During the early part of the month the British trenches on the north bank of the Tigris were pushed forward a short distance, until they were within 200 yards of the Turkish position, Sanna-i-Yat, where they remained for the balance of midsummer. To the south of Magasis, on the south bank of the river, British troops occupied an advanced position about three and one-half miles south of the main position. Then they stopped there too. About the same time, June 10, 1916, Turkish guns sunk three barges on the Tigris, the only actual success which the Sultan's forces won since the fall of Kut-el-Amara.
Along the Euphrates, where British troops had held certain positions ever since 1915, there was also an almost entire lack of activity, except that occasional small and entirely local punitive expeditions became necessary in order to hold in hand the Arab tribes of the neighborhood.
Climatic conditions continued extremely trying, and enforced further desistance from military activity until, toward the end of July, relief in the form of the shamal (northwest wind) would come and once more make it possible to resume operations.
RUSSIAN ADVANCE TOWARD BAGDAD
Coincident with the Russian advance in Armenia and the English attempt at capturing the city of Bagdad by advancing up the Tigris, the Russian General Staff also directed a strong attack against this ancient Arabian city from the northeast through Persia.
Before the Mesopotamian plain, in which Bagdad is situated, could be reached from Persia the mountains along the Persian-Turkish frontier had to be crossed, an undertaking full of difficulties.
Just as in Armenia, here completed railroads were lacking entirely. Such roads as were available were for the most part in the poorest possible condition. The mountains themselves could be crossed only at a few points through passes located at great height, where the caravans that had traveled for centuries and centuries between Persia and Mesopotamia had blasted a trail. At only one point to the north of Bagdad was there a break in the chain of mountains that separated Persia from Mesopotamia. That was about one hundred miles northeast of Bagdad in the direction of the Persian city of Kermanshah. There one Russian army was advancing undoubtedly with the twofold object of reaching and capturing Bagdad and of submitting the Turkish army operating in that sector to an attack from this source as well as from the British army advancing along the Tigris. A Russian success at this point would have meant practically either the capture of all the Turkish forces or their ultimate destruction. For the only avenue of escape that would have been left to them would have been across the desert into Syria. And although there were a number of caravan routes available for this purpose, it would have been reasonably sure that most of the Turkish forces attempting such a retreat would have been lost. For a modern army of the size operating around Bagdad could not have been safely brought across the desert with all the supplies and ammunition indispensable for its continued existence.
In order to prevent the escape of these Turkish forces in a northerly direction along the Tigris and the line of the projected but uncompleted part of the Bagdad railroad, the Russians had launched another attack from the north. This second army advanced to the south of the region around Lake Urumiah, a large body of water less than fifty miles east of the Turko-Persian border. This attack was directed against another important Arabian city, Mosul. This town, too, was located on the Tigris, and on the line of the Bagdad railroad, about 200 miles northwest of Bagdad.
Still another Russian attack was developed by a third army, advancing about halfway between the other two army groups and striking at Mesopotamia from Persia slightly north of the most easterly point of the Turkish frontier.
Broadly speaking the Russian attack through Persia covered a front of about 200 miles. It must not be understood, however, that this was a continuous "front" of the same nature as the front in the western and eastern theaters of war in Europe. The undeveloped condition of the country made the establishment of a continuous front not only impossible, but unnecessary. Each of the three Russian groups were working practically independent of each other, except that their operations were planned and executed in such a way that their respective objectives were to be reached simultaneously. Even that much cooperation was made extremely difficult, because of the lack of any means of communication in a horizontal direction. No roads worthy of that name, parallel to the Turko-Persian frontier, existed. Telegraph or telephone lines, of course, were entirely lacking, except such as were established by the advancing armies. How great the difficulties were which confronted both the attacking and the defending armies in this primitive country can, therefore, readily be understood. They were still more increased by the climatic conditions which prevail during the winter and early spring. If fighting in the comparatively highly developed regions of the Austro-Italian mountains was fraught with problems that at times seemed almost impossible of solution, what then must it have been in the more or less uncivilized and almost absolutely undeveloped districts of Persian "Alps!" The difficulties that were overcome, the suffering which was the share of both Russians and Turks make a story the full details of which will not be told—if ever told at all—for a long time to come. No daily communique, no vivid description from the pen of famous war correspondents acquaints us of the details of the heroic struggle that for months and months progressed in these distant regions of the "near East." Not even "letters from the front" guide us to any extent. For where conditions are such that even the transport of supplies and ammunition becomes a problem that requires constantly ingenuity of the highest degree, the transmission of mail becomes a matter which can receive consideration only very occasionally. Whatever will be known for a long time to come about this campaign is restricted to infrequent official statements made by the Russian and Turkish General Staffs, announcing the taking of an important town or the crossing of a mountain pass, up to then practically unknown to the greatest part of the civilized world.
It was such a statement from the Russian General Staff, that had announced the fall of Kermanshah on February 27, 1916. This was an important victory for the southernmost Russian army. For this ancient Persian town lies on the main caravan route from Mesopotamia to Teheran, passing over the high Zaros range, as well as on other roads, leading to Tabriz in the north and to Kut-el-Amara and Basra in the south. It brought this Russian army within less than 200 miles of Bagdad. Toward this goal the advance now was pushed steadily, and on March 1, 1916, Petrograd announced that the pursuit of the enemy to the west of Kermanshah continued and had yielded the capture of two more guns. The next important success gained by the Russians was announced on March 12, 1916, when the town of Kerind was occupied. This town, too, is located on the road to Bagdad and its occupation represented a Russian advance of about fifty miles in less than two weeks, no mean accomplishment in the face of a fairly determined resistance.
On March 22, 1916, it was officially announced that a Russian column, advancing from Teheran, to the south, had reached and occupied Ispaha, the ancient Persian capital in central Persia. This, of course, had no direct bearing on the Russian advance against Mosul and Bagdad, except that it increased Russian influence in Persia and by that much strengthened the position and security of any Russian troops operating anywhere else in that country.
Fighting between the northernmost Russian army and detachments of Turks and Kurds was reported on March 24, 1916, in the region south of Lake Urumiah. Throughout the balance of March, 1916, and during April, 1916, similar engagements took place continuously in this sector. On the Turkish side both regular infantry and detachments of Kurds opposed the Russian advance in the direction of Mosul and the Tigris. Russian successes were announced officially on April 10 and 12, 1916, and again on May 3, 1916.
In the meantime the advance toward Bagdad also progressed. On May 1, 1916, the Russians captured some Turkish guns and a number of ammunition wagons to the west of Kerind. On May 6, 1916, a Turkish fortified position in the same locality was taken by storm and a considerable quantity of supplies were captured.
Up to this time the Russian reports were more or less indefinite, announcing simply from time to time progress of the advance in the direction of Bagdad. From Kerind, captured early in March, 1916, two roads lead into Mesopotamia, one by way of Mendeli, and another more circuitous, but more frequented and, therefore, in better condition, by way of Khanikin. Not until May 10, 1916, did it become apparent that the Russians had chosen the latter. On that day they announced the occupation of the town of Kasr-i-Shirin, about twenty miles from the Turkish border, between Kerind and Khanikin. Not only were the Russian forces now within 110 miles of Bagdad—an advance of forty-five miles since the capture of Kerind—but they were also getting gradually out of the mountains into the Mesopotamian plain. At Kasr-i-Shirin, they took important Turkish munition reserves, comprising several hundred thousand cartridges, many shells and hand grenades, telegraph material, and a camel supply convoy laden with biscuits, rice, and sugar.
Five days later, on May 15, 1916, another important Russian success was announced, this time further north. The Russian forces that had been fighting for a long time ever since the early part of 1915 to the south of Lake Urumiah, and whose progress in the direction of Mosul was reported at long intervals, were now reported to have reached the Turkish town of Rowandiz. This represented an advance of over 100 miles from the town of Urumiah and carried the Russian troops some twenty-five miles across the frontier into the Turkish province of Mosul. Rowandiz is about 100 miles east of Mosul, and in order to reach it it was necessary for the Russian forces to cross the formidable range of mountains that runs along the Turko-Persian border and reaches practically its entire length, a height of 8,000 to 10,000 feet.
TURKISH OFFENSIVE AND RUSSIAN COUNTEROFFENSIVE IN ARMENIA AND PERSIA
On the last day of May, 1916, the Turks scored their first substantial success against the Russians since the fall of Erzerum. Having received reenforcements, the Turkish center assumed the offensive between the Armenian Taurus and Baiburt and forced the Russians to evacuate Mama Khatun. This was followed by a withdrawal of the Russian lines in that region for a distance of about ten miles.
For the next few days the Turks were able to maintain their new offensive in full strength. The center of the Russian right wing was forced back continuously until it had reached a line almost twenty-five miles east of its former positions.
