Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Battles for Munster 1915 - Pt 5: Metzeral and Sondernach

Back to Part 4

Whilst the battles had been raging in the higher Fecht and on the Hartmannswillerkopf French G.H.Q. had been putting the final touches to its planned offensive on the Linge and the Petit Ballon.  Accordingly, 47th Infantry Division were to take the Linge and then continue east on the northern heights of the Munster valley, while 66th Infantry Division commanded by General Serret was to capture the Hilsenfirst and the Petit Ballon.  The first French objectives were the villages of Metzeral and Sondernach although on the eve of the offensive Joffre reiterated his direction ‘a rapid and forcible action in the Fecht valley, a diversion offensive which, in addition to its main object [Munster], is intended to pin down the maximum number of enemy troops’ (Source: The Linge 1915, Durlewanger. Armand, (S.A.E.P, Colmar) p. 4).

General de Maud’huy the commander of the French 7th Army believed that in order to successfully carry out the planned operation he needed an additional Division just to take the Linge.  In response 2 Territorial Infantry Regiments, a Brigade of Alpine troops and the newly established 5th Brigade, commanded by Colonel Trouchaud, were sent to reinforce the French 47th Division.  General Pouydraguin commanding 47th Division had planned an attack that extended from peak 830 to the Reichackerkopf.  Approach work from the Altmatt towards the Braunkopf had been started in late May and a route to move the guns from Kruth to Mittlach via Huss, reaching an altitude of 1.300m, had been constructed by the 66th Division making it possible to move the French heavy artillery within range of the German positions.  A Battery from the 220th had been transported from the Hohneck to Mittlach via Gérardmer, Bresse, ‘le col d’Oderen’, Kruth and then on the newly constructed road with enormous difficulty.

The French Attack Jun 1915
The French Attack 15 Jun 1915

With the attack planned for the 15 Jun 15 the 47th Division line of attack was as follows: on the right, the 133rd Infantry Regiment, provided by the 41st Division from Saint-Dié, was responsible for peak 830; on the left, the 4th Brigade was to attack the Eichwald wood with the 23rd B.C.A.. The Braunkopf was to be attacked by the 6th B.C.A. with the 24th B.C.A. on its left.  The Lançon group (4 battalions of reserve ‘Chasseurs’) were to secure the flank of the attack against the German held Reichackerkopf.  The assault time was set at 16.30 hours, on June the 15th and the attack was to be preceded by an artillery barrage from 104 guns, including 200 mm guns, which was to last 4 1/2 hours.

On June 15, after a methodical preparation, the attack was made:

June 15. Magnificent weather: a day made for victory. Since yesterday the guns on all sides roar incessantly. The din is infernal. Machine-guns and rifle fire crackle at intervals. Aeroplanes are humming as they circle round and round in the blue and sunny sky. This is indeed war.  We are in the woods with piled arms, ready to march at the first signal.  Captain Ferdinand Belmont.

The German trenches on the Braunkopf were rapidly overrun and at peak 830 the French infantry descended the slopes and took the German trenches in the rear pierced the German line and captured two companies.  In Eichwald and on the Anlass, success was less rapid.  In Eichwald, the 23rd B.C.A. ran into a wall of machine-guns.  On the Anlass the fight began with an exchange of grenades around the bowl.  The following day, the 6th B.C.A., after taking peak 830 controlled the entire Braunkopf.  Eichwald was surrounded and the way to Metzeral was open.

June 17. What a din ! Shells have been falling and bursting like fury around us since this morning. The battalion came to the first line to relieve the units, fairly hard hit, which captured the Braunkopf from the Boches during the last few days. The Braunkopf is a large, rocky and sparsely- wooded hill which commands Metzeral on the south, and is itself commanded by another higher and more important hill, the Almattkopf. These two Kopf are connected by a sort of entrance. The Boches' trenches, formidable, and bordered by barbed wire, furrowed in several tortuous lines the brow of the Braunkopf. The first attack, made on the 15th, succeeded, after a mighty artillery preparation, in taking the summit of the Braunkopf.
On the 16th the same battalion, the 6th, captured fresh trenches, and now the whole of the Braunkopf is ours. The 11th Battalion has come to relieve the 6th, which has had not a few losses. My company is not the farthest advanced ; we are in a trench running parallel with the departure point, where the attack has not been able to progress, a hundred metres from a small wood, called the Bois Noir, which the Boches hold.
The scene is not a pleasant one. The brow of the Braunkopf is completely devastated by the artillery. There is hardly a spot where the earth has not been torn up; everything is topsy-turvy — an unimaginable entanglement of barbed wire and twisted, shattered, torn-up ‘Chevaux de frise’ — a mass of debris, ripped open earth-bags, dead bodies of infantrymen and Germans, some of them half buried, others mutilated by shells, and sometimes Boches and Frenchmen side by side, all in strange attitudes, just as they were when death seized them. Rifles, the bayonets of which glitter in the sun, are strewn by the side of these bodies. . . . An indescribable picture of havoc and ruin!
Three companies of the 11th Battalion, arranged in a semi-circle on the slope of the ridge, now occupy the conquered trenches and endure this infernal avalanche of iron stoically. The enormous 210 and 150 mm. shells, which you can hear coming from afar, slowly and with insidious murmur, pulverize the round-topped hill, which at times disappears under clouds of black smoke and red dust. Above the blue flakes of the .77 shrapnel scatter uninterruptedly. "Where we are a few shells arrive from time to time ; but up to the present they have fallen outside the trench and have wounded only one man of the company.
The valley of the Fecht opens before us, and at the base of the slopes the village of Metzeral, which our artillerymen have been shelling for two days past, is burning, house by house. A great part of it is already in ruins. On the houses still intact the shells are pouring, destroying everything and lighting fresh fires. What a spectacle! And what a war which destroys everything, spares nothing, and seems to have no other object than to annihilate!  Captain Ferdinand Belmont.

