Campaign History of the 151e Régiment d'Infanterie - XIII (Part I)
~ 1916 ~
Verdun - Second Tour (5-8 April)
The origin of the name Le Mort Homme (literally, the "Dead Man") has now been lost to time. Alistair Horne posited it perhaps some forlorn traveler who became lost in a snowstorm centuries before and died alone in the cold. What's more certain is that it had already been the scene of savage fighting for weeks when the 42 DI is sent up in early April 1916. German forces had made multiple bloody attempts to take Le Mort Homme and the other heights on the Left Bank of the Meuse in March. Mort Homme was a large twin-peaked summit situated at the end of a long ridge that rose from Left Bank of the Meuse in a southeasterly direction. The summits of Mort Homme were referred to by their height in meters: Côte 265 and, several hundred meters to the south of the Côte 295 (which itself had a lower summit at 287 meters just to the north of 295 proper). Any literal reference to height of the summits can be forgotten. would become irrelevant. The shelling unleashed here was so extreme that 10 meters of top soil was blasted off the surface.
At the cost of enormous bloodshed and loss of material, the Germans had managed to get a foothold on the 265 in late March, pushing the French out of their first-line positions. The intermediary line in the saddle between the sister summits on Côte 295 (i.e. 287 and 295). then became the new French first-line, with a covering trench line on the reverse slope immediately below the summit. A secondary line fortification was located several hundred meters to the south of this. General Deville's warning to be ready for combat would prove all too correct in a matter of days.
5 April: On 5 April the 151 is alerted that it will be going up to the front to relieve the 150 RI. As usual, Lieut.-Colonel Moisson with his senior officers and machine-gun company commanders leave in the morning to carry out a reconnaissance of the regiment's new sector at Mort Homme. Around noon the regiment is boarded onto trucks where they progress up a country road until linked up with the la Voie Sacrée ("the Sacred Way").
Every day for two months there were two kinds of processions that passed each other continuously. In convoys by the hundreds, there were the endless lines of heavy motor trucks veiled in long green tarps. The convoys looked alike, but they are not the same. They follow each other like night follows day, like death follows life; those coming from Verdun and those going there.The convoy continues its slow, lurching drive along the critical artery until it reaches Baleycourt, where the men are told to get out. The trucks can go no further without risking coming under artillery fire, so the rest of journey will be done on foot. From Baleycourt the regiment must backtrack a short distance to Blercourt. Mobile kitchens waiting for the men there, though it seems only some companies were able to enjoy a meal before heading up to the front lines. The 1 Company (1 Battalion) set off immediately without receiving any food. The 11 Company (3 Battalion) on the other hand fared better. They wouldn't depart Blercourt until later that night. The men quietly ate their soup in the darkness and then took advantage of the delay to get a little sleep in the damp grass and the icy wind.
These trucks, loaded and containing men packed together, hot air, strong odors, shining eyes, a feverish and congested mass. Some are young, dressed in nine; their faces and their hands are clean; they seem dressed for a party, but their faces are sad, their dreamy eyes, their voices silent and abandoned. The others are dirty, ragged; their hands are black and their faces; they wear bruises and linens; in relation to other they seem poor. But their faces are gays; they sing ; we feel they would not change the point of fate; even they have some pity on the best clothes they intersect. Were not they the same yesterday? The rag is enjoyed at this time, because the danger that has made it a respected man she raises now. There was a striking contrast between the gaiety in dirty faces, finally issued a distress too long and serious faces, silent, of those who, dressed as for a party, had not yet won their game against fate.
The relief march up to Mort Homme would be long and difficult. The first stage took them over muddy roads that traversed up and down the rolling ridges. From Blercourt the regiment first passed through Jouy-en-Argonne before proceeding onto Sivry-la-Perche. German 380 shells thundered loudly as they passed overhead like some enormous invisible wagons rolling down a cobblestone street. A little ways further columns reached the ridges overlooking Germonville, where the French heavy artillery thundered away ceaselessly, the muzzle blasts lighting up the column in a fevered flickering as it trudged by. Jubert recalled:
The march lasts all through the night, slow and trying, toward the luminous zone that envelops the battle. Now and then, a hellish noise throws one's hearing off as a big caliber cannon spits out a heavy shell. The flame bursts not 10 meters away from us. There is the sound, and then for a minute we are deafened. The young new recruits were grave and silent. Even before encountering the enemy, the first sensation of the brutality of death's workings makes an impression on them...Upon entering Germonville the regiment had already gone over 13 km, but the march would only get more difficult from here. From the village the column left the road and took to the open country, skirting Bois Bourrus to the west before crossing over the plain that led toward Chattancourt and Mort Homme beyond. Cpl.-Four. Laporte noted:
A shell bursts 10 meters away from my company causing disorder in the ranks. In the darkness, there was yelling and running, and we had to reorder the files and the ranks. But the ineffectiveness of the projectile had already reassured them. The new recruits retake their place without too much trembling. They've had their first lesson in danger.
