The German Response 7-20 Mar 1915
|The Fecht Valley (Courtesy of Gwyneth Roberts)|
After the fractured German counter-attacks on the 6th a more co-ordinated German attack was planned for the 7 Mar 15. Both the Sattelkopf and the Reichackerkopf were subjected to a heavy artillery bombardment and at 11am the German infantry launched their assault. On the Sattelkopf the German units from the 23rd and 19th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiments were stopped in their tracks by French fire and were unable to advance. On the Reichackerkopf the German assault was also beaten back although on the small Reichackerkopf the Germans briefly captured one of the advanced French positions before being repulsed by a desperate French counter-attack which included the Headquarters Staff from 6th B.C.A.. On the Reichackerkopf, unlike the previous day, the Germans fell back and held on tightly in the trees opposite the French positions.
During the night of the 7 Mar 15 the French on the Reichackerkopf finished consolidating their positions, evacuating their wounded and resupplying their men. The 23rd B.C.A. much depleted and exhausted was reinforced by two companies from 24th B.C.A. On 8 Mar 15 only a weak easily contained attack was made by the Germans on the Reichackerkopf during the morning and during the following night the French 23rd B.C.A. were finally relieved by the 24th B.C.A., the previous three days had seen the 23rd B.C.A. lose more than half its manpower.
The next German attack against both the Sattelkopf and the Reichackerkopf was planned for 10 Mar 15. For this attack the commander of the 19th RIR had been promised a number of rocket launchers, incendiary rockets and flame throwers for use against the French defences. However, most of this new equipment either did not arrive, or if it did it did not work correctly. The attack was largely a failure although elements of 19th RIR had gained a foothold on the peak at the western end of the Sattelkopf by 7pm. Attempts by the Germans on 11 Mar 15 to extend this foothold also failed. Exhaustion compounded by cold and wet weather led the Germans to suspend offensive operations for a few days. However, to maintain the pressure on the French positions the Germans maintained a daily artillery bombardment of the French held peaks and surrounding areas and continually brought small arms fire on the French positions.
‘March 14. We have found trench-life again in all its monotonous splendour. The only incidents are the daily bombardments of the villages of Sulzern and Ampferbach ; or the more or less prolonged rifle-firing on the Reichakerkopf, where the situation remains rather critical, although to our advantage.’ Captain Ferdinand Belmont
‘March 15. In addition to rifle-firing, the guns have been making a great din of recent days. The Boches are utilizing the commanding positions taken from us to paralyse by a shower of shells the unfortunate villages below - Sulzern and especially Ampferbach and its hamlets.’ Captain Ferdinand Belmont
On the 14th and 15th Mar 15 the Germans again began probing attacks this time focused on the ‘col du Sattel’. German rocket launchers were used to destroy several French barricades which were subsequently occupied by elements from the German 18th RIR and the 75th Infantry Regiment. The German intention was to capture the peaks at either end of the ‘col du Sattel’ thus making the French position on the Reichackerkopf untenable. Realising their predicament the French launched an attack with elements from the 6th and 23rd B.C.A. at 12.45pm on 15 Mar 15 inflicting over 100 casualties on the Germans and clearing them from the ‘col du Sattel’.
Following this reverse the Germans switched the centre of their attack to the northern side of the Reichackerkopf where 3 German battalions, 2 from 23rd RIR and 1 from 22nd RIR, were located. These units were within touching distance of the French front line and began to edge forward albeit slowly. From the 16 Mar 15 two companies from the French 23rd B.C.A. were again moved onto the Reichackerkopf this time to support a hard pressed 6th B.C.A. Daily the Germans probed the French positions and increasingly targeted those on the Reichackerkopf with larger calibre artillery. The French defensive position became increasingly desperate with no shelters and only trenches for cover. Communication across the ‘col du Sattel’ became almost impossible due to enfilading artillery fire from the Lingekopf. The following German narrative provides an insight into the fighting on the Reichackerkopf:
‘A few days later. We are in the reserve positions again. The left flank of our sector had been engaged in some furious hand grenade exchanges. As I had written before, the trenches here were only 10m apart. The order came to storm these trenches. After warming our bellies with a drink we moved into the front lines from which we were to attack. At 05:00am on the dot the artillery began to fire on the enemy's rear and lines of communication. Because the trenches were so close they could not fire on the enemy front line. The French artillery and trench mortars replied immediately and we began to prepare the way with hand grenades. Unfortunately at 07:00am the accuracy of our artillery began to suffer as our own 210mm shells landed behind us, slowly getting nearer. Damn, it was getting dangerous. A French trench mortar scored a direct hit on our assault column, and the fire got heavier and heavier. It seemed as if the world was coming to an end... the screams of the wounded was terrible. 08:00am ...at last, time to advance. I looked around and saw my lieutenant and four men, the pathetic remains of the assault troop. Still, we were going to advance. We began to pull the sandbags out of the way, little infantry fire came our way. We were convinced it would be light work ahead, two pioneers clambered out of the trench. Suddenly machine-gun and rifle fire opened up knocking the two pioneers over. Hand grenades rained down on us, the sky darkened as the trench filled with smoke and fire. An artillery officer came down the trench, wounded and insane, he shouted "follow me!" and jumped out of the trench, he took one pace then collapsed. We started to throw grenades towards the enemy trenches until it seemed as if our arms would drop off, but we could not hit the machine gun. Suddenly I felt a burning on my right arm, it was a flesh wound, next to me a comrade was hit in the mouth. Any further attempt to leave the trench would have been suicide. Towards midnight it became quieter. The next morning we were relieved by another company an went back to the reserve line where we fell into a deep sleep, like dead men.’ A Soldier’s Burden – The Reichackerkopf.
The next co-ordinated German attack fell on the Reichackerkopf, the ‘col du Sattel’ and the Klaengle on 20 Mar 15. All morning the Germans pounded the French front lines and rear areas with large calibre shells and around 11.00hrs having focused their artillery fire on the big Reichackerkopf they attacked from the north pushing the French defenders from the peak. The surviving French garrison on the little Reichackerkopf comprising 3rd and 4th Companies of the 6th B.C.A. refused their left flank and clung on. At 13.00hrs the Germans started a second assault from the south east and despite the best efforts of the French 1st Company (23rd B.C.A.) and 6th Company (6th B.C.A.) they quickly gained a foothold on the little Reichackerkopf. By 14.00hrs elements of the German 19th RIR had taken the little Reichackerkopf whilst elements from 22nd and 23rd RIRs controlled the big Reichackerkopf. The French had been dealt a severe blow with approximately 450 French ‘Chasseurs Alpins’ being captured. However, the tenacity of the French counter-attacks limited further German advances and at the end of the day the French still held the ‘col du Sattel’. Captain Ferdinand Belmont with his company in the valley north of the Reichackerkopf on 20 Mar 15 recorded the following in his diary:
‘March 21. … A violent engagement, foreshadowed by an intense bombardment, took place yesterday on the Reichakerkopf. The Germans, who had received important reinforcements, energetically attacked the position, with the support of a considerable number of guns. The fight — extremely violent — began about 3 p.m., and lasted until about six. We could follow the action from our positions by seeing the continual bursting of Boche shells, to which, alas! ours hardly replied. What a hellish uproar! As to the result — alas! I believe that since yesterday evening the Reichakerkopf is no longer in our possession.’ Captain Ferdinand Belmont
The French did not make any serious attempt to retake their lost ground, although their mountain artillery and rocket launchers targeted the German positions daily. For both sides the following nights and days were devoted to consolidating and securing their positions. The next action was to take place in the‘higher Fecht’ to the east of Metzeral.