Battles In The Woevre
From Classic Encyclopedia 1911
"BATTLES IN THE, 1914 WOEVRE -8. - The military importance of the great plain which separates the Metz ridges from the line of heights along the Meuse was evident as soon as the frontier of 1871 was drawn. On its N. side, a strip of bold undulating country, the axis of which maybe taken as Montmedy-Thionville, skirts the Belgian and Luxemburg border, while at the S. it narrows, as the Meuse and Moselle converge toward Toul, to a blunted end facing the Haye Plateau and Toul. Along the Meuse (Verdun-Toul) and along the Moselle (Thionville-Metz) both sides gradually crowned the heights with permanent fortifications. The plain itself, through which the frontier ran along no very well defined line, was not fortified, each side treating it as a sort of foreground or glacis. Generally speaking, this frontier line left the plain to France, but the French ground immediately adjacent to the frontier was practically under the fire of the Metz guns. Hence the war outpost line, which was to protect the concentration of the French main armies, was drawn well back - almost to the verge of the Meuse heights - and, no attempt was made to hold the frontier region itself.
This proved, in the sequel, to be of enormous importance. For, from about the end of the 19th century, vast mineral resources had been discovered in the Briey basin or Eastern Woevre; this lay on both sides of the frontier, and was at the outbreak of war being developed by a Franco-German syndicate. From the military point of view - a short, purely military war being in prospect - no great importance was attached by the French to the evacuation of an untenable stretch of country, but when the war became a prolonged, and largely an economic, struggle, the German occupation and exploitation of the Briey area became a most important asset to the Central Powers.
Nevertheless, after the battle of the Marne and its concomitant fighting on the Meuse died away in Sept 1914, no major offensive took place in this area until the American attack of Sept. 1918. The reasons for this quiescence on the French side were not allowed to appear during the war, and are still rather obscure.
In the following article are described (I) the bitter trenchwarfare fighting which - without ever becoming a major offensive - went on continually in 1914-5, around the salient of St. Mihiel - the base of which was the Woevre plain--and (2) the American operations, which, carried out on a large scale and, without reserve, reduced the salient in two days in 1918.
(C. F. A.) (I.) Hauts De Meuse And Woévre, 1914-6 On Sept. 19 1914 the right wing of the French III. Army was carrying out an offensive advance from the Hauts de Meuse in the direction of Mars-la-Tour when the VIII. Corps encountered at Wool an advanced guard of the German army which was being; led toward the Hauts de Meuse by Gen. von Strautz. Before the engagement at Woe! had assumed any great importance it was suspended by the arrival of an order from Gen. Joffre to the effect that the VIII. Corps was to proceed immediately to Ste. Menehould, where it was to remain in general reserve. Consequently the Germans found themselves confronted only by re serve troops, not yet inured to war, and dispersed over a wide front, when they launched their attacks against the Meuse heights on the 10th and following days.
At Vigneulles Gen. Grand d'Esnon of the 75th Res. Div. was killed and the enemy surmounted the Hauts de Meuse. Before long the German heavy artillery was bombarding the forts of Lionville and Geronville toward the S. and Camp des Romains in front. On Sept. 24 St. Mihiel was in the hands of the Germans, who tried to gain ground W. of the Meuse but could not get beyond Chauvoncourt. In the N. von Strautz's army was held by Gen. Pol Durand's group of reserve divisions which had come to the assistance of the VI. Corps. Toward the S. it was attacked by the XVI. Army Corps at St. Baussant and by the VII. Ca y. Div.
The region of Leronville - Marbotte was without defenders, but the Germans did not advance in the direction of Commercy, as their aim was to encircle Verdun. To this end the German Crown Prince attacked to the S. of Varennes and in Argonne simultaneously and the French III. Army thus found itself threatened both to the N. W. and to the S. of Verdun.
The 15th Div. of the VIII. Corps was brought back to Chaumont-sur-Aire to the III. Army Reserve, ready to hasten either to the aid of the V. Corps in the Argonne or toward Chauvoncourt to help the 75th Res. Div.
The 16th Div. was transported by train from St. Menchould to Leronville - Sampigny and placed under the orders of the I. Army headquarters, for the purpose of covering Commercy, and was reinforced on Sept. 28 by the Belfort Brigade. From this moment von Strautz's army, which was composed of Bavarians, had its III. Army Corps bottled up at St. Mihiel and so the " Hernia," called also the " Wedge," came into being. From Les Eparges to the Meuse S. of St. Mihiel, the III. Army put in line the VI. Corps and part of Gen. Pol Durand's group. The Bislee peninsula and the front Koeur-la-Grande - Brasseitte - St. Agnant were held by the VIII. Corps with the 16th Inf. Div. and the Belfort Bde. To the E., in the region of the Bouconville ponds in Woevre, was the 7th Ca y. Div. Still farther eastward the XVI. Corps was attacking fiercely at St. Baussant, urged on by the determined commander of the I. Army.
