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The EK1

This is part one of a translation of an Article by Generalleutnant August Fortmüller. I find it an exceptionally valuable description of the fighting that took place in Suummer and Autumn of 1917. This is a period neglected by all of the English language histories of the battle of Verdun.

I shall, when I have some time; add some maps.

The Germans spent the first months of 1917 improving their defensive positions on the West and East banks of the Maas. The French, having suffered heavy losses on the Aisne and in the Champagne, were forced to scale back their offensive plans.  

When the Germans took the important Vauxkreuz Höhe (to the North of the Caurieres Wald) on the 4th of March the French were not able to muster the forces for their usual counter attack.  

On the German side von Gallwitz was also called upon to use his men and munitions sparingly. Although he was sure the French were planning an attack on the Caurieres Wald (Forest) he was not in a position to launch a preemptive strike. The initiative was left in the hands of the French High Command.  

On the 20th of May it seemed as if the French were intending to attack and take the plateau to the North of the forest. Heavy artillery fire fell on the positions occupied by the 28th Infanterie Division (under General Langer) which occupied the positions in the forest and to the North of Bezonvaux. The bombardment continued into the 21st of May. The German artillery batteries to the Northwest and Northeast of Ornes were under fire and the ravines to the rear were filled with gas.

Above: Malancourt, the village behind the Bloody Height 304 and the "Dead Man" Heights

All the signs indicating a coming attack were there… but it did not come. Whether this was due to the retaliation of the German Artillery or because of the Morale problems within the French army caused by the failure of the Nivelle offensive is not sure. For the rest of the month of May and into June the French were unusually quiet in the Verdun Theater.  

The Commander of Maas Gruppe West, General von Francois, was looking for a chance to exploit the gains he had made in the Height 304 sector in January and March 1917, concentrating on the high ground to the South West of Height 304 over which the road from Haucourt to Esnes lay. The A.O.K. 5 agreed to allow von Francois to carry out his operation; he in turn agreed to limit the amount of Personal and ammunition used.  

The 10th Reserve Division occupied the ground from the forest of Avocourt in the, across the Height 304 and down into the hollow between 304 and the “Toten Mann” Heights. To their west was the 2. würtembergische Landwehr Division under General der Artillerie Franke, to their East, from the “Toten Mann” to the Maas was the 6. Reserve Division under General Dietrich.  

The carefully planned operation was carried out on the 28th of June. The A.O.K.5 had released Infantry of the 48. Reserve Division (General von Hippel) as an operational reserve and the artillery of the 48. R.D. was to take part in the bombardment. The Divisional commander was instructed to avoid heavy losses. A total of 80 000 artillery rounds were approved for the operation.  

After the bombardment the regiments attacked on a 2000m wide front on the evening of the 28th of June. The attack took place on both sides of the Haucourt-Esnes road and the results were gains that formed a 500m deep salient in the French lines. Weak counter attacks that night were beaten back without great effort.  

To confuse the French and split the enemys artillery fire General v. Francois ordered some diversionary attacks on the 29th of June. In the early morning Stosstrupps of the 2. württembergische Landwehr Division took a section of enemy trench in the forest of Avocourt capturing 40 prisoners. Throughout the day French artillery bombardments broke out along the West bank of the Maas. That evening the 6. Reserve Division carried out a diversion. Its assault troops attacked the positions on the eastern slopes of the Höhe 304 and in the hollow between 304 and “Toten Mann”. Here they dug in and set up communication with the neighboring 10. Reserve Division.  

On the 30th of June the ground to the west of the hollow was retaken by the French.  

The hoped for goals of the offensive had been achieved. 15 French officers and 853 men, along with much material, were captured. The cost had been heavy, the Germans had lost 18 officers and 1157 men. In addition, men from the 48. R.D. had been needed to prop up the 10. R.D. and 6. R.D. and these men could not be pulled from the front line to rejoin their division.  

In the days that followed the French increased their artillery fire in the sector. To help reinforce the newly captured positions and facilitate the pullback of the men of the 48. R.D. the 29. I.D. was pushed into the line.  

The objective now was to hold onto the newly captured ground. French Artillery fire gradually increased reaching a crescendo on the 17th of July. The German artillery positions and lines of communication were heavily gassed. At 7:00am the French attack followed along the length of the recently captured ground. In front of Height 304 the attack fell to pieces but in the sector in which the freshly arrived 29. I.D. held the line the French managed to break into the trenches. The men of the 29. I.D. had arrived just the night before and had had no time to study their positions.  

