This is part one of a translation of an Article by Generalleutnant August Fortmüller. I find it an exceptionally valuable description of the fighting that took place in Suummer and Autumn of 1917. This is a period neglected by all of the English language histories of the battle of Verdun.
I shall, when I have some time; add some maps.
spent the first months of 1917 improving their defensive positions on the West
and East banks of the Maas. The French, having
suffered heavy losses on the Aisne and in the Champagne, were forced to scale back their
When the Germans
took the important Vauxkreuz Höhe (to the North of the Caurieres Wald) on the 4th
of March the French were not able to muster the forces for their usual counter
German side von Gallwitz was also called upon to use his men and munitions
sparingly. Although he was sure the French were planning an attack on the
Caurieres Wald (Forest) he was not in a
position to launch a preemptive strike. The initiative was left in the hands of
the French High Command.
On the 20th
of May it seemed as if the French were intending to attack and take the plateau
to the North of the forest. Heavy artillery fire fell on the positions occupied
by the 28th Infanterie Division (under General Langer) which
occupied the positions in the forest and to the North of Bezonvaux. The
bombardment continued into the 21st of May. The German artillery batteries
to the Northwest and Northeast of Ornes were under fire and the ravines to the
rear were filled with gas.
Above: Malancourt, the village behind the Bloody Height 304 and the "Dead Man" Heights
signs indicating a coming attack were there… but it did not come. Whether this
was due to the retaliation of the German Artillery or because of the Morale
problems within the French army caused by the failure of the Nivelle offensive
is not sure. For the rest of the month of May and into June the French were
unusually quiet in the Verdun Theater.
Commander of Maas Gruppe West, General von Francois, was looking for a chance
to exploit the gains he had made in the Height 304 sector in January and March
1917, concentrating on the high ground to the South West of Height 304 over
which the road from Haucourt to Esnes lay. The A.O.K. 5 agreed to allow von
Francois to carry out his operation; he in turn agreed to limit the amount of
Personal and ammunition used.
Reserve Division occupied the ground from the forest of Avocourt
in the, across the Height 304 and down into the hollow between 304 and the
“Toten Mann” Heights. To their west was the 2. würtembergische Landwehr
Division under General der Artillerie Franke, to their East, from the “Toten Mann”
to the Maas was the 6. Reserve Division under
carefully planned operation was carried out on the 28th of June. The
A.O.K.5 had released Infantry of the 48. Reserve Division (General von Hippel)
as an operational reserve and the artillery of the 48. R.D. was to take part in
the bombardment. The Divisional commander was instructed to avoid heavy losses.
A total of 80 000 artillery rounds were approved for the operation.
bombardment the regiments attacked on a 2000m wide front on the evening of the
28th of June. The attack took place on both sides of the
Haucourt-Esnes road and the results were gains that formed a 500m deep salient
in the French lines. Weak counter attacks that night were beaten back without
the French and split the enemys artillery fire General v. Francois ordered some
diversionary attacks on the 29th of June. In the early morning
Stosstrupps of the 2. württembergische Landwehr Division took a section of
enemy trench in the forest
of Avocourt capturing 40
prisoners. Throughout the day French artillery bombardments broke out along the
West bank of the Maas. That evening the 6.
Reserve Division carried out a diversion. Its assault troops attacked the
positions on the eastern slopes of the Höhe 304 and in the hollow between 304
and “Toten Mann”. Here they dug in and set up communication with the
neighboring 10. Reserve Division.
On the 30th
of June the ground to the west of the hollow was retaken by the French.
The hoped for
goals of the offensive had been achieved. 15 French officers and 853 men, along
with much material, were captured. The cost had been heavy, the Germans had lost
18 officers and 1157 men. In addition, men from the 48. R.D. had been needed to
prop up the 10. R.D. and 6. R.D. and these men could not be pulled from the
front line to rejoin their division.
In the days
that followed the French increased their artillery fire in the sector. To help
reinforce the newly captured positions and facilitate the pullback of the men
of the 48. R.D. the 29. I.D. was pushed into the line.
objective now was to hold onto the newly captured ground. French Artillery fire
gradually increased reaching a crescendo on the 17th of July. The
German artillery positions and lines of communication were heavily gassed. At
7:00am the French attack followed along the length of the recently captured
ground. In front of Height 304 the attack fell to pieces but in the sector in
which the freshly arrived 29. I.D. held the line the French managed to break
into the trenches. The men of the 29. I.D. had arrived just the night before
and had had no time to study their positions.
fighting the French took not only the land they had lost, but also captured ground
to the west of Height 304 where they broke into the original German point of
depart along a 1000m section of front. The success seemed to have surprised the
French as much as it did the Germans.
