Kilometre Zero: Where the Western Front Began

It was known as Kilometre Zero.  The very beginning of the Western Front.

And these are the men of the Swiss Army (above & below) who would defend it, should they have to.

‘Grenzbesetzung’, in both pictures, means ‘Guarding the frontiers’.

1914.  Europe on the brink of war.  Neutral countries at the time are marked in beige, or whatever colour that is, except for Switzerland, in the centre in red, of course, with the various ethnic groups within the Austro-Hungarian Empire also marked*.

*which explains, as a matter of interest, why so many Austro-Hungarian troops in the Great War had no idea, much of the time, what their officers were ordering them to do, because they all spoke different languages, and no, I jest not.

Modern terrain map of Switzerland, with the area where the French & German trenches ended at the Swiss border marked as a red circle.  The French-German border is further to the east on this map than it was in 1914.

Men of the Swiss 48th Fusilier Battalion in the main square of Zug, a dozen miles south of Zürich, on 5th August 1914, before their departure for the front, or, in their case, the frontier.  As the consequences of the various declarations of war* resonated around Europe in those early August days and the belligerent countries’ armies mobilised, the Swiss began their own mobilisation on 2nd August, before formally declaring their neutrality in the forthcoming conflict two days later.

*28th July: Austria-Hungary on Serbia – 1st August: Germany on Russia – 3rd August: Germany on France – 4th August: Great Britain on Germany – 6th August: Austria-Hungary on Russia – 10th August: France on Austria-Hungary – 12th August: Great Britain on Austria-Hungary.

The Swiss Army would uphold Switzerland’s sovereignty & independence by defending the state’s territory against any kind of military hostility from neighbouring belligerent countries, although it was made clear that any minor, mistaken, border violations were to be dealt with on a local level by the army units involved.  Mobilisation would be complete in Switzerland by 7th August.

The north west of Switzerland, where three borders – Switzerland, France & Germany –  meet, was the most obvious area at risk of either invasion or border violation, and in the early days of the war the Swiss sent three divisions to guard the area, with another three in reserve.  Later, once the trench warfare of the Western Front was established and the likelihood of invasion from either Germany or France had receded, fewer men were considered necessary to guard the borders.  The map above – ‘Kommandoordnung’ means ‘Order of Command’ – shows the early concentration of Swiss forces in the north west of the country, with the French-German border in 1914 marked in mauve.  The red circle, as seen on the previous map, is repeated on this map (and most that follow) as a point of reference.

In towns with shared borders such as Basel, barricades appeared in the streets (above left), although elsewhere nothing much changed in the early days; on the right, still in Basel, Swiss and German troops fraternise at one of the border posts, probably before hostilities broke out,…

…and this may well be the same border post slightly later, a makeshift barrier now across the road, Swiss troops in the foreground, Germans in the background.  As we shall see later, in some places the border would be marked by bunkers and barbed wire in Western Front fashion, but away from the areas closest to the fighting, it was impossible, and probably unnecessary, to guard it in such strength.

The Battle of the Frontiers, the opening shots of the war in the west, August 1914,…

…and a close-up of the bottom right-hand corner, with the Vosges Mountains now marked (the vertical green oval) and our red circle from previous maps nowt but a semi-circle at the very bottom.  I hate-hate-hate maps without a scale, but for your information, the direct distance from Bâle (the French for Basel, in Switzerland) to Mulhouse is about seventeen miles.

The trenches of the Western Front would stretch a total of four hundred and forty miles from the Channel coast at Nieuwpoort to the Swiss border near the town of Bonfol.  On 7th August 1914, four days after the German declaration of war on France, French troops poured through what was called the Belfort Gap (Trouée de Belfort) between the Vosges Mountains and the Swiss frontier, intent on regaining ground ceded to the Germans after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.

They captured Altkirch on 7th August, and then Mulhouse on 8th August, the Germans kicked them out two days later, the French had another go on the 14th, took the city on the 19th along with 3,000 prisoners and, owing to French reverses elsewhere, then retreated to more easily defended ground to the west.  Where both sides basically stayed for the rest of the war.

The Battle of the Frontiers was fought between the 7th August & 6th September 1914.  As the month progressed, casualties rose on both sides; on 22nd August, further north, the French Army lost 27,000 men killed in just twenty four hours, over 7,000 more than the British lost on the first day of the Somme.  It was, and is, the bloodiest day in French military history.  Casualty figures for the fighting around Mulhouse (above) are difficult to establish, but were tiny by comparison.  Around one hundred French soldiers died during the bayonet charge that took Altkirch, the Germans lost forty two dead and almost four hundred wounded or missing during the counterattack that recaptured Mulhouse, where they also took some 2,500 French prisoners, and the Germans reportedly suffered heavily on 19th August, when the French retook Mulhouse, although I don’t have the figures.