After heavy fighting the French took not only the land they had lost, but also captured ground to the west of Height 304 where they broke into the original German point of depart along a 1000m section of front. The success seemed to have surprised the French as much as it did the Germans.  

General von Francois decided to launch a counter attack that very evening but due to difficulties in passing along orders the attack had to be shelved and the French retained control of the ground lost. On the Eastern edge of Avocourt forest the men of the 2. L.D. retook the trench they had captured on the 29th of June and lost just that morning.  

The preparations for the German counter attack took time. Chains of command had to be erected, ammunition collected and the burned out 10. R.D. replaced with the 213. I.D.  

The high command was weary about new losses but von Francois was able to convince Ludendorff that a defensive battle from their present positions would cause heavier losses than an offensive in which they could take better suited positions.  

On the 29th of July a bombardment started on the positions from the Avocourt forest to the Height 304. On the 31st the French batteries were targeted with large amounts of gas and high explosive shells in a bombardment that carried on through the night. On the 1st of August the German infantry attacked along the Haucourt-Esnes road on a 2000m wide front. The men of the 29. I.D. and a battalion of the 213. I.D., supported by Pioneers, Flamethrowers and Stosstrupps of the 5th Sturmbataillon (Rohr) broke through the French lines and pushed to the rear.  

The response of the French artillery was minimal. The German counter battery fire seems to have been a success. 11 Officers and 741 were captured. The Plateau to the South West of Height 304 was once again in German hands.  

The French Barrages began to die down towards midday. Most of the fire seemed to come from batteries far to the rear which were firing without any observers. On the morning of the 2nd of August the newly arrived French 86eme R.I. attacked, trying to push the Germans off the plateau. The attack, in places, broke into the German trenches and had to be fought off hand to hand. Another attack followed that evening but the German troops managed to hold their positions.  

Looking back on the 1917 fighting on the West Bank at Verdun Ludendorff wrote “I was relieved that the fighting there had ended and berated myself for letting the attacks take place. Just as before on the eastern front, I was no friend of actions where the results would not justify the losses.”  

The ground captured by General von Francois was however not without value, and this would be proved in the attack that the French were now preparing to launch.  

In Flanders the British Army had launched its massive attack. The French army had largely recovered from the breakdown of moral after the failed Nivelle offensives and it was now back in fighting form.  

Petain wanted to take the pressure of his allies and help break the German front, relieving the pressure with an offensive at Verdun. With a massive attack General Guillaumat was to advance on both sides of the Maas, throwing the Germans off the Heights to the South of the Forges River on the West bank and off of the Talou-Rücken and Height 344 on the East Bank.  

In the first days of August the French artillery fire developed into a heavy bombardment. The shells fell in the forest of Avocourt, continued through to the forest to the west of Maucourt then jumped for a while to the Vaux sector. It  then onto the Woevre plain. The Germans recognized that an offensive was in preparation. In spite of the pressure in their own sectors, the 1. and 7. Armeen were ordered to provide reserves for the 5. Armee for the defense of the Verdun sector. The Germans were nor sure if the attack was going to come on the West or East Bank.  

The commanders wondered if they could pull back to avoid the main thrust of the coming attack. On the East Bank this proved to be impractical as it could have led to the 5. Armee being pushed off the Cote Lorraines and back onto the Woevre Plateau. This in turn would have put the Armee Abteilung C to the South in danger as well as the important Iron ore basin of Briey and the Metz-Montmedy-Sedan railwayline to the North.  

On the West Bank a pullback to the early 1916 positions behind the Forges River would not have posed such problems. Already in December 1916 the Commander in Chief (Crown Prince Wilhelm) had tossed around the idea of abandoning the Höhe 304 and Toter Mann due to the losses suffered in these sectors. The idea was quashed at high levels due to the impact it may have had on moral and to avoid taking the pressure off the French command. Now the idea was given new life as it was thought that supplying a defensive battle over the deep and wide river bed and surrounding banks would be difficult (This refers to the Forges River which runs West-East to the North of 304 and Toter Mann).. Once again the pullback was vetoed by the high command because of the potential negative effect it would have on morale. This was understandable in view of the losses suffered to take the heights.  