In the south, too, the Turkish forces scored some successes against the Russian troops, who had been pushing toward the Tigris Valley from the mountains along the Persian border. On June 8, 1916, Turkish detachments even succeeded in crossing the border and occupied Kasr-i-Shirin, just across the frontier in Persia. By June 10, 1916, these troops had advanced sixteen miles farther east and fought slight engagements with Russian cavalry near the villages of Serpul and Zehab.
In the north the Turkish advance continued likewise. An important engagement between Turkish troops and a strong Russian cavalry force occurred on June 12, 1916, east of the village of Amachien and terminated in favor of the Turks.
Fighting continued throughout the balance of June, 1916, all along the Turko-Russian front from Trebizond down to the Persian border northeast of Bagdad. At some points the Russians assumed the offensive, but were unable to make any impression on the Turks, who continued to push back the invader and, by quickly fortifying their newly gained positions, succeeded in maintaining them against all counterattacks.
By June 30, 1916, Kermanshah in Persia, about 100 miles across the border, was seriously threatened. On that day Russian forces, which retreated east of Serai, could not maintain their positions near Kerind, owing to vigorous pursuit. Russian rear guards west of Kerind were driven off. Turkish troops passing through Kerind pursued the Russians in the direction of Kermanshah.
On July 5, 1916, Kermanshah was occupied by the Turkish troops after a battle west of the town which lasted all day and night. The first attempt of the Russians to prevent the capture of the city was made at Mahidesst, west of Kermanshah. Here the Russians had hastily constructed fortifications, but the Turks, by a swift encircling move, made their position untenable and forced them to retreat farther east. A strong Russian rear guard defended the village for one day and then followed the main body to a series of previously prepared positions just west of the city. Here a terrific battle lasting all day and all night was waged, and resulted in the retreat of the Russians to Kermanshah. Three detachments of Turks, almost at the heels of the Muscovites, drove them out before they could make another stand.
On July 9, 1916, Turkish reconnoitering forces came in contact with the Russians who were ejected from Kermanshah at a point fifteen miles east of the city, while they were on their way to join their main forces. After a fight of seven hours the Russians were compelled to flee to Sineh.
By this time, however, the Russians had recovered their breath in the Caucasus. On July 12, 1916, they recaptured by assault the town of Mama Khatun. The next day, after a violent night battle, they occupied a series of heights southeast of Mama Khatun. The Turks attempted to take the offensive, but were thrown back. Pressing closely upon them, the Russians took the villages of Djetjeti and Almali.
The Russian offensive quickly assumed great strength. By July 14, 1916, the Russians were only ten miles from Baiburt, had again taken up their drive for Erzingan and had wrested from the Turks some strongly fortified positions southwest of Mush.
Baiburt fell to the Russians on July 15, 1916. From then on the Russian advance continued steadily, although the Turks maintained a stiff resistance.
On July 18, 1916, the Russians occupied the town of Kugi, an important junction of roads from Erzerum, Lhaputi and Khzindjtna. On July 20, 1916, the Grand Duke's troops captured the town of Gumuskhaneh, forty-five miles southwest of Trebizond.
The next day, July 21, 1916, these forces had advanced to and occupied Ardas, about thirteen miles northwest of Gumuskhaneh. The West Euphrates was crossed the following day. On July 23, 1916, Russian troops on the Erzingan route, in the Ziaret Tapasi district, repulsed two Turkish counterattacks and occupied the heights of Naglika.
East of the Erzingan route they captured a Turkish line on the Durum Darasi River. After having repulsed several Turkish attacks Russian cavalry has reached the line of Boz-Tapa-Mertekli.
Closer and closer the Russians approached to the goal for which they had striven for many months, Erzingan. On July 25, 1916, this strongly fortified Turkish city in Central Armenia, fell into the hands of the Russian Caucasus army under Grand Duke Nicholas.
Erzingan, situated at an altitude of 3,900 feet, about one mile from the right bank of the Euphrates, manufactures silk and cotton and lies in a highly productive plain, which automatically comes into possession of the Russians. Wheat, fruit, wines, and cotton are grown in large quantities, and there are also iron and hot sulphur springs. With its barracks and military factories, the city formed an important army base.
Erzingan has frequently figured in ancient history. It was here that the Sultan of Rum was defeated by the Mongols in 1243, and in the fourth century St. Gregory, "the Illuminator," lived in the city. Erzingan was added to the Osman Empire in 1473 by Mohammed II, after it had been held by Mongols, Tartars, and Turkomans.
With the capture of Erzingan the Russians not only removed the strongest obstacle on the road to Sivas, Angora, and Constantinople, but also virtually completed their occupation of Turkish Armenia.
Throughout the Russian advance, considerable fighting had occurred in the region of Mush, which, however, resulted in no important changes. The main object of the Russian attacks there was to hold as large a Turkish force as possible from any possible attempt to relieve the pressure on Erzingan.
In the south, near the Persian border at Roanduz, and in Persia, near Kermanshah, there were no important developments after the fall of Kermanshah. Considerable fighting, however, went on in both of these sectors without changing in any way the general situation.
PART VIII—OPERATIONS ON THE WESTERN FRONT
RENEWAL OF THE BATTLE OF VERDUN
In another part of this work we have followed the intense struggle that marked the German assault that began on February 21, 1916, and continued without cessation for four days and nights. Despite the tremendous force employed by the Germans and the destruction wrought by their guns, the French by incessant counterattacks had held back their opponents and, by depriving them of the advantage of surprise, had undoubtedly saved Verdun for the Allies. Though losing heavily in men and material, they held the Bras-Douaumont front until they could be relieved by fresh forces. The German advance was stayed on the night of the 24th.
In the morning of February 25, 1916, the Germans succeeded in penetrating Louvemont, now reduced to ruins by fire and shell. Douaumont village to the right seemed in imminent danger of being captured by the Germans, who were closing in on the place. But the French infantry attacking toward the north, and the vigorous action of the Zouaves east of Haudromont Farm, cleared the surroundings of the enemy. At the close of the day they occupied the village and a ridge to the east. Though they were in such position as to half encircle the fort, yet a body of Brandenburgers succeeded by surprise in forcing their way into its walls, from which subsequent French attacks failed to dislodge them.
East and west of Douaumont the Germans made incessant efforts to break through the new French front, but only succeeded in gaining a foothold in Hardaumont work. Douaumont village was attacked with fresh forces and abundant material on the morning of the 27th. The struggle here was marked by hand-to-hand fighting and bayonet charges in which the Germans were clearly at a disadvantage. They won a French redoubt on the west side of Douaumont Fort, but after an intense struggle were forced out and retreated, leaving heaps of dead on the ground.
Douaumont became again the center of German attack, and though driven off with terrible losses, they brought up fresh troops and renewed the fray. Advances were pushed with reckless bravery, but in vain, for their forces were shattered before they could reach the French positions. Their losses in men must have been enormous, and for two days no further attacks were made. The French knew that they had not accepted defeat and were only reorganizing their forces for a fresh onslaught. On March 2, 1916, the Germans renewed the bombardment, smothering the village under an avalanche of shells. Believing that this time the way was clear to advance, they rushed forward in almost solid ranks. French machine-gun and rifle fire cut great gaps in the advancing waves, but this time the brave defenders could not hold them back, and Douaumont was penetrated.
The Germans occupied the place, but they were not permitted to leave it, for the French infantry were posted only a hundred yards away and every exit was under their fire.
On the day following, the 3d, the French, after bombarding the ruins of Douaumont and working havoc in the ranks of the enemy, rushed two battalions during the night against the German barricades, and after a stubborn fight occupied the place. But their victory was short lived. Before dawn the Germans, attacking with large reenforcements, after four or five hours of intense and murderous struggle, again occupied the village. The French, somewhat shattered in numbers but by no means discouraged, fell back some two hundred yards to the rear, where they proceeded to reestablish their line and there await their opportunity to strike again.
Some idea of the great courage and devotion displayed by the French troops during the intense struggle around Douaumont village may be gained from the statement made by an infantry officer which appeared in the Army Bulletin, and from which some quotations may be made.
The Germans on March 2, 1916, at 3.15 a. m. had attacked the village simultaneously from the north by a ravine and on the flank, where they debouched from the fort, and certain covered positions which the French had not had time to reconnoiter.
"The Germans we saw first were those who came from the fort. They were wearing French helmets, and for a moment our men seemed uncertain as to their identity. Major C—— called out: 'Don't fire! They are French.' The words were hardly out of his mouth before he fell with a bullet in his neck. This German trick made us furious, and the adjutant cried: 'Fire for all you're worth! They are Germans!' But the enemy continued his encircling movement with a view to taking the village.
"The battalion which was charged with its defense had lost very heavily in the bombardment, and most of its machine guns were out of action, but they were resolved to make any sacrifice to fulfill their trust. When their left was very seriously threatened, the Tenth Company made a glorious charge straight into the thick of the oncoming German masses. The hand-to-hand struggle was of the fiercest description, and French bayonets wrought deadly havoc among the German ranks. This company went on fighting until it was at length completely submerged in the flood, and the last we saw of it was a handful of desperate heroes seeking death in the heart of the struggle."
