The end of the 5th Company, Bavarian Infantry Leib Regiment
"Alarm! The French are coming!"
In that moment, everything changed. We thought back...
the heavy bombardment during the day, it had been in preparation for a raid, a
"Handstreich". We recognised the messenger as one of our machine
gunners who had been outside the shelter. He pushed his way through to the
battalion commander and gave his report. He reported that the enemy, in full
company strength, had pushed his way through the gap and was now busy rolling
up our position from the rear and from the flank. He would reach the poudriere
at any moment. Our spirits dropped right way. Without waiting for orders we
grabbed up the recently discarded ammunition clips and filled our pouches. Unteroffizier
Baumann and Hierholzer primed hand grenades and distributed them.
Orders were given "Close the doors and get ready
to defend the position!". Vizefeldwebel Dreitzel rushed to the left door
and managed to slam and bolt it. As he did this hand grenades landed outside
the door, exploding and sending a splinter into his leg.
Left: One of the doors slammed shut by Karl Dreitzel (See his Iron Cross document below)
Then the enemy was
silent. We wondered... were they already at the door? Inside the Poudriere we
were cut off from the outside. The situation got tenser and tenser in the
"Rat trap". Still, we were still optimistic; the 11th Regt would soon
arrive to save the day.
All lights were extinguished except for a couple of candles
in the cross tunnel. Long moments passed without any signs of life from
outside. Midnight arrived, and still no sign of the 11th. There was also no
sign of anyone from the Stretcher bearer company that was supposed to arrive. Suddenly
we head rifle fire in front of the doors, at first single shots, then bursts of
machinegun fire, as if two foes were searching for each other with salvoes of
bullets. We sighed with relief; it seemed as if the relief was out there. We
thought it prudent to signal our position to the 11th Infantry. Unteroffizier
Baumann crept a number of times up to the door to fire out a white flare. Each
time the response was a flurry of hand grenades which exploded just outside the
door. This was proof that the enemy was just outside the door and that we were
trapped. We fired salvo after salvo through the slits in the door in an effort
to keep the enemy at bay and to signal our resolution to the French.
Suddenly a German voice from outside asked us to open
the door to let a man in. At first we could not believe our ears. It seemed
impossible that someone could make his way through all this fire and reach the
door alive. At first we thought it must be a French trick but his call had
caused to the French to throw more grenades and increase their rifle fire so
our doubts were soon erased. Baumann rushed forward to let the man in. It was a
lone survivor from the stretcher bearer company which had been completely wiped
out in the enemy barrage (Sperrfeuer). He had no idea where the 11th Infantry
was, but it seemed sure that they had suffered the same fate. This information
took away the last of our confidence. Desperately we fired distress flares. A
few men thought they heard German voices and Uffz. Baumann called out, but the
only answer was heavy salvoes of fire against the doors. We could only hope
that the Regt Commander in Douaumont knew of our situation and would try and
rescue us. We no longer believed in any help from the 11th Infantry.
The enemy began to try and creep towards the doors but
we were alert and kept up our fire.
Hauptmann Wilke now wanted to send a last message to
Douaumont and looked for volunteers. The mission called for courage, bravery
and an acceptance of a very good chance of death. Hptm. Wilke promised an award
of the Bravery Medal to those who undertook the task. Uffz. Baumann and
Gefreiter Zimmermann stepped forward, although they, like all others, did not
believe anyone could make it back alive. Baumann made the first effort,
creeping on his stomach to the door and inching it open. Right away the French
opened up and bullets and grenade splinters rattled against the door. As it was
now obvious that it was impossible to get out of the door, all further attempts
were abandoned. Unteroffizier Baumann would receive the Golden Bravery Medal
later for all his efforts during the attack on Souville and the fighting around
Now it was a question of defending the Poudriere with
all resources. We lay in the tunnels, rifles at our shoulders, peering into the
dark and listening for sounds from outside. As soon as we heard movement we
opened fire. For a long while the enemy seemed uncertain of what to do. Through
the slits and bullet holes in the door an eerie light could be seen. Every now
and them a flare would go up, casting a ghostly flickering light over us as we
lay there. For a while the enemy tried to break us by firing bursts of machine
gun fire into the tunnels, most of the shots going too high. They then tried an
attack which broke up in our rifle fire. Unfortunately we had no machineguns in
here. As there was no cover we called back for things to be passed forward to
give us some form of protection. There was nothing to be found until someone
had the idea of using the food supplies. Boxes of biscuits, sacks of tinned
meat, coffee and sugar were all silently passed forward.