The 5. Armee would meet the French attack in the positions they held. In the night of the 12th to 13th of August and on the day of the 13th the artillery duel was in full swing. 21 observation balloons were seen above the French lines and 30 airplanes crossed over the Maas Gruppe West positions. On the orders of von Gallwitz the German artillery concentrated on counter battery fire. On the night of the 13th to 14th the German artillery fired a 3 hour gas bombardment; the French artillery fire was visibly reduced. On the afternoon of the 14th it increased somewhat, but remained reduced until the 15th as the French were forced to remove its batteries from gas filled forests and ravines.  

On the 15th of august the 28. Reserve Division pulled back from its forward positions on the Talou Rücken. The wire entanglements had been destroyed, the trenches had collapsed. The positions were deemed non defendable. Only patrols with light machine guns remained in place.  

On the 16th of August the intensity of the French bombardment reached its height. That evening parts of the three regiments of the German 28. Infanterie Division launched a carefully planned preemptive raid to disrupt the preparations for the coming attack in the Caurieres Wald. They entered the French lines and destroyed a large number of trench mortars and ammunition and captured 14 officers and 700 men.  

On the 17th the heavy bombardment was still in full swing. The A.O.K.5 had ordered the German long range heavy guns to concentrate on the French artillery batteries. That evening the French retook their old positions in the Caurieres Wald. That night the French artillery was targeted with gas shells. This time, unlike on the 14th, the effect did not seem to be such a success as on the 18th the French bombardment actually increased in strength. It targeted the German front lines throughout the day along with heavy mortar fire. The clear sunny skies were perfect for the flyers. Four French planes were shot down and the French damaged three German observation balloons. The first American pilots were observed by the Germans.  

Orders captured during the 28th Infantry Division raid showed the attack planned for the 18th had been delayed for 48 hours. Apparently the counter battery fire had disturbed the French Artillery in their task. The determination of the French artillery and fliers on the 19th of August left no doubt as to what was about to happen.  

The German positions had been turned into a lunar landscape in which nothing could live. Hardest hit was the West Bank between Height 304 and the Maas, on the East Bank on the Talou Rücken, in the Fosses Wald and on the Vauxkreuz heights.  

On the West Bank the bridges across the Forges River had been destroyed, the valley filled with gas and all lines of communication to the rear destroyed.  

At midnight on the 19th to 20th of August the German artillery batteries were subjected to a concentrated gas barrage. On the morning of the 20th the bombardment reached its peak. Just before 5:00am the French attacked. Between Avocourt and Cumiers on the West Bank five fresh Divisions were used. On the East Bank between the River and Bezonvaux six fresh Divisions attacked.  

To the Northwest and North of Avocourt the 2. Landwehr Division occupied the line. To their left the 206. Infanterie Division (Generalleutnant von Etzel) which occupied the ground until the Haucourt-Esnes road. To their left the 213. Infanterie Division occupied Höhe 304. The 6. Reserve Division was on the Toten Mann, to the North of Cumieres and on the Maas Plain. The 29. Infanterie Division and 48. Reserve Division were behind the lines and were to serve as a mobile reserve.  

The Maasgruppe Ost (East) under General der Kavallerie von Garnier wase placed as follows: At Samogneux and on Height 344 were the 28. Reserve Division. General von Mohn’s 25. Reserve Division were in the Beaumont sector and were bordered to their left by the 228. Infanterie Divison (General v.d.Heyde) who were in the Fosses Wald stretching further eastwards. From the Vauxkreuz Höhe to Maucourt the 28. Infanterie Division held the line. The 80., 46. and 78. Reserve Divisions were held as a mobile reserve.  

In the Vaux sector the “Gruppenabschnitt Vaux” (The bayerisches Generalkommando 63 under Generalleutnant Ritter von Schoch) had under its command the 192. and 56. Infanterie Divisions as well as the 19. Ersatz Division.  

Just in case, the 51. Reserve Division and 30. Infanterie Division were held as an Armee level reserve.  

Under the cover of a man made fog, the French troops advanced behind their creeping barrage. There was almost no resistance as they crossed through the first defensive zone and swept away the forward positions at Cumieres and on the Talou Rücken. Then the German defense in depth strategy went into effect. From defensive positions which had not been destroyed by the artillery or bypassed in the fog German machine gun fire tore into the attackers, hitting them from the front and from their flanks.  

Bullets and grenades forced them to take cover. The broad offensive degenerated into a series of local actions as the men fought hand to hand. Counter attack followed counter attack as the Germans and French pushed their local reserves in the fight. Company commanders achieved local successes or suffered defeats, the effects of which were not always immediately clear to the neighboring units.

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