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The EK1

An account by Oberleutnant Otto Kühn, commanding the 3rd Company of the 2nd Bavarian Reserve Jäger Battalion

17th – 27th October 1916

1-  Crossing the Moscovul

After the hot days at Verdun we of the Reserve Jäger once again experienced storms and freezing nights in the mountains at just under 2 300m in the Romanian Siebenbürgen/Transylvania region. Our task was to protect the right wing of Falkenhayn’s 9th Army during the battles at Hermannstadt and Geisterwald and brush of the newly formed Romanian Army which had been formed in the Walachei and was now advancing to support the batters 1st Romanian army. At the same time we were to stop the fleeing Romanian Battalions from crossing the Carpathian’s. The task had been strenuous, but had been carried out successfully and to the satisfaction of the commanding General. We were replaced by Hungarian Honveds and were to have a short moment to recuperate.

Above: 2nd Bavarian Reserve Jäger crossing the Moscovul

Fate and the high command had other ideas. Three long day marches had brought us to Porumbak (17th October 1916) where we hoped we would stand down. There was a day of pleasant weather and our spirits improved when by afternoon no new orders arrived. As evening approached a light rain started, getting heavier and heavier. We settled down to rest.

At 10pm the Battalion messengers arrived with orders. The night was filled with grumbles and not a few curses as the bearded Jäger were awoken… Feldwebel Günther transmitted the battalion’s orders. Immediate depart towards the Glashütte, the point company was already marching, we were to follow, the rest of the companies following us.

In God’s name! Get going! At the company assembly place only a few flickering lanterns could be seen, orders were given to connect with the point company then out into the depressing rain squall, rifles on their slings.

The way led through puddles and streams and we reached the Glasshütte at 2am to bivouac.  It took ages to get fires going, the cooks used the Gulaschkanone (Field Kitchen) to make “Jäger-Punch” with Ersatz Coffee and Slivovitz. It is a goodbye drink as the Gulaschkanone would not come with us when we left at dawn, the cooks would have pots and pans carried by mules.

Right: The Moscovul

At dawn on the 18th of September we headed for the Moscovul. Would pleasant weather make for a pleasant march? Thick Beachwood forest on both sides of the narrow path as we made our way up. Initially it was possible to march two abreast. In the early morning the spirit and mood of the column improved. Jokes were exchanged in spite of the rain, the difficult march the night before was almost forgotten. By 8am the rain stopped and we continued the ascent in some of the most beautiful forests in the world, heading for height 1128. There was no sign of the enemy. Suddenly the forest ended. We were on a hilltop with a fantastic view of the Fogarascher mountains. Suddenly the sun appeared and to our surprise we saw a brilliant white snow covering on the peaks. By midday we had reached the snow. A short break, then slowly but surely onwards. We did not want to spend the night trapped on the Pass. Unfortunately it was not to be avoided as the snow hampered the progression. In some places we had to shovel snow before we could advance with our mules. At 7pm we stood in the pitch dark at the entrance to the Pass. The most difficult part of the day was still ahead; luckily the reflection on the snow gave some illumination. The battery of mountain artillery that marched with us decided to halt for the night, setting up bivouac at 2000m in the snow and ice. Not so the Jäger. Rather a few hours night march then down into the forest where wood could be found to warm ourselves and our food than to stay here camped in the freezing cold with no wood. So, in spite of the exhaustion, we continued our ascent after a short food break.

Maybe if we had seen the difficulties by daylight we would not have attempted it, but it is good that we continued. We dared, and we won.

The last 200m of the ascent already caused big problems. The Jägers with their walking sticks barely made it up the icy, rocky slope. For the heavily laden mules it seemed impossible. But have we ever seen a problem that stubborn Jäger could not solve? With picks and shovels a zig-zag path was hacked into the slope. But still the actual pass lay ahead of us. 100m of Bridle path lay ahead, to the left a 100m drop, to the right a vertical rock face. The path itself was frozen, icy and often just half a meter wide.