The zone S. of the St. Mihiel wedge and Woevre and N. of Toul was assigned to the I. Army. The point of liaison between the I. and III. Armies was on the Meuse below Bislee. Before long the III. Army was put under the command of the I. Army and it was therefore Gen. Dubail who was matched against Gen. von Strautz.
At first the Germans tried to debouch from Chauvoncourt, but without success. Elsewhere, both in the S. and the N., they made every effort to enlarge the wedge while the French attacks were directed toward diminishing it. Hence there resulted partial engagements at Chauvoncourt, in front of Les Paroches, at Les Eparges near the Hauts de Meuse, in the Bois d'Ailly, in the Bois Brule, near Apremont, and at St. Baussant.
For the beginning of April 1915, Gen. Dubail ordered an attack on a large scale from the N. and the S. to be delivered by several army corps. A force designated the army detachment Gerard, including the I. and II. Army Corps, the Verdun Provisional Div., and the I. Ca y. Corps, opened the attack on April 5 and took possession of Fromezey, Gussaniville and l'Hopital farm (in the region of Etain), but broke down before the intact German wire - for in the marshy ground the artillery projectiles buried themselves deeply.
In conjunction with the attack by Gerard's force an attack was launched by the XII. Corps and VIII. Corps which, however, had no particular results. The fighting lasted from the 5th to the 22nd without achieving anything but the exhaustion of both attackers and defenders.
From that time forward the struggle resolved itself into a series of partial combats. The names Les Eparges, the Tranchee de Calonne, Chauvoncourt, Bois d'Ailly, Bois Brule, Seicheprey, Bois le Pretre recur day by day in the communiqués of 1915.
On May 5 1915 the VIII. Corps lost in one morning all the ground which it had taken several months to gain in the Ailly wood. There was even a moment when a gap in the line seemed to be broken through and the way opened to Commercy; but the counter-attacks came in time to regain part of the Bois d'Ailly, and restore the situation. In the course of one of these counterattacks in the woods, a company of the 172nd, led by Commandant d'Andre, crossed five lines of German trenches in succession and came within sight of St. Mihiel. But here they were confronted by German reserves and surrounded. For three days these heroes resisted all attacks, having nothing but their rifles and the German grenades picked up in the fifth line of trenches. They finally succumbed to hunger and thirst. Justly indeed was this trench named " the thirst trench." When Gen. von Strautz saw Commandant d'Andre on the day after the fighting was over, he said, " Vous avez ete deux fois blesse, vous etiez au Bois d'Ailly, vous etes Un brave." At Bois le Pretre, near the Moselle, the fighting was incessant and for the most part to the advantage of the French.
At Les Eparges it was mine warfare. In this the Germans had generally the upper hand, but, as at the Bois d'Ailly and the Bois le Pretre, the upper hand did not imply the gain of ground desired. In mine warfare the Germans had a very considerable advantage over their opponents in the matter of equipment and especially of boring tools. At the outset the galleries they made in the Crete des Eparges and the colossal dimensions of their mine chambers astonished even the men of the II. Corps, recruited though many of them were from the mining country of the Nord. But, though astonished, they were not dismayed, and feeble as their implements were, they often took their revenge for the mine attacks to which they were subjected.
The characteristic of the army of 1915 was the poverty of its material in comparison to that at the disposal of the enemy. In it was learned the lesson that a nation poor in coal and iron must shed much blood to save itself from slavery.
When in Sept. 1915 the Champagne offensive was launched,.. quiet set in on the front Les Eparges - Chauvoncourt - Bois d'AillyBois le Pretre. On both sides, the forces on this front were milked to obtain quality and quantity on the field of the great battle. When it died down, the battered formations came back to rest and recruit - and also to fight, for activity began again in Nov. and Dec. 1915.
In Feb. 1916 the storm burst at Verdun, and in July the other storm on the Somme. Then the front with which we are concerned became so calm that the commander of the VIII. Corps called the Wedge of St. Mihiel a convalescent home.
Here and there, now and then there was a coup de main, but the only result was to show both sides the necessity of not relaxing vigilance. The year 1917 came and went without changing either the positions or the attitude of the two parties. The great British offensive of Arras, the great French offensive on the Aisne, the Franco-British battles of Ypres absorbed all the offensive power of the adversaries on the western front. Not till 1918 did the sector Les Eparges - Chauvoncourt - Bois d'Ailly - Bois le Pretre become again the scene of victory.