After having skirted along the edge of a large woods [Bois Bourris] and by a few villages in ruins, we pass through the area of what had been Chattencourt [sic, Chattancourt], this village being the closest to the front. The shells here fell without nonstop and numerous gaps were torn in our ranks before reaching our trenches.By the time Campana's company passed Bois Bourrus it was midnight, with the most difficult part of the trek still to come. Campana recounted the experience:
Our torture commenced. The waterlogged ground was strewn with telephone wires, barbed-wire, and especially shell-holes. The night was so dark you couldn't see a meter in front of yourself. The men, in single-file, held onto the bayonet scabbard of the man in front. We advanced blindly groping our way forward to the far off front lines. We were led by a guide who, fortunately for us, knew the terrain. At 2 am we rested for a few minutes. On the horizon, flickering pale-colored lights appeared and then disappeared. A low roar reached our ears as we approached the battlefield.The regiment entered the first communication trench while they were still several kilometers from the front lines. The windy and seemingly interminable trenches and -- as per the norm at Verdun -- were also too shallow to afford any real protection from projectiles. Already, the men could hear stray bullets singing by overhead and smack into the earth around them, like deadly songbirds hurtling down from the sky.
Kilometers followed kilometers. The darkness became less thick as the dawn light began to bathe us, the sky taking on an ashy gray, then violet to pale green, and finally a bluish hue. The morning clouds were burned away by the first rays of the sun.The 1 and 2 Battalions went into line on the summit of Mort Homme; 1 Battalion on the left, 2 Battalion on the right. From his position, Campana could see another company in front (north) of his own installing itself in the first-line trench that traversed the saddle between the sister summits on Côte 295 (i.e. 287 and 295). This afforded Campana and the men of 1 Company some relative security, allowing them to get a little rest. Once they arrived in their trench, exhaustion immediately overwhelmed the men:
It was now 4:30 am. We had been marching since 9:00 pm the previous evening and we still hadn't arrived. We passed over several defensive lines of entrenchments, followed a line of batteries, passed the brigade PC, and at last arrived at our trenches we were to occupy on the top of Mort Homme at 6:00 am.
They didn’t even have the strength to find shelters. They laid down randomly, wherever they could -– on the fire-steps, in the communication trenches, in the mud -– and immediately fell asleep, totally wiped out from the dreadful march. I followed their example, stretched out on the ground and passed out.Laporte and the 1 MG Company set their guns up in a position on the left (western) side of Mort Homme. As they had experienced during their first rotation on Côte de Froideterre and Ravin de la Mort, the situation in the second-line positions was in fact worse than that in the first-line:
We took up our positions around 5:00 am...in the middle of a violent bombardment. Wrecked night and day by the bursting of shells of all calibers, only the remnant of trenches now remained. In reality, we were connected simply by a line of holes (or more accurately, excavations). Only a few shelters still remained.Because of the inevitable slow progress and endless delays faced by 3 Battalion in it's approach to the front, it was unable to reach its assigned second-line position before daylight arrived, forcing a halt its movement until darkness returned. To avoid the risk of being spotted by enemy aircraft and artillery spotters, it would spend the day at Germonville.
The rising sun seemed to further rouse the god of war. The enemy artillery now became more active and the intensity of the bombardment grew stronger. It would continue throughout the length of the day. Despite this, Laporte again volunteered to lead a ration resupply party. The harrowing tale is recounted here in full:
Not a meter of ground escaped the shelling and it was a miracle that any human being could survive under this deluge of hell-fire. Everything was flashes, detonations, smoke. That evening around midnight, I took advantage of a light lull and went out on a rations resupply, accompanied by eight poilus, all volunteers. The "promenade" was certainly hazardous. We were just leaving our positions when a rain of shrapnels [shells] hit us. One of the poilus in our party was thrown to the ground, killed instantly by a shrapnel ball that struck him right in his forehead. We stopped for a moment and after relieving our poor comrade of his load of canteens, we set back off on our route right through the bursting shells.