An attempt at this time was made by the Germans to debouch from Douaumont village on the southwestern side, with the evident purpose of forcing their way to the top of the crest in the direction of Thiaumont Farm.
"The commander of the Third Company," to continue the French officer's narrative, "immediately made his dispositions to arrest their progress. A machine gun was cleverly placed and got to work. In a short time the hundred or so of Germans that had got through were so vigorously peppered that only about twenty of them got back. This gun was in action until nightfall, dealing with successive German parties that attempted to advance from the western and southwestern sides of the village."
After describing how the French built barricades during the night and adjusted their front in such a way as to present a solid wall facing the east, the narrator continues:
"Our counterattack took place at nightfall on March 3, and was undertaken by two battalions (the Four Hundred and Tenth and the Four Hundred and Fourteenth) of consecutive regiments. After an intense rifle fire we heard the cry of 'Forward with the bayonet!' and night rang with the shouts of the men. Our first line was carried beyond the village.
"The Germans returned to the attack about 8 o'clock, but were stopped dead by our rifle and machine-gun fire. Two hours later another attack was attempted, but was likewise dashed to pieces before our unshaken resistance. The Germans came on in very close formation, and on the following morning we counted quite eight hundred dead before the trench.
"At daybreak on March 4 the Germans launched a fresh counterattack against Douaumont after an intense bombardment accompanied by the use of aerial torpedoes. No detailed description is possible of the terrible fighting from house to house, or the countless deeds of heroism performed by our men in this bloody struggle, which lasted for two hours. The gaps in our ranks increased from moment to moment. Finally we were ordered to retire to a position about 200 meters south of the exit from Douaumont. The enemy tried in vain to dislodge us and exploit the success he had so dearly won."
On March 4, 1916, an Order of the Day issued by the crown prince was read to the troops in rest billets in which they were urged to make a supreme effort to conquer Verdun, "the heart of France." For four days following the German command was busy organizing for an onslaught on a gigantic scale, which they hoped would so crush the French army as to eliminate it as a serious factor in the war.
In order to clear the way for this great attack the German General Staff decided that it would be necessary first to capture the French positions of Mort Homme and Cumieres on the left bank of the Meuse.
At this time the French line to the west of the Meuse ran by the village of Forges, the hills above Bethincourt and Malancourt, crossed Malancourt Wood and passed in front of Avocourt. The Germans held positions on the heights of Samogneux and Champneuville, and their operations were threatened by the French artillery in the line west of the river.
On March 6, 1916, the Germans began to bombard the French positions from the Meuse to Bethincourt. They pursued their usual methods, smashing a selected sector, demolishing advance works, and keeping a curtain fire over roads and trenches. The village of Forges during the first half of the day of attack was literally covered with shells. Crossing the Forges Brook, which ran through a ravine, and where they were protected from French artillery fire, the Germans advanced along the northern slopes of the Cote de l'Oie. Following the railway line through Regneville, at all times under heavy fire from French guns, they attacked Hill 265 on the 7th. An entire division was employed by the Germans in this assault, and the French, overwhelmed by weight of men and metal, were forced out of the position.
In the morning of March 7, 1916, the Germans began a furious bombardment of Corbeaux Wood. At first the French enjoyed every advantage, for though the Germans had penetrated the position, the French by a dashing attack occupied almost the whole of the wood. A mass attack made by the Germans against Bethincourt having failed, they counterattacked at Corbeaux Wood, during which their force was almost annihilated. By evening of March 8, 1916, the French had recovered all the wood but a small corner.
The Germans were persistent in their attempts to gain the wood, despite many failures and heavy losses. On the 10th, after being reenforced, they threw three regiments against the wood. The French defense was broken when they lost their colonel and battalion commanders during the opening bombardment. The brave defenders, badly hit, were forced to yield ground and retire, but they held the enemy in the wood, thus preventing him from advancing on Mort Homme, the next objective.
This is a double hill, having a summit of 265 meters at the northwest and the main summit of 295 meters at the southeast. The road from Bethincourt to Cumieres scales Hill 265 and divides it in two. When it reaches Hill 295 it encircles it and bends toward the northeast.
After a lull that lasted for four days the Germans at half past 10 in the morning began a terrific bombardment to capture Bethincourt, the Mort Homme, and Cumieres. In this they employed a great number of heavy guns, and all the points of attack and the region around was flooded with shells of every variety. They were said to have fallen at the rate of one hundred and twenty a minute.
In the afternoon about 3 o'clock the German infantry attacked. They succeeded in capturing the first French line, where many soldiers had fallen half asphyxiated by the gas shells, or were buried under the debris. Hill 265 was occupied, but the highest summit, owing to the valor of its defenders, remained in French hands. During the night the French succeeded in stemming the German advance by executing a brilliant counterattack which carried them to the slope between Hill 295 and Bethincourt, where they came in touch with the enemy.
The French at once proceeded by daring efforts to improve their positions, and were so successful that when during the 16th and 18th the Germans after prolonged bombardments resumed their attack on Hill 295 they were repulsed with appalling losses.
Having failed to capture Mort Homme from the front, the Germans now attempted to outflank it. They enlarged the attacking front in the sector of Malancourt and tried to take Hill 304. In order to do this it was necessary for them to take the southeastern point of the Avocourt Wood which was held by the French. On March 20, 1916, the crown prince threw a fresh division against these woods, the Eleventh Bavarian, belonging to a selected corps that had seen service in the Galician and Polish campaigns with Mackensen's army. This division launched a number of violent attacks, making use of flame throwers. They succeeded in capturing Avocourt Wood, but in the advance on Hill 304 they were caught between two converging fires and suffered the most appalling losses. According to the figures given by a neutral military critic, Colonel Feyler, between March 20 and 22, 1916, the three regiments of this division lost between 50 and 60 per cent of their number.
This decisive result had the effect of stopping for the time at least any further attacks by the Germans in this sector. A period of calm ensued, which they employed in bringing up fresh troops and in reconstituting their units. Their costly sacrifices in men and material had brought them little gain. They had advanced their line to Bethincourt and Cumieres, but the objective they had been so eager to capture, Mort Homme, was in French possession, and so strongly held that it could only be captured at an exceedingly heavy price.
THE STRUGGLE FOR VAUX FORT AND VILLAGE—BATTLE OF MORT HOMME
On the right bank of the Meuse the Germans on March 8, 1916, resumed their offensive against the French lines to the east of Douaumont Fort. The advance was rapidly carried out, and they succeeded in penetrating Vaux village. A little later by a dashing bayonet charge the French drove them out of the greater part of the place except one corner, where they held on determinedly despite the furious attacks that were launched against them all day long. Vaux Fort had not been included in this action, or indeed touched, yet a German communique of March 9, 1916, announced that "the Posen Reserve Regiments commanded by the infantry general Von Gearetzki-Kornitz had taken the armored fortress of Vaux by assault, as well as many other fortifications near by."
At the very hour, 2 p. m., that this telegram appeared an officer of the French General Staff entered the fort and discovered that it had not been attacked at all, and that the garrison were on duty and quite undisturbed by the bombardment storming about the walls.
During the following days the Germans attempted to make good the false report of their capture of the fort by launching a series of close attacks. The slopes leading to the fort were piled with German dead. According to what German prisoners said, these attacks were among the costliest they had engaged in during the entire campaign. It was necessary for them to bring up fresh troops to reconstitute their shattered units.
At daybreak on March 11, 1916, the Germans renewed their attack on Vaux village with desperate energy. The French had had time to fortify the place in the most ingenious manner. The defense was so admirably organized that it merits detailed description, if only to illustrate that the French are not inferior to the Germans in "thoroughness" in military matters.
The French trenches ran from the end of the main street of the village to the church. Barricades had been constructed at the foot of Hardaumont Hill at intervals of about a hundred yards. Around the ruined walls of the houses barbed wire was strongly wound and the street was mined in a number of places. The houses on the two flanks were heavily fortified with sandbags, while numerous machine guns with steel shields were set up in positions where they could command all the approaches. Batteries of mountain guns firing shrapnel were also cunningly hidden in places where they could work the greatest destruction.
The French had so skillfully planned the defenses that the Germans twice fought their way up and back the length of the main street without discovering the chief centers of resistance.
For nine hours the German bombardment of Vaux Fort and village was prolonged. Enormous aerial torpedoes were hurled into the ruined houses, but in the chaos of dust and flame and smoke the French held fast, and not a position of any importance within the village or its surroundings was abandoned.