This map covers the area around the Swiss town of Bonfol, centre bottom, that we shall be looking at for much of the rest of this post, and I’d open it up in a new browser if I were you so that you can refer back to it as we go along, in turn saving me from having to repeat the words ‘see map’ after every other sentence.  Anyway, the thick black-toothed line marks the Swiss border, with France in the top left-hand corner, and Allemagne is of course Germany, the July 1914 border between France & Germany marked in mauve, also top left.  The light blue shaded area, which continues beneath our red circle (now shaded), shows French gains in August 1914, with the front lines (French in blue, German in red) at Kilometre Zero over to the right.  The remaining coloured symbols mark most of the border and defensive posts along this small section of the Swiss border that we are about to cover, and we begin…

…at the Swiss village of Beurnevésin, a mile or less from both the border with France to the north west, and Germany to the east (see map – Doh!).

On the road between Beurnevésin and Réchésy, the Swiss built this ‘postenhütte‘ – literally post hut, but really a barracks (above & below) – in early 1915 to house the men guarding the border post.  Apparently, the soldiers had previously been billeted in a dilapidated house on the outskirts of Beurnevésin.

Looking on Google Maps, although there appears to be no evidence of the hut, the only place that the small stream (La Vendeline, as annotated on the previous picture) comes this close to the road (behind the hut) is just a few hundred metres from the border with France, which makes sense.

And beyond the barracks, the border itself, marked on the map as an orange square with the number ‘1’ in red on it.

The building – misspelt as the ‘Cafè de la Frontiere’* – is still there if you care to look.  In 1914 the café itself was in France, its garden, over the railings far left, in Switzerland.  This may well still be the case, for all I know.

*it should say ‘Café de la Frontière’, of course.  But you knew that……

French & Swiss guards enjoy a tipple and a fag as they pose for the cameraman.

A short distance west of the border post the Swiss built this observation tower (‘beobachtungsturm’), marked on the map as a mauve triangle with the letters BR beneath it, the symbol closest to the left side of the map,…

…from where the border guards could look deep into French territory.

The light green circle on the map marks the point where the borders of three countries – Switzerland, France & Germany – met between 1871 & 1914.  This picture shows Swiss (left) & French soldiers at the border markers on either side of the (look closely) barbed wire fence.

The same marker stones photographed in more recent times (above & below).  That on the left (above) still marks the border between Switzerland & France, the centre one was placed here on 28th September 1871 to mark the new borders of the German Empire, and that on the right was seen as a more permanent solution…

…to the dog they used in the late 1800s.  Actually, the third marker is mediaeval in origin, was moved here in ‘modern’ times, and has nothing whatsoever to do with anything any more.

Swiss & French soldiers shake hands through the border wire.

Continuing clockwise along the border, the next symbol on the map, an orange triangle with the number 510 next to it, marks the site of this construction, a second observation post known as Point 510 – there’s even a book about it (inset).

To the right of which, on the map, is another orange square, this time with a red ‘2’, which marks the border crossing on the Beurnevésin – Pfetterhouse road.  This postcard (not mine) shows a pre-war scene from the Swiss side of the border, one of the annotations pointing out the tollhouse, the large building in the centre,…

…seen here (above & below) from the French side of the border.  I believe that the wire fencing was a wartime addition.

This building is also still there, and although Google Maps have never been allowed to drive around in Switzerland as far as I know, you can approach it, should you wish, via Google from this, the French, side.  Aerial views are also available.

Swiss barrack hut somewhere near the border on the Beurnevésin – Pfetterhouse road.  I would love to find out its exact position, because it isn’t the same one seen beyond the children in the postcard a few pictures back.  Then again, it does look quite new, does it not, and those trees could be the same ones.  Maybe the Swiss built a new, bigger, hut for the border guards once their neighbours had decided to go to war.

Close-up of the area, known as Le Largin (Swiss soldiers knew it as ‘The Duck’s Beak’), within our red circle (no longer marked), Kilometre Zero top right.  Four border posts are marked in pink, the first that we encounter, as we continue our clockwise trip, is No. 4 on the map, guarding the point where the railway crosses the border (below).

Swiss soldiers guard the railway border – note the wire fence crossing the tracks beyond the man in the centre. The inset picture, which looks in the same direction but from some distance further away, is presumably from later in the war.  The building with the sloping roof on the right of the main photograph…

…is the barracks for the border guards.  The railway, at the top of the embankment, remained closed throughout the war.

