At the Mont Haut
On the 13th of July 1917 the enemy threatened with attacks once more, so that we were in alert again. The steady attacks had slowly drained the forward lines and the reserves of their full fighting power. On the 14th the entire regiment was put at the 19th Infantry Divisions disposal. The enemy had taken the Mont Haut. The Ist Battalion was ordered at the fortifications to push forwards at once, where it would be deployed with the Ist Battalion of the 74th I.R. during the night. On 1 o’clock in the afternoon it marches off from the camp, so that they would cross as big a distance as possible during the day, in order to avoid the increased nightly shelling of the marching route during the night. The battalion was expected to launch a counter strike. Short after midnight they arrived at the 1st reserve positions (R1) and after 4 o’clock in the morning the battalion moved towards the area of the Carius deep into the ordered attack position, but was pulled back to the R1 position.
The area of the mountain (Mt. Haut, 256m). The area is still being used today as military exercise grounds.
(Image from the Carte Touristique Nr. 10)
On the evening of the 15th the battalion was ordered to move forwards towards the launch positions in order to attack at 9:45 together with a battalion of the 74th I.R. under the command by Oberleutnant Carius. The launch positions were under constant artillery fire with high-explosive and gas shells. After 45 minutes of artillery preparation the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Company launch their attack, while the 1st Company remains behind as backup at the R1 position. An overall strong artillery and machinegun barrage is waiting for the troops, causing many casualties right from the beginning. The 2nd and 3rd Companies were hit so hard by flanking machine gun fire that they were largely routed. Parts of these companies joined the 4th, that was moving at the left wing and it succeeds in pushing towards the old battle lines and take 12 prisoners. A heavy counter attack by the French forces them back behind K3 (battle line 3). This is a very dangerous position as the right flank has an unguarded part of some 500 meters, that is only secured by patrols. The 1st company cannot intervene in due time, since the ongoing barrage has destroyed all communication lines. All actions are complicated further by the fact that it is very difficult to orient one’s self in this completely shot up tree- and brush less area to such an extent that nobody can say where exactly they were at any given time. Even trenches that were present during the afternoon, were completely erased by the terrible artillery fire.
Shot up trenches after an artillery drum fire
So one lies on the steaming hot chalk soil, thirsty, watched, taking cover and constantly watching everything all at once. Time passes slowly.......The night is relatively quiet. And yet, above all physical discomforts, the insecurity about what is going to happen next is the most tortuous. Every single moment a new surprise can come. All senses are highly active and the overstretched nerves still try to work through the last events, until one falls into a vague, slumbering state of half sleep. This half sleep doesn’t bring any rest, but more some short periods of unconsciousness together with mangled images of the tortures of the last days. Then one gets up and stares with squinted look into the night, tortured by a terrible thirst. The tongue sticks to the mouth and the throat is dried out because of this damned chalk dust. A patrol reporting our achievements is sent back. Will it make it through this terrible barrage? And the night went, without any connection with the left or the back area was re-established. The morning sun finds the group, some 60 men, alone on the Mont Haut. Then at 8 o’clock in the morning the enemy artillery starts shelling the trenches with 2 heavy artillery guns, one, two hours long. We’re slowly going crazy here, this waiting against the trench edge, at crater’s edges, every moment waiting for these exploring fists that slowly work their way along the line. The sun gets higher and burns relentlessly. The rotting corpses of the last days spread an unbearable smell, millions of flies swarm around. The casualties decompose in this heat within hours, those buried with great difficulty are exposed again by the grenades. And at all times during this period, the eyes watching, the hands ready...Finally, finally the night falls and the message from the rear and slowly afterwards the first connection to the right.
At the fall of darkness on the 16th the Ist Battalion pushes forward until the old K2 line and finds it unoccupied by the enemy. An attack group of the 1st company under Unteroffizier Esrom takes two prisoners of the French 33rd Regiment. Also the following night of the 16th and the 17th passes quietly and it enables us to close the line. During the next days we set up a relieve cycle under our own control, so that we had the IInd and IIIrd Battalion ready and the Ist as a division reserve in the Winterfeld camp. One company, based at the R2 position, provides a re-supply of engineering equipment. Their activities and those of the food suppliers became very difficult as result of the very strong shelling that targeted the supply route during day time, but especially during the night. Regularly a group of 4 gas or explosive shells would explode. It must be said that one gets used to it with the result that what we tend to see as ‚quiet’ would be seen by other positions as ‚highly suspicious attacks’. But anyway, as one wandering around the crater area, loaded with canisters or bread bags, one welcomes the minimal shelling.
On the 25th of June we were to retake the old K2 line, since the occupation of the top of this overlooking Mont Haut meant everything. The enemy was not supposed to look into our "cards" from above.
The preparations begin. One pulls the companies forwards. In the Carius deep and it’s trenches lay the reserve troops cramped up together and must not show themselves, since the enemy can oversee this area. The reserve troops are moved forwards as near as possible and for a large part are placed in the Thomsen deep. This means that the Thomsen deep are completely overcrowded. Men lie more on top of each other, instead of next to each other. Even the entrance steps are occupied by waiting men, so that the thick air became almost unbearable. Thirst and headaches are common. The deep themselves heave a colourful history of their own. Burned by Frenchmen with flamethrowers, occupied, filled with prisoners, retaken by Germans including the German prisoners and wounded as well as French guards. It is therefore a treasured object, because it is the largest and best shelter of the entire wing and it’s the only deep that offers enough protection. The burned out walls, that are made up of uncovered charred chalk offered a grotesque, unsettling view in the candle light.
