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Remembering Great War's 'man-eater mountain'

The French and German presidents met Sunday in Alsace to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War. Thousands died a senseless and gruesome death on Hartmannswillerkopf mountain near the German-French border.

From the summit of the 956-meter-high (3136 feet) Hartmannswillerkopf mountain, known as "Vieil Armand" in French, there's a sprawling view of the Rhine Valley and villages dotting the southern flanks of the Vosges Mountains in the Alsace region.

There's not much to fight over here, but during World War One, both the German and the French armies declared the mountain a strategically important summit. It had to be "held" whatever the cost.

The Germans and French dug almost 90 kilometers (56 miles) of trenches and set up positions across the mountain. In some places, the enemies were only a few feet apart, able to look each other in the eye and hear what the other side was saying.

Thirty thousand soldiers died in gruesome static warfare as futile attempts were made to drive the opponent from the mountain. It took four years and earned the mountain its terrible nickname: "It was called 'man-eater mountain,'" Alsatian writer Pierre Kretz told DW, while climbing up to the white summit cross.

'Absurd war'

Pierre Kretz has extensively researched the history of the German-French border area and written a novel about the unfortunate, ambivalent situation of the Alsace region, which, though French today, has always been torn between Germany and its western neighbor.

Pierre Kretz on Hartmannsweilerkopf. (Photo: Catherine Martens, DW)

Pierre Kretz atop 'man-eater mountain'

The Hartmannswillerkopf was called man-eater mountain "because thousands of men died here for absolutely nothing," Kretz said. "The absurdity of the war was concentrated here. Troops moved back and forth, and every time they moved, it cost thousands of lives - lives of humans who had families, children and professions, on both sides."

Up on the summit, Pierre Kretz sat down and read from the autobiography of farmer Dominik Richert. Richert was a corporal in the German army in World War I and wrote: "I trembled with fear, just trembled with fear. After all, everyone knew that this was a kind of death sentence for most of us. I was mostly afraid of getting a splinter in my chest. Some of the men suffered for two or three days with a splinter in their chest before they died."

Now, a century later, Kretz said that this quote described very well what the soldiers felt when they were ordered to attack.

Since this place has so much symbolic meaning, French President Francois Hollande and German President Joachim Gauck have chosen the Hartmannswillerkopf for a joint remembrance.

On August 3 - the centenary of Germany's declaration of war on France - both presidents will lay the foundation for a French-German museum. They will also visit the graveyard, where almost 1,300 Christian crosses and a white Muslim headstone commemorate the fallen French soldiers.

"Emile Canille. Died for France," a metal tag reads. It's attached to one of the crosses standing in a long line 300 meters below the summit. The fallen German soldiers only recently got their own commemorative plaque in the crypt below the memorial on the French graveyard.

Memorial for fallen soldiers at Hartmannsweilerkopf. (Photo: Catherine Martens, DW)

'Trembling with fear' - a memorial for the fallen soldiers

Pawn in the hands of two powers

Before the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, the Alsace region had been part of France for more than 200 years. After that, it belonged to the German Empire until the end of the First World War. In the 1920s and 30s, it passed back into French custody. During the Second World War, Alsace was under German occupation, and after that, it belonged to France again.

The Alsatians, who speak their own dialect, were always torn between Germany and France. They never truly belonged to one or the other, Pierre Kretz said. When World War I broke out, there were families that had some sons fighting and dying on the German side and other sons doing so for the French. And both armies had to deal with a large number of deserters.

"In one village, for example, right at the beginning of the war, 200 Alsatians defected to the other side. It was the same in the Second World War. Alsatians were drafted to the German Wehrmacht, but there were also Alsatians fighting on the other side," Pierre Kretz said atop the Hartmannswilllerkopf. "It was an absurd situation, just like the entire war. Like all wars."

Dead trees at Hartmannsweilerkopf 1918. (Photo: picture alliance/ akg-images)

Dead trees surround the mountain - the area was devastated by the war

Well-preserved battlefield

The positions and trenches along the mountain are still well-preserved today because they were carved deep into the mountain. Additionally, the area was completely forested. Unlike other battlefields, there were no farmers here claiming back their land.

Around 250,000 visitors a year make the journey to man-eater mountain. After years of work by a German-French historical commission, a trail with 45 commemorative plaques was finished just in time for the visit from Hollande and Gauck.

Alsatian Pierre Kretz was born in 1950. His grandfather fought on the German side in World War I. Pierre Kretz said that his grandfather was sent to the Eastern Front in Russia, because the German commanders considered Alsatians fighting on the Western Front close to home unreliable.

"I was 17 or 18 years old when my grandfather died," Kretz remembered. "There's always regret about not asking more questions. The only thing I remember is that he always talked about Russia. It snowed and snowed and snowed there. I do remember that. My grandfather always talked about the snow in Russia."

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