The French town of Pfetterhouse, half a mile north of the Swiss border, had been ceded to the German Empire after the French defeat in 1871, and for the next forty-three years would be known as Pfetterhausen.  The French would occupy the town in the early days of August 1914, although it would be a week-long German bombardment in February 1916 that would see a complete evacuation of the town’s citizens, and probably caused the damage to the buildings in the picture above,…

…and to those on the left here; the postcard (again, not mine) on the right looks somewhat earlier, the damage to the buildings slight in comparison.

The road crossing at Post No. 3 on the map, a French soldier at attention outside the sentry box, and a short distance down the road the wire fence across the road…

…seen here in two shots of the same group of four French soldiers standing in front of the wire, probably in 1917,…

…and a shot looking the other way at the Swiss guards.  A company of two hundred Swiss infantrymen would be responsible for four border posts, their daily routine split between eight hours on guard duty, eight hours on patrol, and eight hours at rest.

And if you’ve been wondering how on earth the Swiss managed to differentiate between German & French troops, here’s your answer.

Clearly marked Swiss observation balloons, such as the one above, flew above the border to keep a watching eye on the combatants across the wire and mark the border for foreign aeroplanes; the plane in this picture is, I think, a Swiss Air Force Maurice Farman of some sort.

Nevertheless, shells and bombs would on occasions find their way across the border,…

…these Swiss soldiers apparently attempting to estimate the calibre of the shell that made this hole by its dimensions.

The town of Porrentruy, south west of Bonfol and nearly five miles within Swiss territory, constructed this vast cross in the fields nearby to indicate to airmen that this was Swiss territory.  Being Swiss, it was electrically lit at night.

Despite this, the town was bombed several times during the war, the damage to the house above occurring on 24th April 1917, and an attack by a German aircraft on a Swiss observation balloon tethered near Porrentruy on 7th October 1918 resulted in the death of the balloon observer as the balloon plunged to earth in flames.

Model of a Swiss balloon observer and his mighty camera,…

…with which he might well snap a photo similar to this one, dated 16th November 1914.  The border wire, if you look very carefully, crosses the picture in the foreground in front of the ruined building,…

…and is easier to see in this drawing of the same view from September 1915,…

…and in this 1916 painting.  The view looks due north as far as the Vosges Mountains on the horizon from above Post No. 2 on the map (bottom right in both painting & drawing – note the Swiss flag – and first seen in the opening photo in this post).  Beyond the border wire and ruined house, the French trenches can be seen on the left in a ‘V’ shape in front of the copse, the River Largue runs diagonally across the picture along the valley bottom, and the German trenches are probably in the shadow on the edge of the forest on the right; early in the war they ran closer to the river, in front of, or incorporating, the ruined white buildings.

The ruined house was known as ‘Le Petit Largin’ – here two Swiss guards in the foreground look out onto No Man’s Land, stretching away in the background.

Le Petit Largin in 1915, with the border marker stone and barbed wire border fence in the foreground,…

…and an earlier picture, from around 1900, Le Petit Largin on the left, a larger Swiss residence (Le Grand Largin?  I don’t know, but it makes sense, surely?), on the right, and the border itself, marked by the white arrow, between the houses.

There is no trace of the larger Swiss house in any of the later photos, even here, in the very early days of the war, this view showing the rear of Le Petit Largin, the house at this point only superficially damaged.  The border wire crosses the picture.

Small Swiss sentry post, Le Petit Largin once again just beyond.  The illustrations show that Post No. 2 was a little to the right of Le Petit Largin,…

…and this (above & below) is the blockhouse at Post No. 2 (known as Largin North) shown in both illustrations,…

…the wooded hill in the background across the border in pre-war Germany.  Compare this with the very first photo in this post.

The same blockhouse later in the war, the trench considerably widened, presumably for ease of access for both men and equipment.  The roofless white building in both painting & sketch can be seen across the valley to the immediate left of the blockhouse.

A third shot of the same blockhouse, Largin North, with a Swiss guard in the foreground.

Another map of Le Largin, with the Swiss border marked in pink, the French front lines in blue, German in red.  There were ‘infanterie werke’ – literally infantry works, so some sort of structure to house infantry – in the centre of Le Largin, designated A, B & C on the original of this map, with the surrounding and connecting barbed wire defences marked in green.  Because Le Largin is only five hundred yards wide (from north to south), they were so positioned as to prevent any incursion by French troops from the north or Germans from the east or south east crossing Swiss territory to surprise their enemies in the rear.  We shall return to these structures later, but beforehand, the blockhouse we have just seen at Post No. 2 (North Largin) is marked on this map as an orange square with the number ‘1’, this time in black,…

…and this blockhouse (Largin South), seen both above & below, is the orange square containing the black number ‘2’.

