At the outbreak of the war neither the French or German high command recognized the strategic importance of the Hartmannsweilerkopf. From here the occupier was able to see deep into enemy territory, the perfect artillery observation position that would allow an almost limitless opportunity to observe enemy movements and supply lines. On the 18th of December 1914 a patrol of the L.I.R 123 did a reconnaissance of the hill and reported that it was free of enemy troops but a subsequent patrol on the 21st of December ran into French troops and in the ensuing fight 3 Germans were wounded. By the 25th of December the French had set up a position on the western slope of the hill, the Germans a 40 man post on the eastern slope, both sides unaware of the presence of the other. On the 30th of December a patrol left the German positions and ran into French fire. Later that day the German position came under fire and Landwehrmann Ott of the L.I.R123 became the first of tens of thousands of men who were to die on the slopes of the "Vielle Armand" .
Above: General v. Gaede, commander of the Armee Abteilung Gaede.
Below: A Period Postcard showing the early fighting on the HWK
On the 4th of January the 8. L.I.R. 123 and parts of the Landsturm Battalion Heidelberg attempted to throw the French Chasseur Alpine from the peak but failed. On the 9th after an artillery bombardment the L.I.R. 123 tried another assault but the Chasseurs, hidden in the trees, fired back furiously sending the attackers back with 34 dead and 84 wounded. The French dug in on the peak christened "Ringburg" by the Germans and the German high command realised that they would need more than older Landwehrmen to take the mountain. Regular troops, including the elite 14th Jaegers were brought in to take part in the battle.
On the 19th of January the Germans had surrounded the peak and were attacking the position in force. From the western side of the mountain French Chasseurs tried to break through the stranglehold to relieve their comrades. The fight lasted until the 21st with bloody close combat causing heavy loses on both sides.
Then, on the 21st a German Minenwerfer section, helped by 40 carriers managed to manhandle a Werfer to the top of the hill. Rapidly setting up their weapon they fired twenty 50kg bombs into the French positions. The situation was hopeless, faced with certain death the 3 officers and 127 men surrendered, the Germans presenting arms to the prisoners at the surrender. The peak was finally in German hands, over 1000 dead littered the slopes of the mountain. It was however to be only the start of the fighting on the peak. On the eastern slope the Germans started to hack bunkers, stores and infirmaries into the rock face. The French began to do the same on the western slope. Over the next three months possession of the peak was bitterly contested, until on the 23 March a French attack came to within 150 meters of taking the peak. The R.I.R. 75 and I.R. 25 launched numerous counter attacks over the next few days but the French were not to be moved from their new positions.
Left: The official commemoration certificate for Landsturmmann Anton Zureck, a member of the Reserve Infanterie Regiment 78, killed on the first day of the French attack on the 21st of December 1915
On the 26th of March after a three and a half hour barrage the French swept the I.R. 25 from the peak and continued down the eastern slope pushing the Germans ahead of them. Elements of the R.I.R. 75, I.R. 25 and L.I.R. 15 rallied to halt the French advance. From their newly captured positions the French had a superb view behind the German lines. The German position was desperate, they were not in a position to regain the lost ground, and they had to make sure that they were not swept of the mountain altogether as the lower slopes would be an important staging ground for any future attacks. Luckily the French needed time to bring up their artillery, in the meantime the remnants of the I.R. 25 were rapidly assembled with two Landwehr battalions and this ad hoc force was used to hold the line. They put up a dogged fight over the next few weeks as the French tried to edge them off the mountainside. On the 19th of April the R.I.R. 75 stormed the hill after a one hour artillery bombardment, but the badly planned attack failed and they had to withdraw and prepare for another. On the 25th April the R.I.R. 75 along with reinforcements from other units attacked after a 2 hour bombardment, and with the help of pioneers they took the peak capturing 1000 enemy soldiers. Later that day they pulled back behind the peak and installed themselves in the positions on the eastern slope again. The peak proved to be untenable for both sides. There was little cover and either side could now fire an accurate barrage on the peak at a minutes notice.
On their respective sides of the hill both sides dug in and prepared their positions, the thick forests which had seen so much blood spilled had been turned into a desert of rock, mud and tree stumps by the artillery. The antagonists positions were often close enough to exchange hand grenades with each other. For the next eight months they would try to kill each other with surprise artillery barrages and bloody trench raids. Routine settled in on the HWK, the first year had cost many lives, but the worse was yet to come.