The first regiments to attack were drawn from the Fifteenth and Eighteenth German Army Corps. At daybreak, when the German hosts debouched from the plain of the Woevre, there was a heavy white mist which enabled them to reach the French trenches. Owing to the enemy's superiority in numbers, and fearing that they might be surrounded, the French retired from their first positions. The Germans pushed their way as far as the church, losing heavily, and could go no farther. They found some shelter behind the ruined walls of the church and neighboring houses. Each time that they attempted to leave the protective walls the French guns smashed their ranks and slew hundreds.
When the mist vanished and the air cleared, the French batteries of 75's and 155's opened a heavy fire on and behind the foremost German regiments, which not only cut gaps in their formations, but shut them off from any help. The German commanders were in a desperate state of mind, for they could not send either men or ammunition to the relief of the troops under fire. The Germans did not start any new attacks after that for a day and a half, although their artillery continued active.
Vaux Fort the Germans claimed to have captured, when after four days of the bloodiest fighting they had not succeeded in reaching even the entanglements around the position.
The struggle in the village was of the most desperate character, but while it lasted there was no more terrible fighting during the Verdun battle than that which raged back and forth on the outskirts of the fort. French officers from their commanding positions on the neighboring heights afterward testified that they had never seen the German command so recklessly and wantonly sacrifice their men. Column after column was sent forward to certain death. Giant shells hurled by the French burst in the midst of the exposed German battalions, and the dead were piled in heaps over acres of ground.
While this slaughter was going on the German artillery was trying to destroy the French batteries on the plateau, but being cunningly concealed few were silenced. The French freely acknowledged the great bravery displayed by the Germans, who, after gaining the foot of the slope, fought splendidly for an hour to get up to the fort. Then reserve Bavarian troops were brought forward and endeavored to climb the slopes by clinging to rocks and bushes. Many lost their foothold, or were struck down under the rain of shells. At last even the German command sickened of the slaughter and ordered a retreat.
It was an especially bitter fact to the Germans that they had incurred such great losses without gaining any advantage. The French positions before the fort and in Vaux village remained intact, and the enemy had failed utterly in their attempts to pierce the Vaux-Douaumont line.
After some days' pause for reorganization, on March 16, 1916, the Germans made five attacks on the village and fortress of Vaux. After a bombardment by thousands of shells they must have believed that their opponents would be crushed, if not utterly annihilated. But the French soldiers clung stubbornly to the shell-ravaged ground, and though sadly reduced in numbers, held their positions and flung back five times the German horde.
Two days later, on the 18th, the Germans resumed their offensive, and no less than six attacks were made, in which flame projectors were freely used and every effort made to smash the stubborn defense. But the French wall of iron held firm, and in every instance the Germans were beaten back with colossal losses. Again they were compelled to pause and reorganize their lines. The calm that succeeded the storm was no less welcome to the French defenders in this sector, for they too had been hit hard, and it was questionable if they could have held their positions against another strong attack.
Attacks on the sector north of Verdun having failed, the Germans began on March 20, 1916, and continued during succeeding days to turn the French by their (German) right in the Malancourt sector. The woods of Montfaucon and Malancourt, where the Germans were strongly established, crown a great island of sand and clay. The southeastern portion of Malancourt Wood forms a sort of promontory known as Avocourt Wood, and was the objective of the next German attack. The main purpose in this operation was to extend their offensive front.
On March 20, 1916, after intense bombardment in which their heaviest guns were employed, the Germans sent a new division that had been hurried up from another front against the French positions between Avocourt and Malancourt. The attackers were thrown back in disorder at every point but a corner of Malancourt Wood. During the night, though strongly opposed by the French, who contested every foot of ground, and despite heavy losses, the Germans penetrated and occupied Avocourt Wood, from which they could not be dislodged. The French were, however, in a position to prevent them from leaving the wood, and every attempt made by the Germans to debouch met with failure.
On March 22, 1916, the Germans having bombarded throughout the day, made a number of attacks between Avocourt Wood and Malancourt village. The French defeated every effort they made to leave the wood, but they obtained a foothold on Haucourt Hill, where the French occupied the redoubt.
For five days the Germans were engaged in filling up their broken units with fresh troops and in preparing plans of attack. On March 28, 1916, strong bodies of German infantry were thrown against the French front at Haucourt and Malancourt. In numbers they far outmatched the French defenders, but they gained no advantage and were thrown back in disorder. Emboldened by this success, the French on the 29th counterattacked to recover Avocourt Wood, and occupied the southeast corner, which included an important stronghold, the Avocourt Redoubt.
The Germans attacked and bombarded throughout the day. Their attempts to regain the captured position in the wood failed, but they secured a foothold on the northern edge of the village of Malancourt.
This place was held by a single French battalion. It formed a salient in the French line, and the Germans appeared to be desperately eager to capture it. In the night of March 30, 1916, they launched mass attacks from three sides of the village. The fighting was of the most violent character and raged all night long. There were hand-to-hand struggles from house to house; the losses were heavy on both sides. Finally the French were forced to evacuate, the place now a mass of ruins. They occupied, however, positions that commanded the exits to the place.
Early in the evening of the following day, the 31st, the Germans launched two violent attacks on French positions northeast of Hill 295 in the Mort Homme sector. Tear shells and every variety of projectile were rained upon the French defenses. The attacks were delivered with dash and vigor, and in one instance they succeeded in penetrating a position. But the German success was only temporary. The French rallied, and fell upon the intruders in a counterattack that drove them from the field.
During the evening and all night long the Germans violently bombarded the territory between the wood south of Haudremont and Vaux village. Twice they attacked in force. The French defeated one assault, but the second carried the Germans into Vaux, where they occupied the western portion of the place.
On April 2, 1916, the fighting was prolonged throughout the day. The Germans employed more than a division in the four simultaneous attacks they made on French positions between Douaumont Fort and Vaux village. Southeast of the fort they succeeded for a time in occupying a portion of Caillette Wood, but were subsequently ejected.
On the same day the Germans on the northern bank of Forges Brook, to the west of Verdun, made a spirited attack on the French lines on the southern bank, but it was not a success, and they lost heavily. They also failed on the following day in an attack on Haucourt.
During the night between March 5 and 6, 1916, the Germans attacked two of the salients of the Avocourt-Bethincourt front with a large body of troops. On the French right they failed entirely, and suffered heavy losses. In the center, after many costly failures, they gained a foothold in Haucourt Wood. On the other hand, the French delivered a strong counterattack from the Avocourt Redoubt and succeeded in reoccupying a large portion of the so-called "Square Wood" and in capturing half a hundred prisoners.
During the night of March, 6, 1916, new German attacks were launched along the Bethincourt-Chattancourt road. Part of the French first line was occupied, but was later lost.
On the 7th the Germans attacked on a front of over a mile. The assailants lacked neither dash nor daring, and were strong in numbers, but they were shattered against the wall of French defense and driven back with slaughter to their own line. Attempts on the French positions south and east of Haucourt during the night of the 7th failed, except in the south, where the Germans occupied two small works.
As a result of the fighting between March 30 and April 8, 1916, the Germans had possession of the French advanced line on Forges Brook and were in a position to strike at the most formidable line of French defense, the Avocourt-Hill 304-Mort Homme-Cumieres front.
The French General Staff during this gigantic struggle was constantly guided by the following rule: Make the Germans pay dearly for each of their advances. When it was believed that in order to defend a certain point too many sacrifices would have to be made, they evacuated that point. As soon as the Germans took hold of the point, however, they were the target of a terrific fire from all of the French guns, which were put to work at once. This was what General Petain, commanding the Verdun army, called "the crushing fire."
On April 9, 1916, a general attack was made by the Germans on the front between Haucourt and Cumieres, and simultaneously assaults were delivered north and west of Avocourt and in Malancourt Wood and the wood near Haudromont Farm. The struggle for the possession of Mort Homme developed into one of the most notable and important battles of Verdun. The attacking front of the Germans ran from west of Avocourt to beyond the Meuse as high as the wood in the Haudromont Farm. This general attack, one of the most violent that the Germans had made at Verdun, failed completely. On the left of the French, a little strip of land along the southern edge of the Avocourt Wood was won, but in a dashing counterattack the French recaptured it. In the center the Germans were repulsed everywhere, except south of Bethincourt, where they succeeded in penetrating an advanced work. On the right bank, at the side of Pepper Hill, the Germans only gained a foothold in one trench east of Vacherauville. The main summit of Mort Homme, Hill 295, as well as Hill 304, the principal positions, remained firmly in the hands of the French.
A captain of the French General Staff, and who was an eyewitness, has described in a French publication some striking phases of the fight:
"It is Sunday, and the sun shines brilliantly above—a real spring Sunday. The artillery duel was long and formidable. Mort Homme was smoking like a volcano with innumerable craters. The attack took place about noon. At the same time, from this same place, lines of sharpshooters could be seen between the Corbeaux Wood and Cumieres and the gradient at the east of Mort Homme. They must have come from the Raffecourt or from the Forges Mill, through the covered roads in the valley-like depressions in the ground. It was the first wave immediately followed by heavy columns. Our artillery fire from the edge of Corbeaux Wood isolated them.... At times a rocket appeared in the air; the call to the cannons, then the marking of the road. The regular ticktack of the machine guns and the cracking of the shells were distinctly heard even among the terrific noises of the bombardment.
