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The death of the 3rd Company at Épehy, September 1918

After a string of Battle honors second to none gained in the fighting from August 1914 until September 1918 the Battle for Épehy goes largely unnoticed when we consider the combat achievements of the Leibregiment.

The village of Épehy was an outpost position in front of the Hindenburg/Siegfried Line. As a run up to the major Allied offensives starting in the last week of September 1918 the British High Command decided to mount an attack on the Épehy sector. The objective was a fortified zone 34km wide and 5 km deep, in the middle of the action were the men of the Bavarian Infantrie Leibregiment defending the town of Épehy.  The taking of Épehy was considered enough of a fight to be listed as a “battle” by the British high command.

The Bavarian Leibregiment had taken up positions in the town on the 11th of September 1918 and worked feverishly to improve the defensive positions. These consisted mainly of Shell holes and reinforced Basements. It was decided not to join the positions with trenches as movement behind the walls of the town were judged to be sufficiently safe and any digging would give away the positions to enemy spotters.

A report was sent to the Regimental staff complaining that the men were exhausted, their uniforms and equipment in terrible condition. They had not been able to wash for weeks, rations were not sufficient and many were suffering from dysentery. The officer writing the report pointed out that the condition of the men inhibited any real progress in improving the defensive positions.

In the early morning of the 17th of September the German artillery fired gas shells on the neighboring British Artillery positions. There was no visible effect and the British artillery kept up their routine harassing fire. German overserves reported that they believed that the British artillery had been moved forward.

Above: The Iron Cross document to "Leiber" Franz Thoma. Thoma was one of eight men or “Leiber” who survived the destruction of the 3rd Company of the bayerische Infanterie Leibregiment on the 18th of September 1918. The day after his capture he was diagnosed with shell shock, evidently a reaction to the events he experienced on the 18th.

On the evening of the 17th the British continued their harassing fire including gas shells on Épehy and to the rear of the German front line. Until 2am on the 18th the night sky remained clear but by 3am cloud cover caused the gas to remain on the ground. The German artillery began to fire a counter Gas bombardment. The German sentries could not detect any movement in the British lines. In the advanced positions they peered anxiously across no man’s land while their exhausted comrades tried to sleep in the crowded bunkers.

At 5am it began to rain.

At 5:40am the night opened up as heavy and light artillery shells crashed into the Leibregiment positions. Incendiary, high explosive, smoke and gas shells landed in the village. Steel and stone splinters flew through the air and heavy mines joined the bombardment crushing defensive positions, collapsing the entrances to basements and dugouts and knocking over walls. Machine Guns and Minenwerfer were covered in soil and rubble and ammunition reserves were strewn around by the blast. All lines of communication to the Battalion HQs were cut off.

At 6:15am the artillery fire jumped to the rear cutting the German front line off from their reserves with a curtain of steel and dust. The survivors climbed out of their dugouts to take up defensive positions. German rifle and machinegun fire sent bullets through the gas and fog towards the British positions. The defensive fire started just in time as attackers appeared in front of the 6th and 7th company and to the left of the 2nd company. The fire stopped the attacking momentum and the British troops took cover. The first attack ground to a halt. Suddenly troops wearing British helmets were spotted to the left of the 2nd Company. The enemy had broken through between the 2nd company and the neighboring Jäger Battalion. The machine guns of the 2nd Company were still firing as the British pushed forward against the companies left flank and then from the rear. The men fought with rifles, bayonets and hand grenades but the British kept on coming, replacing men as fast as they fell. With their positions overrun and their company commander seriously wounded the pitiful remains of the 2nd company fell into enemy hands. They had defended their positions to the last.

Above: German Prisoners being led away after the Battle of Épehy

When the British bombardment had jumped to the rear the men of the 3rd Company of the Leibregiment strained their eyes and ears waiting for the coming attack. All along the line gas and fog hindered attempts at observation. At 7am Leutnant der Reserve Halt received information that the enemy had pushed past on their right flank cutting off the communication between the 3rd company and the neighboring 7th company. To the left the sound of fighting in the 2nd company positions led him to believe that the British had made inroads into the town. A British Patrol appeared in the fog to the North West but was driven off with rifle fire otherwise all was calm in the 3rd company positions. Infantry Fire was heard on the left flank, right flank and to the rear but all was quiet to the front of their positions. A patrol sent towards the 7th Company came back with six British prisoners. A patrol towards the 2nd Company positions reported a British presence. Peering through the fog the 3rd Company felt they were cut off with no contact to friend or foe.

Under these circumstances Lt. d. Res. Halt gave the orders that the position would be held, come what may.

