from ‘the War Illustrated’, 30th November, 1918
'France on the Rhine'
by Hamilton Fyfe

Alsace Restored at Last to the Alsatians

Alsatian children at a reunification ceremony


So far as campaigning can ever be pleasant, the French invasion of Alsace in the first month of the . war was a pleasant campaign. The weather was glorious. The orchards in the rich country through which the advance lay were full of fruit. At first the going was easy. - It seemed as if the provinces might be recovered with scarcely a struggle; only when the Germans gathered their forces and struck back hard was the hopelessness of the enterprise evident. After that bout of hard fighting the front consolidated, to use the current phrase, and there was little doing for a very long time.

As winter closed in the pleasantness of the campaign faded into the grim and harsh, realities of a cold-weather campaign.

They are not high, the Vosges Mountains, as mountains go; not nearly so high as the Alps among which the Italians fought; hardly as high as the Carpathians, where later I was with the Rumanians in their plucky fight against an enemy infinitely better equipped than-they were themselves. But the cold amid the loftiest peaks of the Himalayas could not be more searching than the cold in the Vosges. The French troops in Alsace were supposed to be having a soft time. For two-thirds of the year perhaps they did. But not during the winter months.


the French army enters Mulhouse in December 1918


A Land of Character

Down on the plain which lies between the Vosges and the Rhine, and on the wavy plateau of Lorraine, the conditions are not so severe. These are the three divisions of the provinces which have for so long been familiar in the mouth as household words, but which not many English people know much about. Lorraine is not interesting to the tourist. But Alsace has a great deal to recommend it as holiday ground. It is a land with character.

If you were blindfolded and carried off in an aeroplane and dumped down in Colmar or Thann, you might wonder for some little while where you were. You would hear a language very like German spoken all round you. You would see faces which were neither German nor French. You would be reminded of Switzerland, yet you would say,. "These people are of a more vigorous strain than the Swiss."

It is a country of rough jollity and laughter, of good eating and drinking, of downright speech and not too much refinement in manners. The Alsatians have a strong national feeling, and no one who has been among them can be surprised at it, for they have well- marked national idiosyncracies. ? "Alsace for the Alsatians" is their motto. Although they admitted the benefits which orderly German rule had brought among them, they disliked it heartily because it would not leave Alsace to itself. They want to be joined, again to France — not because they feel French nationality, but because they know the French will let them alone.

In Lorraine it is different. The people are of French blood, and acutely conscious of it. Even Bismarck admitted the folly of annexing what was an integral part of France. Eight years after the annexation he said to the French Ambassador in Berlin : "One may destroy a nation if one is strong enough, and if one's interest demands its destruction ; but one cannot mutilate with impunity. By mutilating and humiliating Prussia in 1806 Napoleon caused the Steins and the Scharnhorsts to arise.. In taking from France Metz and part of Lorraine the Emperor, my master, and the militarists who inspired this resolve, committed the greatest of political crimes."

Policy of the Jackboot

As an excuse for this crime, it was represented that the provinces had been annexed by France from Germany in the seventeenth century. They did change rulers, it is true, but Alsace was claimed and granted to Richelieu "for services rendered," and as for Lorraine, it had always been French in blood and sentiment. That could not be denied.

The reason why they were annexed was their strategic importance as the frontier lands of the new German Empire and the reason why Germany was so anxious to keep them even when their military value declined was that they contain very rich deposits of iron ore, of potash, and petroleum.

If the Prussians had not been the dismally stupid race that they always have been they would have seen that they could only make the people of Alsace forget they had been annexed by treating them, with exceptional mildness. The people of Lorraine would never be reconciled. That was certain. But the Alsatians were capable of being won. Just and friendly treatment would have won them. Instead, they had the Prussian jackboot applied to them — with the natural result.

When the new frontier was being marked out, the mayor o! some little place, who had to be present at the operation in his district, approached the group of officials slowly. The Prussian boundary-marker called to him to hurry up. He walked more slowly than before. The Prussian lost his temper and abused the mayor. "All right, all right," the old fellow replied ; "you don't think I was going to hurry to become a Prussian, do you ?"


French troops entering Colmar


What Bethmann-Hollweg Forgot

"By the fact that you have conquered us," said a distinguished Alsatian named Hartmann, in March, 1872, when the annexation had been decided upon in spite of all protests, "you owe us a legal status, a civil and political Constitution in harmony with our traditions and our customs." They received no Constitution. They were governed as a conquered race. The Prussians set themselves to "de-nationalise" them.

Yet forty years after they began this attempt, the German Chancellor, Bethmann- Hollweg, rebuked the leaders of the people in the conquered provinces for "affecting to ignore the German character of the population," .forgetting that the world would certainly inquire how it was that they became leaders if they were not in harmony with those whom they led. In that queer museum oi prejudice and pedantry, the Prussian Upper Chamber, it was openly complained a year later that Alsace and Lorraine were "not yet German enough" to be given rights as a confederate State of the Empire.

"Not German enough," after forty years, although "spying had been raised to the dignity of a means of Government," although it was forbidden to ask for a menu in a restaurant or to send for the coiffeur : speisekarte, restauration, and friseur were the words that must be used. The two latter were just as much words of French origin as the former, by the way, which made the Prussian edict ridiculous as well as annoying.

"Not German enough," in spite of the masses of people who left the provinces during the years following annexation, even German-speaking people. In Belfort there was, and may be still a whole quarter where German was spoken and the shop signs were German, and the schools German. There lived Alsatians who had refused to stay in Alsace under the Prussian regime of "denationalisation."

The difference between the character of French rule and that of the Prussians was illustrated by the discovery in, I think, Colmar, after the Germans-had taken it over; of the old German eagle on the Town Hall. The French had left it there as an historical curiosity.

The Prussians took the contrary course. They set themselves to root out and insult everything French. With what result ?

Nemesis of Junkerdom

That during the war a secret notice had to be issued ordering a specially strict censorship from the two provinces because "eighty per cent, of the letters sent out of Alsace-Lorraine were, if not directly hostile to Germany, at all events of a nature by no means friendly."

Under French systems of Government, whether republican or kingly, the Alsatians were content. There was no Nationalist movement among them until the Germans provoked it. The French officials were mostly Alsatian by birth and were all friendly with the population. The Prussian officials made no effort, save in a few cases here and there upon which authority frowned, to win the sympathies or consider the wishes of the people. As for the officers, they behaved as if they were in occupied territory. Nowhere have I seen the Junker so over-bearing as in Alsace.

Wise men in the new German Empire saw what a store of trouble was being laid up by annexing provinces that were unwilling to change their allegiance. The Crown Prince, Frederick the -Noble, was decidedly against it. Even Bismarck would have left Lorraine alone, but the feeling of the mass of Germans was put into words by a member of the Crown Prince's Staff : "It would make one's heart turn in one's body if we were to renounce Metz and leave Paris looking like fools."

What they had to learn, and what there are many everywhere who have still to discover, is that a generous action is never foolish. The Germans left Paris in 1871, having got all they wanted. But they could hardly look bigger fools than they . do now, after nearly fifty years, mainly because of these two pieces of territory, not quite so big as Yorkshire, and with less than a two-million population. Generosity would have paid them better, after all.


the new 'Watch on the Rhine' - a French soldier standing guard at a Rhine bridge


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