On the 24th of October 1916 a major French
offensive on the East Bank of Verdun
retook a number of major landmarks. This included the Village and Fort of
Douaumont, the honour of which fell to the 38th Division d’Infanterie.
On the left flank of the 8eme Tirailleurs took the Bois de Nawe. To their
right, arriving out of the Bois des Trois Cornes the 4th Zouaves
attacked across the Thiaumont-Schlucht (Ravin de la Dame) and the Albain-Schlucht
(Ravin de la Couleuvre) reaching the high ground to the west of the ruins of
the village Douaumont looking down into the Minze-Schlucht (Ravin du Helly). Resistance
was weak as the German 25. Reserve Division facing the left wing of the 38eme
Division d’Infanterie was already exhausted after months of fighting, dysentery,
fever and days under the French bombardment. The German division was waiting
for its relief and transport to a quiet zone when the 24th of
October offensive rolled over them.
A rough translation of the regimental history of the
Douaumont, a name unknown before the war, was to
become for a year or so a name as famous as any of the great cities of Europe. More than just name it was to become a symbol, a
Douaumont, it was the destination of the
"Africans" of the 38eme Division when they embarked at Tronville on
the 21st of October 1916. The division had been given the honour of taking one
of the most important objectives of the war and the men debarked already
sensing the spirit and energy that General Mangin had breathed into the
600 artillery pieces were to take part and the sight
of the guns was reassuring to the men as they marched past the abris Saint
Waast and the ravine “des Trois Cornes”.
The shells of the French artillery were churning up
the ground they were to cover during the attack. The men were tense, wondering
when the attack would commence. They were tense but confident.
The 4th Zouaves role in the attack was to take place
in two phases. Their first objective was the ravine “de la Dame”, then to
continue on to take the ravine “de la Couleuvre”. At the same time they were to
keep contact with the 8eme Tirailleurs to the west and the 4eme Regiment Mixte
which attacked the village
of Douaumont itself. On
the right flank of the division the legendary RICM (Régiment d'Infanterie
Coloniale du Maroc) was to take the fort itself.
Left: Jean Baptiste Aime in the ceremonial uniform of the 4th Zouaves.
Above: Jean Baptiste Aime was cited at the order of the
regiment for his role, more perilous than most as he had to run through the
artillery fire during the period that the Regiment was in the trenches.
“During the attack on the 24th of October
1916 and during the following days in the line he carried out his function as
battalion runner/messenger under difficult and dangerous circumstances”
The positioning of the regiments before the attack was
no easy task. The roar of artillery drowned out the voices of the officers as
the units struggled along the narrow communications trenches wearing their
heavy backpacks. Every now and then a section in a hurry would need to overtake
causing chaos in the ranks.
Zouaves, Tirailleurs, Indochinese and Senegalese
squeezed their way along the trenches with a calm determination.
Necessity produced some comical situations as the
columns moved forward. On occasion men lay in the bottom corner of the
communications trench to allow a section to pass, squashed against the wall as
dozens of feet shuffled past their heads. Messengers were passed overhead when
they reached sections of trench where they could not pass through the mass in
front of them.
All this was done in a thick fog, a soup that was so
thick that the men could barely see the comrades in front of them. It was a
mixture of good spirits and calm that allowed the preparation for the attack to
At 8.00am on the 24th of October the trenches of the
frontline were packed as the men waited for the orders for the attack. At about
9.30am the men began to dig slopes that would allow then to exit the trenches
more easily. The soup like fog lay heavily on the ground. Visibility was zero
but the hour of the assault could not be changed, it was set for 10.39am.
It was a spectacle of epic proportions, emotional and
exciting. It brought a tear to many an eye when the men climbed out of the
trench and formed up in front of the trench.
The Zouaves stood nonchalantly, gravely. Their eyes
fixed on the officers who carried their canes under their arms as if leading
their men on a promenade. The serenity on the faces of the men hid an anger and
a determination to beat the enemy.
Right: The Medaille Militaire awarded to J.B. Aime for his bravery during the war.
As the men moved forward Captain Clermont-Tonnerre of
the 13eme Compagnie saw the offensive as an ascent of Frances
fortunes and a decent of Imperial Germany. He noted the difference in the
spirits of the Zouaves, their enthusiasm and certitude of victory compared to
that of the Germans who, if they resisted at all did it in an uncoordinated
manner, each man on his own initiative. For the most part they seemed to
surrender in good spirits.
"Many of the Germans captured in the Ravin des Dames
and Ravin de la Couleuvre seemed to have been taken by surprise as if they had
not expected an attack. A few refused to surrender and we took them out with
At the call of Adjutant Caillard a senior officer came
half dressed out of his bunker repeating "I am the commander, I am the
commander..." A postmaster who had been sorting his letters climbed out
with a letter box in one hand and a bag of mail in the other saying
"Pardon! Pardon Monsieur!"
For some reason they all say "Pardon" in
French. We encourage them to surrender shouting in German that we will not harm
them. They stumble out of their dugouts, one asking me if I was German.
Two medical officers and a captain approach adjudant
Caillard and offer him their cigar cases (one decorated with an iron cross!)
and their wallets. Caillard waves then away. Officers and men are eagerly
offering their possessions to the Zouaves who were almost to a man puffing big
cigars and offering their officers treats given to them by their
"Kameraden" later in the day.
That afternoon on the slopes of the Ravin de la Dames
a German officer approached, contrite, carefully, his hands half raised. One
hand on my revolver and one on my cane I stopped and looked at him. The highly
decorated German officer raised his hand to his cap in salute. I assured him
his men would be safe if they did surrendered. The German officer responded
"Your Zouaves are the most magnificent soldiers I have ever seen".
Left: A map showing the advance of the 38eme D.I. including the sectors of the regiments.
The first objective had been reached by 12.20 and the
Zouaves assembled on the northern slope of the Ravin de la Dame. A complete German battalion had been
At 1.40pm the attack continued. In the meantime the
fog had disappeared and the division’s prize, Douaumont, was illuminated by the
Rapidly, almost too rapidly, the Zouaves advanced
along the steep slope. They advanced close enough to their own bombardment that
they were almost within it! Soon the Northern slopes of the Ravin de la
Couleuvre were reached. By evening the division had taken Douaumont and the
Zouaves were on the plateau in front of the Ravin du Helly.
The enemy had not offered serious opposition but the reconnaissance
patrols the next day were met with lively machine gun fire. For the next 5 days
the Zouaves organised the positions they had captured under a heavy
bombardment. On the 25th and 27th it was particularly heavy as the Germans
conducted an "impotent rage against their defeat".
On the 29th the Regiment assembled in camp Davoust.
They continued by train to Tronville and on the 2nd of November held a parade
honouring the fallen.
The Regiment was cited by the 2eme Armee for its role in
Order of the 13th of November 1916
"(The Regiment) was charged with capturing enemy
positions on a 800m length of front to a depth of 1km. Under the command of Lt.
Col. Richaud it accomplished its task in under four hours with its usual
bravery. It captured 1500 men, 45 officers and 10 machineguns. An enemy officer
remarked "Your Zouaves are the most magnificent soldiers I have ever seen.
It is a consolation that it is them that have captured us".