Countless times we had to throw ourselves down to the ground to avoid the huge fragments that whistled their death cry as they plummeted down in all directions! After much excitement, we finally reached the small village of Chattencourt [sic], which we passed through without incident. A Small village! In reality, imagine piles of bricks and scorched beams with streets made of water-filled shell-holes. It wasn't very easy to walk through on this black night, amidst all this chaos.
About 2 km past the entrance to the village we found the mobile field kitchens. And how happy our cooking comrades were to see us: "So, over there? How's it going?" etc. Our provisioning complete, we rested a moment before heading back fully loaded, the body draped with canteens and stew-pots. While moving back through the village, we pass other fatigue parties. We weren't entirely alone out here; this route was the most practicable. And after each spectacular chute of mud [from bursting shells] rained back down, the curses of the men always ended in laughter. The most important thing was to not lose the slightest portion of the precious rations.
We left Chattencourt [sic] in the direction of Mort-Homme around 2:00 am [on 6 April]. The bombardment was going stronger than ever, gradually increasing in intensity as we advanced. Once again we reentered Hell. We walked in zigzag in order to avoid (so we believed) the fire of the German batteries, which sometimes continued firing on the same point. We trudged on like this for more than an hour when all of a sudden, believing to be in our trenches, we heard shouting in a voice we knew all too well: we were at the edge of a German trench. In the pitch-black night, we had lost our way. Needless to say (with now weapons and only the precious rations in hand), we all huddled up in an enormous shell-hole. After we could no longer hear anything suspicious, we turned back in the direction from which we came with the greatest speed despite our load.
I've never been able to explain how, but an hour later we arrived back safe and sound in our own trenches this time (if we hadn't had the death of a comrade to mourn, we would’ve had a good laugh). It was around 5:00 am. We were given a good welcome. Our comrades were afraid that we had all been laid out in this desert of fire. A chore duty of this type made it back one time out of two. That's why we had to call on volunteers. Anyways, we hadn't been knocked around all that bad this time. I recounted our story to the captain [Capitaine Antoine], who couldn't help from laughing despite the circumstances. We have to keep up morale afterall, don’t we?
The rations distributed, the men of the fatigue went back to their places in their sections. Separated from us by about 100 meters was a section that only had an effective of fifteen men at this time. Our comrade who had been killed during the course of the fatigue was from this section and as the fatigue volunteers from the other sections were going back to their emplacements, I took the stew-pots and canteens myself to hand out the rations for this neighboring section. The 100 meters that separated me from them wasn't easy ground. It was a true obstacle course: nothing but shell-holes. Fortunately, the bombardment had calmed down some. I had hardly gone 20 meters when I fell flat on my chest. I had collided with a big poilu, who I had knocked also off his feet. He let out a curse which brought me back to my senses!
With my helmet in my hand, and before he had the time to get back on his feet, I landed a strong blow on his head (his helmet, by good fortune, had rolled off onto the ground). It was in fact a German who, without being fazed by the blow he had received, lifted his hands into the air and stammered out: "Kamarad Français." The only weapon I had on me was my revolver, but it was covered over by the canteens and when I fell. Even more, I had let half the stew-pots, which held meat and vegetables, tip over. I first made sure that he didn't have any weapons -- he was a young German of 18 or 19 years who was leaving his lines to surrender. I made him get in front of me and brought him to the captain. He wasn't the first one who had come over to our lines since the last two days...
I was weary after this long walk over the devastated terrain. I went to find my captain again. The interrogation of the prisoner was still going on. The "Fritz" seemed at ease. He confessed that they had suffered enormous losses. They'd been sent up as reinforcements, being previously on the Russian border, and were told that they were going to Paris. For them, Verdun was Paris!...But all they had managed to take up till now were shells of every caliber falling without letup. The interrogation over, the prisoner was lead to the rear, accompanied by a liaison agent.