At the front, the first line is the IIIrd Battalion, without the 9th Company and the 6th Company that are meant to simplify the attack of the IIIrd Battalion by putting pressure on the flanks. In the second line the 7th, 1st and 4th Company are present, partially serving as protection of the K2 trenches.
Already during the night and the following day our artillery target the enemy trenches with a planned, continuously increasing destructive fire, until around 8 o’clock in the evening of the 25th of July it moves it’s targeting zone backwards. Instantly the storm troops appear and the second line follows close behind. The advantage of having troops moved so near to the position is shown here, since the French start a crazy barrage that targets the area between the Maronviller – Nauroy (nowadays the D 64) road and the Thomson deep, so that crossing this area would only have been possible with extremely heavy casualties.
Within moments and without much opposition the goal is reached. It’s amazing how fast this area, always feared and filled with nasty threats, was crossed. Now we are on top. So that is how it looks like. And our positions like that....and then one finds that one cannot disconnect his thoughts, even in such tense moments. Our artillery had been effective. All trenches were overturned, torn corrugated iron sheet arches everywhere, splintered wood, strange equipment pieces and blue steel helmets...We proceed, it’s only a matter of finishing things off. We are amongst the wave and nobody stops us. Far across the designated target the companies push forward. They arrive at the sanitation and battalion shelters. From these shelters they capture completely exhausted prisoners who offer no resistance at all. Yes, the prisoners come in large groups with arms raised high, singing a song from the „Artillerie Allemande“ (‚German Artillery’ in French –GVV). After that the prisoners are escorted back on the slope. Some reluctantly, some hurry themselves since they must evade their own artillery fire, that still replaces old craters with new ones. We count 6 officers and 150 men taken prisoner, who complain about thirst as much as we do, but at least they are going to get something to drink soon. The booty consists of several machineguns and numerous repeating rifles.
Light and middle mortar throwers at the Carius deep
Our losses are very few, although a machine gun from the position "Lug ins Land" was firing heavily into our flanks. On the left wing, at the 6th Company, the enemy appears to launch a counter attack, that is rapidly halted. Our companies are forced to evade sideways or backwards as a result of artillery shelling (nobody knows whose artillery it is). After fall of darkness a heavy enemy counter attack is launched on the right wing but it is quickly warded off with minimal hand grenade defence. These repeated attacks exhaust the forces more than the storm attack. In the morning, when the French attacked again covered by heavy fog, the weakened troops in the K2 trenches were forced back.
The morning of the 26th of June brings no larger battle actions because of the thick fog though the enemy continued his activities. As good as it goes in this crate field, one tries to convert the captured area to defendable positions. These efforts were disturbed by the artillery and machine gun fire from the "Lug ins Land" post. Regarding to the artillery, the story goes that most of the incoming shells are coming from German guns, still even while we complained about it yesterday.
At 5:30 in the afternoon another strong French counter attack from the K1 line towards the K2 line begins, that is warded off by a bitter hand grenade fight. As the result of this counter attack the planned attack to retake the old K1 line at 6 o’clock cannot be launched. Also the many heavy losses force us to abandon the attack.
The commanding General, His Excellence General-Leutnant von Lüttwitz as well as the division’s commander compliment the regiment. The following orders reached the regiment:
„Group order of for Prones group.
Next message is directed towards the group:
I wish to extend my regards to the 187th Infantry Division for the good preparation and smooth execution of the Mont Haut operation, especially for the braveness with which the group has reached it’s goals under heavy enemy counter attacks.
The General Commander
signed. v. Below
General der Infanterie.“
„Daily order for the 187th Infantry-Division.
On the 25th of July after careful preparation by the artillery and mortar groups the 187 I.R. and the 4/189 have stormed the trenches that remained in enemy hands after the 14th of July. During an uninterrupted attack the troops have pushed forwards until the third French line and have captured amongst the confused defending enemy 5 officers and more than 150 men and several machine guns. They have held the trenches against numerous enemy counter attacks. On the 26th of July the enemy tried to retake the area using inconiderate large amounts of troops. The attacks were halted by the excellent, appraisable struggles of the infantry. The strength of the enemy has been broken. The infantry has earned itself new eternal fame.
I compliment and thank the 187th Regiment and the 4th Company of the 189th! My thanks are also extended to the Artillery, the Mortar groups, the 272 flyer department and all who were involved, who due to careful planning and perfect support even under heaviest fire, managed to support the struggling infantry. The 25th and 26th of July 1917 are new days of glory for the Division.
The completely exhausted companies except the 9th company that entered the forward position, were relieved by companies of the sister regiments and the entire regiment apart from the regiment staff, 5th and 9th Company move back to the Winterfeld camp on the 28th/29th of October, where it rested until the 3rd/4th/5th of August. The relieve and return of the regiment to the forward lines went without casualties. A new more practical regrouping of battle and workforces based on experience made it possible with time to create a more regular and thus better, but still not perfect life. The disturbance fire of the enemy artillery is targeted towards the back area and it’s supply routes as before. At the present front line, utilizing all available work forces, a new K1 line is dug out. It takes shape quickly and is reinforced with barbed wire. At the left wing the IInd Battalion digs out a new trench that is meant to go to the regiment border, since there have only been some isolated posts in craters there.
