The 187 Infantry Regiment
in Flanders, at Arras and Cambrai 1917/18
Gerhard Friedrich Dose
Follows now the overview of the operations in Flandern and Northern France. For this purpose, I have taken the observations from Hauptmann Dose, Leutnant Wessig, Meicht, Duncker and Reserve Leutnant Specht, Wittmack and Zipperling from the book “The 187th in the Field” and with scanned photos of my father’s photo album. The copied texts have been displayed in cursive. All sketches are from the hand of Hauptmann Dose, 187th IR.
The data of the 187 Royal Prussian Infantry Regiment in Flanders and Northern France.
The fighting and recovery periods mentioned here were taken from the photo album and are as follows:
In Flanders, Mostlager, Hooglede, Kortenmark Start until mid October 1917.
At the Dutch border Middle until end of October 1917.
At lake Blankaart Lake November 1917 until mid January 1918.
Armentiers Line and spring offensive
At Loos at Lille Mid January until mid February 1918.
At Fretin Mid February until start March 1918.
At Carvin Start until mid march 1918.
At Waziers and Dechy Mid until March, 26. 1918
At Vitry-en-Artois March 27. until start April 1918
At Brebiers Start April until start June 1918
At Arras line June until mid July 1918
In Flanders End of June until august 1918
At Cambrai September 1918
At Douai and retreat behind Schelde river October 1918
Retreat camps and armistice November until December 1918
Regiment dissolved December, 23. 1918.
At the 28th of September 1917 the marching orders came and the good times at the Schwerin camp ended. The destination was not, as we had hoped, Italy but Flanders, the scene of the most terrifying battles known to world at the time. The battalions were shipped out at the morning of the 29th at Neuflize. The railroad march were taken via Rethel, Liart, Hirson, Mons and Oudenaarde. At beginning of the 30th September we already have been in the area of Flandern
At Izegem we were unloaded. At the railroad station we paused for a while, before moving on. We did not know where we would be taken to. Officers were standing around, looking into the maps, asked for couriers and kept discussion. We tried to figure out what was going on by observing them. One of them came to us and asked if everything was all right. We knew they were up to something. When he returned to his fellow officers, one of us joked: „Are we getting some rest here, Herr Leutnant?“ – “They want you rested!” he shouted back, “it’s getting dangerous here!”. Everyone could see that something was going on. The station, the whole village, everything looked dusty and ruined, like a lot of military transports had come together. We could definitely hear it. The constant, uninterrupted rumbling noise of the artillery fire in the distance.
„Well, for those of you who don’t know where we are going...“, one said while he shows with his head over the shoulder, „...we’re going to where the shooting is.“.
I believe that I will get up from my grave when someone yells „Ready!“. This word, yelled the right way, will make one shiver. Only someone who was there can feel what it does to you. When one is waiting for it, during the few moments of rest, on an exhausting march, knowing that everything and everyone must get going again, or, when one, on a cold morning, is standing on a cold road, not knowing what, or when, something will happen. Or, how good it made us feel, when finally everything was done and we could go back to our quarters.
Anyway, we got ready. And our equipment should be ready too. With a lot of shouting, hammering and chain rattling people were busy unloading. Cars were moved, horses were readied, hay bundles were loaded, a bicycle was fastened to the back of a car again and between all the horses, cars and equipment piles Unteroffiziere were hurrying around, trying to create order in the chaos.
We left them to their own devices and marched off. Through Rumbeke and Roeselaere. This is not an unpleasant area, it even appears to be a bit North-German. And seeing those houses side by side, but we do not have them so red, we felt at home. Whether it were the residents? They spoke Flemish and one could communicate with them quite well. They look at things differently as opposed to the French and they appeared to be less alien to us. Well, it would have been much better, had one not have to endure the continuous shooting, the trucks, the planes, the motorbikes and the marching troops – everything pointed to a region in uproar.
Behind Roeselaere we arrived at a camp site that was called „Mostlager“ (Most is a town just west from Roeselaere). Unbelievably, there were some barracks and a number of men in them. We, however, had to camp behind fences, sharing the area with the horses. We were so packed together that we even fought for a spot beneath a fence. Nobody dared to enter the open fields since the sky was filled with airplanes.
So what did we do? We did what we always did when we know where we would stay the night: We ate. We sat outside, watching the beautiful evening sky high above the Flemish fields.
From the enemy lines, high in the sky, a swarm of airplanes approached. They are flying very high and were coming closer. From the right our planes flew in. In this area a new Squadron was formed a few days ago, so we did hear We followed the skirmish in the sky from below without much interest, while we were eating our meat rations. In time, we got used to these sky fights. When the two sides met they would criss cross between each other, turning and diving, then climbing up again, lit up in silver by the sun or in red from the evening light, playing like fish in the water – until one could hear the popping of machine guns. One airplane was isolated, hunted and shot at by two others. Those who had binoculars, identified the plane as English and after a short period it pulled away, flipped like a piece of paper and fell down from the sky upside down and with considerable speed, somewhere towards the enemy lines.
