CHAPTER IV
THE FINAL GERMAN OFFENSIVE AGAINST VERDUN

As of 30 May 1916, the French Army occupied a defensive position generally from Bois de Malancourt, Hill 304, Mort Homme, Cumieres, Charny, Thiaucourt, north of Fort de Vaux, Damloup, extending to les Eparges. General Joffre had made a number of changes in command during the period of April, May and June. The most significant was that he appointed General Nivelle overall commander of the Armies in the center and assigned him the defense of the east sector.

Similarly, the Crown Prince (See Below) made changes. He divided the Verdun battlefield into two similar sectors with General Von Luchow in command of the western sector replacing Von Mudra in April and General Francois replacing General Von Gallwitz as commander in the eastern sector. With increasing evidence of preparations for the forthcoming Allied offensive on the Somme, the German High Command became concerned on how to divert French troops from participating in that offensive. It decided that the solution to the problem was to concentrate its offensive on Verdun and to gain a quick, decisive victory. The Crown Prince, therefore, ordered a renewal of the offensive on 1 June, striking the French defensive line in the eastern sector from the crest of Thiaumont through Froideterre Hill, Fleury, Fort Souville, to Fort de Vaux.

On 1 June, the Germans took Thiaumont Farm, lost it on the second and regained it on the 9th.

Situated near Thiaumont Farm lies the spot know as the Trench of Bayonets. Here, in this hastily built line, two companies of the 137th Infantry Regiment were ordered to defend it at all costs. In anticipation of the German charge, the troops fixed bayonets for close-in combat. While they crouched in the trench, heavy German artillery opened a terrific bombardment on the trench, which, weakened by the past week's artillery battering, collapsed on the defenders burying them alive, just leaving their bayonets protruding.

On 1 June, the Germans attacked Fort de Vaux. However, they were not successful in capturing it until 9 June, when the Germans, after concentrating a massive artillery and infantry attack, managed to take the fort with flame throwers and grenades. Partial French resistance under Major Raynal continued in one of the passages for eight days and nights, the last days without food or water. While the fort was falling other German units attacked Thiaumont Redoubt, but without success. They did succeed, however, in entrenching themselves in the Ravine de la Dame, west of Thiaumont Farm.

The German High Command felt pressed for time and desired a quick victory. "Now the time is ripe for victory", the Kaiser announced, "Thiaumont Redoubt, Froideterre Hill, Fleury and Fort Souville are the last powerful barriers between German forces and Verdun". He anticipated capture of Verdun within four days.

Beginning on 21 June, German artillery directed an unprecedented barrage in the sectors Euroideterre, Fleury, Souville and Tavannes. The bombardment was so severe from the enormous "beer barrel" 38 and 42 centimeter shells that the ridges appeared to be on fire, smoking like volcanoes, and the ravines were shrouded with rising clouds of rising black and yellow smoke.

On the evening of 22 June, in final preparation for the big attack, the German artillery poured almost 200,000 poison gas shells into the Souville area. With this heavy bombardment, little or no resistance was expected, so very sure was the German command of having destroyed French artillery, food and supply convoys, and supporting troops. Nevertheless, while shells continued to whistle down all sides, French reinforcements continued to move into the "FURNACE", wearing gas masks and stopped under the weight of their packs stumbled into shell holes.

In the book, "La Bataille devant Souville", Colonel Bordeaux, Brigadier Commander at Souville, wrote, "All night long the troops climbed this CALVARY. In the morning, tired out, they would have to withstand the shock of attacking German infantry. Masked, blinded, half-suffocated and half-buried in the earth thrown up by the incessant shell fire, the troops in the line ... knew perfectly that the moment the tornado lifted would be the signal for the German attack. They waited on ground churned up by a fire, listening to the pityful cries of the wounded, and with the dead to keep them company ... controlling their nerves, yet keeping them on edge, concentrating on the motive, one idea; never to give ground, but to fight and hold.