Francois decided to launch a counter attack that very evening but due to difficulties
in passing along orders the attack had to be shelved and the French retained
control of the ground lost. On the Eastern edge of Avocourt forest the men of
the 2. L.D. retook the trench they had captured on the 29th of June
and lost just that morning.
for the German counter attack took time. Chains of command had to be erected,
ammunition collected and the burned out 10. R.D. replaced with the 213. I.D.
command was weary about new losses but von Francois was able to convince
Ludendorff that a defensive battle from their present positions would cause
heavier losses than an offensive in which they could take better suited
On the 29th
of July a bombardment started on the positions from the Avocourt forest to the
Height 304. On the 31st the French batteries were targeted with
large amounts of gas and high explosive shells in a bombardment that carried on
through the night. On the 1st of August the German infantry attacked
along the Haucourt-Esnes road on a 2000m wide front. The men of the 29. I.D.
and a battalion of the 213. I.D., supported by Pioneers, Flamethrowers and
Stosstrupps of the 5th Sturmbataillon (Rohr) broke through the
French lines and pushed to the rear.
response of the French artillery was minimal. The German counter battery fire
seems to have been a success. 11 Officers and 741 were captured. The Plateau to
the South West of Height 304 was once again in German hands.
Barrages began to die down towards midday. Most of the fire seemed to come from
batteries far to the rear which were firing without any observers. On the
morning of the 2nd of August the newly arrived French 86eme R.I.
attacked, trying to push the Germans off the plateau. The attack, in places,
broke into the German trenches and had to be fought off hand to hand. Another
attack followed that evening but the German troops managed to hold their
back on the 1917 fighting on the West Bank at
Verdun Ludendorff wrote “I was relieved that the fighting there had ended and
berated myself for letting the attacks take place. Just as before on the
eastern front, I was no friend of actions where the results would not justify
captured by General von Francois was however not without value, and this would
be proved in the attack that the French were now preparing to launch.
In Flanders the British Army had launched its massive
attack. The French army had largely recovered from the breakdown of moral after
the failed Nivelle offensives and it was now back in fighting form.
wanted to take the pressure of his allies and help break the German front,
relieving the pressure with an offensive at Verdun. With a massive attack General
Guillaumat was to advance on both sides of the Maas, throwing the Germans off
the Heights to the South of the Forges River on the West bank and off of the
Talou-Rücken and Height 344 on the East Bank.
first days of August the French artillery fire developed into a heavy
bombardment. The shells fell in the forest
of Avocourt, continued
through to the forest to the west of Maucourt then jumped for a while to the
Vaux sector. It then onto the Woevre
plain. The Germans recognized that an offensive was in preparation. In spite of
the pressure in their own sectors, the 1. and 7. Armeen were ordered to provide
reserves for the 5. Armee for the defense of the Verdun sector. The Germans were nor sure if
the attack was going to come on the West or East Bank.
commanders wondered if they could pull back to avoid the main thrust of the
coming attack. On the East Bank this proved to be impractical as it could have
led to the 5. Armee being pushed off the Cote Lorraines and back onto the
Woevre Plateau. This in turn would have put the Armee Abteilung C to the South
in danger as well as the important Iron ore basin of Briey
and the Metz-Montmedy-Sedan railwayline to the North.
On the West
Bank a pullback to the early 1916 positions behind the Forges River
would not have posed such problems. Already in December 1916 the Commander in
Chief (Crown Prince Wilhelm) had tossed around the idea of abandoning the Höhe
304 and Toter Mann due to the losses suffered in these sectors. The idea was
quashed at high levels due to the impact it may have had on moral and to avoid
taking the pressure off the French command. Now the idea was given new life as
it was thought that supplying a defensive battle over the deep and wide river
bed and surrounding banks would be difficult (This refers to the Forges River
which runs West-East to the North of 304 and Toter Mann).. Once again the
pullback was vetoed by the high command because of the potential negative
effect it would have on morale. This was understandable in view of the losses
suffered to take the heights.