„We got that one!“
„Hey, that was a German one!“
„No, it was a ‘Tommy’!“
„How on earth do you know?“
„Hey, I saw it, didn’t I?“
„Come on, you didn’t see that!“
„Man, look through the binoculars, those two up there are Germans!“
He took the binoculars, fixed it and watched the two planes
„Yes, it looks that way“
„Hey, who was right now, you old curdsbag?“
”Na, forget it, that seams to be an event!”
But the pessimist was wrong. From the swarm of English planes another one came down. It burned in the red sky, followed by a black line of smoke. The both wings broke away and the fuselage crashed down before the wings hit the ground.
Regiment truck Downed aircraft
The whole English squadron retreated and disappeared together with our planes, which still following and shooting on their tails.
From the left our Anti-Aircraft guns fired into the sky. The sound of the explosions made one think the sky would fall down in pieces. The Tommy at the other side shoots into the sky so it looks like little white clouds.
And suddenly we heard behind us a terrible burst and roar, three, four times. An enemy aircraft had released bombs. Immediately hell broke loose, behind fences nearby, bends in the road, behind houses, under trees everything and everybody moved, with the rattling of machine guns in-between. In the sky black puffs of smoke appeared, close together in groups, slowly disappearing again. The enemy plane, however, calmly kept to its flight path.
We learned that one of the barracks was free and we were led there. The roof was covered with board material, but the walls had finger thick holes between the planks through which light and wind played freely. Anyhow, a roof is better than no roof at all, even if it meant we were packed together here.
Because we couldn’t see anything that was going on outside, we became aware of the drumming noise of artillery fire. It was a constant, pounding noise. At times it was louder, loud enough to make the windows vibrate, but then it would return to it’s earlier constant levels. Minute after minute, hour after hour. We were constantly hearing this noise, without actively being aware of it. Everything was accompanied with this low bass sound. It appeared to be natural to this landscape as the ticking of a clock is to a living room, a sound that nobody is aware of either. One morning, around 11 o’clock the sound suddenly stopped, just like a clock that stopped. But our ears were glad to be relieved of this sound!
However, one could, now and then hear single impact sounds which separated themselves with a slightly higher pitched noise from the constant drumming. They did not occur often, but regularly and always, as it appeared, from the same direction. One can imagine pouring a load of potatoes on the floor, this is the drumming sound, with sometimes two pumpkins between them, that are the single impacts.
Suddenly we heard a whistling noise and we instantly knew one of them was coming towards us! We saw two impacts at the same time, not far away. They must have been quite powerful, since the entire field was shaking like a pudding. We heard the earth crumble crackle down. One projectile had hit the ground near one of the barracks at the other side of the field, next to the forest. One person suffered a leg injury. The impact hat left a large crater that was slowly filling itself with groundwater.
We went to sleep. One then tends to forget the tension of what lays ahead. My neighbour said, as he rolled into his blanket „My dear, it certainly is danger here!“.
Every morning, at 2:30, we marched from our camp site to a support area that was called ‘Fridericus Rex’. One was lying in undergrowth and small tree patches, or when one was lucky, near a barrack or a farmhouse, where one would be sheltered against the cold morning rain. Shivering, one would stand around in these old, empty quarters. Empty spring beds, dirty saw dust, scraps of paper and empty tin cans did not create a comfortable hideout either. Then and again a few shells would come in and crash into the trees. The 369, 370 and 371 regiment were supposed to lie before us. The Ist battalion had moved forward towards another division. The waiting and standing about tired us more than the marching had done. One asked around here and heard something there about what was going on at the front. But no one knows for sure and nobody believes the conflicting rumors that goes around.
In the evenings we were returned to our camp site, where we repeatedly witnessed new parts of the army theatre. For example, an English pilot was shot down above our camp. Time passed with these incidents, the rumors and the eternal waiting
In the evening of October the 3rd, we had to remain at the Fridericus-Rex position. We were under heavier artillery fire than usual. The night of the 4th was remarkably quiet at the whole front line. At October the 4th, exactly at 6 o’clock in the morning an unexpected barrage of artillery fire set in. It looked like one gunner set off the thousands of English guns all at once. This was getting nasty. We also got our share of artillery hits. We had to leave our positions and split up to take cover in the many shell craters. It was cold and rainy and with our tent canvases around our shoulders we stood and waited. An officer came on horse from the front line. Our company leader asked him what was going on. No, he didn’t know either "They’re firing" he said, something we already noticed ourselves.
A courier arrived and we got the order to charge forwards. Our first line had fallen, they said. Probably, at least. We were supposed to perform the usual counter strike.
Again, something new adain. Not a pretty sight anyway. Shell hits were lighting up the Westroesebeke – Passendale road (the N 303) which crossed our path. And passed the hill (hill 25), one could clearly hear a barrage of gun fire. Several shells flew right over us.
