Monday, October 3, 2011

The Battle for the Hartmannswillerkopf - February - April 1915.

Courtesy of Gwyneth Roberts

The Hartmannswillerkopf’s dominant position (illustrate above) may help to understand why the battle for its summit was sointense during March and April 1915.

On the 27 Feb 1915, after an artillery barrage the French 7th, 13th and 53rd BCA attacked the German positions but were pushed back by the Rheinische Inf. Rgt. 161, and elements of the Landsturmbataillon Mannheim and of 2. Schwadron Ulanen 11.
French attack 27 Feb 1915
Diables rouges Diables bleus à Hartmannswillerkopf Pierre Marteaux (1937)

On the 5 Mar, after careful preparation a further extensive artillery barrage was focused on the German ‘Jägertanne’ [1] sector held by the 3rd company of Inf. Rgt. 161, the 13th BCA assaulted and overran the German position but were stopped by new German defensive lines close to the summit.  German counter attacks carried out by other companies from the Inf. Rgt. 161 as well as Inf. Rgt. 25 were repulsed.  German loses numbered over 200 killed, wounded, and missing.  The Germans made a second attempt to recapture their lost positions on the 7 Mar but were again pushed back.  Over the following days the French 13th BCA, exhausted, was relieved by the 152nd ‘Régiment d’Infanterie’ (RI).

On the 23 Mar, after a four hour French artillery bombardment with 57 artillery pieces the 152nd (RI) captured the ‘col’ between the Molkenrain and the Hartmannswillerkopf and got within 150 metres of the Hartmannswillerkopf summit.  German counter attacks conducted by the Inf. Rgt. 25 and Res. Inf. Rgt. 75 on the 23 Mar and over the following days all failed to retake the lost ground.  After a three day break, during which the French artillery was moved and re-targeted, the French made another attempt to gain the summit.

French attack 23 Mar 1915
Diables rouges Diables bleus à Hartmannswillerkopf Pierre Marteaux (1937)

On 26 Mar after a three and a half hour artillery bombardment the 152nd (RI), reinforced by elements of the 7th, 13th, 15th, 27th, 28th, and 53rd BCA attacked and captured the Hartmannswillerkopf summit, all but destroying the remainder of the German Inf. Rgt. 25.  From there the French moved on to take the ‘Panorama’ rock (or Aussichtsfelsen or “Hellé rock) [2] and progressed north as far as the Bischofshut [3] and the last turn of the German re-supply road (Serpentinenstrasse) [4].  The German fortified positions of the Rehfelsen (upper and middle) [5], below the Aussichtsfelsen, were also captured.  The remainder of the German defenders, elements of Landw. Inf. Rgt. 15, Res. Inf. Rgt. 75, Inf. Rgt. 25, Ulanen 11 and Ulanen 15, having rallied and halted the French advance, were left clinging to the eastern slopes of the mountain but had managed to hold the lower Rehfelsen (Unterer Rehfelsen) [5].
French attack 26 Mar 1915 and gains on 6 Apr 1915
Diables rouges Diables bleus à Hartmannswillerkopf Pierre Marteaux (1937)
Overview of French gains 26 Mar, 6 Apr 1915
Base illustration from: Hartmannswillerkopf La montagne de la mort

The capture of the Hartmannswillerkopf summit provided the French the key artillery observation post they required to interdict the essential German transportation infrastructure on the Alsace plain around Cernay, namely the Mulhouse-Colmar railway line and the roads which led to the front lines.  For the Germans the recapture of the Hartmannswillerkopf summit was vital but paramount was the need to prevent the French from occupying the whole mountain.  The German position was precarious and they were in no position to retake their lost ground, they had to make sure that they were not swept of the mountain altogether as the lower slopes would be an important staging ground for any future attacks.  To achieve this the Germans had to reorganise their exhausted units.  On the 27 Mar two fresh German battalions were moved to the front on the Hartmannswillerkopf and amalgamated with the remnants of the Inf. Rgt. 25, whilst the II. Ldw. Inf. Rgt. 40 and the II. Ldw. Inf. Rgt. 126, both substantially below their effective strengths, were withdrawn.  Due to the speed of the French advance on the 26th Mar and the need for the French to bring forward their artillery, made difficult by the winter conditions, the Germans were given time entrench and prepare their new positions on the icy slopes of the mountain.

On the 6 Apr the French tried to take the German fortified position of the ‘lower’ Rehfelsen (Unterer Rehfelsen) but were beaten back.  Although the following days saw costly, in terms of loss of life, localised actions burst out regularly across the Hartmannswillerkopf, the French advance had been stopped.  The Germans had begun to prepare to retake the summit.  German reinforcements had arrived from Flanders and Champagne: the Guard Jäger Battalion and the Guard Schützen Battalion, and on the 16 Apr the Ldw. Inf. Rgt. 87 joined them on the Hartmannswillerkopf ready for the imminent German offensive.

On the 19 Apr the Res. Inf. Rgt. 75, following a one and a half hour German artillery barrage attempted to storm the hill.  The attack had been badly planned and being tentatively executed, was easily contained by the French defenders.  The Germans had learnt their lesson and ensured that their next attempt was better prepared.  Due to fog an attack planned by the Germans for the 23 Apr was cancelled.  Additionally on the 24 Apr the Res. Inf. Rgt. 75, located at Guebwiller, was put on alert for an attack but once again unfavourable weather prevented a German attack.

At 18.00hrs on the 25 Apr the Res. Inf. Rgt. 75 along with reinforcements from other units, the Res.Jäger Battalion 8, elements of Guard Jäger and Ldw.Inf.Rgt. 56, attacked the French positions after a 2 hour bombardment.  The assault units bolstered by specialist engineers recaptured the upper Rehfelsen the Aussichtsfelsen and pushed on over the top of the summit.  Almost 1,000 French soldiers from the 152nd (RI) and the 57th ‘Régiment d´Infanterie Territoriale (R.I.T.) were surrounded close to the summit and taken prisoner.
German attack 25 Apr 1915
Hartmannswillerkopf Capitain G. Goes

Later, on the 26 Apr, the German units pulled back to the eastern side of the hill following a French counter-attack by three companies of the 7th B.C.A.. Although notionally in French hands the the summit had now become virtually untenable. The lack of cover and the ability of either side to call down an artillery barrage at a moments notice had turned the summit of the Hartmannswillerkopf into ‘no mans land’, a status that would remain until the end of December.
French counter-attack 26 Apr 1915
Diables rouges Diables bleus à Hartmannswillerkopf Pierre Marteaux (1937)
By this stage the fir tree forest covering the Hartmannswillerkopf had all but disappeared.  The incessant artillery fire since the turn of the year had transformed the mountain into a desert of rocks, mud and cut down trees.

Le Vieil Armand/Hartmannswillerkopf

During the late spring and summer the soldiers on both sides consolidated their respective positions and tried using sudden artillery attacks and infantry raids to make the life of their opposite numbers as uncomfortable as possible.  The main action in the Vosges had moved north and was now focused around Munster and the Fecht valley. To be continued.....

Diables rouges Diables bleus à Hartmannswillerkopf Pierre Marteaux (1937)
Hartmannswillerkopf Capitain G. Goes
Hartmannswillerkopf La montagne de la mort

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