Above: An iconic Photograph of a German prisoner sharing a cigarette with a British Soldier after the Battle of Épehy

At 8am a skirmish line was seen to the east. Just after the start of the British bombardment the commander of the 1st Company had announced he was sending relief, at that moment the telephone lines had been cut. Halt hoped that the skirmish line was his relief, German troops coming from the rear to reinforce his men. To the South they observed a column of German soldiers.

In the moments that followed the horrible truth of their situation became apparent.

A British tank appeared to their rear on the Épehy North-South road and attacked the 3rd company positions. The column of Germans turned out to be prisoners under heavy escort. As soon as the soldiers escorting the prisonners saw the men of the 3rd company they covered the prisoners with two machine guns and began to attack. The men of the 3rd company were suddenly under fire from the north and from the south. The British infantry advancing from the South called for the 3rd company to surrender but they answered with grenades and rifle fire. Then came the last horrible surprise… the “reinforcements” turned out to be British troops... the 3rd company was under attack from the west as well!

Above: Prisoners and wounded after the Battle

Attacked from all sides the men of the 3rd company fought from the ruins and shell holes. One after another the men fell to the enemy fire. While throwing a grenade Lt. d. Res Halt was hit in the thigh by a bullet. In hand to hand fighting the company was slowly destroyed, man by man, many killed by a final bayonet stab. Along with Lt. d. Res Halt and Lt. Freiherr von Voithenberg of the Machine Gun section only six men of the company survived to go into captivity. Of the six most were wounded. Only Leiber Seiler was able to return to German lines after playing dead.

By 10am on the 18th of September the 3rd company ceased to exist.

Above: The map shows the position of the 3rd company with the movement of the British troops on both flanks
Above: By 10:00 am the 2nd and 3rd Companies have ceased to exist

Franz Thomas was a Postman from Willhartsberg who was drafted into the army in August 1916. He transferred to the Infanterie Leibregiment in the field on the 11th of March 1917. Serving in the 12th Company then the Pionier Company he was fighting alongside the 12th Company when Ferdinand Schörner won his Pour le merite for the capture of Height  1114 in the 12th Isonzo Battle.

He transferred to the 3rd Company on the 15th of June 1918. On the 18th of September 1918 he was one of the 8 survivors of the company when it was wiped out in the battle for Épehy. Initially posted as missing he was then listed as a prisoner of war. He remained in captivity until September 1919. According to his Bavarian records He suffered from Nerve/Shell shock on the 19th of September 1918, this would have been diagnosed one day after his capture.

Above: German prisoners after the Battle

The amount of luck needed to be taken prisoner and not be bayoneted or shot by the enemy is often underestimated. A fantastic paper called “The Politics of Surrender: Canadian Soldiers and the Killing of Prisoners in the Great War” concentrates on the Canadian Divisions but gives a good overview to the Perils of surrender on the battlefield see Here

https://web.viu.ca/davies/h482.wwi/timcook.cdns.killingprisoners.pdf

The action in which Thoma participated

1917

11.3 Positional warfare on the Putna and Sereth
1.4.-15.5. O.H.L. Reserve at Austrian Heeresgruppe Erzherzog Josef
16.-18.5. Transport to western front
18.6.-22.7 Positional warfare in upper Alsace
23.7.-3.8. Transport to Romania
6.8.-6.9. Breakthrough on the Putna and Sufita
28.8. Taking of Muncelul
10.-12.9 Transport to South Tirol
16.-30.9. Positioning in South Tirol
1.-15.10 Positioning behind the Isonzo front
16.10-23.10 Positional warfare on the Isonzo front
24.-27.10 Breakthrough in the Julischen Alps
24.10 Storming of Hevnik and Height 1114
25.10 Storming and taking the Luico pass
27.10 Taking of Cividale
28.10.-3.11 Battle at Udine
1.11 Bonzicco
4.-11.11 Follow up fighting from Tagliamento to the Piave
12.11.-16.12 Mountain warfare in the Venetian Alps    

1918  

23.-29.1. Transport from Italy to Lorraine
29.1.-6.4. Training
9.-18.4. Battle at Armentiers
22.-29.4 Battle at Kemmel
30.4.-7.5 Positional warfare in Flanders
9.8.-31.8 Defensive battle between the Somme and Oise
9.-27.8. Battle at Roye and Lassigny
28.-31.8. Battle on the north canal between Nesle and Noyon
3.-7.9. Fighting on the Siegfried front
8.-18.9. Defensive battle between Cambrai and St. Quentin

The Photos courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, the text largely from the Regimental History


 
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