So we went. We would lead from the left of the Westroesebeke – Poelkapelle road (the N 313). We arrived at hill 25. The hits around us got heavier. But one could still see someone riding across the hilltop. The enemy could easily spot him, but the English were not as bad as the French, who would fire an entire battery at any single man.
The houses, which had seemed so familiar to us before, now showed up nearby, completely ruined, some with the roof tiles gone, exposing the ribbing underneath. Some where the roof had fallen down and walls had collapsed. Now we were across country up the hill. Our destination is over there. They should have called these area „Sprit“. There it is looking very bad. There was no way through that barrage. And at our side things were not improving either. Let’s go!
A nice area indeed! Now we had to get off that hill again. The ground was wet. Crater at crater. One ran as fast as he could. Running straight through the barrage. Getting caught up in it again. Over there someone is hit, can’t go with us anymore. You can sense it, nothing was visible. You are still alive and healthy, still now........is it possible, that one person at all can make it through this unharmed?… Then, thump! A shell, 3 meters to my left. But it doesn’t explode. It sinks into the wet and soft soil. Now that’s what I call lucky.
But then, things got better. We overcome the barrage, but still shells were flying around. But, hell, something different! Machine gun fire! Infantry fire! Where is it coming from? Are we so close to Tommy?
No, not that close. We have to hurry. Some of my comrades already pass me on the right. Nobody on the stretch to the left of me..….
Finely we arrive near the enemy. But we couldn’t attack. We were completely disorganized and suffered a great deal of casualties. We had people from other companies with us and we first had to find out where those other companies were. We didn’t know what happened to our battalion. Our company leader was wounded in the chest. This didn’t keep him from going ahead with us and he led us to our positions. But we came too close to Tommy for our comfort. We spotted the enemy, lying 80 meters ahead and shooting at us. By this action our leader was wounded, another company leader fell victim to the barrage. It didn’t look good!
We had rations with us for the evening. Over here no one dared to show himself anyway. But in the twilight the terrible artillery fire started again. Fortunately, the mass of the shells was behind us. If we heard the English coming, we gave them a warm welcome, so that our positions at the next morning remained the same. How many times we were shot at or attacked I can’t remember. In those conditions one loses all sense of time…..
It started raining. Everything was wet. The soil was dirty and sticky. But how could one complain. We weren’t going anywhere. At the moment we could only keep what we had. But for how long? We had to be careful. We couldn’t expose ourselves above the crater edges. At least we made sure that Tommy had the same problem. An Unteroffizier in the crater next to me shot at every hat that showed up above their trench. This made the English watch their steps.
How exhausting the attack was, one would find when one had a few minutes of rest. One also felt how the continuous artillery and machine gun fire would get to his nerves. The barrage was especially hard for those who had to supply us with food and ammunition. And we shivered at the though that we had to get through it again. In the mean time our rations suffered from the difficult supply route. It was either too late, too little or the bread was soaked because the bread bag had fallen into the water in the shell-pitted area.
In the mornings, at 10 o’clock it was relatively quiet. On both sides, the red cross bearing medics would go into the front area and get out the wounded. Nobody would shoot at them. That was the only time when a silent agreement existed between two sides. And a red cross activity was only possible because the others had the same problems we had. The French would not let themselves in with this.
The countryside was quiet. Blackish brown and completely disturbed. The craters were deep and mostly filled with water. All sorts of equipment, from helmets to rifles, were lying about everywhere, half buried in the mud. Some tree stumps and the remains of a farm house were the only things visible in the foggy area.
One early afternoon I stumbled across a pathway towards the battalion’s field post. The entire staff was sitting there, some 200 meters away from the bunker that was supposed to be their shelter, were it not that heavy artillery was regularly targeting it. Grenades were constantly hitting the shelter area, most of them overshot it slightly. But in the trench, where the staff were, things were completely quiet. „Well, Tommy must have something to do“, they said, „and when they target our shelters, we might just as well camp outside. At least then we know where we can get some rest.“.
Finally our relief troops arrived. In small groups we pulled back and we made it through the barrage without problems, since it had weakened a bit. A bit of tragicomedy happened to us there.
Unexpectedly, some four or six grenade shells hit around us. We dived nose down in the mud, as we had done so often. That wasn’t a pretty sight, since the impact craters were usually filled with water. Our uniforms were already dirty from top to bottom. The rifle butts would always splash in the mud when one got down, so one had enough to do with his hands. When we looked up again, one of us stumbled to the ground in front of us.
„Where were you hit?“ we asked.
„Yes..“, he stumbled.
We already made it to him, he was lying face down.
„Where were you hit?“ we asked again.
„Stomach..“ he moaned.
We turned him on his back, pulled his belt way and opened his jacket, as good as we could in the darkness, since we couldn’t see anything.
