Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Battles for Munster 1915 – Part One; The German Attack


At the end of 1914 following the ‘race to the sea’ in northern France and Belgium the French looked to regain the initiative in the Vosges and Alsace.  Upstream of the river Fecht the French positions followed a general line that ran from the Bagenelles Pass, Le Bonhomme, Hautes-Huttes, Hohrod to the Sattelkopf.  Paralleling this, the German line ran from Orbey to the Wettstein Pass, and on to the valley east of Metzeral. To the south the lines ran down to the Grand-Ballon, the Hartmannswillerkopf, Hill 425, and Thann.


Vosges_Topography
Vosges Topography

The French intention appears to have been to hold the ground between Switzerland and Cernay and to focus their 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 French emphasis turned 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)

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.

On the 25 Jan 15 General Joffre ordered General Putz, the Commander of the Vosges Army, to designate a new target for an offensive, this time on the Fecht river:

‘Munster via the northern and southern heights of the Fecht valley; progression through the Munster valley and towards Trois-Epis, with secondary flanking operations in the Orbey valley’. (Source: The Linge 1915, Durlewanger. Armand, (S.A.E.P, Colmar) p. 2)

General Putz tasked General Blazer, commanding 47th Division, to:

‘Elaborate a plan of action north of the Fecht, on the Linge, the Rain des Chênes and the Hohnack [and to] envisage a limited attack in the Linge district which would give us the mastery of the heights from which we could move down, towards Munster’. (Source: The Linge 1915, Durlewanger. Armand, (S.A.E.P, Colmar) p. 2)

But once again the Germans pre-empted the French attack.  Having already taken Metzeral the Germans launched a general offensive against the French that began on 14 Feb 15 and ultimately extended between Kaysersberg, located at the mouth of the Orbey valley, and the Lauch valley.  For the Germans the primary focus of this offensive was the area west of Munster.  The French, having dug in all around Munster from the Schnepfenriedkopf to Hörnleskopf, were applying pressure on the key access door down the Fecht valley towards the middle of Alsace.  The centre of the French position was the Reichackerkopf, a hill that dominated the climb up to the ‘col de la Schlucht’ and all the westerly routes that from Munster gave access to the valleys and mountains.  Particularly well fortified and defended this 771m high summit, connected to the Moenchberg, Altmattkopf and Sattelkopf, formed a natural fortress that seemed invulnerable to attack.

Munster
View West from Munster

Planned for the 17 Feb 14 but delayed until the 19th the Germans attacked between Hohrod and the Altmattkopf.  Elements from two inexperienced German infantry divisions, the 8th Reserve Bavarian Division and the 6th Würtemberg Landwehr Division, coming from the Fecht valley between Munster and Metzeral assaulted the heights of the Reichackerkopf, the Altmattkopf and the Sattelkopf at 08.00hrs.  To the north another German attack via the Hörnleskopf and the Barrenkopf was intended to take the French positions near Soultzeren and Stosswihr and hold the French along this section of the front.

On the heights above the Fecht intense fighting continued all day; the French soldiers from the 2nd ‘Chasseurs’ Brigade, well versed in mountain warfare inflicted many casualties on the attacking German units.  Despite this the Commander of the French 47th Infantry Division decided that the situation was so serious that he recalled his reserves from Gérardmer.  Arriving piecemeal after an eight hour journey, they were immediately fed exhausted into the fray.  By the end of the day both the Altmattkopf and the Reichackerkopf had fallen and the Germans had got within 300m of the Sattelkopf before they were driven back.  Overnight the fighting stopped and the opposing forces shared the misery of a freezing night out in the open.

On the 20 Feb 15 the French ‘Chasseurs’ counter-attacked but were unable to retake the Reichackerkopf.  Left clinging to the western slope they were finally pushed back to the ‘col du Sattel’ around 17.00hrs.  The only French forces remaining on the Reichackerkopf were a few isolated pockets of ‘Chasseurs’ in the tree line to the west and north.  With the aim of threatening the French supply route from the ‘col de la Schlucht’ the Germans made another attempt to take the Sattelkopf and the ‘col du Sattel’.  Despite the attack being preceded by an hour long artillery bombardment progress by the Bavarian infantry was limited and by the end of the day they were forced to retire almost to their step off points.  However, immediately north-east of the Reichackerkopf the Germans secured the hamlets of Bretzel and Widental and were well positioned to move on the Moenchberg and Stosswihr.

The 21 Feb 15 saw elements of the 19th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment briefly gain the Sattelkopf, although their attempts to capture the near-by Moenchberg were thwarted by the dense vegetation and a robust defence which saw French ‘Chasseurs’, firing from the tree tops, inflicting heavy casualties on the attacking Germans.  Further north the Germans also took the Barrenkopf, and captured Hohrod, and Hohrodberg.  Stosswihr was then threatened and the Chateau and the tree line to the east fell into German hands during the evening.  However, before nightfall a robust counter-attack by two Companies from the French 14th ‘Chasseurs’ Battalion retook the Chateau.  With heavy falling snow restricting resupply efforts the French artillery had to severely restrict their rate of fire.

On the 22 Feb 15 the trees on the Moenchberg were cleared of French ‘Chasseurs’ by an intensely focused artillery barrage which allowed elements of the 19th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment to occupy it without loss.  Despite ferocious French counter-attacks the Germans occupied the Eichwald wood and broke through at the corner of the Linge wood, although the Combekopf and Wettstien remained out of reach.  The French positions in Stosswihr had become untenable and during the night of the 22nd the French evacuated it and fell back on Soultzeren.  With the French artillery short of ammunition they were unable to reply to the German fire that hammered Soultzeren, Eck, Ampfersbach, the Sattelkopf and the Hornleskopf.

On the 23 Feb 15 the Germans had planned a general attack against the French ‘Soultzeren - Ampfersbach - Sattel’ line.  Rushed, ill-conceived and starting late in the day the German attack was stopped in its tracks when it ran up against the well fortified French positions at Ampfersbach; exhausted the Germans settle for a ragged artillery bombardment of the French lines.  An uneasy stalemate settled over the area as both sides took the opportunity to regroup and reorganise.

The last German action of this phase came during the night of 28 Feb - 1 Mar 15.  A surprise night attack, due to start at 1am, was planned again against the ‘Soultzeren - Ampfersbach - Sattel’ line.  With the initial German attack orders not conveyed by Brigade until 2pm on 28 Feb 15 the time to prepare and issue orders down to designated attack units was extremely short.  In the area of Ampfersbach 10 minutes before the attack the defending French infantry opened fire this was quickly followed by supporting artillery fire from Schmelzwasen.  In terrible weather and total darkness the attacking German units  in front of Ampfersbach lost cohesion and their attack failed.  Further north 2 Battalions from the 22nd Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment succeeded in taking a number of houses on the outskirts of Soultzeren but a French counter-attack pushed them back causing fairly heavy German casualties.  Captain Ferdinand Belmont of the ‘Chasseurs Alpins’ wrote in his diary about this attack:


He also wrote this about the German offensive since the 19 Feb 14:


Over the next few days whilst both sides consolidated their positions the French prepared another attempt to retake the Reichackerkopf.

The French counter-attack.

Sources:

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