Frontline positions at the Mont Haut
The enemy artillery fire grew stronger during the nights. The French appear to be especially fond of the sudden aggressive artillery raids with 8 to 12 shots that are shoved through without aiming and against which one can only protect himself when one knows these batteries precisely and possesses a life-depending agility besides excellent terrain. Traffic in the enemy trenches is targeted by our artillery and when they are quite near, by our mortars with detectable results. The French disturb our nightly work with machinegun, rifle and rifle grenade fire, so that one must constantly be on his guard and listening if one of the countless rifle grenades will be fired. We strike back at our hard working enemy with short grenade launchers and hand grenade attacks. A new enemy battery strongly flanks our trenches in from the direction of the Cornillet hill. These shells are of a small calibre, but they come so unexpectedly and so quick, that one cannot be careful enough to take cover against this side. We answer them with explosive shells and light mortars. On the 17th of August the enemy shells the Thomsen deep from 14:00 until 17:00 o’clock so heavily with mortars and artillery that one would expect a new attack, which didn’t take place. One entrance to the deep is completely destroyed and another one was blocked for some time. The 3rd Company of the 189th who were stationed here, suffered many casualties due to cave-ins and carbon oxide poisoning. The rescue works that started immediately enabled at least that the wounded and sick men could be brought to safety. The company was pulled back to the intermediary positions during the night, so that the terrible Thomsen deep were completely cleared.
Regiment office at the Winterfeld camp
What is contained in this short message, can only be understood by the men who were occupied there during these difficult days and hours. The images of the leaders and men who served their duties without concern for the enemy fire during the hours of the attack, being occupied by the simple message „No connection with the left and right!“.
· The hand grenade thrower, who, like a true berserker, landed his projectiles between the shattered and terrified enemy in a way that would have brought him honour on the exercise yard, larding his actions with battle cries similar to the old Germans.
Pont Faverger at the Suippes Leutnant Archilles and dispatches at the Mont Haut
· The Unteroffizier, who sets up his grenade launchers painfully precise and then launches his attack with the joy of an artillerist.
· The runner, who brings new surprises every night and under difficult circumstances crosses the battlefield twice a day, heavy loaded, sweating, gaping, bringing our food and drinks (those days still the lovely ham and the eagerly awaited drinks).
· The runner chain, that always had something to provide back or forth, especially used and needed when something was happening, when the entire area and especially the runner paths were under the heaviest of grenade, shrapnel, gas and machinegun fire.
· The medical orderly, who had to do their duty with the wounded soldiers under the worst possible condition under fire.
These images and many others, that could not be recorded since the memories of many individuals went unnoticed, these images remain in the memories of those who lived through them, never to be forgotten! It was a great job to collect such scenes, as remembered by several veterans, so that we can provide others with an insight in the real war life, which was not available through other documentation and sources. Especially for myself, to preserve these images and feelings one more time, clearly and forever. One cannot freely and clearly show this true face of war to the „home front“, since how terrible they were, many times they were also colourful and great
Burial of the fallen ones at the Aussonce cemetery
The German war cemetery at Aussonce on the 29th of September 2003
Some of these memories, not related to the Mont Haut, but rather to the survivors, are noted down here, so they are not forgotten. The following memories in first-person were noted down word for word.
We were supposed to take an order from the ‚Dog House’, the battalion fighting position in the left area, to the front and return with several other messages. We scouted the route during daytime from one of the trenches on higher ground and thought we could easily follow the route during the night, even though we took it for the very first time. When night fell, we gear up, take our steel helmets, gasmask and hand sticks and we go.
We pass the small hill towards the Carius deep, but there we need to pass through the barbed wires that are spread over the small slope as result of the heavy shelling. When one is caught up in the this barbed wire in complete darkness, then the fun starts. Gaiter, pants, boots, everything is pinned down and torn up, especially at places where one carefully probed ahead and assumes that there should be no more wire there.
We turn towards the left in order to reach the broad, wagon trail ridden road. It is going to be a very dark night. It’s better that we took this easy recognizable road. One occasionally steps into a hole or on an artillery basket, but that doesn’t matter much. Most important is that we can make out the edges of the Mont Haut against the dark sky. That is where we need to go. Now and then a flare rises. Then one can clearly see the bumps and holes of the completely mangled hills, and the shadows of the blank and scarce tree stumps turn across the ground as the light of the flare sinks down until it is dark again, even darker than before. One can’t even see the edges of the Mont Haut anymore.
We move further down the slope. We must be near the edge of the Carius deep any moment now. It is supposed to be a windy corner there. Anytime an artillery fire may start to complicate our approach, but everything is quiet now. A nice warm night. It is the calmness of the late night. A rifle shoot sounds somewhere to the right, well away from where we are. With a damp but loud noise two hand grenades explode. Without echo the air dampens the sound. Such intermissions create an even more present quietness.
