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The EK1

On the 8th of June 1916 the 19th Prussian Reserve Division and 1st and 2nd Bavarian Divisions and elements of the elite Alpenkorps under the direction of the 1st Bavarian Armeekorps attacked through the Thiaumont forest and from the direction of Douaumont. Their goal was the feared Waben-Graben and Thiaumont farm. They aimed to clear a way along the Froide Terre ridge and its South Eastern slope leading down to Fleury.  

The attack on the 8th succeeded in pushing through the forest, but after repeated efforts failed to take the Waben Graben and Thiaumont farm.  

The Bavarian General von Xylander received authorisation to postpone the next attack on the Farm and the positions to the west for the 12th of June.  

The situation at the front was one of extreme confusion for both sides. The French were not sure who now held Thiaumont farm, the Germans were not sure where their units were in the cratered landscape. In the text below there is an account by a Bavarian NCO who set out to find the neighbouring division and the Croix de Guerre document to a French soldier who set out to find who occupied Thiaumont farm.

In the early morning of the 9th of June the 6eme Compagnie of the 137eme Regiment sent out a patrol to establish where the German lines were. Their battalion had been ordered to attack and retake the farm.  

The Regimental diary of the 137eme regiment describes the events of the day.  

Left: A section of a painting called "L'enfer" of "Hell" by a French artist named Georges Leroux showing French Soldiers wearing gasmasks sheltering in a shellhole at Verdun.

9th of June 1916  

-The vanguard of battalion Gaugeat arrives in the Bois des Vignes at 1:30 a.m.
- The Battalion assembles at 2:15 a.m. At 2:00 a.m. the Battalion Mallet leaves the citadel to occupy the positions in the Bois Fleury. Commandant Gaugeat receives orders from the General commanding the 302nd brigade to "Counter attack the farm Thiaumont in a North Easterly direction". 
Commandant Gaugeat contacts Commandant Manceron in the front line (Stronghold Thiaumont - Bunker 320) who briefs him on the conditions and explains the difficulties. The ground to be covered has been churned up by the artillery. It is under constant observation and at the slightest movement the enemy artillery fires a barrage of shells.

Commandat Gaugeat sends a group of grenadiers under S/Lt Bernardeau to do a reconnaissance of the farm (Bernardeau was wounded in the action) The patrol heads of, at first they go to much to the north, then correct themselves heading North east and arrive  just to the South of Cote 360. Here they come under rifle fire. The patrol reports that the area to the South of Thiaumont farm and the Cote 360 are occupied by enemy infantry. The 5th company is ordered to move from the Bois des Vignes, along the Ravin des Vignes to the Cote 360. The company discovers that the line from Bunker 320 to the Strongpoint Thiaumont is held by a few elements of the French 347. R.I. (HQ in the shelter 117) and remains of the 403eme R.I. bordering on the Strongpoint Thiaumont. The 5eme Cie takes up position about 80 m ahead of shelter 117, enemy infantry fire and artillery prevent them from advancing further. Three sections of the 5th company are in a semi circle ahead of shelter 117, one section is in reserve towards the shelter 320. At 10:30 a.m. the 6eme Cie is moving forward to aid the 5eme in its advance when the order comes to stop the counter attack. Until 03:00 P.M. the 5th company stays in place while the other three companies shelter in the Ravin des Vignes at the level of shelter 119. At 05:00 p.m. Commandant Gaugeat is ordered to leave the 5eme compagnie in place and to push the 6eme compagnie towards the Strongpoint Thiaumont, the other two companies to be kept in reserve in the ravin des Vignes. Battalion HQ in the shelter 118.  

Above: A map showing the area in which the two patrols took place. The Patrol of 137eme Regiment arrived from the South East between the Z.W. (Strongpoint) Thiaumont and Shelter 320 then continued on to Thiaumont Fme and "360" where it came under fire. The Patrol of the 1st Bavarian Infanterie Regiment seems to have moved North to South from position 368 before moving to the West, then North again.

Above: The Croix de Guerre award certificate to Henri Hequette who was awarded the cross at Divisional level for his brave participation in the patrol on the 9th of June.