"The German barrage fire in the rear of our front lines is so frightful that one must not dream of going through it. Where will our reenforcements pass? The inquietude increases when at 3.15 p. m. sharp numerous columns in disorder regain on the run the wood of Cumieres. What a wonderful sight is the flight of the enemy! The sun shines fully on these small moving groups. But our shells also explode among them, and the groups separate, stop disjointed. They disappear; they are lying down. They get up—not all of them—but do not know where to go, like pheasants flying haphazard before the fusillade.
"With a tenacity that must be acknowledged the enemy comes back to the charge, but the new attacks are less ordinate, less complete, and quite weak. Even from a distance one feels that they cannot succeed as well as the first. This lasts until sunset."
To honor the French troops for their brilliant defense General Petain issued the following Order of the Day:
"April 9, 1916, has been a glorious day for our armies. The furious assaults of the crown prince's soldiers have been broken everywhere; infantry, artillerymen, sappers, and aviators of the Second Army have rivaled each other in heroism. Honor to all!
"The Germans will attack again without a doubt; let each work and watch, so that we may obtain the same success.
"Courage! We will win!"
Far from showing the effects of their defeat, the Germans on April 10, 1916, attacked Caillette Wood, but were repulsed. Further attempts made in the course of the night to eject the French from the trenches to the south of Douaumont also failed. These futile assaults by no means weakened the Germans' determination, and on March 11, 1916, they attacked in force the front between Douaumont and Vaux. At some points they succeeded in penetrating the French trenches, but were driven out by vigorous counterattacks.
On March 12, 1916, the French learned that the enemy was making elaborate preparations to the west of the Meuse for a great assault. Before the Germans could make ready for the attack the French artillery showered their trenches and concentration points with shells, and the assaulting columns that were in the act of assembling were scattered in disorder. The French fire was so intense that the Germans who occupied the first line of trenches were unable to leave them.
Artillery duels continued for several days, marked on the 15th by a spirited attack made by the French on the German trenches at Douaumont, during which they took several hundred prisoners and wrested from the enemy some positions.
The German bombardment now reached the highest pitch of intensity, and the sector between Bras on the Meuse and Douaumont was swept by a storm of fire. Poivre (or Pepper) Hill, Haudremont, and Chaufour Wood especially, were subjected to such destruction that old landmarks were wiped out as by magic, and the very face of nature was changed and distorted.
Having, as they believed, made the way clear for advance, the Germans launched an attack in great force. It was estimated that the attacking mass numbered 35,000 men. Believing that their guns had so crushed the French forces that they would be unable to present any serious defense, the German hordes swept on to attack on a front of about three miles. Their reception was hardly what had been anticipated. Great ragged gaps were torn in their formations as the French brought rifles, machine guns, and heavy artillery into play. Their dead lay in heaps on the ground, and along the whole front they were only able on the right to penetrate a French trench south of Chaufour Wood. The greater part of this was subsequently won back by their opponents in a counterattack. On the 19th a German infantry assault launched against Eparges failed.
There was a lull in the fighting during most of the day of April 28, 1916, but in the twilight the Germans attacked at points between Douaumont and Vaux and west of Thiaumont, but were forced back by the French artillery.
During the following day the Germans incessantly bombarded French positions and made a futile attack. On the 30th the French forces north of Mort Homme were on the offensive, and carried a German trench. East of Mort Homme on the Cumieres front on the same day they captured from the Germans 1,000 meters of trenches along a depth varying from 300 to 600 meters.
The Germans reattacked almost immediately with two of their most famous corps, the Eighteenth and the Third Brandenburgers, which had suffered so severely at Douaumont that they had been relegated to the rear. It was estimated by the neutral military critic, Colonel Feyler, that the first of these corps had lost 17,000 men and the second 22,000. After the fight in which they had been so hard hit the two corps had spent seven weeks resting and were now drawn again into the battle. Both were in action in the evening of April 30, 1916, the Third north of Mort Homme and the Eighteenth at Cumieres.
According to the evidence given by German prisoners, the Third Corps again received heavy punishment. Of one regiment, the Sixty-fourth, only a remnant survived, and one battalion lost nearly a hundred men during the first attack.
The Eighteenth Corps of Brandenburgers succeeded in penetrating one point in the French lines, but a French regiment rushed the trench with fixed bayonets and destroyed or captured all the Germans in occupation.
Some futile attempts were made by the Germans to retrieve their failure, but the French firmly maintained their positions.
In the evening of May 1, 1916, the French again assumed the offensive and successfully stormed a 500-yard sector south of Douaumont. On the front northwest of Mort Homme, between Hills 295 and 265, the French made a brilliant attack in the evening of May 3, 1916, which was entirely successful, the Germans being pushed back beyond the line they had won early in March, 1916.
The position of the French front on May 5, 1916, was as follows: It was bounded by a line that ran through Pepper Hill, Hardaumont Wood, the ravine to the southwest of the village of Douaumont, Douaumont plateau to the south, and a few hundred yards from the fort, the northern edge of Caillette Wood, the ravine and village of Vaux, and the slopes of the fortress of Vaux.
On May 5, 1916, this line was on the whole intact. Only in one place had the Germans gained a small advance; they had captured Vaux village, which consisted of a single street, but the French occupied the slopes near by that commanded the place.
There was no change on the French line on the left bank, where the character of the ground was favorable for defense. For two months the French line had remained fixed on Hill 304 and on Mort Homme. Only the covering line, which extended from the wood of Avocourt to the Meuse along the slopes of Haucourt, the bed of Forges Brook, and the crests north of Cumieres, had been broken by the terrific attacks of the enemy.
The crown prince's army, which had been badly punished and suffered heavy losses in this area in March, renewed the attempt to capture Mort Homme and Hill 304 in May, 1916. It was evident from the elaborate preparations made to possess these points that the Germans considered them of first importance and that their conquest would hasten the defeat of the French army.
BATTLES OF HILL 304 AND DOUAUMONT—THE STRUGGLE AT FLEURY
It will be recalled that on April 9, 1916, the crown prince had launched a general attack on the whole front between Avocourt and the Meuse, the capture of Hill 304 being one of his chief objectives. The onslaught, carried out on a huge scale, was a failure, and another attempt made on the 28th also collapsed. Since then the Germans had been held in their trenches, unable to engage in any action owing to the vigilance of the French artillery gunners.
On May 3, 1916, the Germans began a violent bombardment as a prelude to another attempt to capture Hill 340. On the following day, about 2 p. m., their assaulting waves were hurled against the French positions on the counterslope north of the hill. The bombardment had been so destructive that large numbers of French soldiers were buried in the trenches. The active defenders that remained were not strong enough in numbers to repel the masses of Germans thrown against them, and the slopes were occupied by the enemy. During the night there was a French counterattack; it was directed by a brilliant officer of the General Staff, Lieutenant Colonel Odent, who had at his own request been assigned the duty of defending this dangerous position. Rallying the men of his regiment, he threw them against the foe. The French succeeded in reaching the edges of the plateau facing northeast. This advance was not gained without considerable losses, and during the charge Lieutenant Colonel Odent was killed.
On May 5, 1916, the Germans after an intense bombardment, in which gas shells were lavishly used, tried to turn Hill 304, and also attacked the Camart Wood and Hill 287. On the northern slope of Hill 304 the French trenches were so badly damaged that they could not be held. But the Germans, caught by the French artillery fire, found it impossible to advance. Having failed to reach the plateau from the north, an attempt was made through the ravine and behind the woods west and northwest of Hill 304. This plan was frustrated by the French, who repulsed them with the bayonet.
The German attacks having failed everywhere, Hill 304 was subjected to continuous and violent bombardment. In the afternoon of the 7th they attacked again. With the exception of a strip of trench east of the hill, which was retaken the following night, they did not register any advance.
Among the German regiments participating in these attacks the following were identified: Regiments of the Eleventh Bavarian Division, a regiment of the Hundred and Ninety-second Brigade, the Twelfth Reserve Division, the Fourth Division, and the Forty-third Reserve Division.
From the 13th to the 16th of May, 1916, the Germans continued their attacks on the Camart Wood west of Hill 304. In these operations they employed a fresh corps, the Twenty-second Reserve Corps, for the first time.
After a lull lasting a few days the battle assumed an increasing violence on the left bank. In the afternoon of the 20th the Germans threw four divisions to the assault of Mort Homme. During the night and on the following day the battle raged with undiminished fury. At a heavy cost the Germans succeeded at last in capturing some trenches north and west of Mort Homme. At one time the French second lines were seriously threatened, but a spirited defense scattered the attackers. After intense fighting the French won back some of the ground they had lost on Hill 287, and during May 21 and 22, 1916, succeeded in regaining other positions captured by the enemy.
