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Oberleutnant d.R. Heinrich Hawickhorst (Here)


A major objective of the French Plan XVII was a strong offensive action in Lorraine where national pride had suffered a heavy blow in the 1870-71 Franco Prussian war. The Germans realised that that any future war would see the French making a concerted effort to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine and as a result they had taken this into account in the Schlieffen Plan.

The “Battle of the Frontiers” were a bloody series of clashes at the outbreak of the war. One of them, carried out by the French 1ere and 2eme Armees, was the invasion of Lorraine. General Auguste Dubail’s 1st Army was to march on Sarrebourg, General Noel de Castelnau’s 2eme had Morhange as their objective. Facing them in what was to become the “Battle of Morhange-Sarrebourg” was the German 6. and 7. Armies under Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and General von Herringen respectively.

On the 8th of August General Pau’s “Army of Alsace” had failed in its offensive aimed at Mulhouse near the Swiss border. The 1ere and 2eme French armies had initial successes as the German army followed the Schlieffen plan and pulled back, luring the French into a position where a German Counter-Offensive could be launched. Although it was “part of the plan” Rupprecht was beginning to become impatient as the German Armies on the right wing gathered pace. He began to pressure von Moltke to allow him to stop his retreat and take the offensive. His ambition was to strike and drive the French back to Nancy.

The offensive was launched on the 20th of August 1914, striking de Castelnau’s 2eme Armee who were engaged at Morhange. The 2eme Armee was caught in the open and forced back over the French border. With his flank in danger Dubail was forced to abandon Sarrebourg with his 1ere Armee.

Foch’s XX Corps was able to defend Nancy in the face of the German Advance.

Without a solid French front the “Army of Alsace” which had finally seen success at Mulhouse was forced to withdraw.

The French offensive, so carefully prepared, had exacted a high cost in blood and was a failure. By the 22nd of August the 1ere and 2eme Armies were back in the fortress belt of Belfort, Epinal and Toul. Rupprecht’s Divisions pushed through the Trouee des Charmes, a natural gap between Toul and Epinal. The German attack was launched on the 24th but by the 25th French counter attacks had brought Rupprecht’s advance to a standstill. The sector was to become one of the Static sectors of the front in the years that followed.

Above: A German officer leads his troops in an Attack.

The fighting at Dieuze/Vergaville (Scroll to the bottom for a detailed map)

On the 20th of August 1914  Lt.Hawickhorst commanded a section of the 4th Komp., 174. I.R. during the attack on Vergaville in Lothringen. It was the regiment’s first action of the war. According the Regimental history, the men were sure of their superiority over the French troops and could only foresee victory.  

At 6:00am the 174. I.R. left its positions advanced to the west of the Bensdorf (Benestroff) – Dieuze Railway line, heading for Vergaville.

On the Gebling (Guebling)-Wuisse road the I. and II. Battalions advanced next to each other the III. Battl advancing behind them. To the east of the Railway line the 70. I.R. advanced. As soon as the Batlns reached the first high ground to the South of the road they were engaged in the fighting. Bullets whizzed by and shrapnel exploded overhead as they came under fire from French positions ahead of them and from the flanks. The men bounded forward as if on the training ground, and in no time at all there were holes torn in their ranks. Especially hard hit was the 3rd company who had reached the tree line to the South of the road first. The 4th Company was ordered forward.

Hauptmann Bühler gave orders, (from a letter written by Lt. Hawickhorst):  

“”Lt. Hawickhorst, take three groups from your section and move into the first wave. “ about 1000m away, in the direction of Vergaville we saw the first sign of the enemy… then suddenly they were right in front of us. “Aim here! Aim at those burning houses! Aim at the depression by the railway!”. How the bullets flew around us! Hauptmann Bühler was hit. Hauptmann Bockmann of the 3./174 was killed as well. Leutnant Krevet of my company had his chin shattered by shrapnel, the man to my left had a fatal wound to his left side, the man to the right, a serious head wound.”

The bursting shrapnel, exploding shells and sounds and sights of battle weighed heavily on the nerves. To be faced with this hour after hour, but again and again to look into the fire spitting muzzles of enemy guns as attack after attack was launched, required much energy and courage. Major Hahn of the II. Batln. was also badly wounded.  

The III. Batln joined the fight. A single bullet went through the head of a man from the M.G.K. then through the cheek of Lt. Walter, flying out through his open mouth. 

Shell after shell exploded on the South East Corner of Monacker wood. The amount of wounded needing evacuation became very worrying.  

A French Machine Gun fired into the flank of the 2./174. until a riflemen crawled forward and killed the gun crew, bringing back the machine gun and getting the first Iron Cross in his company.  

Cries for help, screams of the wounded, but those not yet hit had to ignore them and move forward. The enemy positions were their goal.  

The fighting continued, the men of the 174. I.R. pushed their way forward, their MG suppressing the fire of the defenders. As they advanced they ignored the fire from the flanks, or fire from behind where wounded or isolated French soldiers remained hidden in the hedges and fields.

The 174. advanced with bayonets glinting and the defenders wavered. The fields were covered in the bodies of the French dead and wounded. Suddenly the defensive line broke and the men streamed towards the rear. The only resistance was now murderous artillery fire. The 174. pushed rapidly forward as the resistance crumbled. Those who were not dead, or who escaped, surrendered. French officers who tried to stop the rout were (according to the Germans) shot down by their own men. The forward momentum of the Germans was only stopped by the fire of the French artillery.  

Above: Equipment abandoned at a French First Aid post

By 4:00pm the battlefield was in the hands of the victors. The fields were covered with the bodies of French soldiers, Lebel rifles and backpacks.

An emotional Oberst Foerster thanked his assembled regiment for their bravery and the results before they marched into their bivouac area. The Supply officers had a hot meal ready for the troops. The regiment had suffered terrible losses. Of the 72 officers 21 had been killed, 13 wounded. Of the other ranks about 1500 were reported dead, wounded or missing. The four companies of each battalion were amalgamated to form two.  The 2. and 4. Komp were joined, Lt. D.Res. Hawickhorst and Lt. Textor being all that remained of the 11 Officers in the companies at the start of the day. 

To go to the page on Heinrich Hawickhorst please click HERE

Left: About 4km to the North of Dieuze is the national cemetery of Vergaville, it contains the bodies of 1161 French soldiers killed in the area on the 19th and 20th of August 1914.

Above: Map courtesy of Google...