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Fighting on the Winterberg - The Eastern bastion of the Chemin des Dames

Good-bye to life, good-bye to love,
Good-bye to all the women,
It’s all over now, we’ve had it for good
With this awful war.
It’s in Craonne up on the plateau
That we’re leaving our hides
‘Cause we’ve all been sentenced to die.
We’re the ones that they’re sacrificing  

* (Translated by Mark K. Jensen )

The steep slopes of the Winterberg which rises out of the plain to the West of Corbeny is the Eastern bastion of the Damenweg (Chemain des Dames). The white chalky rock and gravel, churned over by shell and mortar, carried up by tunnelers and littering the slopes gave it a color that prompted the Germans to name it “Winterberg”. For the French it was known as the “Plateau de la Californie”.

Possession of the heights assured the occupier a panoramic observation post including the plains at Juvincourt. In April the Bayerische Ersatz Division had held the Winterberg, suffering heavy losses, but not ceding the ground. In May 1917 after days of bombardment the French had succeeded in taking ownership. There was another shift as the 2nd Garde Division and the Baden 28. Reserve Division joined in the fighting. A tenacious series of attack and counterattack held the fate of the heights in Limbo. The major weak point in the German lines was on the Northern slope descending into the Vauclair forest. Here a gap in the defenses was known as the “Craonner Loch” (Hole).


The Attack on the 3rd of June 1917
 

When the newly arrived 15. Infanterie Division and 41. Infanterie Division took over the line, they right away prepared an operation aimed at improving the defensive capabilities of their front line.  

On the Western side of the Winterberg three battalions of the 15. Infanterie Division, supported by its own Stosstrupps/Assault troops, along with four Flame Throwers supplied by the Sturm-bataillon Nr. 7 would attack, with the goal of pushing the enemy lines back over the peak and thereby pushing the enemy out of their observation posts.  

On the eastern side the heights the 41. Infanterie Division would attack. The I. Batl. 148. Infanterie Regiment (I./I.R. 148) would attack on the North East corner. Four “Sturmkeile” (Assault-wedges) of the Sturm-bataillon Nr. 7. along with elements of the III./I.R. 152 would attack on the Eastern side of the Winterberg to assure a line between the Northeast corner and the Northern edge of Craonne.

Above: A map of Craonne and the winterberg. The German lines are in Blue, the French in Red. The positions recently captured by the French are shown. The Cemetary attacked by Breuer and his group are marked in Green.

The Sturmkeile of the S.B. Nr. 7 had the most difficult sector of the assault. The terrain had both sandy and swampy areas and there was thick underwood and brush to cross through. Added to that, the French had the high ground with numerous machine gun positions.The Sturmbataillon had suggested a surprise attack after a short violent bombardment, but this was turned down. It was thought that the attack on the right flank needed a long and thorough bombardment to prepare the way.

Right: Adolf Breuer

The Attack
 

On the 2nd of June the bombardment began. It lasted all day and through the night, sometimes softer, sometimes very intense. The French gunners replied, the German lines of communications and roads behind the front coming under heavy fire. The German assault troops moving up to the front lost both men and rest time. By 04:00 in the morning of the 3rd of June all men were in place. At 05:19 (3 Minutes before the attack) the German bombardment reached its crescendo. The accompanying four Infantry Field Guns (two from the 4. Infanterie Begleit Batterie and 2 from the 23. Infanterie Begleit Batterie) opened fire over open sights on the breakthrough points, forcing the French infantry under cover. At 05:22 the German assault troops attacked. All the Stosstrupps accompanied by Sturm-bataillon men reached their objectives in 6-7 minutes, helped by the precision fire of the accompanying Infantry Field Guns.  

The right assault column (A) under Leutnant Schieferecke composed of two “Sturmkeilen” from the Sturmbataillon and two sections from the 12. Komp. I.R. 152 broke into the French lines and pushing forward took a large number of prisoners. Fantastic work was done by Unteroffizier Nett and Breuer using their Stoßtrupps and accompanying weapons. Any enemy resistance was crushed and wiped out. Unfortunately Unteroffizier Nett was killed in the fighting for a strongpoint when one of the accompanying Infantrymen threw a grenade that landed in Nett’s Stoßtrupp. His Stosstrupp continued their advance to the Californie Copse while Breuer and his men reached the Eastern edge of the Cemetery to the North of Craonne.  


Upon arrival at their goal Unteroffizier Breuer rapidly and efficiently got the men of the Stoßtrupps and Infantrymen ready to repel the coming counter attacks. The French wasted no time n attacking but the attacks were beaten back by Breuers men.

Above: A French Field map of Craonne on the 3rd of June 1917

The left assault column (B) under Leutnant Dieffenbach had two Sturmkeilen from the S.B. Nr. 7 and three sections from III./ I.R. 152 also rapidly reached their goal. Ahead of Stosstrupp Daljo resistance died under a hail of German hand grenades and belts of machine gun bullets. To their left the StoßtruppBrünne also advanced rapidly, enemy machine gunners ducking under our fire and allowing the assault troops to move into their positions and finish them off.

Gefreiter Mittelsdorf of the Machine Gun Company and Oberleutnant Meusdörffer with his Infantry Field gun used their weapons expertly. Here as well the men had to tenaciously defend their newly gained territory at the exit to Craonne. Here the French launched a counter attack and Dieffenbach’s men managed to hold on to their newly conquered territory after a lively hand grenade battle.

Once the line had been secured and readied for defense the men of the Sturm-bataillon were ordered back at around 10:00 am. Some men were kept back and helped the Infantry fight off a determined French counter attack that started at 16:15. By 19:00 the lat elements if the S.B. had been pulled from the line.  

Right: The Iron Cross Award document to Adolf Breuer, the document was issued after his return to the S.B. Rohr although the award was made during the time detached to S.B. Nr. 7

The Results.

The ground captured could in the end not be held. Further counter attacks that night and the next day pushed the German infantry out of the positions.  

The Sturm-bataillon men in the operation totaled 4 officers and 116 men, including the gun crews. Losses were 3 dead, 2 missing and 19 wounded.  

The situation on the Winterberg remained tense and continued to cause losses on both sides. The German divisions which rotated through wasted no time in exhausting themselves. Constant artillery fire on the front line positions and bombardments on the lines of communications and roads behind the front caused heavy losses. Small local raids were carried out by both sides and added to the losses. Men fetching supplies or relieving others at the front also fell all to often victim to the artillery.  

At the end of October 1917 the Germans pulled back all along the line from Craonne to the Lauffaux Ecke on the western edge of the Chemin des Dames following the French offensive on the aisne (Schlacht bei Malmaison)  


* “La chanson de Craonne” (The song of Craonne), a portion of which is shown here (Translated by Mark K. Jensen) was an antiwar Song which was written and adapted by French soldiers during the war. It became famous during the 1917 Rebellion and legend has it that the French high command offered a large reward for the name of the soldier who wrote it. The song was apparently banned in Public in France until 1974.

 
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