The recovery of Fort Douaumont which had been occupied by Brandenburgers since February 25, 1916, was now the aim of the French. General Mangin, one of the youngest officers of that rank in the French army and commanding the Fifth Division, directed operations. The French brought into action their heaviest artillery, which opened a terrific fire on the German lines.
The French soldiers accepted it as an omen of success when about 8 o'clock in the morning of May 22, 1916, six captive balloons stationed over the right bank of the Meuse exploded, thus depriving the German batteries of their observers on whom they counted to get the range.
At about 10 in the morning the French infantry by a brilliant charge captured three lines of German trenches. The fortress of Douaumont was penetrated, and during the entire night a fierce struggle was continued within its walls. In spite of the most violent efforts of the Germans to dislodge the French they maintained their positions within the fort.
Throughout the morning of May 23, 1916, the Germans rained shells on French positions defended by the Hundred and Twenty-ninth Regiment. The bombardment spread destruction among the French troops, but they still clung to the terrain they had won and refused to yield or retreat.
Throughout the night of May 23, 1916, the bloody struggle continued unabated. On the morning of May 24, 1916, the fortress was still in the hands of the French, with the exception of the northern salient and some parts to the east. On the following day two new Bavarian divisions were thrown into the fight and succeeded in retaking the lines of the fortress, driving back the French as far as the immediate approaches; that is, to the places they occupied previous to their attack.
On the left bank of the Meuse the fighting slowed down, decreasing gradually in intensity. The Germans were reacting feebly in this territory, concentrating their greatest efforts on the right bank. Throughout the whole region of Thiaumont, Douaumont, and Vaux they pressed the fighting and were engaged in almost continuous attacks and bombardments.
On the 1st of June, 1916, all the French front in this sector was attacked. The Germans, disregarding their heavy losses, returned repeatedly to the charge. It was ascertained through a document found on a prisoner that General Falkenhayn, chief of the German General Staff, had given the order to advance at all costs.
The Germans attacked fearlessly, but the only progress they succeeded in making was through the Caillette Wood to the southern edge of Vaux Pool.
For five days this battle continued, one of the most desperately fought around Verdun, and yet the Germans made insignificant gains, out of all proportion to their immense losses. The Bavarian Division which led the attack displayed an "unprecedented violence," according to a French communique issued at the time. The Germans, repulsed again and again, returned to the charge, and succeeded in obtaining a foothold in the first houses of Damloup.
The struggle was continued without pause during the night from June 2 to June 3, 1916. By repeated and vigorous attacks the Germans at last entered the ditches to the north of the fortress of Vaux, but were unable to penetrate the works occupied by the French.
About 8 o'clock in the evening of June 3, 1916, the Germans attempted to surprise the fortress at the southeast by escalading the ravine which cuts the bank of the Meuse near Damloup. This was foiled by the French, who drove them back in a sharp counterattack. The Germans did not make the attempt again at this time, but continued to bombard the fort with heavy guns.
On June 4, 1916, at 3 in the afternoon, several German battalions advancing from Vaux Pool attempted to climb the slopes to the wood of Fumin, but were swept back by French machine-gun fire. In the evening and during the night the Germans repeatedly attacked without gaining any advantage. The wood of Fumin remained in French possession.
There were no attacks on the following day, owing to weather conditions and the general exhaustion of the German troops. But the Sixth German Artillery resumed its firing on the fortress, throwing such an avalanche of shells that every approach to the place became impassable. Inside the works a mere handful of French under Major Raynal firmly held its ground.
In the evening of June 6, 1916, the garrison of the fortress of Vaux repulsed a savage German attack; but during the night, owing to the tremendous bombardment which cut off all communication with the fortress, the position of the French became serious indeed. The brave garrison was now entirely surrounded. Finally by means of signals they were able to make their condition known to French troops at some distance away. Unless they could get speedy assistance there was no hope of their holding the fort. The struggle continued more desperately than ever as the Germans realized how precarious was the French hold on the place.
On June 6, 1916, the French gunner Vannier, taking with him some comrades, most of whom were wounded, succeeded in escaping through an air hole and tried to reach the French lines.
The heroic garrison had now reached the limit of human endurance. Without food or water, it was hopeless for them to continue their defense of the place. When the last hope was gone, Major Raynal addressed this message to his men:
"We have stayed the limit. Officers and men have done their duty. Long live France!"
On June 7, 1916, the Germans took possession of the fortress and its heroic garrison.
Major Raynal for his brave conduct was by order of General Joffre made a Commander of the Legion of Honor. According to a German report Raynal was permitted by the crown prince to retain his sword in appreciation of his valorous defense of the fort. It must be conceded that the capture of Fort Vaux, though costly, was a valuable acquisition to the Germans, and served to hearten and encourage the troops who had met with so many disasters in this area.
By this victory they were brought into contact with the inner line of the Verdun defenses, and now if ever were in a position for a supreme effort which might decide the war, as far as France was concerned. But if this desired end was to be obtained, the crushing blow must be delivered at once, for time threatened. Russian successes on the southeastern front had created a new and serious problem. It was known that a Franco-British offensive was imminent. The Germans were in a situation that called for heroic action: the capture of Verdun with all possible speed.
During the month of June, 1916, the Germans used up men and material on a lavish and unprecedented scale. On June 23, 1916, they started a general attack against the French positions of Froideterre, Fleury, and Souville. From papers taken from prisoners it was learned that a very great offensive was intended which the Germans believed would carry them up to the very walls of Verdun. The German troops were ordered to advance without stopping, without respite, and regardless of losses, to capture the last of the French positions. The assaulting force that was to carry out this program was estimated to number between 70,000 and 80,000 men.
Preceded by a terrific bombardment the Germans attacked at 8 o'clock in the morning of June 23, 1916, on a front of five kilometers, from Hill 321 to La Lauffee. Under the fury of the onslaught the French line was bent in at a certain point. The Thiaumont works and some near-by trenches were carried by the Germans. One of their strong columns succeeded in penetrating the village of Fleury, but was speedily ejected. To the west in the woods of Chapitre and Fumin all the German assaults were shattered. During the night the French counterattacked; they recaptured a part of the ground lost between Hills 320 and 321 and drove the Germans back as far as the Thiaumont works.
The battle raged with varying fortunes to the combatants all day long on June 24, 1916. The village of Fleury in the center was directly under fire of the German guns, and they succeeded in occupying a group of houses. The French delivered a dashing counterattack, and were successful in freeing all but a small part of the place. On the 25th the Germans doubled the violence of their bombardment. Not since they assumed the offensive had they launched such a tornado of destructive fire. Another objective of the Germans besides Fleury was the fortress of Souville. In the ravines of Bazile they suffered appalling losses, but succeeded in gaining a foothold in the wood of Chapitre. The French, counterattacking, regained most of the lost ground, and still held the village of Fleury.
The struggle around Thiaumont works continued for days, during which the place changed hands several times. It was recaptured by the French on June 28, 1916, lost again on the following day, retaken once more, and on July 4, 1916, it was again in German hands. The struggle over this one position will give some impression of the intensity of the fighting along the entire front during this great offensive which the Germans hoped and believed would prove decisive.
The general tactics pursued by the Germans in these attacks never varied. They made their efforts successively on the right and on the left of the point under aim, so that they could encircle the point which formed in this manner a salient, and was suitable for concentration of artillery fire.
The Germans failed to make any serious advance in the center of the French lines, being halted by vigorous counterattacks.
On July 12, 1916, the Germans attacked with six regiments and pushed their way to the roads to Fleury and Vaux within 800 meters of the fortress of Souville. This advance during the next few days was halted by the French.
The Germans claimed to have captured thirty-nine French officers and 2,000 men during their attack. They did not, apparently, attempt to pursue their advantage and press on, but returned to bombarding the French works at Souville, Chenois, and La Lauffee. As the Allied offensive on the Somme developed strength, the German attacks on Verdun perceptibly weakened, and beyond a few patrol engagements in Chenois Wood, no further infantry fighting was reported from Verdun on July 16, 1916. But the French continued to "nibble" into the German positions around Fleury three miles from Verdun, and had improved and strengthened their positions at Hill 304. Fleury was now the nearest point to Verdun that the Germans had succeeded in reaching, but here their advance was halted.
The British had meanwhile been pressing forward on the Somme, and by July 23, 1916, had penetrated the German third line. The Russians too were winning successes, and had dealt a destructive blow in Volhynia. The pressure from the east and west forced the Germans to withdraw large bodies of troops from the Verdun sector and send them to the relief of their brothers on other fronts.
In the closing days of July, 1916, the Franco-British "push" became the principal German preoccupation. The great struggle for Verdun, the longest battle continuously fought in history, from that time on became a military operation of only second importance.