Further south, the 66th Division ran up against stiff resistance, on the right, at the Hilsenfirst, the Manhès company, of the 7th B.C.A., was surrounded for three days before being rescued.  On the 18th Jun, the 28th B.C.A., advancing along the bottom of the valley, linked up with 47th Division at Steinabruck and Altenhof was taken.

[June 17 cont] They are also fighting on the other side of the valley: the neighbouring division, the 66th, is acting on the offensive at the same time as our own. These two movements are, doubtless, to converge near the bottom of the valley, on the lower side of Metzeral. On the opposite crest we can clearly see the black clouds of earth as the big shells burst. Yesterday afternoon we watched through our glasses an assault made over there by a company of infantry, and followed quite well the two successive waves of little black specks advancing over the meadows and leaping into the Boche trench, where the fight was continued with hand-grenades.
All that is hard work. Against positions organized as the Germans know how, the role of the infantry, even after the artillery has done its part, is not easy. An intense and prolonged preparation, a powerful concentration of fire which almost annihilates the works to be taken and their garrisons, is necessary.
Here the artillery preparation had been carefully carried out. During the first attack the firing lasted four hours, during which the peppering of the enemy positions never ceased. Advantageous points have been taken, but at a heavy cost. Fortunately the Boches have also had losses.
During yesterday and the day before we took about 450 prisoners. We saw a detachment of them pass yesterday evening on their way to Gerardmer; they were all very dirty and very glad to be henceforth safe and sound.  Captain Ferdinand Belmont.

During the 19-20 Jun 15 all the French efforts focused on the Anlass:

June 19. The uproar continues, or rather it recommences after a quiet morning. The artillery is preparing for the attack which is to be resumed this evening. It is probable that we shall be in action before night. For the time being my company is on the Braun-Kopf. The Boches have been driven to the bottom of the slopes and we have advanced to the outskirts of Metzeral. This evening we ought to continue to progress and endeavour to capture the village and the Bois Noir, which up to now has resisted. The two companies which have advanced have been somewhat put to the test: a captain and a sub-lieutenant are killed. Major Foret is seriously wounded on the hand.

June 20. Yesterday evening we began an attack on the Bois Noir, an evil pine wood from which the Boches obstinately refuse to decamp, and from which it is difficult to dislodge them, because they have barbed wire and machine-guns everywhere. The Boches, seeing that we threatened to debouch on to the slopes of the Braunkopf, immediately opened an intense barrage fire with the .77 batteries, the .105 howitzers and a large 130 gun which carries from Munster. The first section of my company had hardly begun its movement outside the trench when it was met by a continuous storm of bullets. Three men were killed and a dozen wounded.
The Boches have lost several important positions; we have driven them as far as the lower part of the valley. They are holding on in Metzeral, on the out- skirts of the ruined village, where their machine-guns are still hidden. General de Pouydraguin, who commands our division, has just been mentioned in De Maud'huy's army orders for the brilliant results obtained these last few days.
For the moment, we must at all cost retain this Braunkopf which the 6th Battalion captured. Poor 6th Battalion! The ground is strewn with its dead bodies, which we find everywhere — in the grass, in the Boche trenches, in shell-holes, and in the trench running parallel with our lines, on which the German batteries poured a furious fire when the offensive began. As to the Braunkopf, it is an appalling flesh-house. . . . Ah! this is not fighting in kid gloves.  Captain Ferdinand Belmont.

On 20 Jun 15 the German line collapsed and the ‘Chasseurs Alpin’ of 66th Division fell on the last German defenders scattered in the woods and clearings:  After the fall of the heights, the French attacks were concentrated on Metzeral.  The 21 Jun 15 witnessed the descent of the ‘Chasseurs Alpin’ from the Braunkopf, circumventing the village to the north and reaching the railway station. Threatened by envelopment, the Germans evacuated Metzeral, leaving some machine-guns concealed in houses and setting fire to the remainder of the village.  The French artillery cut down the walls behind which the machine-guns were placed. Despite the flames the ‘Chasseurs Alpin’ penetrated the streets.

