Warfare has always been a driver of technological innovation, today as much as over a hundred years ago. At that time, the Germans were seeking ways to protect themselves at the Western front, and against the newest invention of explosives: melinite, much more powerful than black powder which had been in use until then. In 1893, emperor William (Wilhelm) II ordered the construction of a fort that would withstand attacks with this new weapon.
Situated mostly underground, with thick walls of concrete and steel-armored doors, the Feste Kaiser Wilhelm II – Fort de Mutzig – was built to defend Strasbourg. It took 25 years to finish the fortification with about 50 buildings below the surface, spread out to make them more difficult to destroy and better to defend. The complex was equipped with the newest technology at the time, like air conditioned tunnels, electric light, generator rooms, a hospital and much more, to house 7000 soldiers. A lot of it is still intact. The underground surface covers 40.000 m² (430.000 ft²). It takes two and a half hours just to tour a part of it. But it is definitely worth the time.
The guided tour takes you behind the massive doors into the claustrophobic and chilly labyrinth of tunnels and stairs. You can see where the soldiers ate and slept, where food was prepared and surgeries were performed. It is not hard to understand why the men often were miserable, living at close quarters for months at a time. The fort also had a – for the time – sophisticated defense system. The fortress, however, never saw major battles, although it was occupied at different times by German, French, and American soldiers. Today, this prototype of the fortresses of the 20th century such as the Maginot Line and the Atlantic Wall serves as a museum.