The Attack on the 12th of June

After an infernal barrage the attack started on the 12th of June. The 1. bayerische Infanterie Regiment of the 1. bay.Infanterie Divison took the Waben Graben and continued on the Froide Terre (Kalte Erde) ridge taking almost 700 prisonners. The 19th Reserve Division on the right flank made no progress and the stubborn French defenders at the Thiaumont farm held on despite the strength of the German attacks. The germans prepared for a new assault on the farm but on the morning of the 13th 100 exhausted defenders with three machineguns surrendered.  

Von Xylander then gave orders to clear the Southern part of the Thiaumont-Schlucht (Ravine) which was to be carried out after 2 days artillery preparation by the 19th Reserve Division. The attack was a failure as the French artillery hit the attackers in their staging areas, reserves were brought up to late and the troops taht did attack did not manage to gain a foothold.  

An attack planned for the night of the 16th-17th by the 19. R.D. and 1. b.I.D. did not materialize. As the German artillery did not know where the front line ran the attack was planned without artillery support. The French artillery was active however and caused enough confusion to get the attack canceled. On the morning of the 17th the French counter attacked hitting the 19. R.D. and part of the 1. b.I.D. The French pushed the 19. R.D. back but were pushed back in their turn that afternoon. On the 19th the German made a new effort to take the "Franzosennest" in the Thiaumont ravine, the attack was beaten back and the French launched an immediate counter attack. The "Franzosennest" was to fall on the 21st as part of the major offensive launched in the 23rd of June.

Above: the memorial card for Vizefeldwebel Franz Seibert of the 2nd Bavarian Infantry Regiment "Kronprinz" killed during the French counter attack on the 17th of June.

Crawling through the same ground just 24 hours later was a patrol led by Vizefeldwebel Ludwig Huber of the 1st Bavarian Infantry Regiment.  

"On the 10th of June 1916 the II. Batl. of the 1. bayerische Infanterie Regiement was pushed into the line on the left wing of the 1. bay. I.D. with orders to re-establish contact with the units of the 2. bay.I.D. on our flank. The 5. Komp was to carry out the task of seeking contact. We marched from the Fosses-Wald to the slope at Douaumont where Leutnant Häusle called for volunteers to carry out the patrol. The company had already suffered heavy losses in the days before, the men realised that if they were wounded on patrol there would be no coming back. They would have to wait for the Scythe man to release them from their suffering. In the hell of Verdun it was up to each man to see that he made it through alive while the roar of enemy guns day in day out turned forest into field and made our communications trenches almost impassable.  

In times like these it was not realistic to expect anyone was eager to volunteer for a patrol.  

I admit that I was not happy, in spite of much experience with patrols since the beginning of the war I did not want to go. I had a feeling (as did the others) that if I went, I would never come back alive.   Only when no one moved and I began to feel ashamed for myself, and for the company did I raise my hand.  

A second Unteroffizier named Schmidt volunteered to accompany me.  

The company moved forward reaching the front line at about 4:00 am. The sights were terrible, in places bodies lay one next to the other ripped apart by the constant artillery fire. There a hand stuck out of the earth, there a boot. Half buried backpacks in the trenches we occupied.  

That morning it was relatively quiet and we prepared our positions for an expected enemy counter attack. At 8:00 am on a wonderful summer day the patrol was ordered forward. We were not sure how far the 2. bay. I.D. had pushed forward or if they had veered off to the left.

We needed to move easily so we had left our rifles, grenades and gasmasks behind as we crawled out for a few hundred meters, then moved jumping from shell hole to shell hole veering left as we moved forward. Rifle and machine gun bullets were fired at us from the French on the Fleury heights. After an hour we stumble across a machine gun position of the 2. bay.I.D. .The machine gun is destroyed and except for one badly wounded gunner all the crew is dead. The badly wounded man lay face to face with a dead comrade, both were half buried by the collapsed shell wall. We dug him out and discovered his feet were missing. He asked us to leave him and to continue onwards, all he needed from us was water. Even this simple wish we could not fulfil as we had brought none with us. I will never forget the site of the man. We stuck a rifle in the ground with a hat on it... maybe if tonight the stretcher bearers were out looking for wounded. By day it was impossible, no matter how much we would like to have done it.