Above: One of the doors to the Poudriere showing extensive battle damage. It seems to show the traces of bullets fired from the inside and outside of the tunnel.
Midnight passed and still our situation remained
desperate. We still hoped that Douaumont would find a way to rescue us. The
Battalion staff discussed all possible outcomes. Plans were made then
discarded. There was even talk of fighting our way out. If we grouped together
all the men trapped in the Poudriere we had enough to make a powerful enough
fighting group, one that would have been able to hold its own on the outside. The
problem lay in getting the men outside, as it was we would be shot down one by
one as we exited. We were forced to leave ourselves in the hands of fate and
hope for rescue from the outside, determined to hold on until it came. Some men
mentioned the horrible possibility that the French would smoke us out with
Hour after hour passed and through the slits in the
door we saw the suns first rays. The hope of a rescue faded.
Then the first act of the catastrophe played out. A bright light appeared
in the left tunnel. Calls immediately came "Light out!" as it was
automatically assumed that some foolish man had lit a lamp. But the light did
not go out, in fact it got brighter and soon there was fire in the left tunnel.
Thick clouds of smoke filled the tunnel and Casements. We right away surmised
that a flare had been shot into the tunnel and that it had set a pile of
rags/Uniforms alight. It was bright enough to allow the enemy to see into the
tunnel. The chaos created by the fire was right away used to the advantage of
Left: A French Flame thrower in action
While our men did all they could to extinguish the
fire a jet of fire from a flamethrower roared down the tunnel spreading death
and destruction. Now there was no way for the men to save themselves. Anyone
caught in the jet of flame was lost. A terrible heat and smoke resulted. The
men panicked and pushed their way into the cross tunnel, trying to get away
from the flames. There was chaos as the men shouted out, there was no way to
restore order and no voice could be heard above the shouts. The badly wounded
on the floor screamed as no one took any notice and stumbled over them as they
lay there. It was later established that most of the 60 wounded died terrible
deaths in the last minutes of the fight. The bursts of flame in the left tunnel
continued. The heat was terrible. "Gas Masks on! Gas masks on!" the
call went up, but most of the men no longer had gas masks. "We will all be
blown up!" came calls, and this was indeed a possibility (the flames were
reaching the Stacks of French artillery shells). Nerves were stretched past
breaking point, everyone pushed their way into the right tunnel where a little
bit of fresh air came through the entrance. As more men crowded in men were
forced out of the exit where they were right away shot down. Only when those
who followed threw away their rifles and called and made gestures that they
were surrendering did the shooting stop. The French were standing and kneeling,
the barrels of their rifles pointing at the entrance, they let us approach. To
our astonishment we saw the troops were coloured. "Les mains en
l'air" they shouted roughly. Suddenly we were surrounded by the brown
mass. Each of us had 3 or 4 of them knocking our weapons out of our hands,
ripping off our helmets and tearing off our equipment. A few men were still
coming out of the tunnel; one of the last was Gefreiter Wirnharter, who had
been the last man to leave the left tunnel. Of Uzzf. Rupprecht and the rest of
the men in the left tunnel, there would be no more news.
With this final action the fate of the Poudriere and
the small group of men in it was sealed.
Left: The entrance tunnel to the Poudriere in which Dreitzel was wounded.