There, launched up there, at the same time near us, above us, behind us, two explosive shells high in the sky. Oh, well, these go even further than ‚dog houses’. But we have tucked in our heads a little lower.
„The French are awake.“
Back there, they can easily shoot a bit more, until we are passed the Carius deep...
We appear to be at the Carius deep. A trench on the right, seemingly behind the old Maronvillers – Nauroy road.
„Anyone there?“ we shout. No answer. There, two more explosive shells at the same location.
„Hey! Post!“. Someone arrives through the trenches, very slowly.
„Hey, comrade, are these the Carius deep?“
„What do you say?“
„Are these the Carius deep?“
„Yes, there is a deep here. A bit further.“
„Is that the Carius deep?“
"What for……that I do not know! Come down, to the top the French send his shells."
„We don’t have much time! Does it lead forwards here?“ Another one arrives, who we con not see in the darkness and tells us these are the Carius deep and forwards it goes across the road and then towards the footpath, then curving off to the right and we arrive at the left trench wing of the left company.
So we went. First we crossed the street. It’s very, very dark indeed. Are we still on the road? Or have we crossed it already? It looks as chalky as the entrance to the Carius deep. Stop, here is a dark edge. It appears to be the former edge of the road. And here is the footpath, clearly visible as a bright streak. Bright? We are only 20 paces away and we are not even sure we are still on the path. Between the craters everything looks the same. Crater after crater. One in the other. And one balances along the edges. We must turn back a bit and try to find the path again...
Suddenly the hell is let loose! One round explodes exactly on the road, at least we believe it does. Then we duck into a really deep crater, in which we both instinctively jumped into. The splinter of the shells shakes the ground. There, another round. Damned! Should we get out of here? No, staying here is better. And again four shells, a bit further away, against the road at the Carius deep. Next to me I find a full rations canister and some cartridge belts...Aha, this round goes further backwards.
We climb out. Flares everywhere. Really everywhere, in front of us, to the left, right, behind us. That’s nonsense! How can they shoot flares in the direction of the dog houses!
But there are no dog houses there!
What? Now I’m completely confused! If there are no dog houses there, where are they?
There, in that direction!
In that direction? There is Luginsland….!
At least it’s clear, that we both are completely confused about what is front and back, since we crawled from the damned crater. The Mont Haut cannot be seen against the night sky. The flares are coming towards us or go away from us, we really don’t know anymore. Since we’re now completely lost, we return to the foot path! Well, one at least can see more in the light of the flares. Here, two paces to the left, that’s the foot path, surely it is.
On the mountain Lieutenant Meicht on the mountain
But to the left or to the right? There appears to be action towards the right. So we go some paces to the left, in order to identify the road......Yes, this is it and we can now follow the clearly visible footpath again.
To the right some shells explode at the Starfish, the fighting position of the rightwing battalion. To the front at the forward lines it is quiet. But in the back lands it’s very busy indeed. A dog runs across the field, without minding us.
Suddenly there are explosions behind us. Ah, the mortars that start to work. They are positioned along he road, as far as we know. Their shots draw a bright hissing curb along the night sky. There they land, four red flashes and a wild rumble in the hills. There’s trouble there as well.
We climb upwards again and arrive at the completely bare tree stumps, that are shown on the map as a small woodland. Suddenly we find ourselves at the entrance of a small trench that deepens after a few steps. It doesn’t appear to be pretty. Twisted and half destroyed corrugated steel plates stick somewhere in the edge. The walls have been destroyed by repeated grenade hits. Towards the right we see the company leader’s dugout. We sweat like pigs and we therefore take off our steel helmets. Then we enter the thick air of the shelter. Damn! I hit my head against a beam or something up there. And that support on the right, made up of some metal bit, looks pretty bad. It shakes a lot and someone shouts from below „Who tore out our chimney tube this time?“. I step on a helmet, hit some sort of contraption and land in complete darkness on a staircase. „Are we below yet?“ „Yes, continue forwards!“ someone answers. A terrible ordeal, walking forwards in complete darkness. I can’t even see the men who answered. Ah, I touch some sort of curtain, or rather a bag, and I can see the flame of a candle behind it.
I raise the bag and find myself in the „Drawing Room“. The company leader sits comfortably on a small bench, a load of maps, orders and messages on the table in front of him, made of a piece of board nailed to the side of the deep, hardly an arms length wide. A carbide lamp stinks and burns while the unshielded flame blinds the eyes. On the „table“ a bottle of soda and a half empty glass. On the wall hang tw o flare guns, a positions map, a gas mask, some prints and a dirty post card, on which one reads to his astonishment „Happy New year!“ (at this temperature!). On a shelf there are many differently coloured flare cartridges that make up a weird pastime as one is supposed to signal his status every day. Besides them two cooking pots, a drinking cup, a steel helmet, two cigar cases and half a loaf of bread. Behind the back of the company leader there are two stacked beds, not a lot of space here. Regrettably not for the feet either. A bucket, a large Bismarck herring can as wash basin, some sandbags with unidentified contents, some more steel helmets, an ammo box, two bottles and some more stuff severely limit the available foot space.
Three men stand around the company leader nevertheless, who are orienting themselves on the map for a planned patrol. At the entrance, just behind the bag, another man sits on a kit-bag. This place is FULL! Another one is scurrying around the staircase, by the way.