The magnitude of this great struggle may be illustrated by a few statistics. In the six months' combat some 3,000 cannon had been brought into action. About two millions of men had attacked or defended the stronghold. No correct estimate can be made of the losses on both sides, but it is stated that at least 200,000 were killed, and the end was not yet in sight.
The second anniversary of the war found the Germans on the defensive. Twenty million fighters had been called to the colors of twelve belligerent nations; about four million had been killed, and over ten million wounded and taken prisoners. For all this vast expenditure in blood and treasure no decisive battle had been fought since the German defeat on the Marne in September, 1914.
SPRING OPERATIONS IN OTHER SECTORS
While greater issues were being fought out in the Verdun sector, from the beginning of the second phase of the German attack during March, there was considerable sporadic "liveliness" on other parts of the western front. Though the main interest centered for the time around the apparently impregnable fortresses of which Verdun is the nucleus, a continuous, fluctuating activity was kept in progress along the whole line up to the opening of the big allied offensive on the last day of June. March 1, 1916, found the battle line practically unchanged. From Ostend on the North Sea it ran straightway south through the extreme western comer of Belgium, crossing the French frontier at a point northwest of Lille. From there it zigzagged its way to a point about sixty miles north of Paris, whence it then followed an eastern tangent paralleling the northern bank of the River Aisne; thence easterly to Verdun, forming there a queer half-moon salient arc with the points bent sharply toward the center. From the south of Verdun the line extended unbroken and rather straight south and a little easterly to the Swiss frontier.
In the Ypres sector during the first four days of March the fighting was confined to the usual round of violent artillery duels, mine springing, hand grenade skirmishing, intermittent hand-to-hand attacks and effective aircraft raids. On March 1, 1916, twenty British aircraft set out seeking as their objective the important German lines of communication and advanced bases east and north of Lille. Considerable damage was inflicted with high explosive bombs. One British aeroplane failed to return. From all parts thrilling, tragic and heroic aerial exploits are recorded. While cruising over the Beanon-Jussy road a German Fokker observed a rapidly moving enemy transport. Reversing his course, the pilot floated over the procession and dropped bombs. The motor lorries stopped immediately, when the aeroplane dropped toward the earth, attacked the transport at close range and got away again in safety. On the same day also a French biplane equipped with double motors encountered an enemy plane near Cernay, in the valley of the Thur, and brought it down a shattered mass of flame. North of Soissons, near the village of Vezaponin, a French machine was shot down into the German lines; another French aero was struck by German antiaircraft guns; with a marvelous dive and series of loops it crashed to earth. Both pilot and observer were buried with their machine. During the evening of March 1, 1916, the German infantry, after a furious cannonading north of the Somme, delivered a sharp assault on a line of British trenches, but were held back by machine-gun fire. Along the Ypres sector the same night violent gunfire took place on both sides with apparently small effect or damage. In a previous volume it was mentioned that the Germans had once more recaptured the "international trench" on February 14, 1916. For a fortnight the British artillery constantly held the position under fire and prevented the consolidation of the ground. At 4.30 a. m. the British infantry suddenly emerged from their trenches. The grenadiers dashed ahead, smothering the surprised Germans with bombs. The general disorder was increased by the fact that the trench parties were just being relieved. In a few minutes the lost ground was recovered, the German line dangerously pushed in and 254 prisoners, including five officers, fell to the British. At midday the Germans bombarded the line with fifty batteries for four hours. Then waves of assaulting columns were let loose against the British. The latter noticed that the front line of infantry hurled their bombs several yards behind the British trenches and rushed forward with hands up. Immediately a hurricane of shells from their own guns burst among the German infantry. The survivors flung themselves on the ground and crawled into the British trenches for protection. This action was the more significant in that the men who thus surrendered were all very young and belonged to a regiment which, until then, had fought with conspicuous bravery. At the end of the day the British counted more than 300 corpses, while their own losses were slight and their entire gains maintained.
Most of the combats in the Artois and Ypres sectors consisted of mine springing and crater fighting. What was once the Hohenzollern Redoubt was particularly the scene of some vigorous subterranean warfare. What happened there on March 2 is thus described by an eyewitness: "Many huge craters have been made, won, and what is more, retained by a rare combination of skill, courage, and endurance. Men who fought all through the war have seen nothing comparable with the largest of these craters. They are amphitheaters, and cover perhaps half an acre of ground. When the mine exploded at 5.45 p. m. on March 2, 1916, a thing like a great black mushroom rose from the earth. Beneath it appeared, with the ponderous momentum of these big upheavals, a white growth like the mushroom's gills. It was the chalk subsoil following in the wake of the black loam. With this black and white upheaval went up, Heaven knows, how many bodies and limbs of Germans, scattered everywhere with the rest of the debris. And the explosion sent up many graves as well as the bodies of the living. One of the British bombers who occupied the crater and spent a crowded hour hurling bombs from the farther lip found that he was steadying himself and getting a lever for the bowling arm by clinging on to a black projection with his left hand. It was a Hessian boot. The soil of the amphitheater was so worked, mixed, and sieved by the explosive action and the effects of the melting snow that it was almost impassable. A staff officer, among others, who went up to help, had to be pulled out of the morass as he was carrying away one of the wounded. There is no fighting so terrible and so condensed as crater fighting. The struggle is a veritable graveyard, a perfect target for bomb and grenade and the slower attack of the enemy's mine. The British held a circle of German trenches on a little ridge of ground north of Loos. The capture meant that they could overlook the plain beyond and win a certain projection. At 6.00 p. m. on March 2, 1916, the engineers exploded four mines under the nearer arc, and within a few minutes, while artillery thundered overhead, the British infantry advanced in spite of terrible mud and occupied each crater. Not a single machine gun was fired at them as they charged—probably the mines had destroyed them all—and their casualties were very small indeed."
Germans counterattacking hurried up their communication trenches, and as they came on some examples of prompt handiwork stopped their advance. A sergeant and one man stopped one rush; a color sergeant and private, well equipped with sandbags, each holding a score of bombs, performed miracles of resistance. Every night the Germans came on, capping a day of continuous bombardment with showers of bombs, rifle grenades, and artillery, mostly 5.9 howitzers, and with infantry onsets at close quarters. They stormed with dash and determination, backed by good artillery and an apparently inexhaustible stock of grenades. The tale of the German losses was high. One communication trench packed with men was raked from end to end with a British Lewis gun till it was a graveyard. On this occasion the British artillery was overwhelming in amount and volume; shells were not spared, and they fired ten to the Germans' one. Within less than a mile and a half there were eight groups of mines.
On March 3, 1916, an intense artillery duel progressed for possession of the Bluff, an elevated point above the Ypres-Comines Canal. The Germans evidently regarded the point as important, for they flung great masses of troops over the Bluff, when the British attacked and captured more than their lost lines of trenches running along an eastern hillock by the canal. The next night and morning the British heavy artillery poured a continuous stream of shell on the Bluff in well-marked time. The men in the front trenches began cheering, as always before an attack, but instead of advancing they shot over a heavy shower of bombs. One soldier alone was credited with having flung more than 300 bombs into the German trenches. In the obscurity of the gray dawn British troops quietly and suddenly dashed into the Germans and cleared the trenches with bayonets. This was accomplished in two minutes, when the large guns spread a curtain of fire over the Germans, inflicting severe losses. The German soldiers then attempted resolute counterattacks, but were repulsed with machine-gun fire.
Between the 1st and 4th of March, 1916, there was sharp grenade fighting southeast of Vermelles, in some mine craters. After severe bombardment the Germans attempted to recapture the craters by infantry attacks, but apparently without success. In Artois they endeavored to drive the French from a crater they occupied near the road from Neuville to La Folie, and failed in the enterprise. In the Argonne the French bombarded the German organizations in the region southeast of Vauquois and demolished several shelters, while in Lorraine, in the neighborhood of the Thiauville Ponds, the French carried sections of German trenches after artillery preparation, capturing sixty prisoners, including two officers, and some machine guns. On March 4, 1916, a serious explosion occurred in the powder magazine known as "Double Couronne," St. Denis, a fort used by the French as a munitions store. The concussion was so terrific that a car a considerable distance away and containing thirty-two passengers was overturned and nearly all were injured. Altogether the casualties amounted to about thirty-five killed and 200 wounded.