Armee would meet the French attack in the positions they held. In the night of
the 12th to 13th of August and on the day of the 13th
the artillery duel was in full swing. 21 observation balloons were seen above
the French lines and 30 airplanes crossed over the Maas Gruppe West positions. On
the orders of von Gallwitz the German artillery concentrated on counter battery
fire. On the night of the 13th to 14th the German
artillery fired a 3 hour gas bombardment; the French artillery fire was visibly
reduced. On the afternoon of the 14th it increased somewhat, but
remained reduced until the 15th as the French were forced to remove
its batteries from gas filled forests and ravines.
On the 15th
of august the 28. Reserve Division pulled back from its forward positions on
the Talou Rücken. The wire entanglements had been destroyed, the trenches had collapsed.
The positions were deemed non defendable. Only patrols with light machine guns
remained in place.
On the 16th
of August the intensity of the French bombardment reached its height. That
evening parts of the three regiments of the German 28. Infanterie Division
launched a carefully planned preemptive raid to disrupt the preparations for
the coming attack in the Caurieres Wald. They entered the French lines and
destroyed a large number of trench mortars and ammunition and captured 14
officers and 700 men.
On the 17th
the heavy bombardment was still in full swing. The A.O.K.5 had ordered the
German long range heavy guns to concentrate on the French artillery batteries.
That evening the French retook their old positions in the Caurieres Wald. That
night the French artillery was targeted with gas shells. This time, unlike on
the 14th, the effect did not seem to be such a success as on the 18th
the French bombardment actually increased in strength. It targeted the German
front lines throughout the day along with heavy mortar fire. The clear sunny
skies were perfect for the flyers. Four French planes were shot down and the
French damaged three German observation balloons. The first American pilots
were observed by the Germans.
captured during the 28th Infantry Division raid showed the attack
planned for the 18th had been delayed for 48 hours. Apparently the
counter battery fire had disturbed the French Artillery in their task. The
determination of the French artillery and fliers on the 19th of
August left no doubt as to what was about to happen.
positions had been turned into a lunar landscape in which nothing could live.
Hardest hit was the West Bank between Height 304 and the Maas,
on the East Bank on the Talou Rücken, in the Fosses Wald and on the Vauxkreuz
On the West
Bank the bridges across the Forges
River had been destroyed,
the valley filled with gas and all lines of communication to the rear
on the 19th to 20th of August the German artillery
batteries were subjected to a concentrated gas barrage. On the morning of the
20th the bombardment reached its peak. Just before 5:00am the French
attacked. Between Avocourt and Cumiers on the West Bank
five fresh Divisions were used. On the East Bank between the River and
Bezonvaux six fresh Divisions attacked.
To the Northwest
and North of Avocourt the 2. Landwehr Division occupied the line. To their left
the 206. Infanterie Division (Generalleutnant von Etzel) which occupied the
ground until the Haucourt-Esnes road. To their left the 213. Infanterie
Division occupied Höhe 304. The 6. Reserve Division was on the Toten Mann, to
the North of Cumieres and on the Maas Plain. The 29. Infanterie
Division and 48. Reserve Division were behind the lines and were to serve as a
Maasgruppe Ost (East) under General der Kavallerie von Garnier wase placed as
follows: At Samogneux and on Height 344 were the 28. Reserve Division. General
von Mohn’s 25. Reserve Division were in the Beaumont sector and were bordered to their
left by the 228. Infanterie Divison (General v.d.Heyde) who were in the Fosses
Wald stretching further eastwards. From the Vauxkreuz Höhe to Maucourt the 28.
Infanterie Division held the line. The 80., 46. and 78. Reserve Divisions were
held as a mobile reserve.
In the Vaux
sector the “Gruppenabschnitt Vaux” (The bayerisches Generalkommando 63 under
Generalleutnant Ritter von Schoch) had under its command the 192. and 56. Infanterie
Divisions as well as the 19. Ersatz Division.
case, the 51. Reserve Division and 30. Infanterie Division were held as an
Armee level reserve.
cover of a man made fog, the French troops advanced behind their creeping
barrage. There was almost no resistance as they crossed through the first
defensive zone and swept away the forward positions at Cumieres and on the
Talou Rücken. Then the German defense in depth strategy went into effect. From
defensive positions which had not been destroyed by the artillery or bypassed
in the fog German machine gun fire tore into the attackers, hitting them from
the front and from their flanks.
grenades forced them to take cover. The broad offensive degenerated into a
series of local actions as the men fought hand to hand. Counter attack followed
counter attack as the Germans and French pushed their local reserves in the
fight. Company commanders achieved local successes or suffered defeats, the
effects of which were not always immediately clear to the neighboring units.