Swiss & German guards shake hands across the border, the Largin South blockhouse behind.

The infantry structure marked as ‘C’ on the previous map is actually this blockhouse (perhaps it wasn’t at the time the map was drawn up), surrounded by barbed wire,…

…just as seen on these plans.  The blockhouses were designed to accommodate a single N.C.O. and between 16 & 20 men.  ‘Gewehrfeuer & Splittersichers Waldblockhaus’, the heading on the left, can be translated, literally, as ‘Gunfire & Shatterproof Forest Log Cabin’, which is probably fairly accurate.  Remember, there was no serious expectation by the Swiss of being attacked, and these blockhouses were protection from misdirected fire, not a proper assault.

If we return to the earlier map close-up, with the blockhouse at ‘C’ now marked as such, there is no sign of ‘A’ or ‘B’ as there is on the other map, which makes me feel even more that they were smaller constructions, perhaps barracks as opposed to blockhouses.  Which still leaves one more blockhouse, clearly marked as such on this map – the plain green circle – and one final border post (No.1, the pink circle nearest the bottom of the map) to find.

Although I cannot guarantee the location of the blockhouse pictured above & below (I think both pictures are probably the same blockhouse seen from different angles),…

…it is not one we have seen before, and it could well be the final one on the map.

A short distance to the south east, at the bottom of the map, you will see one more pink circle, Post No. 1, the barrack hut of which is pictured above, two men guarding the actual border just down the road.

This second hut was somewhere in the trees hereabouts,…

…and this hut was on the Bonfol-Ottendorf road, therefore also somewhere around here, I would think, but as I have no clue where Ottendorf is, or was, I can’t tell you exactly where.

Swiss & German border guards, not looking entirely happy about life.  Despite the guards and border patrols from both sides,…

…there were, apparently, around a thousand infringements of Swiss neutrality during the war.  Under international law, any belligerent forces who crossed the frontier, for whatever reason, had to be interned.  This picture shows a Swiss guard with some of the members of a German patrol that crossed the border in 1914 and were, indeed, interned.  Unlike the border guards in the previous shot, these chaps don’t appear too miffed about it.

A Swiss soldier talks to a mounted German border guard through the unusually high frontier wire (left).  The border with Germany was around two hundred miles in length and elsewhere (right), in more isolated areas, a much lower fence sufficed.

One final map of the front lines north of the Swiss border at Le Largin, the first kilometre of the Western Front shown as a shaded area.  The German trenches, as you know by now, and as the map shows, ended just south of Le Largin,…

…and as the sign in these snapshots is headed Endstation, and presumably says ‘End of the trenches’ or some such, beneath which we have Ostende – Schweiz (Switzerland), I think we can assume that these Germans are posing for the camera at the very beginning, or end, of their trenches.

Thus far we have looked at the Swiss defences in a very small area – admittedly, at the time, the most important, being the start of the Western Front – of the country’s nine hundred mile, or thereabouts, border.  However, with the Austro-Hungarians at war from late July 1914, and the Swiss & Austrians sharing a border of around 140 miles (considerably more than today), the Swiss considered it prudent to reinforce their eastern border posts in the high Alps in the late summer of 1914.

Swiss and Austrian border guards in conversation, the low, wire border fence between them.

A Swiss guard looks over the border wire at a group of Austro-Hungarian soldiers eating breakfast.

Although a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany & Austria-Hungary, Italy had declared their neutrality on the outbreak of war in 1914.  However, once Italy had entered the fray on the side of the Triple Entente in May 1915 by declaring war on Austria-Hungary*, yet another Swiss border needed guarding in more strength, in particular in the area of the Dreisprachenspitze (above) or Piz da las Trais Linguas (‘Peak of the Three Languages’), a minor summit of the Ortler Alps, where three borders, Swiss, Austrian & Italian, at the time met.

*as the Treaty of London, secretly signed a month earlier had, in essence, bound them to do.  Look it up.

A Swiss sentry looks across the border wire on the Dreisprachenspitze; the dark low building is an Austro-Hungarian army barracks, the tall building a hotel.  Much as in the northeast, at the start of the Western Front, the Swiss wanted no incursions into their territory, no foreign troops using Swiss territory to attack their opponents in the flank.

A likely pre-war photograph of Swiss & Italian border guards.

Swiss mountain troops patrol the border with Italy (above & below).

And we shall, I think, leave it there.