At 0700, on 23 June, 70,000 Bavarian light infantrymen, troops inured to hardship, moved forward on a three-mile front extending from approximately Froideterre Hill, Thiaumont Redoubt, and Fort de Vaux. An extended line of the advance party armed with grenades and leaping from hole to hole preceded the storm battalions, which moved forward in mass formation. To the rear in the ravines were assembled the reserves and service troops.

To meet this advance, French "75mm" artillery batteries continued firing an unceasing barrage, harassing and disrupting the reserve and service troops in the ravines, which became charnel houses of blood, poisoned with gas fumes. Near Froideterre Hill, the French lost Thiaumont Redoubt. Attacked from flank and front, the men of the French 121st Battalion, outnumbered ten-to-one, struggled in hand-to-hand fighting as the Germans closed in on them from all sides. Only sixty Frenchmen survived this encounter. Taking advantage of this breach, four Bavarian companies burst through it as far as Froideterre Redoubt. The struggle at Thiaumont Redoubt gained time for the French command to send the 114th Battalion into battle. As the battalion moved up it deployed "as though on parade" and by use of bayonets and grenades, encountered and drove out the tired Bavarians who momentarily had held their objective.

In the center of the offensive line, a German battalion, succeeding to cross Bazil Ravine before the French lifted the barrage, hurled themselves against the flank of Fleury and gained a footing in the western outskirts.

A little to the east, the French 407th Regiment defended the line along the wooded slope of Vaux-Chapitre. During a critical moment of the battle, the Germans breached the line and managed to gain a position from which they could attack the Regiment from the rear. Fortunately, the French Regimental Commander, by ideally emplacing a number of machine guns near his headquarters in the way of advance, slowed down the enemy offensive. This enabled him to improvise reserve forces from among the communications men, stretcher bearers pioneers, orderlies and cooks. With these forces, he counter-attacked and forced the surprised attackers to fall back.

On 23 June, the overall prospects on the front for the French were so grim that General Petain suggested to General Joffre the withdrawal of the forces to the west flank if the enemy reached the countercarps of Souville. Joffre gave a peremptory order to hold the east sector. Meanwhile, the French and the British along the Somme began their preliminary attacks and on 1 July, they opened their offensive in full force.

Still pressing to breach the line as soon as possible, the Germans launched another heavy attack on Souville on 11 July. They planned a flanking movement from the west on Fort Souville while holding frontally from the north. The Germans penetrated Poudriere and Ravine de la Vigne and captured Chapelle Sainte-Fine, just below the fort. The Germans, determined in capturing it, charged up the slope under direct fire. One hundred-fifty reached the summit of the fort, and "Like the edge of foam from a packet steamer which dissolves into spray", where they were all quickly captured and killed. The German forces failed to take Souville.

At Chapelle Sainte-Fine (now marked by an impressive fallen-lion monument memorial to the 130th Division), the Germans reached the limit of their march towards Verdun on 12 July 1916. Although fighting continued for several months more in this area, the defense of Verdun virtually ceased. It was only a matter of time when the French would go on the offensive.



Prince Rupprecht lived in quiet
 retirement until his death in 1955.

Crown Prince Rupprecht, heir to the throne of Bavaria, was born in 1869. On the outbreak of the First World War was commander of the German Sixth Army in the Lorraine. 

On 14th August, 1914, the French Army, led by Ferdinand Foch, Auguste Dubail and Michel Maunoury attempted to capture Lorraine. Rupprecht and the Sixth Army successfully withstood the attack and persuaded Hermuth von Moltke, Chief of General Staff, to allow him to launch a major counter-offensive at the end of August. Rupprecht failed to breakthrough French defences and remained on the Western Front for the rest of the war.

In July 1916, Rupprecht was promoted to field marshal. Considered to be the most competent of the royal commanders, he clashed several times with the Chief of General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, who replaced Hermuth von Moltke. Revolutionary activity after the war deprived Rupprecht of his Bavarian throne. 

 

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