The main body of the French 33rd Infantry Division was advancing northwards from Bertrix
through the Forest of de Luchy. They were heading towards the village
of Ochamps intending to continue into the open ground beyond. The
marching column had four battalions of infantry at the head. Following
them were thirty six of the divisions 75mm field guns which were
protected by two more battalions of infantry.
Orders not to take
the guns into the forest had been issued at the last minute but arrived
too late to stop them advancing towards a disaster. To the north the
unsuspecting French troops marched out of the forest towards Ochamps
and soon realised that a strong German force occupied the town as a
field battery opened fire on them. The direct fire of the battery was
deadly and casualties multiplied as a second, then third battery opened
fire on the French troops. In spite of the fire the French infantry
advanced and managed to push some of the German forward posts aside but
their advance was hampered by wire farm fences and the fact that they
could not strike back at the German field artillery which was 1400
meters away. On the left flank things went slightly better for a French
battalion. Out of site of the Germans they managed to advance along a
gully to the south western corner of the village. Here they ran into
three battalions of the German 87. Infanterie Regiment who were
positioned there along with their machine gun company. The Germans were
able to stop the attack but men from two other French battalions
arrived to continue the assault. The commander of the German field
artillery battalion ordered two batteries to limber up and sent them
rushing down to the front line where they turned their field guns to
face the advancing enemy and fired into the advancing French
infantryman at point blank range. Four battalions of French infantry
were being decimated while their three battalions of artillery lay
immobile, stuck on the forest road.
Many thanks to Bruce Gudmundsson, without his article on Bertrix this page would never have happened, and many thanks to Tom Young who helped with the map.
Herman Kaiser of the 27. F.A.R. wrote
In the meantime the 2nd and 3rd batteries arrived and took up position. All three batteries began firing over open sights at a distance of 1400 - 1600 meters. The destruction rained over the masses of French infantry who were marching out of the forest in rows 100 meters wide. It was easy to spot their red trousers and caps with the long blue overcoats. The guns were pulled to the edge of the ridge and the gunners could aim directly. The effect was devastating, the Lines of infantry were ripped apart. The men rushed backwards and forwards in their confusion. Many tried to run back into the forest but the gunners followed them. The woods were combed in width and depth by shells. On the next day we could see the effect, the field and forest are covered with dead and wounded.... All French reports mention this terrible effectivness of our fire, they assumed it was heavy artillery.
The Military Pass of Moritz Heinrich Weyershäuser who was a member of the 3rd Battery at Ochamps with the battle entry.
Meanwhile to the right, on another road through the forest which ran at a 45 degree angle to the advancing French and coming out of the forest at Bertrix, the bulk of the German 21. I.D. was advancing southwards. There were nine battalions of infantry, nine batteries of field artillery and four batteries of heavy howitzers. They came out of the forest at Bertrix just as the last French guns were disappearing into it a few hundred meters away.
Shots were exchanged between the German vanguard and the French rearguard with the French keeping the upper hand and advancing towards the German infantry. The German commander, Generalleutnant von Oven ordered two battalions forward to counterattack at which they did at once. Movement was hampered as they were fired on not only by the French infantry spread out along the road into the forest but also by an independent battery of French field artillery far of to the rear which had seen the fighting break out.
The forward most German artillery battalion received seemingly suicidal orders to advance and without hesitating they rushed out of the forest, taking up positions on both sides of the road. All the while taking losses, the eighteen guns managed to set up and ready themselves for action. Fortunately for the Germans, the French infantry and artillery had been firing too high and many of their artillery shells had been duds. One of the German batteries faced the rear and took on the independent French battery which was about 5 km from the point where they had exited the forest. The other two batteries opened fire on the French infantry and the three or four field guns which had been at the tail end of the column entering the forest. At a range of 400 m's the twelve German field guns made short work of the infantry and their handful of field guns as well as a handful of brave French soldiers who rushed out of the forest in an effort to recuperate the guns. The French battery to the rear seemed to loose interest in the fighting at Bertrix and adjusted its fire elsewhere.
To the north the French troops were stuck at the exit of the forest at Ochamps, to the south six battalions of German infantry and a battalion of field guns were blocking the southern exit towards Bertrix... and still the Germans did not realise the potential. Von Oven was rather worried about the ten batteries of his artillery still in the forest and fearing a French assault he ordered his men to counter attack. The manoeuvre was simple, 3000 infantryman did a simple right turn and advanced into the forest to meet a French attack that had never been launched. The right wing of the German attack ran into the French troops trapped to the south of Ochamps while those on the left wing ran into the rear elements of the French artillery column. The artillerymen defended themselves bravely with rifles and fists but were no match for the infantry. Soon the rear battalion was overrun. The two artillery battalions in the middle of the forest had but one way out of the mess. A trail turning left off the road had been spotted, a trail that led westwards out of the forest. The order was given for the two battalions to retreat down this trail, out of the forest then over hill 471 and to safety, which they proceeded to do.
The Iron Cross award document awarded to Leutnant Heinrich Büsse for his part in the action at Bertrix.
To the south the German artillery had exited the forest and had set up on the open ground leading to Bertrix. Eight batteries of field artillery and four batteries of field howitzers watched in excitement as the first retreating battalion of French artillery appeared on the opposite hill. The initial German firing was ragged but the sheer volume was enough to send the remnants of the battalion galloping, trying to reach safety. While the next battalion tried to avoid the skyline they were not able to manoeuvre their guns through the bogs and fences on the other side of the hill. At the end of the day the French division had managed to save only nine of its initial thirty six field guns.
As the Germans began rounding up the stragglers the French reserves arrived on the scene. Issued with confusing orders and advancing through the remains of the two destroyed battalions of their field artillery the five battalions of French infantry prepared to counter attack. Facing them were seven and a half German infantry battalions, six batteries of field guns, two batteries of light field howitzers and four batteries of heavy field howitzers. The German artillery was set up as if part of a textbook battle scenario. The field guns were in the front firing line, the light howitzers a few hundred meters behind them and the heavies a thousand meters behind the light howitzers. The French attack ran into a wall of shells and quite naturally crumbled, the Poilus retreating in disarray. It was the last disaster of an already catastrophic day. The French 33. I.D. had been destroyed and only the fact that the Germans did not realise the extent of their victory prevented them from chasing down and destroying the remnants of the French regiments.
Heinrich Büsse marches in a veterans parade in 1935. His half hidden face can be seen looking at the General.