The French Attack on the Reichakerkopf (6 March 1915)
The French having been forced from the key positions of the Linge and Reichakerkopf and having pulled out of Stosswhir established a line ‘Soultzeren - Ampfersbach - Sattel’. Fearing a further German push aimed at gaining the ‘principle peaks’ they decided to undertake a series of operations aimed at re-capturing the lost ground and at a single stroke cut the German lines of communication in the Fecht valley around Munster. The first key element of the intended operations was the re-capture of the Reichakerkopf. This task was allocated to the French 23rd Battalion ‘Chasseurs Alpins’ (B.C.A.).
The Reichakerkopf which comprise two timber topped peaks (small and big) completely dominated the French positions on the Sattelkopf. The big northern peak was bounded on three sides by very steep slopes. To the south the approach to the small peak was less steep and presented easier access although between the French and German positions north and south of the ‘col du Sattel’ the ground fell steeply to the foothills. In reality only the ‘col du Sattel’, which narrowed to less than 150m, provided viable foot access to the small Reichakerkopf.
The German positions on the Reichakerkopf were hidden by dense vegetation particularly around the peaks. Further down the slopes the French could only guess as to the location of additional German defences. To succeed the attack needed sound preparation and surprise.
|Big and Small Reichackerkopf|
From the 24 Feb to 5 Mar 1915 the 23rd Battalion ‘Chasseurs Alpins’ (47th Infantry Division) dedicated themselves solely to preparing their attack. On the slopes of the Sattelkopf attack trenches were prepared and daily reconnaissance patrols were sent out to establish the German’s precise location and to determine the most favourable attack points. Communication channels were established with the French artillery and 65 mm mountain guns were positioned in the front line to deal with the German machine guns. In addition supply routes were established in an area bereft of roads or tracks.
The French attack by the 47th Infantry Division was scheduled for the 6 Mar 15; the plan involved gaining ground east of Sultzeren and retaking the Reichackerkopf and the village of Stosswihr. For the Germans the timing of the attack could not have been worse. After two and a half weeks of almost continuous combat, exposed to the elements without shelter, the Bavarian units on the Reichackerkopf, the ‘col du Sattel’, and the Moenchberg were relieved during the night of the 5 Mar 15. A number of the relieved units did leave their positions until well after midnight. As a consequence the French attack on the Reichackerkopf surprised the Germans and caught them in a state of transition.
Within 30 minutes the ‘Chasseurs’ from 23rd Battalion supported by well directed artillery fire had pushed the Germans off the Reichackerkopf. The Germans in their advanced positions had been overrun and taken prisoner, the small and big Reichackerkopf had been captured and the Germans disorganised were being pursued through the trees. However, the combination of the immediate support provided by the Bavarian covering force left behind following the earlier relief, a failure by the French artillery to adjust their fire and an overextension of the French line which made them vulnerable to counter-attacks prevented the French ‘Chasseurs’ from pursuing the retreating Germans down to the valley. In addition by 13.00hrs the German artillery had begun to target the French supply route across the ‘col du Sattel’ making it difficult for the French to re-supply and reinforce; also from 13.00hrs the Germans began piecemeal counter attacks. By 15.00hrs the German reserves in the Munster valley and those still holding the Moenchberg began a series of heavy attacks against the northern and eastern sides of the big Reichakerkopf all of which were repulsed by the French defenders. As the bad weather closed in during the afternoon and evening of the 6th the Germans were left clinging to the slopes of the mountain whilst the French firmly held their hastily dug trenches around the big and small Reichackerkopf. The French success had come at a price their losses totalled around 450 men almost 50% of the committed manpower and included most of their section commanders and the Battalion Commander. To the north the results of the French attack east of Sultzeren, in the direction of Stosswihr, was more modest as the advancing French troops were taken in the flank by German machine gun fire. Captain Ferdinand Belmont recorded the following in his diary concerning this attack:
‘March 6. … It concerned an attack on the German lines on the outskirts of Stosswihr. We were unable, however, to reach the objective, and suffered pretty badly through bullets and shells. This happened on the first day — that is to say, the 6th, in the day time.’
A crusader of France : the letters of Captain Ferdinand Belmont of the chasseurs alpins (August 2, 1914-December 28, 1915)
Next: ‘The German Response 7-20Mar 1915’