„Feel here, there it is!“, one of us felt around his stomach. „Yes, blood everywhere“, he said. We handed him six field bandages and patched him up in the darkness, as good as we could. It was no simple job, since we had to pull the bandages under his back. When we lifted him up, he moaned. We got him ready, put him on a stretcher and carefully carried him through the wet, slippery landscape. We sweat like pigs.
At the first aid site, a site we knew well, we could finally put him down. In the light of the carbide lamps we could see his face, it was deadly pale. He thanked us and we left. The next morning he would be transported out...
It is bad on morale, to loose a comrade, with whom you have been together for so long, because of a bad injury. Even when we were behind the lines we couldn’t stop thinking about this terrible belly wound.….
But after tree days, our friend returned, cheerful and healthy. We were quite astonished and he told us what had happened:
He was taken to the field hospital and his bandages had to be removed. This worried him, as his pain had been relieved a bit and he wasn’t ready for any handling of the wound again. The bandage stuck to his skin and our buddy was shaking with pain and fear again. But when the bandage had been removed, nothing was visible. No wound, no scratch, nothing. It appeared he had fallen on a tree stump or a rock in the dark, causing his pain. In panic, he thought he had been shot and when we had examined him, his buddy had touched his belly using his wet, muddy hands and thought he was feeling blood. The mud had stuck his bandages to his skin, causing the pain he felt when the bandages were removed. And pale – My god, we were all pale after the wet, sleepless nights, after the continuous shelling and raining these last couple of days...
Yes, what imagination can do to you!
Our quarters were readied for us in Hooglede. It seemed like paradise to us and we pitied ourselves regarding the last few days! We thought about surviving the killing artillery fire, the wet craters and the dirt. Our main concern at the moment was how we could set up a comfortable shack using a heating stove and some scarce heating material (that we had scrounged together).
But just as we were forgetting our ordeal, we were back in again, this time in Houthulst. The other two battalions were already attacking and we were supposed to fill in the gap and restore the lines. We were transported to this location at night. It was a terrible area, where only names like Staden, Stadenreke and Veldhoek remembered us of the towns that once stood here. An English naval artillery piece was shelling a large concrete bunker. The shells flew over us with such air displacement that we thought our hats would be squashed on our heads. They impacted behind the bunker, uprooting old trees with such force that they landed upside down with their roots in the air. Large craters were formed, big enough to fit a farmhouse inside, that filled themselves with groundwater almost instantly
We arrived at the forest, it was under heavy artillery fire. Gas clouds were swarming across the ground. And when we entered the open fields, we entered hell, since the enemy discovered us and welcomed us with heavy machine gun and artillery fire. We were also completely exposed to the aircraft above us. We lost countless men. Our battalion had already suffered heavy losses as early as the 4th. The 1st battalion lost all company leaders.
Our aim was to hold ground and we succeeded. But we suffered badly from the constant firing, even more because our nerves hadn’t completely settled down after our previous encounters with the enemy. The canned meat and bread we had didn’t taste well. One would lie down and didn't move. We waited for the inevitable. Getting hit by a grenade or by machine gun fire. We were expecting everything and we only wished that it would be over soon. Everything was better than the endless insecurity and waiting in the wet weather on that cold soil. Everything we touched, was dirty, we were covered in dirt from top to bottom, our boots soaked and we could feel our wet socks. Only the lice had the time of their lives, further disturbing every quiet minute we had.
We would count every minute, waiting for our relief forces to arrive. Behind the lines we could clean ourselves and get into dry clothes and a warm room. And here – damned! – here they were still shooting. A little while ago they would get us with their shrapnel shelling, the bastards! Oh, as long as they hit something else and not us we didn’t care. One got used to it. But the prospects, the tension, that got to our nerves. With gray, tired faces we stared at the gray, weeping sky. And our ears registered every hit nearby and didn’t know where the shots were coming from, the shots that came at us, roaring like predators in the dark. Ha! Lots of duds, English gentlemen! The soggy soil would suck down the shells that refused to explode. This was the only advantage the wet, soggy earth offered us. If everything they shot at us had exploded, we wouldn’t be here anymore. The shells came so close to each other that one even knocked a plane from the sky. If only Tommy would stop their artillery fire, if only it would end! Damn, we were ready to kick their butts, now that was something new....
But, time passed without changes until the 11th of October. We were relieved during the night. We were exhausted, weak and, as we only started to notice now, hungry. But the march back in small groups went quite quickly and briskly. Things got more quiet and peaceful at the rear. Well, we were alive and only stressed to find where we would go next. That we would get some good rest was obvious, since our unit was decimated.