The lieutenant smokes. His batman, sitting on the lower bed, smokes as well, so that the carbide lamp has some fierce competition. The lieutenant asks us what we want and we answer. He sends the three men away and reads the order. We ask for a drink and get a bottle of soda which we enjoy very much and besides a cigarette. A man arrives and reports that the food has arrived and he leaves again with an order for the platoon leader. The lieutenant writes down his report. A Unteroffizier arrives and asked if the post at the left wing should be set up as before. We receive our report and we go upstairs. Upstairs somebody is standing and ask: „Is that you, Meier?“ „No!“ „Did Meier pick up the ammo belt yet?“ We don’t know, and those upstairs come towards us.….
We are outside at last. Starry sky above us, but without moon. Some grenades fly backwards. The air is fresher here although it smells like burned flare powder, rotting equipment and food cans, but smells of chloride chalk and some traces of latrine as well. It is a sickly, but constant smell that hangs above the trenches, but very identifiable.
We continue, as we are to return via the „Starfish“ for orientation. To the left the trench ends, but men are working there. We find some men we know and talk with them. They are also quite happy although one curse about the muck here in the frontline. We all want to know if there are new "rumors". Everyone will say that he doesn’t believe rumors, but in truth everybody want to hear even the faintest rumors about possible relieve, as ‚relieve’ is the magic word here, that can even arouse the quietest of men here. But we don't know anything. So we are fed some new ones. Then we leave, passing the silence posts, which are looking into the night with the steel helmets on the head, walking through worker's groups, passing saps and resting shelters towards the right wing. At the right wing everything is even more quiet, careful as they are closer to the enemy, who as we passed around them fired some rifle grenades in order to satisfy their anger.
We inquire ourselves along towards the famed Thomsen deep and we have leaved the trenches. Along the runner chain, positioned in a former woodland towards the „Starfish“, we move along hindered by tree stumps and rubble. At the Carius deep, things are exploding again. But also before us at the entrance of the trench area that leads from the "Starfish" to the runner chain, the area is under shrapnel fire, as explained by a supply runner who accompanies us.
The runners can usually reside together with machine gun nests. Many times they have nothing to do for long periods, but when things get going, their job is difficult. When they have to make their daily run, a French machine gun will shoot at them, but always a little too late. First some single shots are fired, slowly increasing until they ‚rrrrrrrt’ whiz along. When that happens, one must be in cover already.
Above us four grenades whiz by, we heard that they were fired. They land between the Starfish and us and don’t explode. Or they blow fumes. It is a curious sound. Can it be gas? Then a few more land. Same thing. Of course it is gas. We can see a bit better and some milky clouds creep across the earth soil. Then four more land, a bit closer. Then another four. It is almost wind still. But it smells a bit sweet. They get closer. We have to put on our gas masks, damned. Here we are, in the field, and we hear it creeping closer. The shooting continues, uninterrupted and quite quickly. Some four more rounds pass us at short distance with a remarkably silent whistle, and, so it seems, with not a lot of speed. They land and pop a bit. We can hardly see a thing, wearing these masks, so we remain sitting where we are. The shelling lasts some 20 to 30 minutes. I remember our first goggles and nose clamps, that were handed to use while in the Vogesen, in a small bottle that usually broke. That was our ‚Gas Protection“. I also remember the last time when the French shot at us with tear gas grenades. They were small brass hulls, the size of two flares, that also were fired from flare rifle and came whizzing towards us like rockets. They landed between the shot up pine logs and broke with the sound of a opening wine bottle. Then a fruit bonbon smell would emerge, making the eyes water immediately. We protected ourselves by wearing our goggles and they didn’t trouble us much, so little even that we started to enjoy this routine. Some day afterwards we captured a set of these tear gas grenades and we fired them back at the French using their own flare rifles, which annoyed them so much that they shouted like hysterical girls and shot at our loop-hole like idiots. Yes, those were the days back then in the beautiful Vogesen! And now we are here, stuck in the lice champagne, wanting to get to bed and not going anywhere. But when one looks back on it, it wasn’t quite as bad as we thought, I’m convinced.
The shelling stops and the gas slowly flows away to the west. We walk around the valley in a small arch towards the Starfish. I step on the edge of a crater, that immediately collapses so that I slide downwards together with the falling dirt. My buddy also lost his balance and slides into my back. I am on my knees between tools and planks, and someone starts to swear loudly. We are supposed to re-block the entrance to the shelter immediately, followed by some more cursing. Two men are working on a new shelter for a machinegun or mortar nest. We calm them down and continue towards the Starfish. This shelter between the pines is s deep and doesn’t make a friendly impression, especially since it is in reach of several very heavy barrage fires.
We return quickly to our shelters, that bear the not very inviting name „Dog Houses“, but they are not very bad – we can do some sun bathing during day time – and the daily work on the tow shafts with cooperation of the officers of the battalion’s staff can actually be quite pleasant.....if it weren’t for this damned war!