Capt. Savary is evacuated from illness and Lieut. Le Gallo transfers from 9 Co. to 12 Co. to take command.
6 April: Up on the summit of 295, Campana had managed to get a few hours of sleep before waking up and conducting a quick inspection of the lines. This done, he went to find his shelter and was pleasantly surprised with its soundness – it was halfway interred in ground with railway ties covered with a layer of stones and earth. He noted:
...It was an old artillery command post very solid and comfortable, even luxurious I must say. It contained two suspended frame beds made with wire mesh, a table, two stools, and a stove with a stove pipe, all of which had surely been taken from Chattencourt [sic, Chattancourt] by a poilu who was fond of the material comforts. Since I’ve been at war, it’s the first time that I was the temporary proprietor of such an agreeable abode.From his shelter, Campana had a commanding view of the surrounding landscape. Far away on the horizon he could make out Montfaucon atop on its dominating height. In the shell-plowed plains below him he could make out the Forge stream winding its way through the devastating countryside. To his right was Chattancourt, which sat obscured by the yellow smoke of 105 shrapnel shells. On his left, Esne, the ruins of which were bathed in the soft light of the morning sun. And overlooking this village was Côte 304, where large plumes of smoke spurted up from the 210s and 305s that were crashing down just now on its slopes.
While Campana’s position was so far spared from the same heavy caliber shells, the same could not be said about the 151’s second-line positions. Laporte was with 1 MG Company in a support position and noted:
Our first day at Mort Homme was bad. The German artillery along with the French artillery gave us no respite. At nightfall, the bombardment lightened a bit...But the artillery duel continued to rage away over by [Esnes]. Our first-line trenches were very well situated and didn't suffer as much as the second-line, which was a hundred meters away from it.As darkness again obscured the land, the 3 Bat. is now able move up in reserve of the second-line positions. Jubert is among them and described the position he came to occupy:
The second-line fortress was dug below the summit, separated from the mother-summit of Mort-Homme [meaning Côte 295] by an angular double system of ravines. A company occupied the position, along with some machine-guns. On its wings it was joined to a line of trenches heading off to the east toward Chattancourt, and to the west across the Hayette Ravine. Dominated it from afar by Montfaucon hill (which was a threat to us), to the west of Côte 304, and to the northwest by the top of Mort-Homme, known as 291 [in reality, 295]. Under the view of these two hills, each of which protected the other, the second-line position wasn't really all that dangerous a place. The shells fell around it. Though there were no shelters to protect us from the rain, the majority of men rested in the communication trenches under their under tent-canvases, despite a daily bombardment that enveloped us with smoke.The disposition of the regiment on the evening of 6 April was as follows: on the left, 1 Bat. with three companies in the first-line (from left to right: 1, 3, 4) and 1 MG Co. and 2 Co. in support in the cover trenches; on the right, 2 Bat. with three companies in the first-line (from left to right: 8, 6, 5) and 2 MG Co. and 7 Co. in support in the cover trenches; in reserve in the second-line, 3 Bat. and 3 MG Co. The 162 RI is in liaison to the left of 1 Bat. and the 8 BCP is in liaison to the right of 2 Bat. Losses for the regiment on 6 April include 1 wounded (Sdt. Paubin). Capitaine Savary is evacuated for illness. Lieut. LeGallo is transferred from 9 Co. to 12 Co. to take command.
7 April: The men work to organize the sector, with the regiment on high-alert in expectation of a big attack. In the reserve positions, work on the fortress was handed off from the engineers who had constructed it to the companies of the 2 Bat. Each night, a section would be tasked with carrying on the work at night. The nights were brisk and those off-shift slept huddled up with a comrade, sharing blankets to keep warm. Otherwise, Jubert’s men had little to concerns themselves in their sheltered position. As a distraction from reading letters and books, they could look on Côte 304 and, in front of them less than kilometer away, Mort Homme smoking and bursting like a volcano under the storm of German shells. This bombardment continued to increase in intensity, a box barrage that saturates the first and second lines as well as in between. Laporte was up in the first-line under this avalanche of steel and remarked: I have never witnessed such a deluge of fire, to the point that deafness had begun to overcome those who still remained standing. Losses for the regiment on 7 April include 3 killed and 8 wounded. The casualties recorded in the JMO include:
Killed: Sdts. Phillpe (Paul), Caillet, Michel (Paul)
Wounded: Sgts. Paradis (René), Mangras; Cpl. Le Gall (Louis); Sdts. Chambat, Plichou, Colin (Octave), Luce, Brun (Joseph).
