Saturday, 12 March 2016

Verdun 5: The general assault - March

The Striking memorial at Mort-Homme
The legend - Ils n'ont pas passe
(They did not pass) 
Having decided to change tactics, the Germans proceeded with customary efficiency to prepare their two pronged pincer attack on the (somewhat flattened) Verdun salient. Their hard won narrow central advance on the right bank of the Meuse was coming under artillery pressure from the French defensive positions on the the left bank. These position were a short term target for the north western pincer. However the main prize, analogous to Douaumont heights on the right bank, was Mort-Homme -Dead Man's Hill. Considering what transpired there, the hill was given its title with eery prescience in the 19th century, named for a traveller who died there, lost in the winter snow. 1916 saw horrors far worse than hypothermia. 

Mort-Homme is the highest part of the ‘Goose’s Crest’ of wooded hills running westwards from Forges and Samogneux. Capture of this would enable almost uninterrupted progress for the four miles southwards to Charny, to the outskirts of Verdun itself. It would also clear the left bank of the French artillery positions that had restricted the initial right bank thrust of the Germans. 
Diagram of the Meuse West Bank
To take Mort-Homme was a major challenge, and would mean taking the whole Goose’s Crest. Only two approaches were possible, either from the north between Forges and Bethincourt, or from further west via Avocourt, and the woods to the west at the base of Mort-Homme.
On the eastern side, they made simultaneous assaults on the villages of Douaumont and Vaux from 4th March. At this stage the main purpose was to divert reinforcements that might be moved to the Mort Homme sector. For a further two days Germans extended the bombardment to the whole north west sector, right round to the Argonne. Then on the 6th, the guns stopped and two German divisions stormed the Forges glen.
As previously, the French fell back in an ordered withdrawal supplemented by some fierce counterattacking. Corbeaux Wood provided a good example of the fighting for Forges and Regneville. It was taken and retaken several times during 6-10th March. Close by to the south west Cumieres Wood and village were the site of three weeks brave resistance by poilus to the massed German infantry attacks, winning great praise from Joffre as “the men who barred the road to Verdun”.
On the 9th March the full pincer force fell on the north east and centred on Vaux. This was a major effort to turn the French line, and they added to it with further attacks from due east through Damloups, Eix and Manheulle. All attacks were repulsed, forcing the Germans to shift their attack back to the north west. Up to 14th March, they made their major effort to take Mort-Homme. The French defensive lines were squeezed to a narrow salient with the village of Bethincourt at its apex. Over three days both sides fought each other almost to a standstill, but the French held on. One more major attack on Vaux was made, and repulsed, before the second phase came to a close, 22 days since the German ‘4 day campaign’ to occupy Verdun had begun. 
The remaining route to take Mort-Homme from the west had not been been seriously attempted, and this now became the German focus. Up to this point both sides had suffered severely, their casualties almost equal, and Falkenhayn was nowhere near his first objective, or his overall plans for the campaign. Nor had there been the expected Allied counter-attack from further west and north on the main front, so that the German reserves were barely occupied.

The new and final phase of these efforts to batter their way through the French defences began from the west, with a three days bombardment up to 20th March. On the afternoon of 20th, the Bavarian infantry, using flamethrowers, advanced from the Avocourt – Malancourt line through the Avocourt wood. They established a redoubt there before pressing on to storm the slopes of Hill 304 next to Mort-Homme. Over 2 days of relentless fighting they reached them, and almost pinched out the salient of the village of Malancourt. There was a lull for 2-3 days while both sides recovered, before the final efforts of the Germans resumed. On the left bank they managed to take Haucourt and drive the French from Bethincourt, but their overall advance was limited to one mile along a front of six miles, and they could not penetrate beyond the lower northern slopes of Hill 304 and Mort-Homme. They eventually took Hill 265 to the west, but could not gain Hill 295 to the east. Pushing again, but from due west, they pounded their way through Malancourt Wood and the village of Avocourt. On the 9th April that reached as far as the north eastern slopes of Mort-Homme and were encroaching on three sides. Petain’s rallying cry came the following morning:
“April 9th was a glorious day for our armies, the furious attacks of the soldiers of the Crown Prince broke down everywhere. The infantry, artillery, sappers and aviators of the 2nd Army vied with one another in valour. Honour to all. No doubt the Germans will attack again. Let all work and watch, that yesterday’s success be continued. Courage! We shall beat them!”
and indeed the last German efforts here ran out of steam on that day.

The severely battered Fort Vaux in
March 1916

On the east bank, similar desperate assaults had continued towards Vaux. They took the western side of the village, and were able to advance some way towards the plateau of Douaumont, but it was a narrow route that soon became congested with weaponry and increasing numbers of dead and dying, and their advances ground to a halt. Their losses were very high, and spelt the end of the third phase of the broad assault. both pincers had been blunted.

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