When Linda Olson found a box of military items in her parents’ basement in November 2011, little did she know that she had uncovered a piece of lost history. Linda’s father, Louis Olson, a native of Chetek, WI, served in the United States Army in the European Theater during World War II and during the occupation of Germany shortly after the war. While in service, he collected several souvenirs and brought them back to the States. As time passed, so too did the memory of those souvenirs, until Linda came across them last year. Amongst the various items from Nazi Germany was a very unique looking piece, an iron key mounted on a plaque that seemed to be from another era. The plaque, written in German, reads, “Key to Fort Cerfontaine of the Fortress Maubeuge” and is adorned with the wax seal of the Imperial German Empire.
Brought home from Europe after World War II by Louis Olson, and later donated by his daughter Linda Olson, this plaque displays the World War I-era key to Fortress Cerfontaine, of the Fort Maubeuge in France.
Just at a glance, it is clear that this key has a very unique story that is not tied to Nazi Germany, but rather comes from the opening days of World War I, along the Western Front.
As war broke out in Europe in August of 1914, the French fortress town of Maubeuge stood directly in the path of the German sweep across Belgium and into France known as the Schlieffen Plan. On August 25, 1914, the forts surrounding the town, including Fort Cerfontaine, were besieged by the German VII Corps, while the rest of the German forces advanced toward Paris. The fortress was bombarded, day and night, by the heaviest artillery that had ever been used in warfare up to that point. By the thirteenth day of the siege, September 7, with the walls of the Fort in heaps of rubble and only the gatehouse still discernable amongst the ruins, the French general commanding the garrison presented the German commander with a token of his surrender- the key to that gatehouse.
The stubbornness of the defense of Fort Cerfontaine (and the other forts around the fortress city of Maubeuge) delayed the German sweep across France long enough to allow the British and French allied armies to exploit a gap in the German lines at the First Battle of the Aisne, forcing the Germans to retreat and abandon their goal of capturing the French capital. Paris was saved by that gap in the German lines, the very same gap that the German VII Corps would have occupied but could not due to its siege of Fort Cerfontaine of the Fortress Maubeuge.
It is not clear how Louis Olson came across this key over thirty years after the fall of the fort, but thanks to Linda’s discovery and donation, the significance of this artifact is a story that will be preserved for years to come. Learn more about Wisconsin in World War I at the World War I Centennial Commission.