The town of Bitche has been home to important fortifications on the Franco-German frontier since at least 1714, when Louis XIV's engineer, Vauban, designed and built a massive red sandstone citadel there (above). Besieged unsuccessfully by the Austrians during the wars of the French Revolution (1793-94), and by the Germans (Bavarians) in 1870-71, Bitche's naturally dominating location resulted in the construction of considerably more fortifications in its vicinity in the 1930s. It became a central anchor point of the Maginot Line, and the great steel and concrete fortresses of Grand Hohekirkel, Otterbiel, Schiesseck, Simserhof and Rohrbach -- with all their outlying casemates (pillboxes), abris d'intervalles (underground barracks) and postes d'observation (Observation Posts) -- became known collectively as the Ensemble de Bitche. The Ensemble de Bitche was considered the strongest sector of the entire Maginot Line.
Although spared the vicissitudes of war during the period 1914-1918, Bitche became the scene of combat twice more during WWII.
In June, 1940, the German 257th Infantry Division (the "Berlin Bears") broke through the Maginot to the west, in the Saar, and attacked several outworks of the Ensemble from the south -- the same aspect from which the Americans would attack four and a half years later. Generalmajor Max Viebahn's "Bears" failed to take any of Bitche's Maginot defenses, however, and the garrison in the Ensemble did not surrender until a full week after the rest of the French Army capitulated. Even then, they surrendered only because the Germans threatened to resume combat against the devastated French Army, and to conquer the remainder of France, scheduled for administration by the puppet government at Vichy.