And then we reached the Pass! A gateway in the rock face, but blocked by a 1m high boulder. Even Humans could only pass if they were pushed and pulled by their comrades. What to do with our little ponies?

Before the begin of the bridle path the handlers removed the loads and carried them themselves. At the entrance of the path the loads were manhandled over the boulder. One by one the ponies were led to the entrance, their ropes passed over the rock, then a slap on the rump. The ponies scrambled over the rock, and we were through the pass.

I crossed the pass with my company at midnight, the rest of the battalion needed most of the rest of the night.

Crossing the Moscovul was an Alpine achievement compared to Hannibal crossing the Alps, or the St. Gotthard crossings. Even our more modern equipment was of no use in the ice and snow. It was not only a Military but also sporting achievement with which the historians of the campaign will have to credit the soldiers with. We who took part in it were shown that a man’s determination would always allow him to achieve his goals, a lesson that we learned and will never forget.

Above: The Jäger head for the pass

Right: An Aschaffenburger Jäger before leaving for the front

2- The march to Salatrucul

The descent in the night from the 18th – 19th of October was relatively easy. Although we lost the trail during the descent we still progressed rapidly. Often the Jäger sat on their leather trouser seats and with walking sticks clamped between the knees, tobogganed down sections of the path. Some, who did not understand the principle of braking with the stick, lost their balance and went sliding much firther than they anticipated.

By 2am my company had reached the Customs Post where they were to Bivouac. A number of Jäger reported losing their Tschako or backpacks during the descent (See HERE for a Tchako that made it safe and sound) and had not been able to find them. Soon the company was complete. Strangely enough the Mules parties had arrived before the rest of the Company. They had shot down the mountain, had not lost their way, and were responsible for the men arriving at their Bivouac with fire and coffee waiting for them.

When the Feldwebel awoke the men, the sun was already high in the sky. As the Gebirgsartillerie and one of our companies had not yet arrived we did not move out right away. That afternoon when all units were present the battalion received orders to continue over the Clabucetal-Fruntu in the direction of Salatrucal and to join up with the 2nd Austrian Gebirgsbrigade. The departure was at 2pm and at 11pm we reached our bivouac at the forestry house at Clabucetal.

Here we saw the heard the first reports of the enemy. It seemed like a fairytale when told by a Bosnian Hunter. Two hours march from here lay a beautiful mountain village, in a valley with a wide river. One of their companies had been there and found Bread and flour. There was also a railway line. A Romanian Armored train had arrived and chased them away. Now their Battalion had joined the Brigade at Salatrucal.

Of course, we strengthened the guard posts before we bivouacked, then we looked at our maps. Two hours away, a village with a railway? The Austrian General Staff map showed nothing. We knew that these usually accurate maps sometimes had errors as the Romanians had carefully guarded their frontiers with Austria. In the last part of our march we had crossed a road that was not found on the map, so we had to be careful.

On our approach to the Clabucetul we were witness to fighting on Mount Ilie, to our right. Here the 1. Bay. Jäg. Btln. Was involved in a three day struggle, gaining well deserved laurels. The Romanians had sent a few shells our way but the deep snow absorbed most of the effect.

The night of the 20th was quiet.

In the early morning we continued. Across the Pojana Lunga, a large forested plain that would cause us much embarrassment a few days later. We continued up the 1 700m Height Fruntu where the 4. Komp (Garbe) stayed to secure in the direction of Aresu to the South East. Romanian forces had been reported here.

The company was attacked that very day by the Romanians but the brave Jägers beat them back and would continue to bloody their noses in the days that followed. It was thanks to them that we, along with the 2nd Austrian Gebirgsbrigade, would be able to pull back over the Fruntu three days later without suffering losses.

The battalion arrived at Salatrucul at 10pm and took up quarters. In spite of the exhausting march it took to get there, we were happy to finally have a real roof over our heads.