La Neuville cemetery
German war graves at la Neuville on the 29th of September 2003
On ... I’m sent to the mortar launchers. Four launchers are supposed to be set up on either side of the road to the left of the Carius deep. I had been on that road passing that position at the Carius deep many times, but never saw our mortar launchers there and they should be relatively close by. The fist supply carriers for that battle positions were getting ready, while I left alone first. It was completely calm when I left. But just before the Carius deep I found myself amidst a grenade salvo and I was lying flat on my face in a shallow ditch. Everything happened so fast that I can’t remember how I was waling along, heard incoming grenades, witnessed the first explosion and took cover while the other three were exploding. Everyone was in alert mode and it was good that I was lying flat on the ground as the shrapnel passed right over me. They obviously used sensitive primers here, as there were not a lot of impact craters here. I decided not to wait for the second load, but rather ran towards the Carius deep trenches and just as I reached them the second wave impacted, sending a mass of muck and powder smoke into the air. A third wave landed, after which I crawled out and followed the Marionville – Nauroy road towards the left. I found nothing that looked like a dug-out, which I would like to have during the shooting. But than I found in a small brushwood a four-cornered square hole, covered with bright straw bundles.
„Hello!“ I called, „Are there any mortar launchers here?“
„Yes!“ they answered with a hollow sounding voice, opened the bundle work and let me climb down. The shelter was filled with men, who were working on something and setting up their cooking pots. A corridor connected the launch platforms with both shelter entrances. But everything had been covered completely with metal sheets and beams. On the outside everything had been covered with white chalk soil so that the shelter could not be seen, even when one was very close and knew that one should be there. In parts, for light and air circulation purpose, the roof had openings and these holes were camouflaged with painted canvas and straw patchwork to such an extent that even our own air surveyors never painted this position on their maps.
I performed my task and then I visited a friend, who let me down into the shelter. It was not very deep and quite small. But they were already working on improvements. As we returned outside, they advised me to stay for a while, since they were going to launch some mortars.
The operators were preparing their launchers that had been set up slightly forwards. These were slightly more visible from above. There were only light mortars, but they looked wonderful. The Unteroffiziere were carrying maps and tables, gave orders with admirable autonomy and everyone calculated, tested and operated their launchers. In small, short dug-outs some other men sat and took some mortars from cases, after which they worked on them with several tools. Then everywhere the word ‘ready!’. The platoon leaders gave some directions and I was told to enter a corridor. They loaded, orders were given and the mortars were fired. Four mortars were launched and exploded not very loud. This scene was repeated several times, so that every launcher had shot six times. Then the launchers were quickly cleaned and covered again.
They said there would be a retaliation quite quickly. The infantry had asked for the launching of some mortars, by the way, towards a target observed during day time. We moved back into the shelters while talking further. Suddenly the answer came. The French struck blow after blow, always in sets of four, on a target somewhere else. Everyone moved out again and observed what was happening through the camouflage nets. I spotted the flashing of French grenades on a small hill in the area of our left wing neighbour regiment. One could even see the chalk soil plumes in this relatively bright night.
“Damned”, they said, “the French are mad at us again! That is the answer to our mortar launches”. “To our launches?” I asked in a dumb voice. “Yes, to our launches! The French still don’t know where we are, although we even shot at them during day time. Every time we hit them, they cool their anger up there. That is where our neighbour regiment’s mortar groups are. Those guys don’t like us very much, as they always pay for our fun. They are going to move out of there, as I’ve heard…”. Although we did pity the other mortar groups, we had to laugh about the zealous Frenchmen.
In these conditions the mortar launchers had a relatively good life. They did get their share of trouble now and again when they got hit by loads destined for the Carius deep. They therefore kept a low profile and didn’t expose themselves during day time; Even the access route to their position was camouflaged every night, so nothing would give them away. The discomfort and other things that strategy brought with it, was very much worth it.
The French calmed down and I was just about to say goodbye, as the supply carriers arrived. A very busy scurrying took place. Munitions and crates were accepted and stored. With much more interest they threw themselves on the food carriers, flasks, bread, fat rations and mail bags. Everything was sorted in groups using sand bags, etc.. For everyone who ordered something from the canteen some extra’s like cigars were delivered. And while everyone was happily poking around the food (there was something called ‘a lunch break’, mostly smelling like bacon), some of them started distributing the mail. Then some men came in with bread, cheese and (hard to believe) cooked ham…..
That is the best hour during trench life: When one can enjoy a good, diverse meal, a cigar or pipe after a day of war while reading his mail….That’s really peaceful…
I finally returned again and pitied myself after witnessing this ‘Family gathering’, since I was continuously sent away from my company. In the womb of your own company, that cares for you, you really feel safe amongst your comrades. The company is the best place to be!
An officer, who was responsible for gas protection (the G.O.), sat in his somewhat dug-in wooden shack and smoked one of his heavy Bremer Brazil cigars (peace time purchase price 30 Pfennig each, he said). Since this story is true, we will not mention any names and will simply call this G.O. just ‘Meyer’. He smoked his cigar with a great bad temper, not caused by the cigar but by the fact that the French had been shooting gas into the back area for some 5 minutes. The G.O. had to be present there. He had to count the grenades. Regrettably he had, as he thought, missed eight of them. The most important was that he was there so that everything would go smoothly. He couldn’t catch these grenades nor could he run around making sure that everyone was putting on his gas mask correctly or at least had prepared to. But anyway, why was he G.O.?
He himself was not in danger. The wind pushed the gas away from him, but he really wished that those irritating explosions would stop….And see, it did.