Right: The Iron Cross document for Ersatz Reservist Steltenpohl of Reserve Infanterie Regiment 73, awarded for the fighting on the HWK and signed by General Gaede.
At 09:00 on 21st of December 1915 the German defenders were hit wit a surprise barrage in which 300 guns and mortars pounded their positions for 5 hours driving the Germans into their dugouts and destroying all lines of communication with the rear. After five hours the barrage crept towards the east, followed by two Brigades of elite French mountain troops who stormed the remains of the dug outs. The Front line was occupied by the 14. Jägerbtln., R.I.R. 78 and the Ldw.I.R. 99. all off whom put up as stiff a resistance as can be expected by troops who had endured such a concentrated bombardment. The shock of the attack was to much and they were swept away by the fury of the French assault. The 8. Res.Jäg.Btl. and the R.I.R. 73 were rushed forward, along with cooks, supply troops and anyone able to carry a rifle and they fought valiantly, managing to stop the now exhausted attackers only 150 meters away from the German HQ. At this point the Germans had lost 800 men killed in action with 1400 men going into French captivity.
A letter from the Ersatz Battalion of the 78th Reserve Infantry Regiment informing a wife that her husband, Landsturmann August Mammen has been killed in the fighting in the Hartmannsweilerkopf. The soldier was killed on the first day of the French attack.
In the meantime the German military railway system went into rapid action bringing in reinforcements in the form of the 8. Jägerbtln and the Ldw. I.R. 40 and 56 who arrived that same evening to join in the fray on the next day.
December 22 saw a German counter attack that surprised the French as much as the Germans had been surprised the day before. The artillery rounds were still crashing into the French machine gun posts as the Jägers and Landwehrmen came cluttering over the peak. The attackers encircled and destroyed the French Infanterie Regiment 152, and pushed the French back onto the western slope. The mountain top was once again in German hands.
The fighting raged on until January 8 1916, when both sides found themselves in more or less the same positions they had held the day before the French attack. Scattered over the mountainside were the bodies of thousands of soldiers, French and German, who had died in the two weeks of fighting. By the end of the war 8 000 were to die on and around the Vielle Armand, some early estimates said as many as 68 000.
Hartmannsweilerkopf was one of the sectors of the front where no major strategic offensives took place, all fighting took place on a local level with little relation to what was going on anywhere else and after the battle over Christmas 1915 both sides settled down to a routine of aggressive patrolling and ambushes . On October 15 1918 American troops took over some of the French positions on the mountain where fighting had all but died out. On November 4 1918 Officier-Stellvertreter Weckerle of the Ldw.I.R. 124 had the dubious honour of being the last German killed on the mountain as his patrol was caught by French machine gun fire.
The official letter confirming August Mammen's death.
Above: A map showing the strategic importance of the peak. The red line represents the front line in 1916, the flat land to the right is behind the German lines. From the top of the peak the enemy could see for many miles.
Map courtesy of http://www.hartmannsweilerkopf.de/13901.html which is the best place to start if you have an interest in this sector.
Above: The French cemetery and monument seen from the top of the HWK.
Left: The decorative death certificate of Louis Albert Girard, a soldier of the 152eme Regiment D'infanterie.
The 152eme was an Alsatian Regiment that ended the war as one of the most decorated units in the French Army. Nicknamed "Regiment du Diable" of "Les diables Rouges" (The devil's regiment or the red devils) the 152eme was practically annihilated on the hartmannsweilerkopf in December 1915 loosing approx 2000 men.
Soldat Girard survived the bloody fighting in December of 1915
only to be killed 6 months later in a
hand grenade exchange that rates a single line in the regimental history.
14th of June: Agitated night. Exchanges of grenades
and bombs. From 20:00 until 20:30 Artillery fire on Hoche, Silberloch, Roche
summit, Rehfelsen, Camp
Kellermann. 1 soldier
killed, one wounded from 12. Cie.
15th of June: Combat with grenades and bombs on the
Rehfelsen. 1 killed
(12. Cie) and 2 wounded (11. Cie.)
A page describing a flamethrower attack on the Hartmannsweilerkopf positions, carried out by the L.I.R. 124, 16th Sturmbataillon and flame thrower troops of the Garde Reserve Pionier Regiment can be found HERE
Below: The monument of the 152eme R.I. which looks down from the mountain top.