Left: Jäger Graves - Clabucetal

Along with the commander of the Reserve Battalion (Hauptmann Poland) we reported to the Austrian Brigade commander. We were under his command. The orders were to cut the Romanian path of retreat along the Roter Turmpass – Aresu – Curtea de Arges. We could do this, but success depended on the Romanians being beaten to the South of the Roten Turm Pass and forcing them to retreat (towards us). Failing this the situation at Salatrucal would become untenable as the Romanians could use the railway to send troops to Cumpana, right to out rear. We could hold for maybe 2 days, but would be lost if the Alttal at Verestorini was not opened.

The dear Colonel commanding the brigade was pleased at our show of interest. We had snacks after the meeting. On the way back to quarters the Hauptmann pulled a long face. “I am counting on you and your company!” he said (I was the most experienced company commander). He parted ways with a “Weidmannsheil!”

I went to sleep. Until dawn nothing would happen, Romanians did not attack at night.

21st October. The company was quartered on the eastern edge of Salatrucul. Leutnant Weickgenannt had quartered the Company during my absence and set posts a few hundred meteres towards Aresu. As dawn it became clear that the Romanian positions were not too distant. One of the deciding factors in this realization was a Goose that ended up in Bavarian Jäger stomaches. Jäger Wolfrum was on guard at 5am when he saw Geese on the road to Aresu. Who would let such an opportunity go to waste? He left the guard to his comrade, leaned his rifle against a tree and followed the sound of the honking of the geese. The geese waddled towards Aresu, the Jäger following. Suddenly he saw high fur hats in front of him. He had just enough time to grab a goose by its neck and escape back to our lines. His comrade covered him with rifle shots, wounding one of the enemy.

Above: The march to, then retreat from Salatrucal

3- The march back.

Around noon the Romanians attacked the Western edge of Salatrucul and our 2. Komp (Schnitzlein) reinforced the edge. All attacks were beaten back but the situation became critical. As evening approached it became clear that the German advance at Verestoroni would only take place in a few days, once heavy artillery was in position, the Brigade Commander decided to pull back to Mount Fruntu that night.

Further, we received the information that the Moscovul had become impassable due to heavy snow and an ammunition and food supply would be held up for quite some time. As a result we had to strip Salatrucul of everything we would need to survive the next few days. The supply officer received the order to requisition everything with horns and drive it over Mount Fruntu. Luckily there were quite a few animals in the village. We needed them as for the next few days we were to be cut off by the snow and the Romanians. With the help of the peasants (admittedly forced, sometimes physically) all our wounded and stretchers were carried over Mount Fruntu. The wounded were lucky that the Austrian Brigade Doctor supervised this mountain rescue effort with much energy. We Jäger managed to take all our wounded with us. The fate of the Austrian Soldiers who could not be evacuated is not clear, they are still listed as missing.

The night march took place along bottomless, slippery forest paths. We took up positions and the Austrian troops passed through our lines, calm and in perfect order. Many of the wounded dragged by their exhausted comrades who had been under fire for three days. The rearguard, Kompagnie Schnitzlein closed of the column.

22. October. The buffer positions were held until 5am then the men pulled back. There was no attack by the Romanians even though the villagers had signaled our pullback with church bells.

During the night the Brigade had secured and dug in on the peak. The 2. Bay. Jäg. Btln. Went into reserve and was tasked with reopening the communication to the rear. This was achieved that same day. Patrols discovered that the path to the Forestry house at Clabucetul was open and that the 9./ Infanterie Leib Regiment was there. They also reported however that the Moscovul was still not passable. It was possible to string a telephone line that worked most of the time.

By the evening of the 22st October we had Romanians pushing in on three sides. Their efforts to close us off from the west failed because of our machine guns. We began to suffer due to the lack of bread. The next day saw a string of defensive skirmishes. The Romanians lost many men and as a result became ever more careful with their attacks.

The 24th of October started quietly, but it was the calm before the storm. A bloody field telephonist arrived in the afternoon with the news that two Romanian battalions had suddly appeared at Pojana Lunga. His comrades had been killed the telephone line cut. All hell was breaking loose on the Clabucetal. He managed to escape by chance as he was in the forest collecting wood when the attack happened. He had not gotten away unscathed and had been lightly wounded by a bullet.