The above battle scenes mainly describe the acts of the IInd battalion, since the battalions were not detached and mainly remained true to their regiment forms they mainly experienced the same facts. The only difference was in the nature and number of fights they encountered in this modern and human life absorbing slaughter. At the 4th of October the three battalions of the regiment were each added to a regiment of the 43rd Ersatz-Brigade and virtually at the same time, at the right the IInd, then the IIIrd and Ist battalion, would launch a counter strike towards our first line, between Poelkapelle and Wullemolen, where the English after an unbelievable barrage had broken through our lines. While the IInd battalion, as mentioned before, confronted the English directly to the south of Poelkapelle, the other two battalions had pushed forwards to the south towards the Stroom-Bach area. The enemy barrage was passed with very small losses. About one kilometer to the north of Stroom-Bach, the IIIrd battalion clashed with the attacking enemy and despite being outnumbered by them, they managed to force the enemy back. A new barrage began and fresh and powerful enemy troops made it to Stroom-Bach. The enemy even pulled some heavy artillery pieces through the deep swamp area to just behind it’s forward lines. The light machine guns from our infantry company and the heavy machine guns of the 3rd machine gun company ripped large holes in the enemy lines. They charged many times, getting as close as 80 meters from our lines. Between the right wing of the IIIrd battalions and the IInd battalion a large gap several hundred meters wide fell and the enemy tried to break through and surround us. The machine guns of the Gefreiter Bruns of the 12/187 unit managed to keep the enemy out. The lines to the IInd battalion were closed during the night.
The Ist battalion found the enemy at Wullemolen. The enemy came furthest at the south of Wullemolen. The battalion had to swing to the left and could not afford to penetrate the enemy line, without exposing it’s own left flank. The enemy didn’t strike hard, pulled back to allow itself to hit our lines hard with it’s heavier calibers.
How well the battalions of the regiment had charged forwards, this letter, voluntarily written by the commander of the 371 I.R. to our regiment’s commander proves: “I cannot refrain from mentioning how excellently the companies of the IInd/187 have performed their duties. One of my officers, who observed the charge from the rear, mentioned to me, proudly, that the IInd/187 proceeded into the battle vigorously and in good order.”
The Ist and IInd battalion remained on their posts on the 5th and 6th of October. They were pulled back in the night of the 7th of October and made their way to Hooglede without problems. The IIIrd battalion had been relieved at the evening of the 5th. The desperately needed time for cleaning and recovering was quite short. At the 7th, reconnaissance troops were dispatched to the lines in the Poelkapelle area, in order to find out new march ways for a possible new counter attack. At the 8th of October, the entire division came under the command of the Dixmuide group, located further towards the right. The regiment put up it’s quarters around and in Handzaeme. At the 9th of October a renewed enemy barrage sounded the alarm. The regiment pushed forwards for readiness towards Stadenreke, just west from Staden and received the order from the commander of the 18th infantry division to proceed through the Houthulst Forest and take positions on a hill at the south of the Veldhoek village. They had to take into account that the enemy possibly already occupied that hill. Thick clouds of smoke were visible behind the forest and the forest itself was under heavy fire. Over ploughed fields and toppled trees the battalions passed the shot up graves of the young soldiers who had fought in the same forest with a song on their lips in 1914. Time had changed. The war was more frantic and the young soldiers who fought at Veldhoek and Langemark those days had turned into seasoned warriors. The Ist battalion had the position at the right, the IIIrd battalion at the left wing. The IInd battalion remained behind as a regimental reserve at the northern end of the forest. We had lost few men during our march through the woods, but when we left the shelter of the trees at the south side of the forest and we entered the line of sight of the enemy, who already positioned themselves on the hill, south of Veldhoek, an indescribable barrage of fire set in. Now we have to go forward to escape the hell and to take the hill. The enemy had dug themselves in. Dozens of machine guns gave our forwards troops, wading through shallow waters, a warm welcome. We lost many men there. All the company leaders of the Ist battalion were wounded in one blow. Our artillery had been silenced and couldn’t help us. We saw there remains standing between the remains of the trees and the giant craters. Nothing was left of the lines of the 18th infantry division. Like a wedge the regiment stuck itself into Veldhoek. Some 100 meters before the enemy lines, our attack was halted. We could not deliver the final blow, casualties were too great, especially the loss of leaders. The troops were exhausted after storming through the swamps and crater fields. The enemy artillery hammered freshly into our small group, that stretched over a frontline of 3.5 kilometers. We were glad when the evening came, our troops were reorganized and our wounded were evacuated. The result was far fetching, the English were stopped in their tracks. Without the 187th, it would have been easy for them to capture the unoccupied forest area and create a base from which they could cut straight through the front line. After night fell, the IInd battalion was positioned behind the front lines as a rear guard. In the night of the 11th and the 12th of October, the entire regiment was relieved and marched off to Lichtervelde.
It was pouring. The luggage was blocking the narrow road, since the cars got stuck in the soaking, track lined ground. One car had slipped in a ditch and everybody was shouting busily, trying to get it out again. The railroad crossing was a cacophony of people and cars, while the closing barriers caught the luggage and threw it off the cars. We marched between this all. In the mean time, the rain was still pouring down in the pitch black night. Our rain coats were soaked throughout and we had not a single dry fiber on our body. The water ran down from our hats, through our collars and into our clothes and over our backs...
