May 192012
 
Rainbow over Hatten Tank

Seeking Out History

Recently, we have been talking a bit about what we want to do with this wonderful opportunity of living in the heart of Europe.  We want to visit more countries.  We want to eat nifty foods.  We want to see things that we would be unable to see and experience things we wouldn’t be able to experience in America.  We want to learn more German and French, of course.  And we definitely want to check out some of the more interesting historic and cultural sites that surround us!  To this end, David did a little research.  He asked around a bit (thanks Vladimir!!).  And, he managed to discover a nugget of history that neither David nor I recalled having been taught in school.

So, today we took off for France and experienced a little piece of the Maginot Line.

Basically, the story goes like this:  Between WWI and WWII the French got mighty concerned with beefing up their borders to ensure there would never be a repeat of their terrible losses.  So, they decided to invest in some defense.  They created an impressive series of fortifications- bunkers, tanks, turrets, pill-boxes, ammunition stashes, observation posts, etc. etc.  They were state of the art, extensive and expensive.  The main concept was that they would serve to give the rest of the French military time to get mobilized and into the action should any, ehem, unanticipated hostile actions head their way from Germany.  Unfortunately, as one of the articles I read pointed out, Generals tend to always plan for the war they just fought.  When the Nazi’s did make their move, they didn’t bother coming straight in across the fortified border.  They went up through Belgium instead, then just sort of walked on down after that!  Ok, I over-simplify.  But, not by a lot.  The Maginot Line has gone down as a boondoggle of enormous proportions- especially since reasonable assertions were made that the cost prevented other preparations from being implemented.

The nice thing for history buffs is that since most of the fortifications were not engaged by “the foe” (as all the documents inside refer to them), they are largely left intact!

We decided to go see two sites in particular- a smaller one located just outside the town of Hatten and a larger one in Schoenenbourg.

The Road There
[Reminder: all photos can be viewed in more detailed forms by clicking on them]

It is over an hour drive to the closest of the fortifications, so we set out to enjoy the trip, stopping for Ice cream and a couple other little stretches of the leg just for the heck of it.  We were surprised to discover that when we crossed the Rhine- further to the North than we usually do- the water to our left was a good 20 feet higher than the water to our right!  There are locks on that thar Rhine!

Gorgeous Day on the Rhine!

We discovered that this section has several locks.
When we drove back, we chose a different crossing point and
it, too, had the lock and the 20ish foot drop to the North.

Not a shabby road to drive down in Spring-
almost like the Open MRI of Tree Tunnels…

The French always have the best dog signs.

I took this to show the lovely Alsace countryside, but-
is that a funnel cloud in the distance?

Hatten

The fortifications at Hatten are largely one hill with a small concrete bunker inside.  There are anti-tank beams heading up to it, and lovely flowers surrounding the whole shebang.

These rods made it tough to approach the little fort

An example of the anti-personnel measures they had in place

I am pretty sure this mini-turret is not painted
with the right cammo design….
Inside they have a small museum. 

I think that soldier to the right is way too happy
about his gun.
I didn’t notice it when I took the photo, but there is a
bird Box hung just over the kids’ head!

Clearly this location did see some action.

I wondered what had made this large hole in one
of the pill-boxes…

It is forbidden to climb on the tank.
Main entrance to the historic site

Wildflowers surround the whole deal

DD and Me with the flowers

DS with the tank, which David points out is neither French nor German.

David with the tank

 Grave Yard
On our way out of Hatten, we came across their graveyard.  We thought it would likely have some really old stones.  But, then we recalled that graves in Europe are rented, not owned.  This set of stones seemed to have been removed to make way for new occupants.

It is not that unusual to be driving in a small town and see things like
tractors, but a horse cart still caught us by surprise!

Schoenenbourg

The actual Schoenenbourg site was far more impressive than I had expected.  Firstly, it is HUGE.  I mean staggeringly large.  One corridor alone is over 1 km long.  The majority of the structure is 30 meters below ground.  So, when you first enter, you must descend a long square-spiral staircase before emerging into the main section of the fortress.  It is 13 degrees C down there, so they advise you to dress warmly.  And, really, you are walking through a cave system with train tracks all the way down it, so the ground isn’t entirely smooth (but it IS entirely concrete and very, very hard!)  They advise you to wear hiking shoes, and I would second the recommendation.  As I mentioned, the corridor that connects the several segments of the fortress is 1 km long, and the segments themselves are each about 250 meters long, with little wings sticking out.  You must walk up and back each.  They tell you it will take about 2 hours to walk the tour loop.  And, during that walk I calculated that you will go around 4 km- not including the 60 stairs up to the turret, loops around smaller rooms, and the main stairs up and down.  Every so often they have empty wheelchairs stationed around the museum.  I imagine those likely get used on a fairly regular basis by people who had no clue that they will wear themselves out just checking out a little old fort!

Heading out to Schoenenbourg

We have arrived.  More than anything, the area reminded me
of a National Park in the US where one would go camping.

Schoenenbourg also did encounter some fighting- in fact it was subjected to aerial and artillery bombardment. The fort held out, though, and was largely in tact when the French surrendered and the commander was forced to relinquish the site.  Most of the damaged structures have been restored since the war. Indeed, I don’t recall seeing any damage that I could obviously point to.
 

