom improves their trenches, the German Army has constructed concrete blockhouses, bunkers, and fighting positions connected by tunnels and trenches and barbed wire obstacles. With France failing to break through despite incurring thousands and thousands of dead and wounded men, the weeks of ferocious close-quarters combat end with the 986-meter peak in no man’s land, where it will stay for most of the war.

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An iron observation bell set in concrete and connected to friendly lines by a tunnel. Both sides find the ground unsuitable for offensive operations and during 1916 it becomes a quiet sector where regiments rehabilitate from combat elsewhere

Working under camouflage, French pioneers and laborers build new roads to link the Doller and Thur valleys to points down the line, easing logistical congestion. But by the time these arrangements are complete, both high commands have at last realized that the Vosges Mountains are not the right place for major operations, and the tempo of battle declines as steeply as the slopes of Le Linge. Yet the area’s later reputation as a quiet zone is undeserved, for nowhere on the Western Front are the two sides so close together; in some places, the opposing trenches are only ten yards apart, making it possible to conduct harassing grenade fires at any time, even when no attack is underway. As riddled with sniper’s nests and listening posts as any point between the Swiss border and the English Channel, this sector will never be tranquil — just less active.

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A map of the Vosges front. Note the temporary bulge at Le Linge as seen by the dashed line in the previous map. Via Tim Slater