What happened to the fronts in World War I at the Swiss border?
April 8, 2010 12:00 PM   Subscribe

What happened to the fronts in World War I at the Swiss border? Did the trenches go up to an imaginary line and just...stop? Was there just an agreement on both sides that no aggressive action would be taken within a certain distance from Switzerland? Has anything been written on this situation, or even better, any pictures of what happened when the trench lines approached the Cantons?

There must have been a fair amount of poorly-aimed artillery landing in Switzerland, or at least planes crashing there. Did anyone ever mistakenly charge into the wrong country? How did the Swiss man the border, and how did they respond to any misdirected aggression?

And now we've come to it, what about in the other direction? How were these trench lines anchored into the sea? Was it like the US/Mexican border where they literally built a wall extending into the ocean?

[Asking for a friend who has exhausted Wikipedia's content on the subject.]
posted by cowbellemoo to Education (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My understanding is that the frontline from Mulhouse down to the Swiss border was very quiet.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 12:25 PM on April 8, 2010

I am a history major, but not a European history major.

My understanding was that the western front was not a solid line of troops and trenches spanning the length of the French and German borders. Most of the fighting was done in the northern regions of France around Belgium and moving gradually towards Paris before being halted.

The fighting never really got south of Verdun for the most part, and the Swiss were largely unaffected by the war in a military manner. The Belgians were affected however in spite of their neutrality and they responded by being invaded.

Google is your friend.
posted by BobbyDigital at 12:32 PM on April 8, 2010

An aside: this figures in the end of Jean Renoir's film La Grand Illusion.
posted by gimonca at 12:34 PM on April 8, 2010

One of the weirdest discoveries about WWI for me was that life continued to be so normal for so many people.

Nevil Shute has a story in his autobiography _Slide Rule_ about how his parents still went on holiday in Europe, in 1916. They just travelled by train through France to Italy.

A.J. Liebling writes about this as well, on his unsurpassed WWII writings. When he describes how unconcerned the French acted in 1939 and early 1940. They thought they'd seen it all before. So on 10 May 1940, the day of Fall Gelb, when France was attacked, tout Paris went to the horse races.
posted by ijsbrand at 12:43 PM on April 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I thought this was interesting so I did some googling and found this thread with a lot of
links. (warning scary-ish war nerd forum links found from google)


"...the line settled on the River Largue as shown here. There were some strongpoints further south, but the trenches ended where indicated. That means that the French line must have simply stopped at the frontier, a few yards west of the Largue, while the German carried on beyond the neck of land called the Largzipfel as a precaution against a French attack through Swiss territory. As discussed earlier, the Swiss feared that either side might attempt it and therefore built a series of watchtowers and observation posts."

Oooh and when you Google "river largue" you get this which is all about "the end of the line."

I don't know what your friend needs this for but if they need really firm sources for citation etc.. these aren't ideal. However I'm sure they could use this material to hunt down relevant histories.
posted by metsauce at 12:46 PM on April 8, 2010

Response by poster: I don't know what your friend needs this for

He's just a curious history buff who reads alot of alternative histories involving WWI and WWII.

The "end of the line" link was great! Thanks!
posted by cowbellemoo at 12:59 PM on April 8, 2010

That is indeed a great link, and explains something I'd never thought to wonder about. Thanks to both cowbellemoo and metsauce!
posted by languagehat at 3:22 PM on April 8, 2010

There are numerous atlases available that your friend would probably devour whole.

As to the other End of the Line, on the North Sea, Wikipedia has a picture. It resulted from the "Race to the Sea" as both sides moved to outflank the other, frustrating early expectations of mobile warfare, and leading to the trench warfare that eventually defined the bulk of the conflict.

Much of the key to why things developed the way they did was the Schlieffen Plan, which was intended as a way to quickly subdue France in the event of a two-front war. Essentially, Schlieffen looked at the geography both of the border regions and the prize -- Paris, in a word -- and called for what in military terms is a pivot. While France pressed against the French-German border, Germany would flank them through Belgium and advance on Paris from the north.

The area of the pivot (hinge), which is essentially Mulhouse, would see little action. The terrain was not favorable to either side in general terms and in particular to modern mobility warfare. (The Black Forest would essentially force any army to move along the Rhine.) It is noted that von Moltke still felt the potential was here for a breakthrough and strengthened defenses, but the map of the war shows little actual fighting in the area.

Just because you have a front, you see, there isn't necessarily active combat along every inch. The artillery are not just taking potshots, they're for softening the enemy before an advance. If you're not advancing -- and we're talking about a whole army here, not just a few illegal immigrants -- you're not going to waste a lot of your artillery ammo just shooting randomly. Even places where combat was fierce would cycle between clash and quiet. But elsewhere you basically had two armies staring at each other uneasily, perhaps taking off the occasional runner. (A good movie to see how this worked is Gallipoli.)

In the history of warfare there have been numerous international borders, as such, trampled or trod over accidentally, and planes have gone astray, and the like. Generally, though, Switzerland's neutrality was respected and there was no military necessity to put those relations at risk.
posted by dhartung at 12:33 AM on April 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Another aside. The Swiss tell a story. Shortly before the outbreak of WW1, a German diplomat paid a secret visit to the Swiss defence ministry at the highest level, and asked what they would do if Germany sent ten thousand troops to the border prepared to invade. The Minister told him they would deploy ten thousand Swiss defence troops along their border. “And if we sent twenty thousand troops?” “Then we would issue each soldier two rounds of ammunition.” This presumably helps explain why Switzerland's neutrality was respected and there was no military necessity to put those relations at risk, as dhartung states.
posted by aqsakal at 1:10 AM on April 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

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