The main entrance- no clue to the size of what is beneath!

They had the anti-tank precautions, as well.

Stairs Down.  DD wasn’t pleased with them, but made it OK.

This is the first of the many long tunnels you pass through.

Further tunnels and odd rooms stick out from the main one- this one
was rather interesting because there is no room.  Just a little altar for
prayer.

A better photo of the altar.

Small-gauge train tracks run throughout the fortress.  In some sections there
are also overhead wires for these guys.

Some of the cars.
Another of the tunnels.  The grooved walls seem to be
for the ease of laying various pipes and wires along the tunnels.

The kids working in “the works”. 

 There were a couple locations considered interesting enough to posses a tour guide.  I wish I had gotten a photo of the lady who stood here in the Machine area called “The Works”.  She was a grandmotherly woman who may have been taller than DS, slightly, but not by much.  She asked us what languages we spoke so she could give her spiel.  Then after delivering it in a rather pat German, struck up a conversation with us.  She told us about her children and grand children, told us about growing up in a small town in Germany where she was not allowed to speak her local dialect at school.  She told us about learning French a little English and a few French dialects.  And she quizzed us about what we were doing in the area.  Then she set the kids up for this special behind-the-chain photo :)

After we left her area, she did a couple more groups, then seemed to go on some sort of “walking the museum and checking that everything is right” tour of her own.  She was walking the same path we were, so we kept bumping into her!  Twice, I think, she caught me turning the wrong way down one of the confusing passages.  Doh!  Then, about 1/2 through the tour we came to a restroom.  It had no genders on the door- only WC.  So, David and I both headed in.  I realized right away that the seatless toilets were not welcoming enough for me to bother with.  I exited.  But, David found a urinal.  As I walked out the door, our new friend, the little old lady tour guide, passed me!  Poor David had unexpected company in the toilets.  He says she went about wiping down a couple sinks while he tried to concentrate on his own business.  Ah yes.  The differences of culture!

We hustled ahead and I am pretty sure we didn’t see her again after that:-)

These look like fine wine racks, but actually
they are for storing munitions!

A similar set of racks with their intended hardware.

Please police your brass!!!

This was the weirdest looking weapon thing we saw.
It had something to do with anti-tanks, but I am not
really sure in what capacity.
It looks like the eye-doctor would use those scopes!

And, another passageway.

Photo Op!  DS and Me with some rather large
metal objects!

One of the coolest bits of engineering they had-  this was a secret escape
tunnel.  There are two parallel tubes running to
the surface.  The one up top is filled with gravel.  If the fort was
being taken, you would pull a door and release the gravel into the
shoot underneath.  Then, you could crawl out to the top!

Minerals dripped down along the passages in places
creating miniature stalactites and stalagmites!

Call-center Recon Map

Call Center 1930’s bunker style.

Another geological point of interest- oil seeping down the
walls.

DS explaining the mechanism for the
counterweight that opens the turret above.

Diagram of the turret pop-up mechanism

Underside of the turret

Schoenenbourg Art

Another aspect of the fortress that fascinated me were the various murals scattered throughout.  They were created by the men who were living here and they were influenced by images from their time.  By this time my camera batteries were running down, so I apologize that some of the shots are blurrier than I would like.

Some images from the time- ads framed on the walls

Yeah, not exactly the same cultural standards that
apply today!!

This was hanging in the infirmary.

This mural was in the kitchen

As was this one.

A little ways in we discovered an exhibit with more of
the murals photographed and retouched.

Well, it is a French Military Base!

Blurry- but this is showing where the original pieces were in the fort
there was a second room with more examples in it,
but the lights were out in it and my camera wasn’t up
to the low-light task

Afterwards

After our visit, we were exhausted and hungry! We stopped in a little border town along the way and had one of the best meals I have eaten since we arrived.  The restaurant was froofy but inviting, and the friendly tri-lingual owner (French, Italian, German) greeted us at the door as she caught us  reading her menu while she opened up.  So early (6 PM) on a weekend, we were the only ones in the place. The menu was Italian and the cook was, it seems, French.  I had salmon in a tomato-cream sauce with rice (which was also doused in the sauce- I am willing to bet many of their diners come from a German eating tradition!).  DS ate an entire small pizza Margherita, DS got penne in a red sauce and DH had tagliatelle with the same salmon and tomato-cream sauce that I enjoyed.  It completely hit the spot!  After the filling meal, we headed out into a light rain and watched the full-sky rainbow that accompanied us on our way home. 

What an altogether Lovely Day!

DH raising one eyebrow at me for pulling a camera on him at dinner ;-P
(He was joking around, but the shot makes him look like Hulk getting
his Smash on!)

Luckily, it tasted far better than it looked!

A rainbow- terrific end to a wonderful day!

  2 Responses to “The Maginot Line”

  1. how fun! It so wonderfully hearing about your adventures. Looking forward to more historical awesomness

  2. Thanks, Tabitha! It was a really fun trip and I learned a bunch. I am really hoping we can do a lot more of this sort of thing going forward, now that we have our footing a little better. Knock wood!

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