Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Battle for the Hartmannswillerkopf (Vosges) January 1915


The Vosges 1915

The actions in the Vosges formed an integral part of Joffre's offensive strategy during 1915.  The French intention appears to have been to hold the ground between Switzerland and Cernay and to focus their southern Western Front operations in the Vosges along the Fecht valley towards Colmar.  With the French left flank secured on the summit of the Tête des Faux, following its capture and the repulse of the German counter attacks in December 1914, the emphasis turns to the right flank of their intended operations.  As General Putz, commander of the Army of the Vosges, stated in late 1914:

‘My main thrust will be along the valley of the Fecht and particularly in the area south of the valley. My first objective is to establish to the south-east of the heights of Guebwiller a front which will enable me to threaten a line from Colmar to Mulhouse with my artillery. This means that Cernay must be taken and that the enemy must be held at sufficient distance from the Thann to Belfort road to ensure the security of this line of communication; this in its turn means that the Kahlberg peak and the Pont d'Aspach must be taken’.  (Source: An Unfortunate Region)

The Front Line in the Vosges 1915 (Source: 14-18 No 26 Jun/Jul 2005)

Battle for the Hartmannswillerkopf Jan 1916
Following the failures of the French attacks down the Thur valley towards Cernay in December 1914 initial French plans for 1915 envisaged a breakthrough by the 66th Infantry Division into the plain at the Hartmannswillerkopf supported by diversionary attacks at Aspach-Burnhaupt, by the 57th Infantry Division (south of Cernay) and further north at Munster and the Linge by the 47th Infantry Division.  This plan is thwarted by a pre-emptive German attack on the Hartmannswillerkopf on the day of the intended French attack (19 January 1915) ......

The Hartmannswillerkopf (Le Vieil Armand), 956m above sea level, north of Cernay is a natural balcony that overlooks the plain and dominated the 1914 front line that ran between Thann and Cernay.  Having been occupied by the French 28th Battalion 'Chasseurs Alpins' (BCA) in December 1914 it became the focal point for the conflict in the Vosges during January 1915.  Only when seeing the domineering view (illustrated below) is it possible to appreciate how important contol of the Hartmannswillerkopf was to both sides.

View of the plain from the Hartmannswillerkopf (Courtesy of Gwyneth Roberts)

In January 1915, the peak of the Hartmannswillerkopf was occupied by a French detachment from the 1st Company, 28th Battalion (BCA).  At this time there was not a continuous line of trenches dividing the adversaries on this section of the front.  Cover was largely natural and trees dominated the landscape.  On 4th Jan, the German 8th Company, Ldw. Inf. Rgt. 123 and elements of the Landsturm Bataillon Heidelberg attacked the peak but were pushed back following a bayonet charge by French reinforcements arriving from Silberloch.  The Germans tried again on 9th Jan preceded by an artillery barrage that started at 10.40hrs.  At 13.30hrs a full Battalion from the Ldw. Inf. Rgt. 123 attacked the French position, again without success.  French snipers hiding in the trees (called ‘baumaffen’ [tree monkeys] by the Germans) inflicted heavy losses on the assaulting German units.  Having been repulsed twice the Germans decided to use their most seasoned active units to conquer the summit.
German Attack on the 4 Jan 1915
Hartmannswillerkopf Capitain G. Goes
1st Company, 28th Battalion (BCA) position on the 4 Jan 1915
Hartmannswillerkopf Capitain G. Goes

By this stage the French detachment, now increased to Company strength, was cut-off and surrounded.  Second Lieutenant Canavy, the French Company Commander on the summit, had readied the position for a siege.  Trenches had been prepared for all round defence, food and ammunition had been re-distributed, and a small reserve store was set up close to Canavy’s Command shelter.

Following the first two attacks and under cover of darkness the Germans had entrenched their positions and laid barbed wire to make it difficult for French reinforcements, coming up from the valley, to relieve the summit.  On the 19th the Germans tried a third time to capture the summit.  The 1. Rheinische Inf. Rgt. Nr. 25 captured the Hirtzenstein, a rocky outcrop located at 570m above sea level, below the southern slope of the Hartmannswillerkopf which was considered to occupy a key position to allow the capture of the summit.  Various German units participated in the main assault; elements of Ldw. Inf. Rgt. 119 and 123, the battalion of ‘Chasseurs’ from 14. Großherzoglich-Mecklemburgische Jägerbataillon, and the Uhlans from the 42nd Cavalry Brigade (fighting dismounted).  Despite repeated assaults the Germans failed to take the summit.  Elements of the French 13th and 27th BCA moved up from the valley in full view of the well prepared German positions and attempted to break the siege on the summit.  They failed and during their attempt the Commander of the 13th BCA, Le commandant’ Barrie, was killed.  The Germans then threw new units into the battle, elements of Inf. Rgt. NR. 84 (“von Manstein”), the 1. Thüringische Inf. Rgt. 31, and the 89. Schweriner Grenadiere.  Still the French held on.
Situation on the 19 Jan 1915  11:30hrs
Hartmannswillerkopf Capitain G. Goes (French Translation 1934)
German attack - French counter-attack 19 Jan 1915

On the 21st Jan the French tried again to relieve their forces on the summit.  A mass attack was launched by the 13th, 27th, and 53rd BCA, with heavy casualties being taken by both sides.  The Germans gained the upper hand through the use of a Minenwerfer’ (the predecessor to the mortar that could fire a 4.5 kg projectile between 300 and 1000 meters) that had been dragged up the icy slopes of the mountain.  Having stopped the French relief attempts the Germans then turned the Minenwerfer’ on the Summit destroying the French Command shelter, the reserves of food and ammunition, and killing Second Lieutenant Canavy.  During the subsequent German assault, which was beaten off, the French defenders used the last of their ammunition.
On the 22nd Jan the remains of the French 1st Company, 28th BCA on the Hartmannswillerkopf, exhausted having lost two thirds of its manpower, without food and ammunition, was forced to surrender.  The Germans believed they were attacking a strong French Garrison and were amazed to find that the summit had been held by only a handful of men.

Hartmannswillerkopf summit in 1915
The summit was then in German hands and each side had lost over 1,000 men.  But this was only the start of the battle for the Hartmannswillerkopf. The two sides began to consolidate their positions.  Shelters were cut in the rock and ammunition and first aid stations were set up.  Access roads were constructed and the Germans went as far as building two cable cars to facilitate re-supply.  On the German side more than 1,000 workmen took part in constructing the defences and more than 170 mules were used to transport the heavy loads.  For the Germans the Hartmannswillerkopf was key ground and the work on their defences and the tenacity of their defence for the remainder of 1915 reflected this.  To be continued.....

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