In concluding this survey of operations on the front between Les Eparges and the Moselle, it is necessary to underline again the poverty of material and munitions under which the French army laboured. Not only did it possess little heavy artillery, but even the 75's, excellent for barrages, diminished daily and were replaced by B.L. guns of 90 and 95 mm., obsolete since 1900. Track for light railways could not he had. Boring tools were so short that mine warfare in the Forest of Apremont had to be waged with pick, chisel and crowbar. Ammunition was served out by spoonfuls, and at one moment the commander of the eastern group of armies had only 350 rounds per gun for his 75' s - half an hour's battle allowance.
These conditions were, of course, not peculiar to the front under consideration, and are introduced here to enable the reader to see how the Higher Command was obliged to apply the great Napoleonic principle of economy of force; to show how it was possible for the Crown Prince to break in the Verdun front or, for that matter, the whole front from the Meuse to Switzerland, for the defenders were few, their guns few, and their shell very few.
Reproduced by permission from the map of France on the scale of rizoo,000, published by the Service Geographique de FArmee.
WOEVRE, BATTLES IN (BATTLE OF ST. MIHIEL)
p a;Jon 4-; A" 4 ' '„Slott But it may be seen, too, how a German success was bound always to remain without a sequel, for it was through this conception of the economy of forces that Joffre was able always to keep in hand strong, rested reserves, free guns and unallotted ammunition. (V. L. E. C.) (II.) Battle Of St. Mihiel (Sept. 12 To 14 1918) For four years the St. Mihiel salient had projected 28 km. deep into the French line, constituting alike a menace and an invitation to attack. Its original purpose, to serve as one of the jaws of a nutcracker attack on Verdun, having failed, it was used in 1916 as the anvil against which von Falkenhayn sought in vain to drive home his hammer-blows against Verdun from the north. In 1918 Ludendorff again hoped through its possession to gain Verdun and much more by the wider encircling attack in Champagne of July 15, but again the attack failed. During all these years also it had remained not only a threat of further German aggression but a serious interruption of French railway communication with Verdun and also with the Lorraine front. In 1915 the French army had twice attacked to compel evacuation of the salient but both attacks had failed, the first, made in April at Les Eparges, with serious losses.
Tactically, the salient afforded a strong defensive position. The Cote de Meuse, a range of hills rising abruptly Soo metres above the Meuse valley on the W. and the Woevre plain on the E., afforded strong supporting points on the western face of the salient, while Mont Sec and the lower-lying hills S. of the Rupt de Mad were well adapted to a strong defensive organization.
To the general staff of the American Expeditionary Forces the reduction of the St. Mihiel salient had appealed strongly as a favourable initial or try-out operation for the American army as soon as sufficient forces should have arrived to undertake it. The reason for this selection was not so much the material gain to be reaped from it as the consideration that the fresh and eventually preponderant American force should preferably be employed against a part of the line where it could strike a vital blow to the Germans. Metz, the centre of important railway communications and surrounded by coal and iron fields, obviously presented itself as such a region, and, in addition, while the American forces were being gathered for the later major operations, the same installations and lines of communication needed for them could be utilized by the earlier arriving troops to gain an initial success on a smaller scale, mainly for moral effect though also as a factor in troop training.
General Pershing had discussed this view with General Petain in June 1917, and, after further study of the front, port facilities and railway lines, this had been adopted as the working plan. However, the slowness of the transportation of troops to France during the first year of American participation in the war, and the exigencies caused by the success of the German offensive operations in the spring of 1918, caused the plan to be temporarily laid aside, and, during both spring and summer of that year, American troops in France and arriving were scattered along the western front to meet needs of the moment.
By the end of July the situation had stabilized sufficiently in favour of the Allies to enable the question of reuniting the troops of the American army to be taken up. On July 24 Marshal Foch confirmed the understanding arrived at the previous year, that the first American operation should be the reduction of the St. Mihiel salient, and, a few weeks later, he authorized the transfer to the I. American Army of that sector of the Allied front facing the salient. This transfer occurred on Aug. 30.
By this time the American army consisted of forces far beyond the number requisite for the mere reduction of the salient and the question of their subsequent employment arose. General Pershing desired to exploit the St. Mihiel attack to the utmost; Foch, however, with other plans and considerations in mind (see Meuse-Argonne, Battle Of), limited the attack strictly to the forcing of the salient, although Petain, in a conference on Sept. 2, sided with Pershing in desiring the American army to gain at least the German " Michael " position across the mouth of the salient.
By Marshal Foch's direction, Petain, on Sept. 2, issued the directive for the operation which called for a main attack on the S., to debouch from the plateau Seicheprey-Limey toward the objective Vigneulles - Thiaucourt, and a secondary attack, to debouch from the vicinity Eparges - Mouilly toward the S.E., and in connexion with the main attack, to effect the cutting off of the German forces in the salient. To the main attack there were assigned eight American divisions; to the secondary, one American and one French; the French troops occupying the intermediate sector were to exercise " pressure " against the enemy forces on their front. The wording and the date of this directive and the disproportionate number of American divisions assigned to the main attack, which alone could hope speedily to reach the Michel Stellung, suggest that it was originally drafted to carry out Petain's conception of at least a partial exploitation of the attack, to include the seizure of the Michel position, and that, in a subsequent alteration to conform to Foch's insistence on a more limited scope, only the names of the objectives were changed.