Above: An Iron Cross 2nd class certificate awarded to a member of the 1st bavarian Infantry Regiment in May 1916. The document has been carried with his paybook through the assaults at Verdun.

We could do no more; we had a mission to carry out. A few hundred meters further we came across a badly damaged enemy strongpoint in which friend and foe coexisted. Wounded men of the 2. bay.I.D. and wounded and captured French soldiers waited desperately for night so that they may move out of no mans land. The wounded men of the 2nd division could not tell us where their units were. About 1000m ahead to the left we see a railway embankment we see blue grey figures moving which we took to be Frenchmen. We kept moving from shell hole to shell hole, all the time finding wounded men that we could not help. We tried to point them toward the enemy strongpoint. The ground we covered was terrible, covered in parts of bodies changing colour in the glowing sunlight. We approached the men we thought were Frenchmen but as we approached we saw they wore our steel helmets.  

By coincidence it was a Prussian Jäger staff in brand new uniforms. As they had the Railway embankment between them and Fleury they were able to move about with little problem. We had to keep moving to reach our goal.  

It needs not be mentioned that as we crept closer we had drawn not only rifle and machine gun fire but also enemy artillery which did not please the Prussian Jägers. An officer of the Staff met us and asked us what we were doing. I reported that we were trying to establish a connection between the 1st and 2nd Bavarian Divisions. He saw that our task was no easy one and did his best to help by providing information that his unit was the extreme right wing of the X. Prussian Reserve-Korps. To their immediate right lay the 2. bay. I.D. He showed us the approximate direction and sent us on our way wishing us luck.  

There was no sign of a trench line to be found but after covering about 100m from hopping from shell hole to shell hole we finally found the left wing of the 2. bay.I.D. (I believe it was the 15. bayerische Infanterie Regiment).  

That we were cursed and insulted from the 2-3 men in each shell hole we passed was only understandable as we were drawing enemy fire. By 6:00pm we had reached the right wing of the division, (The 12. Kompagnie, 12. bayerische Infanterie Regiment). The company commander was with a group and three badly wounded men in a huge shell crater. We told him of our mission and wanted then to return to our unit. He ordered us to wait until darkness as he did not want us to draw more fire on his company’s position. How far it was from the 12. Komp., 12. b.I.R. to our company we had no way of knowing.

We were worried that we may not find it in the dark but we had to obey the orders and wait for dusk.  

We tried to use our time constructively by observing the situation in the sector but were not able to learn much. It was a wasteland of shell holes and no real fixed trench lines. Dusk arrived.  

We decided to simply move away from the front line, directly to the rear. All over flares were shooting up. The Frenchmen at that time had stopped using their “Parachute” flares and the ones they used were identical to the German ones. We soon lost all orientation; we had no way of knowing if we were heading to death or French captivity. We could not stay immobile for ever so we just started walking to we supposed the rear lay. We reached a shell hole that was reinforced with sandbags and connected to the neighbouring shell hole. It was obvious that someone was occupying this position, or that it had been occupied during the day. We looked around, was it ours or theirs we asked each other in whispers. At that moment a figure appeared about 10 meters away, then another. Frenchmen! We were unarmed so we ran. We covered about 20 m when the first shots sounded. We jumped into a shell hole and at that moment hand grenades exploded, luckily non in the shell hole. There we lay, somewhere between life and death, somewhere between captivity and freedom. Luckily the Frenchmen did not have the courage to follow us. The last hand grenades exploded and the firing died down. Like snakes we crawled from one hole to the next until we had put enough distance between us and the Frenchmen to get up and run. Once again we had no idea where friend or enemy was. We were approaching our own lines and already bullets were whizzing by our ears. Our people thought we were an enemy patrol. Once again it was a shell hole that saved us. By screaming and shouting we managed to alert them to the fact that we were Germans.  

At about 11:00 pm we reached the 6th company of our regiment and returned to the battalion to report our observations.