After the gas had spread, he wanted to see exactly where the grenades had landed. He secretly hoped that they landed on the territory of the neighbour regiment. Then things had not been so important, although in that case a good report would not be unsuccessful either. They must have landed at the border anyway.
For now he picked up the obligatory colored pencil and wrote his current findings in the logbook. When two messages arrived after each other, one confirming the other, things looked busy.
If only he could establish, he thought, what sort of gas it actually had been….
He was still sitting down, taking notes, as his Gas protection Unteroffizier arrived and informed him that a gas dud had been found some 300 meters away in a small fir forest.
“Not as well!” the G.O. shouted, “But that’s impossible! It must be an explosive grenade!”
“No, Herr Leutnant. It is a gas round. We are lying close by and it landed there with a whole bunch.”
“Oh, all right. We must go there….Are you sure it’s not on our neighbour’s territory?”.
“Could be, but I’m not sure…”.
The G.O. readied himself and followed his Unteroffizier. There were some new measures for dealing with enemy gas duds in the past time. The G. O. thought about that….
They arrive at the scene. “There’s the beast.”, the G.O. said. This is the Regiment and division border.
“Damned, it nearly belongs to the neighbours! Bad luck! All that paperwork I now have!”.
“It can’t be more than 2 meters”, the Unteroffizier says, “we can pick it up and drop it on their side”.
But that was against the G.O.’s principles! (at least, after some deliberation) .
He then examined the thing. He had a table with informative illustrations of thus far identified enemy gas ammunition loads in order to categorize this grenade. Sadly he didn’t find this particular one. This letter “E” had not been found on any known ammo before. Colour and codes were also noted down. “Gas duds must be buried immediately!”, the G.O. cited from his manual. So he took his shovel and buried the thing. As headstone a shield that he painstakingly marked with the text “Beware! Gas dud!”.
He returned to his office and sent the second message, with general descriptions of the shuts and the details of the projectile and it’s location.
Half an hour later the phone at the G.O. ‘s office rang. A forward office identified itself to the G.O.
“Good day, Mr. Meyer. I wanted to report that there has been a gas attack in your area, about an hour ago. We could see it from our rear position. Please, tell me, did you notice anything?”
“Yes, I was in the area myself.”
“But why didn’t we receive a message then? You surely know that every gas attack, also the smallest one must be reported to us immediately…”.
“My message was sent immediately after the attack and it should reach you within 10 minutes.”
“I don’t understand! Use your messengers then! Everything is all right? Nothing is happening?”.
“No, everything’s all right”.
“Well, see you later then. But remember in the future, report everything immediately. Bye”.
Fifteen minutes later the phone rings again. Leutnant Meyer for Herrn……!
“Are you there, Meyer! My dear Meyer, I got your message, but this is not enough! During the last briefing I clearly pointed out what must be reported. You only write: “Some so-and-so many shots from that and that battery and then the area quite unclearly. We know without your message that it’s a regiment area. I urgently ask you, very urgently, to send us the missing information immediately. Also, points 4 and 5 of the message form….What do you say….Oh, aha, yes, ok, then that’s all right; so the second message is on it’s way. Yes, yes, of course Meyer, I know you have to investigate everything yourself first…Then we will get the missing information…Take care! Bye!”
Leutnant Meyer is still smoking his Brazil Cigar.
After 20 minutes, the G.O. and his Brazil left his office and walked towards the neighbours. He had walked some 300 meters as someone ran after him and yelled “Herr Leutnant! Telephone!”
“Who is it this time?”.
Of course it was the same forward gas office. So Meyer returned in fast pace, which was very painful for him , and he answered the phone. “One moment, Herr ……is being called.”, they said across the line. After a while the man came to the phone.
“Leutnant Meyer there?…It seams to be a type of previously unknown gas ammunition as described in your last report. I will visit you immediately. You will led me to the grenade. Bye…What do you say? You buried it? God, why that! Ah, yes, the new directive….Yes. Meyer, dig it up again! So I will visit you somewhere in the afternoon, this is important….Bye!”.
“Bye.”. Meyer said, armed himself with his shovel and returned to the grenade’s burial site, dug it up quite carefully, exposed it very slowly to the daylight once more, placed it on the ground and returned home.
The visit of the neighbour shelter was cancelled for this afternoon. Instead a fresh Brazil was needed. Meyer clearly had good relations to the tobacco business.
Meyer sat and waited and smoked more as time went by. Then he lost his patience. How long does he waiting for! He finally decided with a pretext to check whether his “chef” had any intention to show up and he called. He had a roll call for gas masks planned at a rearward office, whether he had to cancel that….He was told to hold the roll call. Herr so-and-so would not visit him that evening as some pressing matters needed his attention. The grenade would not fly away.
Well, Meyer filled his pockets with cigars, told the men where he will be, and visited two friends, and played cards while smoking his Brazil.
Luckily that shelter had no telephone so that another personal disturbance was out of the question. But what shall be, will be happened. Just as Meyer had a set of winning cards and he was getting excited, his messenger arrived and informed him the higher gas office was looking for him, regarding the gas dud.
“Well,”, Meyer said, “regarding the gas dud. And what else?”.