8 April: The day is calm. Around 1900 hrs, a German soldier was spotted coming over to the regiment's first-line trench with his arms up in the air and was let into the lines. Sous-Lieut. Campana asserted that the deserter was in fact first caught by a patrol lead by Lieut. Marcel Olivier and that he was brought straight to Capitaine Carrère's PC for an initial interrogation. The German, of Polish origin, declared that he'd deserted his post when he'd learned that his regiment would be attacking the next day. He also stated that a comrade of his had planned on surrendering as well. The JMO states that the deserter did not know the time of the attack. Campana claimed otherwise, saying that the man put the zero-hour of the preparatory bombardment was 0800 hrs, followed by the infantry attack at noon. Artillery of all calibers, heavy mortars, and even flame-throwers were to be used to soften the French positions. If the attack failed, the bombardment was to continue unabated until the evening.
Cpl. Laporte also recorded the episode of the two deserters in his diary, claiming that he in fact was present when the two deserters had surrendered. Perhaps understandably, there were some minor variances about the episode between his account, Campana’s, and the JMO. For example, Laporte claimed that the two men, who spoke French very well, were Alsatians. The JMO and Sous-Lieut. Jubert assert that the men were Polish in origin. Either way, Laporte's account is still interesting:
My captain and I accompanied them to the battalion leader's PC, which was located 100 meters from us. There, our two prisoners immediately declared that the Crown Prince's army was going to launch a large-scale attack at noon on 9 April. These declarations concurred with other intelligence already received and the amplitude of the bombardment couldn't deny it.Both Campana’s account and the JMO mention that, having provided this intelligence, the two prisoners were immediately escorted to Lieut.-Colonel Moisson’s PC where the information was repeated. After listening attentively to the report, Moisson thanked them for the invaluable information they had provided. But before dismissing them, he also told them that they were traitors to their country. It was a hard lesson for the now-dejected men.
All companies of the regiment were alerted to the imminent attack, immediately follow by reports to the other units of the 42 DI. Extra stores of ammunition and grenades were brought up. Laporte reported that a machine-gun had been placed every ten meters with all fields of fire pre-sighted. The anticipation amongst the men was palpable they were spoiling for a fight where they at last had the upper hand.
The news of the imminent enemy attack spread throughout the regiment. When Jubert was told to be ready to move his men forward the next day for a possible counter-attack, he quipped to a fellow officer: "This will do us good. We were starting to get out of the habit of dying."
Campana’s section was located on the south slope of Mort Homme (height 295), just below the crest, and was sheltered from frontal fire. However, his position was open to enfilade fire from the German guns on Talou. Moreover, German air craft had photographed their trench, which ensured that German artillery could easily target their position.
At the same time, Campana had no view whatsoever of his friend, Lieut. Olivier’s, positions at the bottom of the north slope of Mort Homme (height 295), nor of the enemy’s trenches save his third lines on height 265. That said, there was an advanced post 30 meters from Campana’s trench that was placed just on the crest of the hill, which had a much better view of the surrounding terrain. He knew his own position would be targeted by German artillery, so Campana resolved to enlarge the post at night and shift his men there for the coming assault. Distributing picks and shovels to his men, he explained the purpose of their work and the men immediately understood the importance of the task. They would literally be digging for their lives, so Campana’s men dug without break throughout the night. When morning came, the advantage of the position was obvious. The post overlooked the valley between heights 295 and 287, and afforded unobstructed views of Lieut. Olivier’s positions in front, the entire German defensive system, and the positions of 7, 8, and 9 Cos. to his left. To his right, Lieut. Gontran had placed one of his machine-guns, which enjoyed a superb field of fire.
The rest of the night proved uneventful. The German side remained quiet: it was the calm before the storm. Lieuts. Boissin, Lielhoudt, and Teisserenc (previously evacuated) are brevetted as capitaines. Losses for the regiment on 8 April include 6 wounded (Cpl. Jau; Sdts. Morel (Eugene), Chuavet (Louis), Fauvart (Paul), Gelin (Jean), Roger (Lucien)).