And then we heard there were no quarters for us in Lichtervelde! The houses were cramped full of people, so much that we saw them sticking out the roof windows. We had to see for ourselves if we could find a place to stay.
An alienating feeling, when one is standing around on the street, in the middle of the night in the pouring rain, completely soaked, deadly tired and not knowing where to go, after we had lived through the past terrible events.
We looked around, through storm and rain, but everything was so full, that didn’t have a chance to get in. Finally, just when we thought we had to spend the night in a doorpost, we found a gas shelter, that was occupied by only three men. They made space for us and we could settle down in front of the warm fire place.
We got into dry clothes and ate our evening bread rations and drank some hot coffee. The storm was raging outside and the rain was ticking against the flapping window covers. We hadn’t felt so comfortable in such a long time....
The next day we went along to Ardoy, where we would take the train in the early morning of the 14th of October. But at the railway station, nobody knew anything about our transport. The troops were waiting outside in the dark, but it still took many phone calls to get the train there.
In the afternoon we arrived at Maldeghem, where we would find our quarters. Because of the town commander, who had arranged everything meticulously and swiftly (something that was quite rare), the regiment was quartered and off the streets in no time. Within moments, everyone was outside again, buying fruit and enjoying a sunny fall weather. In this clean little town and it’s lovely surroundings, looking like a north German area, we really experienced days of rest and recovery. Our duty was not bad. And at noon we have had music in front of the town hall. Generally, we got along with the locals quite well (especially with the young females), after all they were Flemish, whose dialect was just as familiar to us, as ours was to hem. They mainly lived from lace manufacturing (a technique with which elaborate lace embroidery was made). We even had the opportunity to visit such a manufacturing site.
Impression of the Belgian-Dutch border
The Maldegem windmill
We were here to secure the Dutch border above us, to make sure no English invasion would take place here. When our very funny code words were called, we had to take our various defense positions.
Early in November, our beautiful resting days were over. The regiment was transported back to the front, of which we had already heard the rumbling of the artillery, carried by the western wind. Now we would experience this artillery fire first-hand.
At the 3rd of November, the IIIrd battalion, who had marched to Brugge, and at the 4th of November the Ist and IInd who were in Maldegem would be transported to Torhout. We were quartered either in Torhout or in the outskirts of Torhout. The machine gun companies and the luggage would arrive by foot, spanning several days.
The 187th ID would take up it’s new role as an intervention force at the lines where the 185th ID had been stationed before. In position of the front lines were our friends from the 8th Bavarian Reserve Division, well known to us and the Vogesen. Lots of old war memories and adventures from the times we were separated, were quickly exchanged.
The days of the intervention reserved were numbered. In the days from the 6th until the 8th of November, our division replaced the 185th ID, who had been only very few day in the combat line, were deployed at the front line on both sides of the Blankaart lake. Where else on the entire western front but here could the difference between one regiment and the other be greater? The 189th IR at the right wing were largely hunting ducks in front of the front line. The 188th IR in the middle were largely on harmless patrols at the edges. The back country here was under relative heavy fire, though. Only the 187th had the misfortune to be in a bad spot. The positions that our regiment had, would turn out to be the most troublesome ones we could get, this time of year. The earlier forward lines had been lost as a result of the continuing fights in Flanders. We only had 3 shelters left at the present line and as a result of the ongoing rains, everything was waterlogged. All the impact craters were filled to the edge with water. Anyone who tried to dig himself in for cover, had to consider whether he wanted to end up in a water hole. An added problem was the constant shelling of our forward and supply lines. Day and night, the heaviest caliber artillery fire available. On one of our worst days, the regiment lost 45 men, many dead, most of them wounded.
Rough scetch of the front line
Legend: frontline, railroad, road, pathway
At this position, the regiment was divided into a combat-, an intervention- and a reserve-battalion. But two companies of the reserve battalions were still being diverted to the southern exit of Klerken, placing them in heavy enemy fire zones. Only later, when winter time was getting closer and the tension at the Flanders front eased, they, as well as the intervention battalion, were pulled away from enemy fire zones. Because of the severe conditions at the forward lines, every few days the battalions relieved each other.
Destroyed churches in Flanders
When the regiment took their positions, they became aware that close to the front the Belgian enemy had established positions in houses and old shelters that once belonged to a former German regiment command post. If we took these houses and buildings, it would give us a considerably better position. Also, our high command wanted to confirm the number of enemy troops ahead of us. Therefore, an order was immediately given to prepare the capture of these enemy positions. The 9th company was ordered to take these positions.