We were split into two groups surrounded by dark skinned
colonial troops keen on looting. Threatening and sinister the two dark
entrances into the Poudriere faced us. Black smoke still came out of the
mouths. No more of our troops came out. The French soldiers dared not enter;
the danger of an explosion was too great. Any wounded who could not make their
way out would suffocate. Leutnant von Seefried, the Bataillons-Adjutant and
Hauptmann Wilke were not amongst the prisoners. No one knew where they were. As
dramatic scenes were taking place outside the tunnels a last dramatic act was
taking place inside the room which housed the battalion staff. Leutnant von
Seefried decided to end his life with honour and shoot himself. We were only to
find out later that his attempt had failed, instead of killing himself he had
seriously wounded himself, the shot blinding him. He would later be captured by
the French. Hauptmann Wilke was killed trying to break through enemy lines to
reach our own. Stretcher bearer Maierhofer was killed after being captured.
After he refused to hand over his watch, one of the beasts stabbed him to
death, in spite of his red-cross armband.
Robbed and mishandled the men were eventually sent to
the "Kronprinzen-Straflager" for the rest of the war.
During the dramatic events during the night from the
19th to 20th at the Poudriere, there was lively action in Chaumont. The company
staff was installed here, rejoined by a few of the lightly wounded. The field kitchen
was preparing a meal for the company which should soon arrive, after having
been relieved. The mood was now rather dampened. The returning lightly wounded
had reported the events from the 13th of July onwards. It became clear that
only a handful of men would be returning. The majority of the company,
including all the officers were reckoned to be dead or wounded. Lightly wounded
were still trickling in. Their reports were vague. Some spoke of the Poudriere
and all its occupants being captured, but there was no confirmation of this
rumour, the men with the tales had been out of the line for a number of days
already. But the same rumour was doing the rounds at Douaumont and in the
Brülleschlucht. These reports were too terrible to be true. But still, no one
Hours went by, days went by, the company waited to see
if any men would be returning, but in vain. The harsh reality was beginning to
set in. The 5th Company no longer existed. With the exception of the staff, and
a few of the lightly wounded who had made it back, there was no one left.
Above: the Iron Cross 2nd Class award document for Karl Dreitzel.
On the 22nd of July Oberstleutnant Epp inspected the
pityful remains of the company. For the men who had fought well in the preceding
actions medals were presented. Quite a few were called and did not answer,
their names carried away in the wind. These men lay somewhere near Douaumont,
on the railway embankment, at Fleury or on the slopes in front of Souville. No
officers were left, one was at the recruit depot, all the others were dead,
sick or wounded.
Left: The document was signed by Oberleutnant Graf Preysing who commanded the Company in mid 1918, by which time Dreitzel had been in captivity for almost 2 years.
The 11th Bavarian Infantry Regiment which relieved the
Leiber were part of the 6th Bavarian Infantry Division. They had been withdrawn
from St Mihiel between the 13th and 16th of July and began to enter the line at
Fleury on the 17th to 18th of July. By the 26th of July the Regiment signalled
to its replacement depot that it immediately needed 500 replacements.
French 37th division reports
On the evening of the 19th of July
Near the Poudriere the 2nd Zouaves assemble to prepare
for the attack, this time supported by artillery. Exchange of hand Grenades
near 2nd Zouaves-317 Inf positions. At 00:30 Some Germans exited their shell
holes at the Poudriere, intentions unclear, rifle fire sends them back.
The action of Battalion Thomas (5e Btn, 2e Zouaves)
against the Poudriere must continue, North to South, supported by artillery and
all other heavy weapons and machine guns foreseen for the attack, scheduled for
22:00 on the 19th.
The 2e Zouaves carried out a brilliant attack inspite
of an energetic German defence. It cleaned the valley up to the train line and
pushed forward 50m to the east of the poudriere, connecting in the North West with the 3e
Tirailleures and had visual contact with the 100e R.I to the South East.
In the action 7 officers and 170 men were captured. French
documents were recuperated in the Poudriere.
German elements to the North East of the Poudriere who
were gathering for a counter attack were dispersed by artillery.
Note: It is worth mentioning that the 2nd Zouaves
were in fact European, attached to them were Grenadiers of one of the divisions
Tirailleur Regiments. German soldiers had a fear and hatred of the French