In the Ypres sector during March 4 and 5, 1916, the fighting came to a standstill and the positions remained unchanged. In the Champagne vigorous artillery action continued on both sides with occasional infantry attacks and counterattacks of little consequence. In the district about Loos and northeast of Ypres heavy cannonading endured all day on the 6th, the Germans hurling quantities of large caliber shells over the enemy's trenches without any apparent object. On the Ypres-Comines Canal the British still held the positions gained by storm on March 2, 1916. Near Soissons the French heavily bombarded the German works, and their terrific fire at Badenviller in Lorraine compelled a German retirement from the positions established there February 21, 1916. In the Flanders sector, on the Belgian front, concentrated artillery fire silenced German bomb throwers in a futile attempt to capture a trench. In the Woevre district the German troops, after a fierce assault, stormed the village of Fresnes and captured it, the French retaining a few positions on the outskirts. The German infantry advanced in close formation and literally swarmed into the village, while the French 75's and machine guns tore great gaps in their ranks. Northeast of Vermelles small detachments of British troops penetrated the German trenches on March 6, 1916, but were compelled to retire. Active engagements and furious hand-to-hand fighting centered around Maisons de Champagne. The positions the French had taken on February 11, 1916, were recaptured by surprise bayonet attacks, the Germans taking two officers and 150 men prisoners. In the Argonne region attempts on the part of the Germans to occupy some mine craters were repulsed.
BATTLE OF THE SOMME—ALLIED PREPARATIONS—POSITIONS OF THE OPPOSING FORCES
Picardy, where the great battle of the Somme was staged in the summer of 1916, is a typical French farming region of peasant cultivators, a rolling table-land, seldom rising more than a few hundred feet, and intersected by myriad shallow, lazy-flowing streams. Detached farms are few, the farmers congregating in and around the little villages that stand in the midst of hedgeless corn and beet fields stretching far and wide. Here the Somme flows with many crooked turns, now broadening into a lake, now flowing between bluffs and through swamps. There is, or rather was, an inviting, peaceful look about this country. Untouched, remote from the scene of battle it seemed, yet here in the spring of 1916 preparations were already going forward for what was to prove one of the fiercest struggles of the Great War.
In July, 1915, the British had taken over most of the line from Arras to the Somme, and had passed a quiet winter in the trenches. The long pause had been occupied by the active Germans in transforming the chalk hills they occupied into fortified positions which they believed would prove impregnable. The motives for the Allies' projected offensive on the Somme were to weaken the German pressure on Verdun, which had become severe in June, and to prevent the transference of large bodies of troops from the west to the eastern front where they might endanger the plans of General Brussilov.
The British had been receiving reenforcements steadily, and were at the beginning of 1916 in a position to lengthen their line sensibly. In the neighborhood of Arras they were able to relieve an entire French army, the Tenth. The French on their side had by no means exhausted their reserves at Verdun, but it would prove a welcome relief to them if by strong pressure the long strain were lifted in Picardy. Sir Douglas Haig, it was stated, would have preferred to delay the Somme offensive a little longer, for while his forces were rapidly increasing, the new levies were not as yet completely trained. In view, however, of the general situation of the Allies in the west it was imperative that the blow should be delivered not later than midsummer of 1916.
The original British Expeditionary Force, popularly known as the "Old Contemptibles," who performed prodigies of valor in the first terrible weeks of the war, had largely disappeared. In less than two years the British armies had grown from six to seventy divisions, not including the troops sent by India and Canada. In addition there were large numbers of trained men in reserve sufficient, it was believed, to replace the probable wastage that would occur for a year to come. It was in every sense a New British Army, for the famous old regiments of the line had been renewed since Mons, and the men of the new battalions were drawn from the same source that supplied their drafts. The old formations had a history, the new battalions had theirs to make. This in good time they proceeded to do, as will be subsequently shown.
In the Somme area the German front was held by the right wing of the Second Army, once Von Billow's, but now commanded by Otto von Below a brother of Fritz von Below commanding the Eighth Army in the east. The area of Von Below's army in the Somme region began south of Monchy, while the Sixth Army under the Crown Prince of Bavaria lay due north. The front between Gommecourt and Frise in the latter part of June was covered in this manner. North of the Ancre lay the Second Guard Reserve Division and the Fifty-second Division (two units of the Fourteenth Reserve Corps raised in Baden, but including Prussians, Alsatians, and what not), the Twenty-sixth and Twenty-eighth Reserve Divisions, and then the Twelfth Division of the Sixth Reserve Corps. Covering the road to Peronne south of the river were the One Hundred and Twenty-first Division, the Eleventh Division, and the Thirty-sixth Division belonging to the Seventeenth Danzig Corps.
The British General Staff had decided that the Fourth Army under General Sir Henry Rawlinson should make the attack. General Rawlinson was a tried and experienced officer, who at the beginning of the campaign had commanded the Seventh Division, and at Loos the Fourth Army Corps. His front extended from south of Gommecourt across the valley of the Ancre to the north of Maricourt, where it joined the French. There were five corps in the British Fourth Army, the Eighth under Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston; the Tenth under Lieutenant General Sir T. L. N. Morland, the Third under Lieutenant General Sir W. P. Pulteney, the Fifteenth under Lieutenant General Home, and the Thirteenth under Lieutenant General Congreve, V. C. The nucleus for another army, mostly composed of cavalry divisions, lay behind the forces along the front. Called at first the Reserve, and afterward the Fifth Army under the command of General Sir Hubert Gough, it subsequently won renown in some of the hottest fights of the campaign.
The French attacking force, the Sixth Army, once commanded by Castelnau, but now by a famous artilleryman, General Fayolle, lay from Maricourt astride the Somme to opposite Fay village. It comprised the very flower of the French armies, including the Twentieth Corps, which had won enduring fame at Verdun under the command of General Balfourier. It was principally composed of Parisian cockneys and countrymen from Lorraine, and at Arras in 1914, and in the Artois in the summer of 1915, had achieved memorable renown. There were also the First Colonial Corps under General Brandelat, and the Thirty-fifth Corps under General Allonier. To the south of the attacking force lay the Tenth Army commanded by General Micheler, which was held in reserve. The soldiers of this army had seen less fighting than their brothers who were to take the offensive, but they were quite as eager to be at the enemy, and irked over the delay.
During the entire period of bombardment the French and British aviators, by means of direct observation and by photographs, rendered full and detailed reports of the results obtained by the fire. The British and French General Staffs thus followed from day to day, and even from hour to hour, the progress made in the destruction of German trenches and shelters.
During the bombardment some seventy raids were undertaken between Gommecourt and the extreme British left north of Ypres. Some of these raids were for the purpose of deceiving the enemy as to the real point of assault and others to identify the opposing units. Few of the raiders returned to the British line without bagging a score or so of prisoners. Among these raiding parties a company of the Ninth Highland Light Infantry especially distinguished themselves.
Fighting in the air continued every day during this preliminary bombardment. It was essential that the Germans should be prevented from seeing the preparations that were going forward. The eyes of a hostile army are its aeroplanes and captive balloons. Owing to the daring of the French and British aviators the German flyers were literally prohibited from the lines of the Allies during all that time. In five days fifteen German machines were brought to the ground. Very few German balloons even attempted to take the air.
On June 24, 1916, the bombardment of German trenches had reached the highest pitch of intensity. The storm of shells swept the entire enemy front, destroying trenches at Ypres and Arras and equally obliterating those at Beaumont-Hamel and Fricourt.
By July 28, 1916, all the region subjected to bombardment presented a scene of complete and appalling devastation. Only a few stumps marked the spot where leafy groves had stood. The pleasant little villages that had dotted the smiling landscape were reduced to mere heaps of rubbish. Hardly a bit of wall was left standing. It seemed impossible that any living thing could survive in all that shell-smitten territory.
As the day fixed upon for the attack drew near the condition of the weather caused the British command some anxious hours. The last week of June, 1916, was cloudy, and frequent showers of rain had transformed the dusty roads into deep mud. But in the excitement that preceded an assault of such magnitude the condition of the weather could not dampen the feverish ardor of the troops. There was so much to be done that there was no time to consider anything but the work in hand. A nervous exhilaration prevailed among the men, who looked eagerly and yet fearfully forward to the hour for the great offensive from which such great things were expected.
In the afternoon of the last day of June, 1916, the sky cleared and soon the stars shone brightly in the clear, blue night. Orders were given out to the British commanders to attack on the following morning three hours after daybreak.
THE BRITISH ATTACK
The first day of July, 1916, dawned warm and cloudless. Since half past 5 o'clock every gun of the Allies on a front of twenty-five miles was firing without pause, producing a steady rumbling sound from which it was difficult to distinguish the short bark of the mortars, the crackle of the field guns, and the deep roar of the heavies. The slopes to the east were wreathed in smoke, while in the foreground lay Albert, where German shells fell from time to time, with its shattered church of Notre Dame de Bebrieres, from whose ruined campanile the famous gilt Virgin hung head downward. At intervals along the Allies' front, and for several miles to the rear, captive kite balloons, tugging at their moorings, gleamed brightly in the morning light.
The Allies' bombardment reached its greatest intensity about 7.15, when all the enemy slopes were hidden by waves of smoke like a heavy surf breaking on a rock-bound coast. Here and there spouts and columns of earth and debris shot up in the sunlight. It seemed that every living thing must perish within the radius of that devastating hurricane of fire.