The company reports provide more details. They are:
9/187 was stationed at reinforcement as intervention company for 4 days. A large scale patrol action had been prepared using detailed accounts from front line companies and preparation attacks by both artillery and mortar groups. When asked who would volunteer for this action, apart from a few people who would watch our equipment, everybody volunteered. As planned, we formed two attack groups:
Attack group 1, right wing: Offizierstellvertreter Brockmann, three infantry groups, a light machinegun with carriers and four engineers with flame throwers. Attack group one divided itself into main and small troops.
Attack group 2, lead by company leader, three infantry groups, a light machine gun with five engineers, separating at least one raiding patrol with a light machine gun and one group.
Equipment: No backpacks or fight gear. Everybody except rifle four hand grenades, emergency rations.
Company advanced forwards in line and both attack groups were ready at the starting point at 6:40 in the morning. Early at 6:40 our artillery and mortar groups started firing excellently, as was proved later. The strong enemy fire was aimed behind our attack groups. At 6:43 in the morning, our artillery slightly moved slowly towards the road. The attack groups attacked from here some time earlier and suffered some wounded as a result, but were able to surprise our enemy completely. Attack group 1 had to navigate through wet crater areas and a 3 meter wide, 1 meter deep trench. Machine gun fire (MG 08) secured them against surprise attacks from the right flank. The small troop took the first concrete bunker using their hand grenades, completely surprising the enemy (20 captured), gave some supporting machine gun fire to the right, and signaled attack group 2 using predetermined light signs and united themselves with the main troop, without loosing any time, towards the block of houses. At the same time, attack group 2 went forward towards, the small group towards the house with the concrete shelter. Two barbed wire barriers, parts of ditches and wetland were passed. Unexpectedly, from the left half, enemy machine gun and infantry fire. Both groups of attack group 2 moved to the left, returned quick rifle fire and stormed towards the enemy, shouting ‘Hurray’, as a result, the enemy retreated. A MG 08 secured the left flank and kept the enemy occupied using steady fire. The entire left part of the house had been destroyed by our preparation artillery and mortar fire. Loud cries between the remains! Minor resistance at the right side was silenced using hand grenades. A light machine gun secured that area. Next, the second attack group entered the block of houses and arrived there at the same time as attack group one, who came from the opposite side.
A large number of enemy soldiers fled away, the rest (20 men) surrendered without resistance. A trumpet sounded and immediately a large group of enemy reinforcements arrived nearby. All our men jumped out for close combat. The enemy was so surprised that they immediately retreated, leaving 2 machine guns and some 25 men in our hands. The objective had thus been reached. Since the block of houses beside the road was dangerous for us and only 15 meters away and since our enemy had shown excellent running capabilities, the company leader ordered the 2nd group, led by Vizefeldwebel Söhl, pushed forward towards the regrouping enemy, who, with bayonets fixed, shots fired and hand grenades thrown, were pushed back even further. They captured 4 (2 of them wounded) and reached the old regiment positions from where 1 officer and 6 men were captured. A light machine gun (later left there, along with a heavy Belgian one and a group) was left to secure the site. Two light machine guns from the 2/187 came forward and reinforced the main defense line, as the road had been designated by the company leader. During the battle pause, the area was quickly occupied.
Not soon afterwards, the enemy started firing all possible batteries they had. Enemy infantry remained quiet until 3 in the afternoon. Their heavy artillery accurately fired at our houses and bunkers from 2 o’clock onwards. At 2:30 the company leader got a message by Leutnant Margies, 2/187, informing him that at the Diksmuide road some 150 men were spotted, marching towards us. At my request, two groups of the 2nd company came to reinforce us and extend the range of our left wing. A Belgian machine gun, manned with a backup machine gun crew was positioned there as well. At 3 o’clock the combined enemy fire reached it’s peak. At 3:50,from full cover, two enemy patrols of 8 to 10 men, utilizing a fire pause, emerged from full cover at our regiment positions, took our posts at the entrance by surprise and led them away, occupied the entrance and commanded, threatening them with hand grenades, our occupation troops (8 men) to come out unarmed. A light machine gunner observed what was happening and returned fire into the group of Belgians, who were standing just half a meter away from our men. During the commotion, our men fought and kicked their way out and ran away, leaving the machine gunner to shoot down the remaining Belgians. In the mean time, the enemy fire got worse and at 4 o’clock in the afternoon they pulled back to their own rearguard. At that time, all our men emerged from the bunkers. An enemy wave entered the area and was taken out by our machine gunners. The second enemy wave, only 50 meters away, retreated. The enemy artillery fire became heavier again and eased towards the evening. Enemy infantry wasn’t seen anymore. In the darkness, the forward line was reinstated and the company was relieved at 11 o’clock at night.
Due to the fog, green signal flares fired by us probably went unnoticed by our own artillery, since the firing on our positions and the block of houses we occupied was only halted after we sent a messenger back. Later, during the enemy counter strike, our artillery did not offer support fire, even after we had fired many red signal flares. Here, the fog could probably be blamed as well. In the late afternoon, the barrage protecting our lines was faultless.