June 21. A hard day! . . . Never before has the 6th Company been through so trying an ordeal.
In action this morning with another company, we rapidly gained a good bit of ground by advancing on the lower slopes of the Braunkopf, in conjunction with the 22nd Battalion, which was attacking Metzeral at the bottom of the valley. This village, which had just been overwhelmed under an avalanche of our big shells, was easily occupied in a few seconds by the 22nd.
We advanced at the same time and dislodged the Boches from the trenches to which they were sticking at the lower part of the Braunkopf. But, either by bullets, or especially by the shells which were raining down to stop our advance, many of our brave infantry fell. All my section heads are gone, Capdepon and two others being killed and the fourth rather seriously wounded. I cannot tell exactly how many men I have left. A sad evening! . . . The last houses of Metzeral are burning. . . . God has spared my life, but how I know not !

June 22. On the evening of the day before yesterday we relieved another company of the battalion at the advanced positions on the Braunkopf. Yesterday morning, about nine o 'clock, the order came to get ready to march and to advance in conjunction with the 22nd Battalion, which was attacking Metzeral. For more than two hours past our heavy artillery had been literally pounding this unfortunate village to pieces. The movement began at ten o'clock. My company was the first in action, immediately on the left of the 22nd, which was already entering the ruins of Metzeral.
The ground on which we had to manoeuvre was very cut up and uneven, with the result that the views were very restricted. To conform to the movement of the 22nd Battalion, which I had been ordered to support, I sent the four sections of my company into action in little columns, one by one, ready to deploy. And they marched, and very well too. . . . Gallant fellows! Already tired and fatigued by four days and nights passed under hard conditions, they boldly went into battle, advancing under a deluge of shells and amidst a veritable storm of bullets. Shrapnel whistled incessantly over our heads, whilst the deafening bursting of big shells surrounded us on all sides; and to such an extent that our losses were principally due to marmites. Here we came in contact with the Boches, who, badly entrenched and already shaken, gave way before us.  Captain Ferdinand Belmont.

On the 22 Jun 15 the 22nd and 62nd B.C.A. continued their successes to the north and took the heights which immediately dominated Metzerel, in addition French forces also took Sondernach.  The Germans were in disarray:

June 23. The Boches are decidedly depressed; they have hardly shown any sign of life since yesterday. Needless to add that the bodies they have left about us give evident signs of death. When patrolling at night in the thickets, we find almost everywhere abandoned knapsacks and rifles and heaps of articles of all sorts : spiked helmets, equipments, great-coats, tools, and even bottles of old Bordeaux some of them empty, the others not yet uncorked, so they had not time to drink it all before making off. At any rate this time they have touched glasses containing something else than Bordeaux. Out of revenge, their artillery is peppering us with shells ; but now that we are under- ground it does us little harm. Much noise and a very small result.  Captain Ferdinand Belmont.

The French now found themselves well placed for an assault on Munster which was no longer protected by a fortified German line.  A report sent by the 8th German ‘Chasseurs’ to their higher headquarters, dated 15 Jul 15, stated that between Muhlbach and the Llienkopf, and even as far as Landersbach, the German defensive line only consisted of individual fox-holes, a few knee-deep discontinuous trenches, no strongholds or shelters, and a single barbed-wire network 3 to 4 m wide, all of which was in full view of the French positions.  Re-supply relied on the narrow single track Oberbreitenbach road which could only be used at night and was so steep that its use was virtually impossible.

For General de Pouydraguin the obvious thing to do was to immediately take advantage of the capture of Metzeral and to thrust eastwards to Munster, via the bottom of the valley whilst the Germans were still disorganised and their positions scanty.  He therefore suggested to General de Maud'huy that he should continue the operations against Muhlbach while, at the same time, attacking the Reichackerkopf and the Llienkopf in liaison with the 66th Division.

General Dubail informed Joffre that the capture of Metzeral – Sondernach was the first act of an operation directed against Munster.  Moreover, he ordered General de Maud'huy to relentlessly keep up the offensive against Muhlbach and give the Germans no time to recover.  However, Joffre (French G.H.Q.) continued to insist that Munster should be taken via an outflanking operation in the heights north of the Fecht, and ordered that all movements in the bottom of the valley were stopped in order to give full weight to the attack against the Linge - Barrenkopf position.  Faced with this inflexibility, and in an attempt to reconcile it with the advice of his commanders on the ground General Dubail finally approved a thrusting move against Muhlbach, but on the condition that this action would not need a lengthy preparation.  He also made it clear that the main aim was still to take Munster by an outflanking movement in the north and that it would be better to drop the attack on Muhlbach if it were to cause a dispersion of efforts.  This restrictive condition, which reflected the state of mind of the French High Command, effectively stopped any further French action along the Fecht valley.  Operations were then shifted several kilometres north, to the Linge a high, heavily wooded zone held by the Germans, where the difficulties were the same as those previously encountered by the 66th Division, at the Hilsenfirst and the Hartmannswillerkopf, and by the 47th Division, at the Reichackerkopf.

Next: The Linge


1 comment:

  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.