Although I might tell you a bit more about the Swiss in the Great War one day.

Incidentally, if you would like to see what remains, and there is plenty, of the permanent French & German defences at Kilometre Zero and at the very beginning of the Western Front, I suggest you click here, where you will find a remarkable, if slightly old-fashioned, website which has my huge thanks, and from where I learnt so much.  It’s in German, mostly……

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17 Responses to Kilometre Zero: Where the Western Front Began

  1. Alan says:

    Thanks for another informative post.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you Alan. I have rarely* met anyone who knows anything about the Swiss border in the Great War, which makes it a poor conversation-starter. So taking the bull by the horns, I have attempted to redress the situation. Hm. And it’s interesting too!!

      *let’s be honest, it’s never, isn’t it.

      • Alan Bond says:

        I certainly knew zilch about it. In fact when I read title of post I expected it to be the other end of line near Belgium coast, so I learnt alot. Thanks again

  2. Magicfingers says:

    Which is exactly how/where the talk I am doing later in the year about the Swiss border will start. Nieuwpoort, on the Channel coast. That’ll confuse them.

  3. Jon T says:

    Well this is firmly in the “I had no idea about any of this” section ! Really fascinating and I suppose when you think of it the Western Front wouldn’t have just petered out into nothing at its geographical end !

    • Magicfingers says:

      …or geographical beginning. Glad you enjoyed this, even though even I am struggling to explain how the Swiss end up on a website with a title like mine! Back to Flanders very soon.

  4. nicholas Kilner says:

    Absolutely brilliant MF! It must have been a somewhat surreal situation for the Swiss border guards, essentially having a front row seat to the carnage going on. I’m not sure just how close they would want to get, or indeed had to, but i’m betting that with a decent pair of binoculars they could see a fair old distance along ‘no mans land’.
    A thousand infringements is initially a surprisingly high figure, Thats what, 4 or 5 a week for the duration? but then it did make me wonder if for some men it was a way out of the war. better to spend six months in a Swiss prison than stuck in waterlogged or frozen trenches in winter. “I’m just going out on patrol sir, I may be some time”. Really, really interesting post.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you Nick – sorry for the slight delay in responding but I have just spent the last three days much hotter than you, I suspect. Fine weather for a music festival, eh? You know when you open the oven door and then have to move back as the heat hits you? It was like that on Thursday, except there was nowhere to move back too!!! Anyway, thanks for the above. The Swiss guards in their balloons and observation posts could see a long way – many many miles. And you’re “I’m just going out on patrol sir, I may be some time” may well be true if you were, of course, lucky enough to be posted to this sector – although one wonders if the German & French troops stationed there were told in no uncertain terms what would happen to them should they attempt a Swiss crossing and fail.

      • Nick Kilner says:

        Absolutely, I shouldn’t be at all surprised to find that both sides were pretty hot (if you’ll pardon the pun given the current weather conditions) on those who wandered just a little way over the border. I’d love to know what the tunnelling situation was there. Everywhere else men were trying desperately to undermine their opposition, but it strikes me that here there was an alternative. Rather than going deeper, you could go wider, under the Swiss border and back in again. I wonder if it was ever exploited?
        I hope you managed to enjoy the festival to some degree, Cropredy I presume? I had tickets to an event yesterday but decided to give it a miss, it just too damn hot!

        • Magicfingers says:

          Cropredy indeed, first one since 2019, of course. I saw the bands I wanted to, and sought beer (Hook Norton have taken over at the festival after decades of Wadworths) & shade during much of the rest. And anyway, 2003 was hotter (really! – 100 degrees that year).
          Yeah, I too wondered about tunnelling, particularly in that first kilometre of the front. I do know that the French had a Swiss invasion plan over the winter of 1915-1916 because I have a scan of a map showing the plan!! Maybe if I do another Swiss post I will include it and the reasons why they had it.

  5. Ditto everything posted above.

  6. Peter says:

    Hi Martin, I met you recently at Bandon Hill Cemetery. Love the website, some really great articles here! I have some links to share with you 😉

  7. Stephen K says:

    I’ve only just discovered this, what a fascinating read! I’ve seen some of the photos before, but you’ve provided the context for them, especially the block houses & the wrecked Le Petit Largin. I have one question, do you know how the French trench line ended at the border? From the maps it looked like it just stopped right next to it. Anyway, thank you for an interesting read, much appreciated.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Hello Stephen. Thanks for your kind comments. The German trenches just petered out once there was no French border in front of them. I think the French trenches finally ended with a blockhouse or similar structure just on their side of the wire, but a photo? Not that I could find.

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