General Pershing's order for the attack assigned the main attack to the I. and IV. Corps with two regular divisions to each corps; the secondary attack, on the Cote de Meuse, to the V. Corps, the attacking troops to consist of one American National Guard Div. and one French division; the French IL Colonial Corps in the centre was to guard the adjacent flanks of the main and secondary attacks, to execute deep raids and to be prepared to follow up a withdrawal. At the disposal of the American I. Army for the operation were 2,971 guns, mostly French artillery. The I. Army also had a marked superiority in aviation, thanks to French cooperation and the assistance of the British Independent Air Force.
On the German side the salient was held by Army Detachment C, under Gen. von Fuchs and comprising, on Sept. 12, the date of the attack, eight divisions on the line, organized as three corps groups, and three in reserve.
As early as Sept. i a deserter had given the Germans warning of the impending attack, and Ludendorff had at the time seriously considered ordering a withdrawal from the salient, but was deterred by the representations of the army detachment and army group commanders who were confident of their ability to hold, and also by reports from Duke Albrecht's army group in the Vosges region, of American preparations for attack farther south. These feints which General Pershing had caused to be made in the vicinity of Belfort had led to German uncertainty as to the real intentions of the American commander. By Sept. 8, however, the evidences of a coming attack on the salient had become unmistakable and Army Detachment C was ordered to withdraw to the Michel Stellung. No need for haste was felt and the preparations were deliberate. and methodical. The night preceding the attack the dismounted batteries were being withdrawn and consequently could not be used in the battle.
Preceded by a four-hour bombardment the main attack was launched at 5 A.M., Sept. 12; the secondary attack at 8:30. Deprived of artillery support the German infantry though ordered to hold, made virtually no resistance. The American I. Corps on the right made its objectives in a few hours, and, in spite of German counter-attacks brought by two divisions against it and against the right of the IV. Corps but beaten off, begged permission to continue its advance; but, because of the precise instructions by which the American staff felt itself bound, this permission was refused. The IV. and V. Corps also made their objectives and halted, awaiting orders.
Army H.Q. in this battle, as also in the earlier part of the Meuse - Argonne battle, appears to have had little conception of the difficulty and time required in the transmission of orders on the battlefield and in consequence to have left but little initiative in the hands of subordinates. The result was that the orders for the troops of the IV. and V. Corps to move forward to Vigneulles and effect the cutting off of the salient did not reach the troops concerned until after dark on the 12th so that the connexion, though unopposed, was not effected until the morning of the 13th. Meanwhile the German commander, realizing his hopeless situation, had ordered the evacuation of the tip of the salient, which had not been attacked, and during the night the movement was successfully carried out except for the loss of about r,000 stragglers.
In the course of Sept. 13 and 14 the troops of the American IV. and V., and French II. Colonial Corps moved forward without serious opposition to the line designated by Marshal Foch facing the German Michel position and which the I. Corps had already reached on the 12th.
On the German side the attack showed a complete demoralization in the Higher Command and a lack of initiative in the lower officers. The men showed little will to fight. The advance of the left division of the IV. Corps with one flank uncovered and of the American division of the V. Corps with both flanks uncovered was nowhere taken advantage of.
In regard to the halting of the American offensive the German general staff, in a study of the St. Mihiel attack published for the information of the armies shortly after its occurrence, while giving high praise to the dash and fearlessness of the American soldier, added that the army H.Q., which showed itself so unable to reap the advantages so clearly afforded by its striking initial success, was not to be feared. It is not impossible that Foch, had he himself been in immediate command of the I. Army on the morning of the 12th, or had he been present, might, in view of the manifest military advantages, have felt justified in permitting the Americans to grasp the opportunity offered to complete the destruction of Army Detachment C and to seize and hold the Michel Stellung. Indeed Petain, on the night of the 13th, learning that the German army behind the sector was in great disorder and that the American troops on the right had reached and in some instances gone beyond their objectives, did send an authorization to take the Michel position; but by the time this permission was received the opportunity of taking the position cheaply and completing the German rout had passed. Tactically, Foch's avowed purpose would have been better served had Petain, as long as he was going to prescribe dispositions in detail for the American army, originally called for two main attacks from the two faces of the salient to meet in the centre the first day, advances which the Soissons attack had already shown could be easily made by American regular troops.
Of the troops engaged on the Allied side the Americans aggregated 550,000, the French r ro,000. American losses were 7,511, of which considerably more than half were borne by the I. Corps which received the brunt of the counter-attack; French losses were 597. The captures included over 15,000 prisoners and 443 guns. (A. L. C.)