The telephone line to the rear had been silent since 9am but it had been assumed that the weather was responsible. If the Romanins were now to our rear we could assume that the 9./Inf. Leib-Regt. had been pushed from the Clabucetul.

Bad news followed bad news. We received information that the Romanians had captured an Munitions Column at Pojana.

What could be happening up there? A year later when I commanded the Sturmbataillon in Targoviste I found out some interesting information from a captured Romanian Doctor who had participated in this action. The Romanians had realized what a danger the Brigade at Salatrucul represented for them. They had assembled four Infantry Regiments, three demounted Cavalry Regiments and sixteen artillery pieces under a divisional commander to crush the Brigade. The first attempt at Salatrucul had failed. Heavy losses had slowed their pursuit (when the village was abandoned). When we stopped on the Fruntu they hoped to surround us. A newly formed Regiment (with many new recruits) was brought by rail from Curtea de Arges to Cumpana with the objective of crossing the Clabucetal and attacking us from the rear. As the Clabucetal was occupied by the 9./Inf. Leib-Regt. (The Romanian commander assumed it was the rest of the Alpenkorps) the Regimental commander sent a battalion to the Southeast of the Clabucetal (Between the 9. And the Jäger) who then ascended from Argestale to cut off our way over the Pojana Lunga. A further Battalion would use the confusion to attack us in the flank. It was largely due to the ineptitude of the execution of the plan that it failed.

Above: 2nd bavarian Reserve Jäger Machine Gun Company officers two months earlier at Verdun. The Jägers had been issued steel helmets at Verdun which stayed there when the Jägers transfered to Romania.

4- The Breakthrough

Our major objective now was to secure our rear. This was easier said than done. We would have to surprise the enemy and attack his flank. At the same time we had to abandon the Fruntu and take up a defensive line further North.

The 2. bayer. Res. Jäger Batl. was to open the way to the rear. Hauptmann Poland had three companies of Jäger and the Machine Gun Company. The 1. Komp. Under Lt. Weickgenannt was left to guard the Gebirgsartillerie and the Brigade Staff. From my company (3. Komp) there will still men on outpost duty to the East. They would stay in place then join the 1. Komp in the pullback. Only the 2. And 4. Komp (Under Garbe and Schnitzlein) were complete and the latter had just fought hard at Salatrucul.

Kompagnie Garbe took the lead. The only information they had was that the Romanians were somewhere to the rear. They had orders to attack and destroy and enemy in our path. A Machine Gun Section was attached to them. Oberleutnant Schuchmann  and his section were the point unit. They fulfilled their task with élan. Quick decisions and forceful action meant it was over in minutes with no own losses.

With his men and two machine guns they crossed through the forest of Fruntu and arrived at open ground at the Pojana Lunga. With his binoculars he could see the Romanians digging in 1200m away. An attack across the open snow covered field was out of the question. Sending a report to his company commander he then took his company along a ravine to the west and arrived on the right flank of the Romanians. Covered by the machine guns the Jägers attacked with a loud “Hurrah!” A number of enemy soldiers fell to the machine guns, a group was captured and the rest made for the forest without their weapons. The Battalion commander and his Adjutant were killed as they fled. The Romanian Doctor told me that the second approaching battalion were caught up in the retreat of their comrades and joined them returning to the rear.

That was the last attempt to surround us. A few days later on the 27th of October the I. Batl. / Inf. Leib-Regt. supported by our Jäger took the railway station at Cumpana, which meant the upper Argestal was firmly in our hands. As the weather improved we were able to assure our communications with the rear. Soon after the Romanians at Verestoroni were pushed back into the Alttal and the immediate pressure was off.

There would still be hard fighting to take the exits out of the valley onto the plains, these would go on until November.

The 3rd Company suffers heavy losses at Cumpana just days later HERE