The Fort de Mutzig
The special feature of the Fort de Mutzig Feste Kaiser Wilhelm II among the numerous fortifications of the First World War
In 1914, the Feste Kaiser Wilhelm II of Mutzig was a fortification unique in its kind in the world, first and foremost because of its exceptional size: 254 hectares, comprising more than fifty various structures, 22 turrets of 150 and 105 mm, 7 ,000 men serving there, 4 electricity generating stations, 16 kitchens, 6 bakeries, 4 wells, etc.
The Fort, which owes its name to the strong personal involvement of the emperor William II, is the venue for what is a truly architectural revolution: it was the physical embodiment of the most modern concepts in terms of fortification in 1893. Of course the triangular shape of the two first forts demonstrates its Belgian origins but what is totally new, is the application of a revolutionary architectural concept: the stunning fortification, inaugurated around 1897 in the current restored part. From now on, new fortifications would be made from specialised structures, spread out over the whole area and interlinked by underground galleries. This meant the removal of the trap formed by the ditches which surrounded the forts, which were all too visible once the enemy artillery started using captive balloons.
Furthermore, the buildings at Mutzig amounted to a veritable technical revolution: indeed, the invention of the shattering shell around 1885 (melinite) forced engineers to turn to new building materials, and to reinvent most of the techniques used in fortifications. The buildings of Mutzig were the first in history to be made entirely of concrete. The artillery deployed was also the most modern available and it was at the Fort de Mutzig that the first steel turrets were put in place. Finally these minimal embrasure turrets meant that for the first time an electricity generating station for a fortification had to be installed, in order to provide artificial ventilation.
For the emperor, who had come to power in 1888, the Fort constituted a major site for experimentation and development: for example, the Fort would allow the high command to decide between the eclipse turret and the minimal embrasure turret. Eight turrets of each system were installed in the first two structures and a series of tests involving troops was carried out. In the end the minimal embrasure system was chosen as it was simpler, less costly and more effective in terms of range and rate of fire than its eclipse equivalent.
The Fort de Mutzig came right at the advent of the technical and industrial revolution, and it was the start of a new era with the construction in its wake of the fortifications around Metz and Thionville. In 1918, when the French troops arrived they discovered a world which in technical terms they were never expecting. The French civil engineers studied in detail all the techniques that had been used, and many of them would be used again in the Maginot Line. The German fortifications which were built between 1936 and 1944, Ostwall, Westwall, Atlantikwall (the Atlantic wall) were of course directly based upon them.
A Franco-German project
With the return of the Alsace to France, the Kaiser Wilhelm II fort, lost its original name. It was renamed “Mutzig Position” then in 1940 “Feste von Witzleben” until 1944, when it reverted to its name of “Fort de Mutzig” which we know today. This example alone of this succession of names is a kind of perfect summary of the history between France and Germany from 1871 to the present day. A German fort located in France, jointly restored by French and Germans, with the support of the French military authorities and local government: the symbolism is of primary importance. The Franco-German spirit of the association of the Fort de Mutzig is at the heart of the association’s approach, 40% of whose members are German. Their historical research focusses as much on French as it does on German archives and documents. The visits and exhibitions, and all the signing are strictly Franco-German.
The monument known as Namenstein, which is currently being restored having been taken down from its original site and rebuilt in the restored part of the Fort, will be officially opened in May 2014. Its emblematic role, with in particular the imperial eagle and the Kaiser Wilhelm II Fort plate restored by the association, is an extremely strong symbol of the change in Franco-German relations.
French and German partnerships are involved in the project: creation in 1999 of the Fördeverein der Feste Kaiser Wilhelm II, creation of a support project for young underprivileged Germans as part of a partnership with the Rechtspflege Ortenau, etc. The French and German teams who are working together on this site, get on well together with long-lasting friendships being formed. This dynamic is a powerful motivator for the many people who may have reason to visit or work at the site. What’s more, many schools automatically include a visit to the Fort as part of their European partnerships.
A special project relating to the centenary of the First World War
The conservation project for the Fort de Mutzig will be celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 2014, the Centenary year.
The association hopes that this event will allow the site to be given listed status so that it this historic monument of paramount importance can be left as a legacy for future generations.
The association also wishes the fort de Mutzig to be recognised as the major fortification of the end of the XIXth century. It is in fact the only complete German fortification of this era, which has been entirely restored and is of a value which is richly unique. The centenary of the start of the war should make it possible to achieve this aim: an outstanding reminder of the beginnings of our technological era, the Fort is an ideal place for reflecting on the deep seated causes of this Great War which were nationalism and militarism, and their consequences.