Leutnant der Reserve und Kompanieführer 9/187
The company’s efforts were widely regarded by it’s superiors. The Dixmuiden group gave these Corps day orders:
„Carefully prepared, excellently led and bravely executed, a patrol action from the 187th ID deserves this remark.
The 9/IR 187, led by Leutnant Petersdorf, supported by volunteers of the 187th engineers company and the 1st reserve engineer 15 company, after 3 minutes of preparation artillery and mortar fire, stormed at several houses and bunkers to the north-east of Merkem, whereby the water reached chest level for some of them.
1 officer and 63 men of the Belgian 8th Infantry Regiment were captured, several light machine guns were taken and useful information about the enemy strength was obtained. Our forward line was shifted forwards and kept some 2 – 300 meters over a distance of some 500 meters.
I offer my gratitude to the troops and their leaders.
Der kommandierende General
gez. v. Eberhardt“
The following note was sent by the 4th army superior command
„On the 16th of November, the 9th company, infantry regiment 187 of the 187th infantry division, lead by Leutnant Petersdorf, supported by volunteers and attack groups of the 187th engineers and 1st Company of reserve engineer 15 after a short artillery and mortar preparation, partly wading brest deep though the surrounding flooded area, attacked the group of houses and concrete bunkers, occupied by the enemy, at Blankaart-lake. Thereby capturing 1 officer and 63 men of the 4th Belgian infantry division and multiple light machine guns. The houses and the bunkers were occupied and integrated into our front defense line.
I offer my respect and thanks to Leutnant Petersdorf and his brave non-commissioned officers and men for their brave acts, by which many was achieved. They have brought honor to their division.
gez. Sixt von Armin
General der Infanterie“
Addendum from the 187th Infantry-Division:
„Leutnant Petersdorf, 9/187.
I am pleased to present you this note from the Superior in command.“
Generalleutnant und Divisionskommandeur“
Another large patrol enterprise was undertaken at this position. At the 30th of November, in order to mask our counter attack at Cambrai where the English had penetrated our lines over a wide area, smaller attacks from all our front line areas would take place. The two patrol groups, consisting of men from the Ist battalion were able to bring back important information about the strength and lay out of the enemy positions. The patrol groups received the following appreciation in the division orders:
„I offer my respect to both patrol groups formed at the positions the I/187th, led by Vizefeldwebel Wolter, consisting of 14 men of the 3rd company and Feldwebel Sandmann, consisting of 19 men of the 2nd company, for their brave attacks at the 30th November, whose efforts assisted in the realization of our troop actions at Cambrai.“
As was already the case in the Mount Haut, here also our fighting battalions had been supplied with dispatch dogs, whose loyal duty saved our couriers from an unpleasant fate many times. Amongst them were many war hardened fighters that had experienced the enemy grenades and would strike loudly in the direction from which these were approaching them. The dogs seemed to be relatively impervious to gas attacks. I remember a case where we had been sitting out a gas attack, wearing our gas masks. A dispatch dog, for which no gas masks were available, got cramp attacks, but the next day, it was quite lively again.
The rest battalion was quartered at first with two companies, later as already said, complete in Schuddebeurze, a long stretched village from which the villagers had been evacuated when the regiment set up it’s positions there. The living quarters of the companies were not very good, but still gold plated when compared to the water holes at the front. For entertainment, the division had, with much efforts, set up a cinema. Just as it was finished, the regiment pulled out.
Bunker at Kindermann Concrete shelters (bunkers) at the front
The intervention battalion, that had been quartered in half destroyed houses, where one was not allowed to show himself outside to prevent the location of the quarters being exposed to the enemy artillery, were later housed in old Russian prisoner barracks at Ruiterhoeck. The quarters were good, than at the front, the housing conditions of prisoners of the German „Barbarics“ were probably better than those of our own soldiers.
Quarter in Nieuwe Stede Christmas 1917
Between christmas and new year’s day, the 187th and 189th regiments switched personnel, since their proportions differed. In the new regiment set up, only the IIIrd battalion would serve at the front line, since in mid-january of 1918, the division was pulled back again. For 14 days the IIIrd battalion could enjoy this idyllic position at the north of Woumen. Many days there was no artillery fire in the area. One could walk around at the front line during the day, since the enemy was over 1 kilometer away at the other side of the Yser river. The only danger were our own snipers practicing there. At the most only Priester mortars and light machine guns were used. Quite cunningly, the anti aircraft gunners would use the many flocks of ducks for target practice, and I know that the 9th company caused the end of many of these „cooking pot candidates“.
In the mid of January, the division was pulled back. Because their had been no noticeable battle action since fall last year, the division was not replaced by a new division, but both divisions in the vicinity were stretched out to fill the gap. This way, the regiment was replaced by parts of the 24th infantry reserve regiment of the 54th reserve division during the 12th of January until the 14th of January 1918.