“Yes, and Herr Leutnant have to call them back immediately”.
“And you said, you would fetch me, right?”.
“Yes, Herr Leutnant!”.
“So it was quite right..…Please, will the gentlemen excuse me for one moment, it’s only for the gas dud…”.
Meyer cheerfully returned to his shelter, although he rather wanted to return to his buddies. He then called the gas office.
“Ah yes, Meyer. It is you. Just a small question: You did rebury the gas dud, didn’t you?”.
“So, then it everything o.k..That is all I wanted to know. Bye!”.
Meyer took his shovel again and returned to the gas dud to do just what he had said earlier. With care and the resulting slow pace the dud was again reburied in the cold soil. May he rest in peace, Meyer thought. At least I will have peace then.
Meyer has had peace since a long time, something that can be accounted to the soothing influence of a good Brazilian Cigar.
He was too late for the card game, as the night watch already took over. Meyer sat down and started to study the documentation about enemy gas ammunition, in order to be prepared for the next day.
In the morning, Meyer raised himself from his bunk with the thought that the chief G.O. could arrive soon. So he returned to the scene and carefully dug up the gas dud again. He was getting good at this. He also noticed that the “E”, that was on the grenade yesterday, had disappeared. Maybe as a result of the burial. Maybe since it hadn’t been there in the first place, or that it was the accidental result of the grenade’s landing?
It was a lovely summer morning, again wasted on gas messages and self preservation matters, etc…He couldn’t leave as the chief could arrive any minute and he had to show him the dud.
Nobody came. So Meyer inquired again by phone. He informed that he had dug up the dud again, they answered “But how can you do such a thing, Meyer? Bury it again immediately. Imagine what might happen there! I cannot visit you shortly. So leave it alone for now.”.
Three days passed and Meyer foolish hoped they forgot about the gas dud. But alas, they hadn’t.
On the fourth day the nervously awaited relieve order came. Everything was in a hurried and happy state, apart from those who had to check the material that needed to be transferred. One of them was Meyer, because of the gas protection material, that was left at the positions or in depots.
And at the last minute he got the order from the higher gas office to transfer the gas dud as well, personally to the G.O. of the relieving regiment. He thus led the new officer to the location where his sign ‘Beware! Gas Dud!” once stood. In the mean time, as the result of some sort of action, the sign was ripped out and carried away a few meters. It took some effort to determine the exact location, after which the gas dud was again carefully unearthed and presented to the new officer. And now they could note on the inventory transfer list: ‘One dud’.
The grenade was once again carefully reburied by Korl Meyer, who now said “So, bitch, now you stay down until you rot away!”.
Later, as he left the relieve officer, he wished him the best of luck with his maps and reports about the gas dud.
And as he and his Brazil happily entered the Schwerin camp, he looked once more through the pine barricade into the direction of the gas dud and enjoyed himself, knowing that it was no longer his problem.
The days at the Mount Haut never have been funny, without something funny happening and one had a good laugh regardless of everything that was going on. At the moment we were happy about the arrival of the long awaited relieve by the 72nd R.I.R. It starts in the night of the 26th and the 27th of August and is completed on the morning of the 28th at 8 o’clock, so that only the remaining rear commands are left in our former positions, in order to answer any questions that might remain.
We were quartered in the Schwerin camp, based on the road la Neuville – Cauroy (D315, left of hill 156) between pines and birches, which are growing on the dry grassy sand soil. It rains. It therefore doesn’t surprise us that we find the quarters to be very insufficient. Our thin walled thatch-roofed shacks are leaking everywhere, the roofs are only partially covered with torn up roofing material. It is very uncomfortable and building material is hardly available.
Inspection of the Regiment at the Schwerin camp
The 2nd company during gymnastics
The weather gets better and our housing conditions slowly improve to become generally acceptable. Life is pleasant again. We do have exercises and excursions, but the result is that we get a good evening’s rest. With the help of many beers we organize company parties, that are backed up with wonderful music provided by the regiment’s band. We sing, we pour another beer, the music plays, we walk around in the lights of the flickering candles, we speak, we throw someone up in the air under loud appraisal, in short: We’re having fun! Usually these parties are held under the clear sky in a shielded area, but when it’s raining we use a gigantic tent, made up of all the small tents of the entire company. A concert is held in la Neuville, something we experience as a revelation in this wilderness. Furthermore there is a cabaret and a cinema. What more do you want?!
Further installations in the area’s before us take place. On the evening of the 8th of September the order arrives to relieve the 101st Regiment of the Saxon Infantry Division, starting on the 11th/12th of September. We start to prepare ourselves, but on the 9th of September the order is cancelled so that we get lucky once more.
We can stay. We get replacements and continue our exercises. The fresh troops are instructed by the experienced front soldiers about battle techniques, behaviour during artillery fire and especially about gas attack protection. And so time passed until the end of the month, when the marching orders for Flanders arrived.
How great the losses during the battles were, can be seen by the fact that besides the construction of the cemeteries during the war, the French military constructed an additional general cemetery after the war, at the D31 to the south-east of the Mont Haut.
Besides the 385 Polish men, on the French part 3516 men in single graves and 2906 men in a mass grave, on the German part 2237 men in single graves and 3124, of which 2931 were unidentified. in a mass grave were buried.